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TV reflects the obsessions of a culture, so there are interesting differences in the TV shows of different countries. Comparing American and Japanese TV, one subject where there’s a big cultural difference is in shows about food.

Cooking on American TV is basically always nonfiction. Japan has this type of show too, so in both countries we can watch how-tos that teach us to cook elaborate dishes from scratch, whether we set foot in the kitchen ourselves or not. And for better or worse, there’s been cross-fertilization: the US now owns the TV cooking competition, a genre we borrowed from Japan after the successful importing of Iron Chef (a show that I loved, but that I think now has a lot to answer for).

iron-chef

But in Japan there are also many series where cooking and food are a central element of fiction. In these series, chefs are main characters, average people are obsessed with a certain dish, and even the plot may turn on a particular detail of a special recipe or ingredient.

Sure, in the US we have shows where the characters gather to eat in a certain restaurant or bar. There was one old show, Alice, about a waitress in a diner, and historical shows like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey may have a shot of the staff working on dinner while they’re talking about something else. Maybe you can think of one or two more. Contrast this handful of shows with the fact that on a fansub site like gooddrama.net, there are enough shows with food that you can actually search for it as a separate genre, and that isn’t all of them.

tampopo

Numbers aren’t the most important difference, though, because comparing those few shows to Japanese food drama is like comparing apples and oranges, or sushi and a Maine lobster roll. Take two tales that involve a soup-maker. You may have seen the Japanese movie Tampopo, where (in between other odd unrelated food-centric vignettes) the plot follows a woman who owns a ramen shop and is working to come up with the perfect recipe. We see her slaving over variations of broth and getting the advice of experts who make comments on her noodles like “They have sincerity, but lack substance.” Compare this to the most famous soup-maker on American TV – the character on Seinfeld who’s famous for yelling at people, not for obsessing about the details of his cooking.

The focus on culinary detail in Tampopo is far from unique. Japanese dramas reflect an obsession with the quality of food that that isn’t seen on American TV – reflecting the fact that it’s also not, I’m sad to say, part of American culture.

Becoming A Chef

Let’s start by looking at a particular sub-genre of the food genre in Japanese television shows. Yes, the story of “becoming a chef” seems to come up so often that I’m giving it its own category.

Western food: Hungry!

hungry

Start with a drama where the title fits this theme perfectly: Hungry! (Hanguri!). As a child, the main character, Yamate Eisuke, wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother, a French chef with her own restaurant. Instead, he forms a rock band with three friends, but as the series opens, he’s nearly 30 and they haven’t broken through to the big time. He goes to his mother and tells her that he wants to return to her restaurant and study to be a chef again. Unfortunately this touching reunion is marred by the fact that his mother has a heart attack and drops dead.

Further complications ensue when he declares he’s going to take over the restaurant: his father has already sold it to a rival restauranteur, who in the course of the series becomes obsessed with Eisuke, going back and forth between wanting to ruin him and trying to hire him. (A relevant side note is that this bad guy is played by Goro Inagaki, a member of SMAP, which is a band that has its own line of food products at Japanese 7-11s, something else we’d never see in the US.)

Along with that business rivalry, which turns very personal, there are romantic complications, fights with his friends – but even the interpersonal drama usually turns on the food. One character’s family runs a small market garden nearby where the restaurant buys vegetables. She falls in love with Eisuke’s cooking first and then, as a sort of side effect, with him. And the rival tries to make trouble by convincing that family to sell all their produce to his restaurant instead. I definitely can’t think of an American series where the bad guy’s plan of attack consists of buying up all the tomatoes.

And much of the emotional drama is about Eisuke’s struggle to learn to be a French chef worthy of his mother’s legacy- a process we watch in extreme detail. Don’t watch this show when you are Hungry! yourself, because a huge amount of screen time is spent on shots of prepping, cooking, plating and serving French food. They’re so serious, they present the name of the dish on-screen when it is served. In fact, they’re so serious that there is a recipe book based on the series, and the star took French cooking lessons as part of his preparation for the drama.

Japanese food: Ando Natsu

andonatsu

Ando Natsu is a young woman with the dream of becoming a French baker. She starts as an apprentice at a cafe run by an older woman baker who she worships… who promptly drops dead. Watching these two dramas in succession, you get the feeling that making French food in Japan is not good for the lifespan.

With no idea what to do next, she stumbles into a wagashi shop in Asakusa. Wagashi are those exquisite traditional Japanese confections that are basically small edible works of art, made in different seasonal shapes including flowers. She sees that these sweets give the same joy to the customers as French pastry does, and asks to become an apprentice.

The title of this series and the character’s name actually refers to sweets – Ando Natsu is a pun on An-donut (a doughnut filled with sweet bean paste) which is pronounced the same in Japanese, and other characters often tease her by referring to this pun.

This series also spends a lot of time in the kitchen, referencing how hard it is to make the beautifully detailed sweets, how long the apprenticeship lasts, and the menial tasks the beginner is saddled with. Natsu washes a lot of dishes and gets very excited every time she’s allowed to do some simple part of the actual confection-making process for the first time.

Particular processes and ingredients in making wagashi are often central to the plots. In one episode, Natsu has to stay awake all night to supervise the fermenting of the starter for a special order for an important memorial service. She’s called away for a time to prevent someone from committing suicide. (Yes, really. The writers of this series did not fear improbable melodrama.) She thinks it still looks OK when she gets back, but in the morning, the master tells her it’s ruined. Fortunately, they’re expecting a delivery of koji, the starter for fermentation, and might have just enough time to make a new batch – till they find out the delivery truck was in an accident, and all the containers overturned and spilled.

Natsu thinks she’s solved the problem when she runs all over town and manages to buy a package of koji that comes from the same prefecture. Unfortunately, that’s not close enough. She’s crushed when they tell her they can’t use it, that without the exact same koji, they can’t claim to be selling the same sweets they’ve always made. The master explains in mystical detail that the skill of the chefs is nothing without the wind in the town, the atmosphere of the store, and the tiny living things in the koji.

You understand, this is like saying it’s not worth baking bread if you can’t get the same brand of yeast you’ve always used. For all I know this is true about wagashi, or even bread if you’re a true connoisseur, but that fact sure wouldn’t sustain that amount of drama in an American TV series.

Another element we see in Ando Natsu that frequently recurs in this type of drama is someone’s longing for a favorite food from long ago. One episode is about a woman who comes to buy their persimmon-shaped sweet which is the favorite of her dying father. For complicated and dramatic reasons they no longer make this sweet, but Natsu finds the recipe and tries to replicate it. This effort to satisfy a dying customer gets her fired (temporarily) for trying to pass off her inferior beginner’s work as the product of this revered generations-old shop. (Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending and the man does get his wagashi in the end.)

Cooking at Inns

Not all shows about professional cooks are set in restaurants. Some are about traditional inns, where the quality of the cuisine is a huge part of their reputation.

O-sen

osen

O-sen, about an inn in Tokyo’s old shitamachi neighborhood, is practically an education in traditional Japanese cooking. (Like some others of these shows, O-sen is based on a manga – there are also many manga where fictional plots, settings and characters are food-related.) As we watch the training of a character who’s talked his way into a job in the kitchen without really understanding what this kind of cooking is all about, we learn about different kinds of miso, why a fire made of straw is best for cooking rice, and other details of extremely traditional Japanese cuisine.

O-sen is another show where a vital plot point turns on a particular ingredient. The cooks use a traditional hand-made katsuobushi, the dried bonito fish which is the fundamental ingredient in the broth used in nearly every Japanese dish, but is now mostly made in a more mass-produced way. The inn not only uses the hand-made variety, in fact they’ve always used the katsuobushi of one particular producer who is now threatened with being closed. Without this particular dried bonito, O-sen says, the taste will change, the food will no longer be their food, and the inn will have to go out of business.

There isn’t space here for me to explain all the intrigue that swirls around this – but all I can say is, I wish I lived in a country where dried fish can be so important to a plot.

Kamo, Kyoto e Iku

kamo-kyoto-e-iku

Along with the longing for a favorite food from the past, another recurring theme is people’s exquisitely accurate memory for such foods. Kamo, Kyoto e Iku is set in a traditional inn in Kyoto. One episode is about a couple who has been coming to the inn for 40 years. The woman, who’s had a stroke, loves a tofu dish they serve, so her husband brings her to the inn so she can have it again. While she no longer recognizes her own husband, she remembers the taste of the dish well enough to be disappointed that it doesn’t taste exactly the same. The inn’s owner goes to the 200-year-old tofu store to ask what’s happened. The tofu maker blows up at the suggestion that the tofu has changed, but eventually admits that the woman is right, that he’s gotten too old to make it properly. The happy ending comes when he teaches a younger tofu-maker his method, and the woman gets to have exactly the dish she remembers one more time.

Not Just Professionals

food-drama

You’ll also find these elements in shows that aren’t set in inns or restaurants and where the main characters aren’t culinary professionals. My favorite example so far comes from Tokyo Bandwagon, which is about a family that runs an antique bookstore. In one episode the family is trying to reunite the cook from their local izakaya with a former momento. Long ago he wronged this man and can’t believe he will ever forgive him. They invite the cook for a meal and present him with a dish of simmered turnip. One taste and he basically says “OMG, it’s him!” and insists that no one else but his former master could have made that dish. He’s proved right when the man steps into the room for a dramatic reconciliation. It’s ridiculously improbable, but if you’re a fan of Japanese food, how can you not love it? (What’s more, how can you not weep with envy when they sit down to one of the family meals pictured above.)

I’ve also just started watching the first episode of a show called Lunch Queen. The main character is a waitress in a coffee shop who keeps a detailed notebook about places to go to eat lunch. A customer tries to convince her to pretend to be his fiancé as part of a ruse to approach his estranged family. She’s having none of it – till he tells her that they own the restaurant that makes the best omu-rice in all of Japan. I can’t wait to see what hijinks – and recipes – follow.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

  • missingno15

    Also variety shows when they do 食レポ. You look at what they’re eating and what you’re eating and realize that what you’re eating most likely isn’t as good as the one on television.

  • Musouka

    深夜食堂 (Shinya Shokudou) is a superb drama (at the least the 1st season is superb) about a chef who runs a late-night diner and the lives of his regular customers. The half-length episodes make it more palatable than full-length ones and joyful to watch.

  • linda lombardi

    I will look for that one!

  • linda lombardi

    I am happy to report that as the first episode of Lunch Queen continues, the prodigal brother is told that he can only come back to the restaurant if he can correctly distinguish in a taste test the difference between three demiglace sauces: the one that took their father several days to make, one that took a couple of hours to make, and one from a can.

  • Musouka

    I watched a few episodes of Lunch Queen since I am a big TAKEUCHI Yuko fan but it didn’t excite me all that much. I guess I will continue watching it some other time.

  • Chrouya

    Reminds me of a movie called A Boy and His Samurai (jp: Chonmage Purin). A time travel comedy movie where an Edo Period samurai gets introduced to the modern age and takes an interest in, you guessed it, food (confectioneries in this case). Worth the watch!

  • linda lombardi

    That sounds awesome! Because that is definitely one of the first things I’d be interested in if I ended up in a different time period…. I hadn’t realized that the point of writing this article would turn out to be that it was a great way to get recommendations for more things to watch.

  • Tanuki Thompson

    Great Tampopo reference. I can’t recommend that movie enough. It’s definitely unique.

  • Maye

    Interesting post! Lunch Queen is great, hope you enjoy it!
    Other food related dramas are: Hana no zubora meshi, but it’s more about the food you make in a pinch (when you realize you don’t have all the ingredients to make a proper meal at home), and therefore, sloppy (but tasty) meals.
    Also the current Asadora, Gochisousan it’s really good! despite the lenght, I hope you’ll find it interesting.

  • linda lombardi

    A drama about how to make sloppy meals with what you have at home sounds actually useful.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    I find cooking boring, laborious, and something I’d rather never do… so watching a drama about it would not interest me in the least.

    Then again American TV is very bland and homogeneous, with everything seemingly some sort of crime drama, so hey, maybe the appeal of a food drama would just be the fact that it’s different.

  • linda lombardi

    Often the shots of people actually cooking go on so long in these shows that even I find them boring. What’s much more interesting to me is the important roles that food plays in the plots.

  • Mita Putri

    “Nobunaga no Chef” is also an interesting gourmet-themed drama during the Sengoku period and obviously with Nobunaga himself. The history is somewhat true up to a certain degree, but the humor is great. I would recommend watching this drama. :)

  • Ashley Tieman

    How about Nobunaga no Chefu, where a modern French chef is time traveled back to the Warring States period and Nobunaga literally uses his cooking to fight battles? That’s my favorite in this awesome genre.

  • ♥パンダ

    ohh, I watched that one. Nishikido Ryo ^^.. <3 Purin

  • linda lombardi

    OMG, are you making that up? Don’t tease me!

  • DAVIDPD

    The way Japanese producers film food is too real for me, it’s like the lighting is too harsh. Proper food porn needs to be shot on a slower frame rate and not super bright lighting. // Looks how young Ken Wantanabe is in that picture!!!

  • Neo

    I always find hilarious when they picture the person eating the food again after a very long time. They are always super exagerated, I love it.
    But it is false. If someone has been wanting some food for such a long time, they probably have imagined it a lot. Imagination is always better than the real thing (unless it is experiencing something new, something unexpected or you have a VERY crappy imagination). That is the reason why things were always best the first time. Because for the second one your expectations are way to high.

  • Hinakiko
  • Ashley Tieman

    http://www.gooddrama.net/japanese-drama/nobunaga-no-chef

    It’s real! And it’s based on a manga.

  • Anne

    I’d recommend Shota no Sushi—it’s a ’90s drama about a young man who apprentices at a famous sushi restaurant so that he can become the best sushi chef and save his dad’s sushi shop from closing. It’s got all that fabulous melodrama (complete with jealous senpai) but I do have to warn you—you will have a mad craving for good sushi while watching this show. ;)

  • linda lombardi

    Just like I said in the article – there are so many dramas about food and cooks that they don’t all come up when you search “food” on that site.That’s one of them. It’s like they don’t even tag them all with the “food” genre because they’re afraid if they did, there would be so many it would be ridiculous.

  • Ashley Tieman

    This one is worth checking out because it’s food plus Japanese history…and some hot Japanese dudes!

  • http://crazy-pumkin.livejournal.com/ Ashe

    There is an interesting drama : Kokosei Restaurant
    http://www.gooddrama.net/japanese-drama/kokosei-restaurant

    It’s about students in High School which opens up a restaurant (based on a true story) and how a chef makes them wake up their ideas that it’s not just role-play (cause it’s a cooking club and people just joins cause it sounds fun) and teaches them how to cook properly. It’s not bad, really.

  • gnobrega

    I’m obsessed with Kodoku No Gurume, also based on a manga. The plot shows a businessman walking around for meetings and stopping for a meal in different locations around Tokyo. At the end of each episode they show the real chefs and address to the shop used in the drama. Good to take notes if you’re travelling to Tokyo.

  • Zoë Miljanović

    Bambino, Shitsuren Chocolatier! Why is it always MatsuJun??
    I recommend Kuitan, a drama where the detective is a total foodie and cases seem to always involve food. It’s really fun to watch and it even got a second season!

  • ossangirl

    I loved Iron Chef back in the day, but my favourite was and still is Dotchi no Ryōri Shō! The premise is simple: a group of panelists have to decide between 2 dishes. The twist is… only those who selected a dish with the majority vote gets to eat it. Select wrong and the contestants will have to watch with a mixture of envy and hatred as the winning panellists happily gobbles up the winning dishes.

    What makes it super crazy is that these dishes are often everyday fare like korokke, except for the addition of special ingredients like salt from some remote Japanese island, a tiny amount of rare beans that can be harvested once every few years, or lingonberries flown direct from Sweden. The harder the circumstances in getting the special ingredient, the better the story and the anticipation of the final plating of the dishes.

    And the cooking of the dish is done in the studio by chefs, and the camera lovingly linger on shots of juices dripping down a piece of wagyu being grilled and cast a mocking eye on the panellists who can do nothing but drool. As it was mandatory family viewing on Saturday nights, we’d always complain about how cruel the show was but we never stopped watching ^^

  • ossangirl

    I also noticed that 3 of the dramas you highlighted have one thing in common: a reluctance towards change (or as some would call it “tradition”). Reading the idea that an inn could go out of business because an ingredient is no longer available thus affecting their foods’ taste… from an American’s point of view, it’s just seems negative!

    We’re all about the new and improved things, and looking at changes optimistically. Imagine if this was a plot point to a drama involving a historic B&B. So the flavour may change, but the B&B may get more customers because more people enjoy the new taste. That’s probably how that story arc would end, with the B&B becoming well-known for an updated, modern take on classics.

    But for the Japanese, tradition is heavy burden (and great conflict in drama). I can imagine how difficult it is for someone in a traditional food business to say ‘Let’s try it another way’ when the response will be ‘It’s how we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, you think you can do better?’

  • linda lombardi

    This also sounds very useful!

  • http://www.federaleagent86.blogspot.com/ Federale

    Wasn’t there another show with a main character named Ando Natsu? Something from the early 2000s?

  • linda lombardi

    That is a really good and interesting point.

  • linda lombardi

    Oh yeah, that show is awesome. There’s a restaurant I go to that always has it playing on its TV. I think it has like years of recordings of it. In one I saw recently, the special ingredient was a small-batch okonomiyaki sauce, and they went to the company to see how it was made. One time they went to visit special chickens for their eggs. It’s totally great.

  • Sarah

    I just watched this on Hulu a couple of months ago! I loved how it ended each episode by revisiting the focus food with a little tip on its preparation. Good introduction to Japanese comfort food too. I’ve picked up the first manga recently and look forward to reading it.

  • linda lombardi

    Oh, this one is too much – even the episode titles are the titles of the dishes she cooks.

  • linda lombardi

    I just watched the first episode and that ending bit is wonderful. It’s like the perfect combination of food drama and cooking show.

  • Janis Tsai

    Love! Very well-written article explaining Japan’s relationship between food and drama. I learned so much and I am really excited about Wagashi now!

  • yoru.morino

    Does the drama and anime “Bartender” counts for this? Hahaha I actually
    related it to many of the things said about these food dramas.
    I liked “Bartender” that much, I even bought the tools and a book to prepare drinks haha