DENTIST / COOK / AUTHOR

‘Curiosity’ at the core of days packed with lots to chew on

by Setsuko Kamiya

Atsuko Tanuma’s day begins at 5 a.m. It’s a routine she has followed for 17 years, since she started preparing lunch-boxes for her first son when he began kindergarten at the age of 4.

“As my work kept me very busy and the time I was able to spend with my sons was limited, I wanted to do something motherly for them,” said Tanuma, 51, a dentist who runs a clinic in Chiba City. Even today, she enjoys making lunch-boxes for her sons, now aged 21 and 19, transforming simple ingredients into a tasty meal as she has done countless times before.

After preparing to leave, Tanuma drives for 90 minutes from her Tokyo home to the clinic where, for the past 24 years, she has attended to around 20 patients a day — except on Wednesdays and Thursdays. While many dentists are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, Tanuma instead says, “I’m providing service to my patients, so I want to make it easier for them to get to the clinic — which for many people means coming on Saturday or Sunday.”

Equally unusually, alongside Tanuma’s first-floor clinic and office is a spacious, well-equipped kitchen that is also an integral part of her practice, since Tanuma is a guru of “kamu kamu (chew chew) cooking.” During spare time at the clinic and also on holidays, the dentist swaps her probes and mirrors for bowls and mixers as she and her staff conjure up original recipes that encourage people to chew their food well.

“The point of kamu kamu cooking is to use ingredients that are naturally chewy,” Tanuma explained with a charming smile. To achieve this, she likes to cut ingredients into bigger pieces than normal; to cook things such as fish to firm it up rather than eating it raw; and to season her dishes only lightly to allow the basic taste to come out more with chewing. “Dishes cooked along these lines encourage more mastication,” she declares.

Bodily benefits

Through magazine articles and TV shows, Tanuma has become a familiar face preaching the bodily benefits of chewing — whether to counter obesity, develop the sense of taste or stimulate the brain.

However, it wasn’t until after she graduated from a dental college in Kanagawa Prefecture and married the renowned photographer Takeyoshi Tanuma, now 75, that Tanuma’s dual-career life took off. Then, some 18 years ago, she was first featured in a women’s magazine, in a series on readers’ own tasty, simple and economical recipes.

“When I saw the announcement, I thought that was perfect for me,” says Tanuma, who submitted one of her family’s favorite dishes: her stir-fried bean-starch vermicelli and bok choy. After that recipe went down well in print, Tanuma and her cooking — including her lunch-box menus — soon came to be featured in the media.

Tanuma says that she became a dentist partly because of the influence of her late father, who was a doctor and encouraged her to take that path. By the time she was graduating from dental college, though, she says she was seriously considering becoming a chef instead, as she loved to eat delicious food. Consequently, when her recipes began appearing in the media, she was delighted — but she didn’t see that as an end in itself.

“I wanted to make good use of the fact that I was a dentist, and somehow combine that with my cooking,” she says.

So, after meeting a dietetics specialist who had drawn up a chart on how many times different foods are generally chewed, Tanuma compiled a book with her in 2001 on what came to be known as, of course, kamu kamu cooking.

Nowadays, though, Tanuma — who describes herself as a person full of curiosity and fast to act — has a new focus for her energies as what she terms a “behind-the-scene promoter of individuals.” Wearing this hat, so to speak, Tanuma is now really enjoying herself, she says, by networking and promoting people with special talent in whatever field.

Her latest book published last year is an example, as it introduces a wide variety of foods, many of which can only be obtained by directly ordering from shop owners.

In fact, Tanuma has long been dabbling as a “producer,” and it was one such foray some 25 years ago that produced a life-changing outcome for her, too.

Publishing advice

Back then, Tanuma had persuaded Fujio Shido, a renowned chef who played an important role in introducing French cuisine to Japan, to write his autobiography. The problem then was getting it published. It was with this in mind that in December 1979 Tanuma sought publishing advice from a photographer as he was autographing his book for her at his exhibition.

Not only did the photographer give her publishing tips, but he also took pictures of Shido for his book. And that photographer in due course became her husband as well.

“I live because of the people I meet, and new encounters keeps me going,” Tamura said. “And I love making people happy, because that’s a joy for me, too.”