TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - After working for seven years as Madonna's macrobiotic cook, Mayumi Nishimura feels she's back in Japan to help change the way her native country eats.
Although Japan's traditional diet is extremely healthy, an increasingly Westernized diet and the incursion of overseas fast food chains have made weight issues, and diseases such as diabetes, much more common than before.
Nishimura, who spent about 25 years in the United States aside from her time -- mainly in London -- with Madonna, has written a book, "Mayumi's Kitchen," with menus that blend her Japanese background, her macrobiotic training in the United States, and her experience working for Madonna.
When Madonna's current cook goes on vacation, Nishimura goes back to work for the pop star, who wrote an introduction to Nishimura's book.
Q: How did your Japanese background help you develop as a macrobiotic cook?
A: "I was born on a small island, fish was abundant and it was free, and vegetables were free. When I look back now, if I just changed white rice to brown rice and ate other whole grains, and instead of eating so much fish to eat just occasional fish and more vegetables, I was already pretty close to macrobiotic. Plus I had already known sea vegetables, all those basic ingredients. That helped a lot.
"I learned a lot from the different foods in the United States. Whole oats, cooking whole oats, was a big challenge for me. Also all sorts of beans I hadn't seen before, such as chickpeas, green lentils. Finding all those whole grains was new, learning how to use them, to combine them with Japanese kinds of seasonings. That's not saying that everything tasted good. I tried a lot and I failed a lot. But because of that I became a better cook."
Q: What's your macrobiotic philosophy?
A: "When I was cooking for people who don't have any big health issues but have a creative, active life, I started to use a little more fish. They needed energy that you can push out faster. Like when you're an athlete, you can't wait until the energy kicks in when you go out running, say, or when you go on the stage. You need energy that's fast.
"The tastes were a little stronger -- salt, oil and herbs and spices I wasn't using in the healing diet. I had to learn to use cumin, basil, oregano and all those other things that I'd never used in my cooking. Using those animal proteins and spices actually made a good balance. Those challenges were interesting."
Q: You became more inventive after working for Madonna?
A: "The one part I was weak on was sweets. As a traditional culture we didn't eat that many sweets. In Japan, there are four seasons and there are a lot of different fruits, so desserts could be just a piece of fruit. Then I had to teach myself how to bake cakes and pies. I was starting to do that little by little for my kids when they were small. Kids are kids, it was easy for me to trick them. But when this became my career, I couldn't be faking it every time. I learned how to bake by doing it. Thankfully Madonna just let me do what I know."
Q: Do you cook to match the place where you are?
A: "I think you always need to listen to your body and how it reacts to changes. In the summer I eat more raw food, but when it starts to turn to fall and winter I love to make cooked food. That's all part of the balance you're trying to make.
"Macrobiotic isn't just believing it but doing it, feeling it -- where you are, your health and everything. That's the key point. We are not seeing food as good or bad, we are just seeing food as energy and asking do I want that energy today. So then some people say can I eat meat then? So then I say okay, if you love meat, go ahead. But how much do you need that meat?"
Q: Will Japan's current longevity continue?
A: "If they don't change their diet, no. I thought people were eating pretty well, but when you come back here you see that's not true. They're not eating whole grains, they're eating much more bread. So many Japanese girls are so skinny, but also there are people who are very big as well. Both of them don't look healthy to me. When I'm walking I'd say that one out of four people I see on the street have eczema.
"The food quality has really been declining. It looks like rice, it looks like all those macrobiotic dishes, but the ingredients, how they make it -- lots of sugar and coloring. Soy sauce isn't traditional soy sauce -- miso as well, so many chemicals in it. That's scary. It's not food anymore. I thought if I tried to talk about macrobiotics and get more attention for this food, that would be a good thing for me to work on."
Recipe: Salmon Soup
1 tsp sesame oil
cup (40 g) each minced onion, minced burdock, minced lotus root, minced carrot
cup (40 g) winter squash (kabocha, butternut, or buttercup), peeled and minced
cup (30 g) minced cabbage
3 cups (720 ml) spring water
One 8-oz (230 g) fillet fresh salmon, boned and cut into large chunks
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp grated ginger for garnish
1 tbsp fresh cilantro (coriander leaves) for garnish
1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Saute in order, for about a minute each, the onion, burdock, lotus root, carrot, winter squash and cabbage. If the vegetables start to stick to the bottom of the pot, add a teaspoon or so of water.
2. Add 2 cups (480 ml) water to cover the vegetables and cook for 20 minutes over medium to medium-low heat.
3. Add the salmon and 1 cup water (240 ml) to cover it. Stir in the soy sauce. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes more. Serve garnished with grated ginger and cilantro. You can eat it with boiled udon or somen noodles, if you want.
Editing by Patricia Reaney