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Food for thought

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By Chris Betros

Mayumi Nishimura jokes that she doesn’t get invited out for dinner very often. “I think people are afraid that I will criticize what they are eating,” says the renowned macrobiotic chef, author and cooking instructor. It’s a long way from when she was teenage girl living with her sister in Nagoya in the late 1970s, pigging out on all sorts of food. But during a 30-year journey, Nishimura has gone from Nagoya to Massachusetts to traveling the world for seven years as Madonna’s personal chef before returning to Japan in 2008.

“I’ve had so many experiences and learned so much,” says Nishimura, 53, whose first English-language book, “Mayumi’s Kitchen,” recently went on sale. She has already published four books in Japanese on the subject of macrobiotics and healthy eating.

Born on the small island of Shinojima in Aichi Prefecture, Nishimura grew up there before going to high school in Nagoya where she shared an apartment with her sister. “There we were, two girls, 15 and 17, eating anything we could,” she recalls. “But when I was 19, I started to think that in future I might have a family. I wanted to have healthy kids and I thought that eating well would be a good start because I had minor health problems at that time.”

Nishimura says she was intrigued when she read “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (a landmark 1973 book about women’s health and sexuality). That got her to rethink her lifestyle and she became a vegetarian (except for fish). The real turning point, she says, was when she picked up a book by George Ohsawa, considered the founder of macrobiotic philosophy. “I started cooking and felt the change within myself. My health problems went away. I knew I had to learn more, so I went off to Boston in 1982 to study macrobiotics with Michio Kushi in Boston. I didn’t know any English and was homesick for Japan but I just stuck it out.”

Nishimura spent 18 years from 1983 in Massachusetts, during which time she married and raised a family. Already busy working at the Kushi Institute as a cooking instructor, a private chef for cancer patients, and as a grill chef in a Japanese restaurant, she met Madonna in 2001. “My friend, another macrobiotic chef, was cooking for her at the time, and needed some help. I didn’t know a lot about her, except for that documentary ‘Truth or Dare,’ but my daughter certainly did. I only planned to be there in LA for 10 days. It became seven years. It was hard at times because I had to abandon my kids and I wondered if I was doing the right thing.”

Traveled the world with Madonna

Nishimura traveled the world with the singer as her personal chef, living with her and her family. “It was a good experience. I learned about different aspects of macrobiotics. Until; then, I was cooking for people who needed healing, but now I was cooking for people who were very busy and who led a high-paced energetic lifestyle, which many entertainers do. However, after seven years, I thought I had done as much for her as I could as a macrobiotic chef and I wanted to get back to where I started and help other people.”

Nishimura decided to come back to Japan rather than stay in the U.S. “There are enough macrobiotic teachers there, but in Japan, many Japanese cooks are still doing old school macrobiotics. I wanted to use my different experiences of macrobiotics in various countries to teach more people in Japan.“

The image of macrobiotics, which is a way of life based on a diet of whole grains, vegetables, and beans, has changed over the years, Nishimura agrees, but there are still reservations. “Many people still think of it as food that is boring, very difficult to make or find ingredients for, but it’s not really. All the ingredients that I use are readily available.”

And that’s the reason why she wrote “Mayumi’s Kitchen.” Actually, Kodansha (the publisher) asked me about five years ago to write this book, but I was busy and didn’t have time to do it. I didn’t start it until last October.”

130 recipes and meal-planning tips

In the book, Nishimura introduces more than 130 recipes and meal-planning tips, as well as a 10-day detox diet. She teaches readers how to make avocado rolls, salmon soup, vegetable lasagna, spring rolls, tempura, pizza, and many more. She is very particular about Japanese ingredients such as soy sauce. “The ordinary shoyu that most people use is not good for macrobiotic cooking,” she explains. “You need shoyu that has been naturally fermented with no artificial additives. Shoyu that has been fermented with sea salt is the best.”

While some ingredients can be expensive, Nishimura says there are more stores offering organic products. Upscale stores like National Azabu, Nissin, Kinokuniya, Seijo Ishii and Peacock have a good range of macrobiotic products and there are lots of natural foods stores in various neighborhoods where you can get nori, konbu, wakame seaweed and so on, she says.

In the big cities, there are many restaurants attempting to offer macrobiotic menus but Nishimura says it is hit and miss. “If it is really traditional Japanese style cooking, then they are good. But macrobiotics is all about cooking at home, and that’s why I wrote the book. The items are simple ones that anyone can make.”

What about sweets lovers? Where do they fit into the macrobiotic world? Don’t worry, Nishimura says. “I have a sweet tooth myself. In the book, I have included recipes for cookies and chocolate brownies that don’t use dairy products, but whole wheat flower and maple sugar. I do use some soy milk and vegetable oil.”

Looking slim and healthy, Nishimura said she hasn’t had any junk food since her teenage days. “I never really liked hamburgers even then anyway. The only burgers I have now are tofu burgers but only when I make them myself. Normally for breakfast, I have either porridge, pancakes or mochi, maybe miso soup with wakame.” Not a big fruit eater (though she has tattoos of a peach and cherry on her wrists), Nishimura supplements her macrobiotic diet with tai-chi twice a week. “I used to do aikido but haven’t resumed it yet.”

With her children in the U.S., Nishimura lives alone but keeps busy teaching. “I give private lessons at home or if there is a group, then at someone’s home. My kitchen is not that big. I do lectures as well. Right now, I am still doing many interviews for my book. I may do a video for the Internet and a DVD.” Always on the go, Nishimura recently returned from a two-week trip to Cuba where she taught macrobiotic cooking and harvested sea vegetables.

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7 Comments
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Well she seems interesting-from a personal level though, Id like if she spent some of her hard earned cash on her kitchen and encouraging workmen and work in that area (and not just overseas). Surely taking pride in your kitchen is important?

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I'd like to read this book.

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I'd like to get a copy of her book and look as young as she is at 53!

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Recently JT is providing 'food for thought' articles whereas, people are looking for 'food for stomach'!

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With her children in the U.S., Nishimura lives alone but keeps busy teaching.

I don't know if this fits in with the Hippocrates example of "healthy and long-lived" -but we shall see I guess.

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damn that lady is 53???? U HAVE to love Japanese ladies and how they hold up so nicely!!!!

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another cooking book jt is obsessed with cooking books, are these the only Japanese books that get published in English?

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