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Lean Cuisine

Can food make you younger looking and more attractive? According to Japanese "beauty food" aficionados, the fountain of youth is edible-and it's spilling over with molten collagen.

Author Danielle Demetriou Photography GEORGE DOYLE / GETTY IMAGE

ATYPICAL SATURDAY NIGHT in central Tokyo: In a sparsely lit, minimalist restaurant, a crowd of well-dressed women gossip and tap text messages over steaming plates of food. Laughter fills the air, and sake and plum wine cocktails flow liberally. But look closer: This is no ordinary culinary establishment. The cocktails have been injected with vitamin supplements, and the hot pots, staples of Tokyo cuisine, are crowned with freshly melted… collagen?

Eww.

Japan, with its aging population and penchant for cutting-edge trends, has long been on a quest for the secret to eternal youth, so it was only a matter of time before its restaurants got in on the act. Today, there are hundreds of beauty-food restaurants, the majority in Tokyo, featuring sophisticated menus claiming to turn back the clock. And their primary ingredient is collagen.

A tasteless protein derived from animals’ connective tissue, collagen is best known as the stuff models and would-be models inject into their lips to make them puffier and more Angelina-like. Others rub the stuff into their skin in the form of creams and ointments. But in Japan, it’s become a common food additive, turning up in everything from candy to yogurt.

And while scientists have cast doubt on the beautifying claims of eating collagen, Japan’s chefs have been adding the ingredient to numerous dishes, the most popular of which is a meat and vegetable hot pot known as nabe. Another supposedly beauty-enhancing dish is suppon, the meat of turtles.

The trend has even found its way to America with the opening last year of New York’s Hakata Tonton, offering “healthy collagen salad” and pigs’ trotter dumplings, among other treats.

But the real aficionados come to Tokyo. Down a quiet side street in the hip Nakameguro district, for instance, one finds Harenohi (Senyonakameguro Building, 3-8-3 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku; 0081-3-3760-6702, harenohi.net), a small restaurant perched above a wine bar.

From cocktails to side dishes, the entire menu revolves around the quest to turn back the clock. Most of the customers on the day I visit are groups of female diners (with, it must be said, rather flawless skin).

Accompanied by a Japanese friend, a peach-skinned regular on the circuit, I order a sweet umeshu plum wine fortified with shots of collagen, which have almost no impact on the wine’s flavor. For the main meal, I opt for the nabe, which is topped with savory chicken collagen. When it arrives, I’m not quite sure what to do.

The cubes of yellowish gelatinous matter topping my bowl look vaguely like petroleum jelly.

After watching my friend stir the goopy collagen into the steaming broth, I do the same. It disappears amid the leeks, cabbage, tofu and red fish eggs. The nabe is delicious: light, complex and bursting with flavor.

“This will make us puru puru,” my friend promises, employing the phrase for the sort of soft skin that a collagen fix supposedly imparts. In the beauty food world, it’s all about being puru puru.

But collagen isn’t the only way to eat yourself young. At the low-key Omiya (B1F Oval Building, 5-52-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 0081-3-5464-5008), located steps from the glitzy streets of Aoyama, the focus is on the cuisine of Okinawa, which famously boasts one of the world’s longest life expectancies.

A quiet salaryman haunt furnished with low tables, the restaurant offers classic healthy specialties like ume budo seaweed, along with the special “beautifying” menu featuring dishes supplemented with mysterious minerals, vitamins and collagen.

The kitchen is fresh out of pigs’ feet, so I opt for another hearty collagen nabe. By this time, I’m a pro.

Cocktails are also part of the quest for puru puru. Omiya’s drink selection includes homemade beer boosted with vitamins, calcium and minerals, as well as a famously fiery Okinawan liquor called Awamori, with a few drops of soft-shell turtle blood added. Its actual rejuvenating qualities have been the subject of considerable local debate. But having already downed a couple of fortified beers, I’m wearing beauty- food goggles and boldly order a bottle. Despite being slightly repelled by the magic ingredient, I’m lured by the elixir’s lovely rice paper label reading bijin, which means “beauty.” Distilled from rice, the liquor is a bit like sake but tastes smoother and richer (though I do feel bad for the turtles).

Our next stop is the stylish One Garden (20-12 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya- ku; 0081-3-3780-0880). Near Shibuya station, the restaurant’s quiet setting elevates it high above the area’s garish neon, and it’s packed with hip locals who already look pretty puru puru.

We order a Japanese-style bouillabaisse with melted fish-collagen balls, followed by a tomato salad with tangy, ginger-laced collagen dressing and collagen-enhanced tofu. For dessert, we dig into a green tea pudding infused with — what else? — collagen.

After the meal, we wander the streets of Shibuya in search of pigs’ feet, which would make for an interesting late-night snack. Eventually, though, we give up and head home. I’m a little buzzed from the beer, but I’m optimistic enough to believe that rather than waking up with a hangover, I’ll greet the dawn feeling as puru puru as can be.

LAND OF ENHANCEMENTS

Beauty food isn’t the only craze currently captivating Tokyo’s not-so-young and restless.
Here, more trendy treatments:

Feeding the fish

Wish your feet were silky smooth? Head to the Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari, a hot- springs spa where you’ll dangle your legs in a pool while hundreds of little black fish proceed to nibble off the dead skin (Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari, 2-57 Oumi, Koutou-ku; 0081-3-5500-1126, www.ooedoon-sen.jp/english).

Blood work

The latest craze for busy salarymen and office gals is Tenteki 10, a drop-in IV-drip clinic. Stressed workers roll up their sleeves and listen to relaxing music while a cocktail of vitamins and supplements of their choice (from “beauty” to “energizing”) is delivered directly into their bloodstream. (4th Floor Ebisu Garden Place Tower, 4-20-3 Ebisu, www.Shibuya-ku. 0081-3-5458-3128).

Going bananas

Japan has recently been in the grip of a banana frenzy, with supermarkets selling out across the country following a tsunami of books, TV shows and articles hailing the banana diet as the best way to lose weight. Dr. Atkins would not approve.

British journalist Danielle Demetriou moved to Japan in search of cherry blossoms and sushi, not collagen soup.

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