Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2010
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 far cry from when she was a teenage girl living with her sister in the late ’70s, pigging out on all sorts of food. But during her 30-year journey, Nishimura has gone from Aichi to Massachusetts to traveling the world for seven years as Madonna’s personal chef.
“I’ve had so many experiences and learned so much,” says the youthful 53-year-old, whose first English-language book, Mayumi’s Kitchen, was released last month by Kodansha International. The chef 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 went 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 the future, I might have a family. I wanted to have healthy kids and I thought that eating well would be a good way to start because I had minor health problems at that time.”
Nishimura says she was intrigued when she read Our Bodies, Ourselves, the landmark 1973 book about women’s health and sexuality. That got her to rethink her lifestyle and she made drastic changes to her diet, becoming mostly vegetarian while still eating fish. The real turning point, she says, was when she picked up a book by George Ohsawa, considered the founder of macrobiotic philosophy. The lifestyle, based on a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and beans had an immediate impact on Nishimura.
“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 [pioneering dietician] 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 in Massachusetts, during which time she married and raised a family. While working at the Kushi Institute, she was also a private chef for cancer patients and a grill cook in a Japanese restaurant, and she wound up meeting 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 [cook for her] in LA for ten days; it became seven years. It was hard at times because I had to abandon my kids. I wondered if I was doing the right thing.”
Mayumi’s Kitchen: Macrobiotic Cooking for Body and Soul, by Mayumi Nishimura (Kodansha International, 2010, 160pp, ¥3,150). Available at bookstores throughout Japan.
Nishimura traveled the world as Madonna’s personal chef, living with the singer 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. 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 returned to Japan convinced that she could make a bigger difference here than in the US. “There are enough macrobiotic teachers there, but in Japan, many cooks are still doing old-school macrobiotics,” she says. The diet also suffers from popular misconception. “For example, many people tend to think of it as food that is boring, very difficult to make or hard to find ingredients for. But it’s not, really.”
The chef says the main reason why she wrote Mayumi’s Kitchen was “to show people how simple it is to make macrobiotic meals. Actually, Kodansha asked me about five years ago to write this book, but… I was busy and didn’t have time to do it. In fact, I didn’t start it until about a year ago.”
Mayumi’s Kitchen introduces more than 130 recipes and meal-planning tips, as well as a ten-day detox diet. Nishimura teaches readers how to make such tantalizing dishes as avocado rolls, salmon soup, vegetable lasagna, spring rolls, tempura and pizza, all of which hew to macrobiotic principles. She’s also very particular about Japanese ingredients like soy sauce. “The ordinary shoyu that most people use is not good for macrobiotic cooking,” she explains. “You need soy sauce that has been naturally fermented with no artificial additives. Shoyu that’s been fermented with sea salt is the best.”
While some ingredients can be expensive, Nishimura says that nowadays, there are more stores offering organic products. Upscale shops like National Azabu, Nissin, Kinokuniya, Seijo Ishii and Peacock have a wide range of macrobiotic goods. “You can get sea vegetables like nori, kombu and wakame seaweed at most supermarkets, but for ingredients like tempeh, seitan and other various beans and whole grains, you need to go to natural foods stores, and I think there are more such stores in various neighborhoods now than there used to be.”
In the big cities, many restaurants are attempting to offer macrobiotic menus, yet Nishimura says they are pretty hit and miss. “If it is really traditional Japanese style cooking, then they are good. But macrobiotics is best when it is cooked at home.”
How about sweets lovers? Where do they fit into the macrobiotic world? Nishimura says not to worry. “I have a sweet tooth myself. In the book, I’ve included recipes for cookies and chocolate brownies that don’t use dairy products, but [instead] whole wheat and various other flours and maple sugar. I do use some soy milk and vegetable oil.”
Looking slim and healthy, Nishimura says she hasn’t had any junk food since her teenage days. “I never really liked hamburgers back then anyway. The only burgers I have now are tofu burgers that I make myself. Normally for breakfast, I have either porridge, pancakes or mochi, maybe miso soup with wakame.” Not a big fruit eater—though she has a few tattoos, including a peach and cherry on her wrists—Nishimura supplements her macrobiotic diet by practicing tai chi twice a week. “I used to do aikido but haven’t gotten back into it yet,” she adds.
Always on the go, the chef recently returned from a two-week trip to Cuba, where she taught macrobiotic cooking and harvested sea vegetables. With her children in the US, Nishimura lives alone but keeps busy teaching. “I give private lessons at home or, if there is a group, then at someone else’s home. My kitchen is not that big. I do lectures as well. Right now, I am doing many interviews for my book. I may do a video for the internet and a DVD at some stage.”
“I’m really enjoying being able to teach so many people about the joys of healthy eating,” she concludes. And if you happen to find yourself at dinner with Nishimura one night, don’t worry about what’s on your plate. “I’m not going to criticize anyone’s food. I’m happy to enjoy good company,” she says. See next page for recipes from Mayumi’s Kitchen.
Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today (www.japantoday.com).
Udon Salad with Seitan and Sweet Mustard Sauce
7 oz (200 g) brown-rice udon noodles plus enough water to boil them
1 tbsp safflower oil
1 cup (200 g) seitan, cut into strips
SWEET MUSTARD SAUCE
1 tsp shoyu
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 ½ tbsp maple syrup
3 cups (250 g) Chinese cabbage, cut into 1-inch (2 ½-cm) strips
½ cup (70 g) daikon, cut into matchsticks
½ cup (50 g) seedless cucumber, cut into matchsticks
½ cup (60 g) carrot, cut into matchsticks
2 tsp sea salt
- Make the SWEET MUSTARD SAUCE: Combine the ingredients in a bowl, mix well, and set aside.
- Prepare the PRESSED SALAD: Put the vegetables and salt in a bowl and mix. Put a weight on a plate and place directly on the vegetables. Allow to sit for 30 minutes.
- Boil the noodles for the time indicated on the package, then transfer to a colander and rinse under cold water.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and sauté the seitan for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Remove the weight from the salad and gently squeeze the vegetables to remove excess liquid. Return to the bowl.
- Add the noodles and SWEET MUSTARD SAUCE, and mix. Transfer to individual plates and top with the seitan.
Wakame Soup with Snow Peas and Ginger
1 tbsp dried wakame flakes
2 cups (480 ml) spring water
¼ cup (30 g) onion, cut into half-moons
¼ cup (30 g) snow peas, tops and strings removed, and cut on the diagonal
¼ cup (40 g) corn kernels
2 tsp shoyu
½ tsp grated ginger
2 scallions (spring onions), sliced thinly on the diagonal
- Soak the wakame in ½ cup (120 ml) spring water for 5 minutes. Remove and set aside, reserving the water.
- In a pot, bring the soaking water plus 1½ cups (360 ml) water to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium. Add the wakame and onion and cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the snow peas and corn, and cook for a further 5 minutes. Season with shoyu and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes more. Serve with grated ginger, cilantro, and scallions.
Sea Bass with Green Lentils, Fresh Corn, and Parsley
This is my favorite way to serve white fish. It’s easy to prepare, and because it looks impressive it is great for a dinner party. If you make it, you will be Instant Professional Chef for the night.
2 stamp-size pieces kombu
¼ cup (40 g) diced onion
¼ cup (30 g) diced celery
¼ cup (30 g) diced carrot
¼ cup (50 g) green lentils, washed and drained
about 1 ½ cups (360 ml) spring water
dried sage, to taste
1 bay leaf
sea salt and black pepper, to taste
2 ears sweet corn, as fresh as possible
⅓ cup (80 ml) spring water
dash sea salt
½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic
1 ½ cups (75 g) flat-leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves minced
¼ tsp sea salt
two 3-oz (90-g) sea bass fillets, skin-on
¼ tsp sea salt
dash black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
2 lemon slices, for garnish
- Prepare the GREEN LENTILS: Layer the ingredients in the bottom of a medium pan in order: kombu, onion, celery, carrot, lentils. Carefully pour in just enough water to cover. Bring to a near boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low. Add the sage and bay leaf and simmer for about 30 minutes, adding more water as needed. When most of the water has been absorbed and the lentils are soft, remove from heat. Take out the kombu and discard, then season the lentils with salt and pepper to taste.
- Prepare the FRESH CORN: Grate the corn directly from the cob. Place in a small saucepan with the water and salt and bring to a near boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir with a heat-resistant spatula until the corn is creamy.
- Prepare the PARSLEY: Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over low heat and add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute, then add the parsley and salt, and sauté for another minute or so until the salt is dissolved.
- Prepare the SEA BASS: Heat broiler. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in frying pan over medium heat, and place the fish in it skin-side-down. Fry for 5 to 8 minutes (the time will depend on the size of the fish), or until well browned, then broil skin-side-down for another 5 minutes, or until the fish is done.
- On each of two serving plates, arrange the lentils, corn, and parsley, and place the sea bass on top, skin-side-up. Garnish with lemon slices.