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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

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Appetizing: A still from "Ten no Shizuku" ("Drops from Heaven"), a film now showing nationwide, shows Yoshiko Tatsumi making soup at home. © 2012 TENNOSHIZUKU FILM PARTNERS.

CLOSE-UP: Yoshiko Tatsumi

Cookery guru serves wisdom with her soups


Staff writer

"Never fight a war with Chinese people, because we would lose," Yoshiko Tatsumi sternly warned, "with absolute certainty," a 40-strong group of mostly middle-aged women gathered recently in her spacious three-story residence set in gardens in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

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Souperwoman: Yoshiko Tatsumi — the subject of a new film. SOFIA ELGHAZZALI

"What we eat today is no match for what they eat. Nobody (in Japan) has vitality in a true sense. We used to get energy from everyday food; we've forgotten how to."

And so continued Tatsumi's sobering lecture at her monthly soup-cooking class that draws attendees from across the nation, all united in their eagerness to feast on the 87-year-old cookery expert's tips, knowledge and all-round wisdom.

The primary subject of the day, of course, was soup. Tatsumi demonstrated preparing two sorts — a beef consomme and a sweet-potato potage. Her tips included stirring vegetables in cooking oil before putting them on a stove, as that coating helps the even absorption of heat.

She then let the soup ingredients simmer slowly on a low heat in a pot with the lid on, stirring only occasionally and "making the vegetables sweat." This is a technique she said helps to best bring out the ingredients' umami (pleasant savory taste) — the so-called fifth basic taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter, salty and metallic) that, chemically speaking, is created by amino acids including glutamic acid, inosinic acid and guanylic acid that are abundantly present in both soups and dashi (a Japanese soup stock made from bonito flakes, konbu [kelp] and/or dried shiitake mushrooms).

But Tatsumi's wisdom-sharing is not limited to soups — as was evident from her remark about China. In the same lesson, she also recalled, for example, her experience of caring for her bedridden father and how she succeeded in feeding him pieces of beef steak, which he loved but had almost given up eating as he had difficulty in swallowing.

Tatsumi would even sprinkle words of advice on living well — often, indeed, waxing philosophical. Example: "You can only have an epiphany if you sincerely think of someone — but to do that, you must seriously put your mind to it on a daily basis. If you don't, you won't have an epiphany. And remember, an epiphany and an idea are worlds apart."

Whatever Tatsumi is talking about, though, it always reflects her long-held belief that food affects every facet of people's lives — and that cooking is an act of love and the most basic human freedom.

She also believes that soups and soup stocks are the most sophisticated foods, since they condense the blessings of nature — whether from the ocean, the mountains or the fields.

It's a philosophy, she says, that was onlpassed down to her by her mother, Hamako, who is widely known in Japan as an early home-cooking expert.

However, Hamako was also the proud "manager" of the Tatsumi family, comprising her husband, Yoshio — an executive with a major construction company before the war — Yoshiko and her two brothers. Whether in Tokyo's Meguro district where the family lived when she was very young, or later after they'd moved to Kamakura, it was her mother who taught Tatsumi how to live her own credo through cooking.

As an example of this, Tatsumi has told of her mother coming up with an ingenious way to send a soup for soba noodles to China when her husband was based there with the Imperial Japanese Army. She also recounts how her mother started spreading her expertise through giving cookery classes at home and later by appearing on television and in magazine articles.

Tatsumi has surely followed in her mother's footsteps, having for years taught a monthly soup-cookery school at home, where she lives with her head apprentice, Chikako Tsushima.

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Sitting pretty: Yoshiko Tatsumi (second from left) seen in a posed photograph with her brother Kazuo and their parents, Yoshio and Hamako, in the early 1930s. YOSHIKO TATSUMI

Tatsumi has stayed single since being separated from her husband just three weeks after their wedding, when he was drafted into the wartime armed forces and died off the coast of the Philippines. She occasionally appears on NHK's "Kyo no Ryori" ("Today's Cooking") TV program as an instructor, and also writes books and magazine articles on all things related to food.

What's more, in 2004, at the age of 80, and prompted by her alarm at the nation's low food self-sufficiency (which is only 7 percent for soybeans), she started a group named Daizu Hyakutsubu Undo wo Sasaeru Kai (The Group to Support the Planting of 100 Soybean Seeds). Under the umbrella of that group, Tatsumi launched a campaign to get children in elementary schools to plant 100 soybean seeds each, as well as to grow and harvest them, since they play a vital role in the Japanese diet. The movement has now spread to more than 300 schools across the country.

Tatsumi is bound to get even busier with the Nov. 3 release of "Ten no Shizuku" ("Drops from Heaven"), a 113-minute documentary film themed on her life and philosophy. Shot by Atsunori Kawamura and featuring breathtaking imagery of food and nature as she travels around Japan, the movie's subtext is a rumination on the links between food and its producers, and food and our lives.

Ahead of the film's release, Tatsumi, dressed elegantly in a pink-purple sweater and sporting her signature pompadour hairdo, took time out with The Japan Times to share her thoughts in the comfort of her own home. The following are excerpts from the hour-long interview:

I understand you were born in Meguro, Tokyo, and that your mother was a pioneering ryōri kenkyū-ka (cookery expert). Is that right?

Well, in fact she was extremely offended by that label. She said she didn't cook for that kind of purpose. My mother used to say, "There is no manager more important than a homemaker."

Why was she so offended?

She was immensely proud of being a homemaker. Being a homemaker was her lifelong theme. So she was disgusted by the idea of being labeled a cookery expert. She almost felt insulted by that. I feel the same way. I hate that expression.

Why do you feel disgusted by that?

Well ... it just feels unbalanced. She was called that because there was no other way to describe what she was doing, and then the media got used to using that label.

I guess there was a burgeoning group of people like her, and the media could not find a phrase to categorize these people, so that's why they came up with that phrase to refer to them.

What was your mother like around the house?

How should I describe her ... She was very passionate — three times more passionate than me! And she was extremely good at giving shape to her sincerity for her loved ones.

There are many ways to express love. The way my mother expressed her love to my father is a good example. With the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (in 1937), my father was drafted and sent to the war. In those days, the men were formed into groups and were given a public send-off. Toward the end of World War II as Japan's defeat became imminent, soldiers began to be sent off quietly and privately.

Anyway, what my mother did for my father's send-off was to somehow have a chrysanthemum flower pinned to the soldiers' uniforms. On the day of departure, all the men in his party wore one of those flowers! I've always been really amazed at how in the world she made that happen. There were all kinds of rules and restrictions in the military and it was inconceivable that members of Party No. 3 would have flowers and not those in Party No. 1 and Party No. 2. I've always wondered how and from whom she got permission to do that.

The flowers were attached to the men's empty cartridge cases. I remember a nice scent of chrysanthemum wafting from my father's party. I know she probably went overboard on that one, but when she had an idea she would work out a plan and realize it.

So she was a natural at showing her compassion.

Yes. My father would write us (from China) what he wanted to eat — in pictures. He missed Japanese food and once drew soba noodles. So my mother wanted him to be able to eat soba there.

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All together: Yoshiko Tatsumi (second from right, front row) with a group of family and friends on the day in 1937 when her father, Yoshio (center), was enlisted into the Imperial Army at the age of 41. He was afterward sent to serve in China. YOSHIKO TATSUMI

There were dried noodles, and yakumi spices could also be sent in a dried form; my mother knew he was able to source the same kind of negi (green onions) in China. What about the soup to put noodles in, though? She shaved five pieces of katsuo (dried, fermented and smoked bonito) into flakes (with a tool like a wood plane). I mean, people today would struggle to shave just one bonito off! She crushed the shavings into smaller flakes, let sake, mirin (sweet sake) and soy sauce seep into them, and then roasted them.

In effect, she created what could be considered today an "instant soup stock." I don't know when she came up with the idea, but I remember her toiling at it in the kitchen, shaving and shaving and shaving. She felt hot in the process so took some layers of her clothes off and carried on.

Had nobody else thought about sending soba soup to China back then?

Nobody.

How did having such a woman as a mother impact you?

I grew up taking it for granted, thinking that mothers everywhere were doing what my mother was doing. Then I realized that it wasn't the case. I've never seen any other mother like her.

 
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