Maki-ng It Delicious: Why Japanese Food Shows Are A Delight

WITH The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, Hirokazu Kore-eda offered viewers a rare glimpse into the world of geikos and their apprentices. As can be discerned from the title, the Netflix series follows a 16-year-old girl who ends up becoming the in-house chef a.k.a the makanai. The bespoke meals she cooks for her housemates across the nine episodes make for the most heart-warming scenes and appetizing delights. The Makanai continues a tradition as Japanese as manga or haiku: food shows.

As a gateway to Japanese culture not unlike manga, food shows like The Makanai have attracted fans across the globe. In fact, most of these shows are based on manga. The episodic format is more or less the same. The shows are personality-led travelogues where plates of hot steaming artistry are often served with a side of wisdom. Cooking, right from prepping to presentation, is treated as an art unto itself, like shodo or origami. So, the camera plays up the aesthetic appeal with pornographic slow-pans and close-ups of meat frying and vegetables stewing, culminating with the money shot of the customer crying out a climactic “oishii!” or “umai!” (delicious).

If cooking is a deep-rooted expression of identity, eating is elevated to an immersive multisensory experience. A single bite can unlock forgotten memories, a sound can conjure nostalgia and a smell can cause homesickness. When salarymen, retirees and other patrons arrive at the many quaint eateries, there is a welcoming warmth and an easy acceptance that typify the Japanese people’s relationship with food itself. At the heart of these shows’ ethos is the concept of washoku, which not only describes traditional Japanese cuisine but also literally translates to “the harmony of food”.

There is a Japanese food show for everyone, from nihonshu connoisseurs to dessert fiends. The Makanai is not the only one. Let’s shoyu what else is cooking and worth digging into.


Both live-action and anime versions are streaming on Crunchyroll

If you are a responsible partaker and a keen appreciator of alcohol in all its glorious variants, Wakako (Rina Takeda) would be your ideal drinking buddy. Once she clocks out at work, the 26-year-old Tokyo resident loves to do nothing more than unwind at one of the city’s many izakayas. Wakako guides viewers on her nocturnal journeys via an inner monologue. If you want to know whether garlic gyoza can be washed down with a cold beer or deep-fried burdock root pairs well with a warm sake, you will know when she lets out a “Pshuuu” in contentment. Save for the odd girls’ night out or company get-together, she enjoys most dinners by herself. It is never not refreshing to see characters on screen who are perfectly happy alone.

                        Image credits: Garlic Gyoza

Midnight Diner

Streaming on Netflix

While watching Midnight Diner, you half-expect to see Wakako walk into its izakaya tucked away in the back alley of Shinjuku. This titular establishment is open only from midnight to 7 am. It is run by an enigmatic father figure of sorts who always has food to serve, an ear to lend and some wise words to spare for the patrons who call him “The Master” (Kaoru Kobayashi). 

Yakuza, policemen, strippers, boxers, comedians, struggling writers — all are welcome here. The choices on the menu are limited, but the Master will gladly prepare any dish his customers desire as long as they bring the ingredients for it by themselves. Some umeboshi (pickled plum) helps an insomniac grocer make peace with his mother’s death. An elderly musician pays for a bowl of butter rice with a song about lost love, which ends up unearthing the repressed memories of an arrogant food critic. A Japanese physicist and a Korean hostess bond over a mutual love for omurice. Two former middle school classmates reconnect over curry ramen. 

The quiet lonely hours of night are when people can feel capsised by alienation, emptiness and melancholy. A warm meal and some company thus come as small but sweet comforts to alleviate the pain.

Samurai Gourmet

Streaming on Netflix

If Midnight Diner is centered on the night-to-night experiences of a chef, Samurai Gourmet revolves around the day-to-day experiences of a customer on a quest for self-rediscovery through food. The customer is gentle-faced 60-year-old recent retiree Takeshi Kasumi (Naoto Takenaka). Retirement has left him with a lot of free time and not a lot to do. So, he decides to explore on foot new places to eat and drink, in and around his Tokyo neighbourhood. 

Having been a salaryman for so long, Kasumi however is full of inhibitions over living life this way. This is where his wandering samurai persona comes in. When doubt or anxiety prevents Kasumi from enjoying his newfound freedom, his alter ego takes over to grant him the inner resolve to do what he wants to. Whether he is anxious about drinking during daytime or wearing sunglasses, the samurai manifests to reassure Kasumi that he has earned his retirement and that he deserves to enjoy himself. 

Food, as you might expect, triggers a madeleine effect. A breakfast comprising mackerel, steamed rice, miso soup and pickles takes Kasumi back to his teens when he felt all grown up for the first time. When he describes how the memory makes the meal all the more delicious, it attests to the evocative power of food.

Kantaro the Sweet Tooth Salaryman

Streaming on Netflix

Kantaro (Matsuya Onoe) gives up a job as a coder to become a sales rep at a publishing house so he can devote the spare time it affords towards his secret passion: to visit dessert shops and blog about them. Part of what makes the show funny is, his colleagues are unaware that the diligence, efficiency and prudence he exhibits at work are a smokescreen. In between field assignments and client meetings, he sneaks off to whet his sweet tooth. Funnier still is his absurd tendency to justify his sweet tooth with quotes from the likes of Buddha, Nietzsche and Freud. Calling himself “a perverted masochist for sweets,” he wears thermal underwear on a hot day convinced the torture will make kakigori (Japanese equivalent of gola) a lot more enjoyable. Who does he quote to rationalise such madness? Churchill. Ohagi, peach parfait, caramel pudding, and just about everything looks irresistible, as can be corroborated by Kantaro’s prolonged foodgasm face. This is followed by a fantasy sequence — of him turning into a melon or ascending to heaven — that captures the heightened pleasures of a sugar rush. If you would love to try all the desserts he does on the show, you can. Each of the places he visits are very real and waiting to be explored in Tokyo.

Izakaya Bottakuri

Streaming on Netflix

Izakaya Bottakuri blends key ingredients from The Makanai, Wakakozake and Midnight Diner into a wholesome concoction. Two sisters, Mine (Moemi Katayama) and Kaoru (Sara Takatsuki), inherit an izakaya in downtown Tokyo from their parents. Regulars drop by for delicious meals complemented by sake. Tantalisingly shot food porn builds up to inevitable “oishiis”. The conversations bear the intimacy of a makeshift family. On watching shows like these, the viewer learns to not eat as if on autopilot, but to allow for a fuller, more active sensory experience of savouring i.e., engaging the senses to take in the flavour, aroma, texture and sounds to turn each meal from a tempura-ry delectation to a lasting memory.

A word of advice: Don’t binge the whole thing at once. Take small bites and they will go down more easily.