Asian Influences on the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Health Food Movement

Notes from ‘Hippie Food’ by Jonathan Kauffman

The recently published book ‘Hippie Food’ by food writer and chef Jonathan Kauffman is a well-written and fascinating book that covers the development of the health food movement in the U.S.  It traces a variety of colorful individuals, with varying interests on health food ranging from writers, to teachers, philosophers, restaurateurs and other business people, like the operators of food buying co-op models (Whole Foods Markets came out of the ‘70’s food co-op movement in Austin, TX) who, during the second half of the 20th century, largely created what we now think of as health food.

A recurring theme that stood out is the Asian influence of some of the central foods in the ‘health’ universe; brown rice, tofu and to some degree, home-baked, whole wheat bread.  I’ll go over each, briefly below.  To delve deeply into these topics, please read ‘Hippie Food’.  If you’re interested in the culinary world, involved in the food industry or love the ‘60’s in any way, there’s something in this book for you.

Brown Rice

Before industrial milling, of course, all rice was brown rice.  As with whole grain wheat, brown rice is simply rice that has only had the husk removed; leaving the the bran (outer layer) and germ (seed embryo) intact.   With the industrial revolution, came increasingly efficient milling, and Asian populations grew to prefer the highly-processed white version.  As with white bread, it was seen as a mark of prosperity to be able to afford this more processed rice.

Then came George Ohsawa.  Ohsawa was a Japanese philosopher and health food teacher who practiced and taught the macrobiotic health philosophy first in Japan and in the U.S. in the late ‘50’s and 60’s.

His philosophy, the ‘Unique Principal’, derived from ancient Chinese ideas about the balance of the forces of Yin and Yang.  These forces, like light and dark, or negative and positive, are opposite, yet complementary.

Ohsawa applied these principals to many aspects of life, including food, which led him to develop the macrobiotic diet, described in his 1965 book ‘Zen Macrobiotics’. The core of the macrobiotic diet is brown rice, organic, locally grown vegetables, and green tea.

Macrobiotics received a lot of media attention and became widely popularized in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  And as a result, largely influenced by Oshawa’s teachings and the communities of health food practitioners who emerged during this period, brown rice, has now become part of mainstream food culture.

Traditional tofu maker at work


In the influential book ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ (1971) author Frances Lappe shone a light on an essential, challenging fact about our global food system.  Which is that the majority of the plant food that is grown, like corn and soybeans, is used to feed, not humans, but live-stock for human consumption.  Lippe’s solution, for both environmental and health reasons, now advocated by many today, was decreased consumption of animal products and their at least partial replacement with plant foods.  And she promoted soybeans as the top candidate to replace animal protein in people’s diets.

The ideas in ‘Small Planet’ about the importance to the environment of plant-based food, and its advocacy of soy beans influenced many others in the ‘70’s and led directly to the popularization of a quintessential soy-based product from Asia – tofu.

Before the ‘70’s the only people eating tofu in America were 7th Day Adventists (a vegan religious group), Asian- Americans and a tiny handful of health food faddists. Building on Lippe’s ‘Diet for a Small Planet’, tofu was further popularized by an American Zen Buddhist, William Shurtleff and his partner Akiko Aoyagi.

Shurtleff was a native Californian who had gone to Japan to further his practice of Zen Buddhism, where he met Aoyagi a native Japanese.  After they read ‘Diet for a Small Planet’, they dedicated themselves to understanding how to make tofu, apprenticed with a Japanese tofu-maker and combined the ancient art of tofu-making with their practice of Zen. Their methods and recipes were published as ‘The Book of Tofu’ in 1975 and they travelled and spoke widely throughout the U.S. to promote it.

Brown Bread

Along with protests, music and street theater, one of the many communal activities taking place in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967 was the baking and distributing of brown bread to feed the youth gathering there.  White bread, along with much else in society, was criticized as a bland, inauthentic and unhealthy product of corporate America and ‘the Man’.  In fact, there had been many earlier critiques of white bread in the U.S. going back to Sylvester Graham, (whose name is still on the Graham cracker) from the 1830’s.

But amateur baking of healthier breads was a widespread feature of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s food scene.

The Asian connection was made when another American Zen Buddhist, Edward Brown apprenticed in the kitchen at the Zen monastery at Tassajara, California, and learnt to perfect the making of many varieties of wheat bread.  The bread-making book he authored as a result of this apprenticeship, ‘The Tassajara Bread Book’ (1970) is considered by many to be the ‘Bible’ of bread baking, has sold almost a million copies and is still in print.  To this day, Edward Brown practices Zen Buddhism and continues to teach and advocate for the meditative, holistic processes of home bread-baking in his classes and workshops.

And there you have it – how we got here from there!  Fascinating (to me and hopefully to you) to see how Asian culture converged with the new culinary thinking of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to bring us some of the mainstay health foods we enjoy today!

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