Japanese comic serves palatable underbelly

A stripper walks into an eatery she frequents and orders mentaiko (cod roe). Medium rare, she says. Weird, because she usually likes it raw. But the chef and fellow regulars understand quickly – the change of her taste also means the change of her heart. She has met someone new, again. But no matter how she much wavers between how it is done, mentaiko is here to stay, as the sac that it comes cocooned in resembles the full lips of her childhood sweetheart.

One fine day at work (as she sits wide-legged on stage), her eyes meet with those of a man who wears a smile that looks deliciously like mentaiko. She disappeared from then on. Rumour has it that she retired to marry her childhood sweetheart.

Of course, like all of her past relationships, this didn’t last long either. “That man is a mummy’s boy,” she complains when she returns. So, amidst merriment, business resumes, and so is her hyper-variable craving for mentaiko.

Awkward reunion with childhood sweetheart

Awkward reunion with childhood sweetheart

This is chapter eight in book one of 深夜食堂 (literally translated Middle of Night Canteen), a Japanese comic on the events that happen in an eatery which operates from midnight to dawn. Because of its odd operating hours, its customers are often the underbelly of Japanese society – stripper, triad leader, elderly gay man, retired porn director, spinsters and obese woman. At this eatery, these people obtain redress as their person unveil in each chapter. The stripper desires love like any woman; the gangster turns out to be a generous man sharing expensive fresh Hokkaido seafood with the other customers; the director is coarse with the starlets but is a gentle lover to his girlfriend; the obese woman draws laughter and empathy as she swings between the extremes of starvation and food orgy.

My growing collection

My growing collection

As you would realise by now, food plays a mere supporting role in this comic: individual eating habits reveal personal stories which the author Abe Yaro carefully ensures that they draw no sympathy but resonance from his readers. Upon entering this eatery, the characters put aside the baggage of Japanese virtues – politeness, self-control and honour, and a real world equivalent could be izakaya, little casual drinking shops where reserved Japanese white collars morph into warm blooded beings after a few glasses, only in the comic, no alcoholic booster is needed to be one’s self.

That’s not to say the featured dishes are uninviting. The chef in the story is capable of making just about anything that comes to mind, including stew meat with potato, barbequed corn, meat dumplings, red bean soup with mochi, and the famous octopus-shaped sausage. The only catch is many of these dishes are put together with canned food and instant mixes. The red bean soup for example is made from a can of Azuki beans. See, the chef is not trying to win an award here, but to satisfy specific desires of his customers, whom upon food they reminisce, they heal and they live.

The comic is available in Japanese and traditional Chinese (translated in Taiwan) and is found in major bookstores. There is also a recipe book (below) featuring dishes mentioned in the comic.

Shen Ye Shi Tang recipe book

Comic’s recipe book

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