Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve watched more television in the past three months than I have in the previous three years. Several weeks into the “stay-at-home” rules, I started subscribing to Netflix. Now I’m hooked on Japanese TV, especially the “Midnight Diner” series.
Set in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, “Midnight Diner” is a delightful anthology of short stories ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking. The tiny diner, run by a middle-aged man of few words, is open only from midnight to 7 a.m. The owner, known simply as “Master,” will prepare whatever a customer requests, as long as he has the necessary ingredients. Each episode centers around a particular dish and the person who orders it.
The regular customers and recurring characters are mostly caricatures, yet achingly human. The spry Mr. Chu is sort of like Norm in “Cheers,” observing and quietly commenting from his stool. The “Ochazuke sisters,” a trio of office workers who always order bowls of hot tea and rice, are more opinionated and outspoken, especially about the male customers. Most of the other ensemble members are Shinjuku nightlife workers: strippers, police officers, bar hostesses and their clientele. My favorites include Kosuzu, an aging transvestite gay bar owner who dispenses compassionate advice as well as wickedly catty comments; Katagiri, a mysterious wandering philosopher who rarely speaks except to offer river/life analogies and his catchphrase, “Don’t underestimate life”; Ryu, a high-principled, mid-level yakuza whose favorite dish is red hot dogs cut and fried to resemble octopus babies, and his buffoonish, loud-mouthed loyal sidekick, Gen.
Like Ryu’s “fried octopus wieners,” the dishes Master cooks are often comfort food from his patrons’ childhoods. In between vignettes, we’re treated to glimpses of his work in the kitchen. From traditional foods such as yakisoba and gyoza, to modern fare like egg salad sandwiches and cheese-stuffed chicken cutlets, Master prepares each dish with great care and skill.
Based on a manga of the same name, the original “Midnight Diner” ran for three successful seasons in Japan before Netflix purchased streaming and production rights. Two seasons of “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” have been produced by Netflix Japan; all five seasons are now available for viewing on Netflix. Yes, it’s entirely in Japanese, but the subtitling is enjoyable and makes me pay closer attention to the action.
Sometimes, I pick up a bento lunch or assemble my own comfort food — hot rice with canned tuna and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) — and watch a couple of episodes while I dine. Once in a while, I indulge in what I call “Auntie Sa-chan’s ochazuke.”
Auntie Sa-chan was my mother’s older sister; she and her husband were like a second set of parents to me. I usually spent Friday nights at their Haliimaile home, then accompany Auntie on her Saturday errands: picking up Uncle’s shirts at the dry cleaners in Paia, shopping at Ah Fook’s and Toda Drugs in Kahului. An hour or so before bedtime, Auntie would scoop rice into a little bowl, pour hot green tea over it, then add the magic ingredient — takuan, a bright yellow, pungent but sweet, pickled daikon (long radish), usually served in slices. She would bite the takuan slices into little pieces and drop them from her mouth into my bowl, sort of like a mama bird feeding her baby. I never questioned why she didn’t just chop up the takuan on her cutting board like Mom and everyone else I knew. At the time, Auntie’s method just seemed natural and not at all gross.
Years later, I used the mama bird technique for my son’s ochazuke and he loved it. To me, though, mine never tasted as good as Auntie’s. I tried it again the other night, and still it seems something’s missing.
I think my mother was right when she suggested that it wasn’t Auntie’s saliva that made her ochazuke so special; it was her love.
Mom would fit right in at the Midnight Diner counter. “Don’t underestimate life. Or love.”
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.