Two Easy to Digest Food-Themed Japanese Novels
May 01, 2024
Books and noodles


Looking to gobble up some good food for thought? Try these two contemporary novels from Japan.

Sweet Bean paste

by Durian Sukegawa, translated by Alison Watts, audiobook narrated by Cindy Kay

Have you heard of a Japanese pancake called ‘dorayaki”? If not, this book will make you want to try this special pancake filled with sweet bean paste. But the book is not about the pancake or the filling or even the shop that sells it. It is the story of forty-something Sentaro who spends his days making dorayaki at the store and his evenings drinking, trying to not think about his past transgression that has brought him to this monotonous and meaningless life.

One day he is visited by a seventy-something lady, Tokue, who responds to the help wanted ad at the storefront and offers to work for less than minimum wage. Despite his misgivings, he hires Tokue, who becomes more than just an aide in the kitchen. Sentaro discovers Tokue’s talent for making the best tasting sweet bean paste from scratch and as he learns how to listen to the beans and hone his intuitive cooking skills, he forms a friendship with this mysterious old lady with gnarled fingers who manages to bring order and purpose to his life. 

The duo are joined by Wakana, a teenager with family problems and a canary who needs to be cared for. As the three form an unlikely friendship, Tokue’s backstory comes to light. Her disfigurement is due to leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) which she contracted as a young girl and as was the law at that time, was sent away to an isolated place to live with other patients. Tokue learns and perfects her confectionery skills at the sanatorium which is located in a hard to find place. Although the shop begins to do well with the improved quality of the sweet bean paste in the dorayaki, rumors of Tokue’s illness and the associated ignorance about the condition being fully treatable now lead to Tokue leaving the stop

The friendship between Wakana, Sentaro and Tokue continues through letters and occasional visits where we learn more about the discrimination and harsh conditions under which leprosy patients had to live until as recently as the late nineties.

Yet, the book is not just about intergenerational friendship or social ostracism or redemption, it is primarily a book about second chances, about being open to new people who can usher in new experiences and help steer the trajectory of what may seem like an empty and hopelessl life into sometime better, something that helps the person and society. Although parts of the book, specially towards the end seem a bit long and preachy, the author creates an amazing ambience using the backdrop of seasonal change to tell this special story.

My opinion: A truly ‘sweet’ story of being open to new paths and options when life seems dull and never-ending. 

The Kamogawa Food Detectives 

By Hisashi Kashiwai, translated by Jesse Kirkwood, narrated by Hanako Footman

Did you enjoy Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, if yes, you may enjoy this book as well. Like the cafe set in Tokyo where people can travel back in time, the Kamogawa Diner is also a nondescript restaurant located in Kyoto that is otherwise hard to find. But unlike the coffee ritual that lets cafe customers engage in time travel, in this book, it’s a particular dish that lets the customers move on.

Nagare and his daughter Koishi run the Kamogawa Diner, with the father being the retired detective turned chef who creates wonderful dishes for his regular customers and also tracks down one of a kind creations that rest only in the deep recesses of the mind of the customers who come in search of the Kamogawa detective agency. While Koishi interviews clients who have taken the trouble to find them through a cryptic ad in a food magazine, Nagare first serves each customer a multi-course delicious set meal. He later goes through Koishi’s detailed notes and embarks on his quest to unearth the ingredients, recipes and stories behind the dishes that the customers are looking for.

Our memories of our early lives are inundated with food – the preparation, the presentation, the serving, the emotions attached to the act of cooking and of being fed. It’s no wonder then that most of the customers to the diner are looking for a unique dish, either prepared from exotic regional or seasonal produce either at home or at a restaurant that is associated with a person who is special to them – the dead wife, the ailing husband, the sick grandfather. As each customer tries to provide clues, however random they may sound, they relive that phase of their life as they express the hope that the Kamogawa detectives will be able to fulfill their wish to taste that particular dish once more.

What do an old widower, a young schoolgirl, an elderly woman trying to remember the date with a man who impulsively proposed to her and a rich young man have in common? They are looking to fill the gaps in their memory or hold on to something special that is connected to them through food that they enjoyed a long time ago. Nagare never disappoints. Within two weeks of receiving the assignment, he is able to embark on his expedition and successfully recreate the dish.

As with many other contemporary Japanese novels, this one also succeeds in taking us to lesser known locations in Japan and instructing us in a non-preachy way about the specific produce that is grown there and the ways in which it is incorporated into the local cuisine. While the Japanese dishes were unfamiliar to me, I could relate to the way food memories occupy a large part of our overall impression of different stages of our lives, at home, on our travels, at specific moments in our own journeys. And separating the emotions from the taste seems essential for closure.

I was keen to know more about Nagare’s back story and eager to see Koishi develop into an interesting character on her own. The book focused on the customers and their stories but also had some regulars show up across the disparate narratives that come together in a way that is as delicious as the set meal served by Nagare to his first time customers.

My opinion: A fun culinary adventure that takes you across time and to many places in Japan, do not read it when you’re hungry 🙂

Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash

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