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Culinary capers in beguiling Kyoto

Food is rarely ever just about taste. When you ate it, with whom, and under what circumstances, all have a significant role to play. The memories attached to certain meals can either make or break the dish for you.

This is what Hisashi Kashiwai puts into perspective in The Kamogawa Food Detectives. Translated by Jesse Kirkwood, the book is a delightful journey through the vibrant world of Japanese cuisine. Set against the backdrop of the tranquil city of Kyoto, the novel immerses readers in a delectable exploration of Japanese gastronomy. Fromnabeyakiudon (dashi soup broth with udon noodles, fish cake, and vegetables) toNikujaga(meat and potato stew) — you get a glimpse into the rich traditions, diverse flavours, and the captivating food culture of Japan.

One of the standout features of the book is its meticulous attention to detail when describing both popular and lesser-known foods from across the East Asian country. The food in question here is prepared by Nagare and Koishi, a father and daughter duo, running a quaint and rustic eatery tucked away on Shomen-Dori Street. The restaurant has no signboard as Nagare believes whoever is destined to be at the diner will find their way there. However, what has people hunting down the restaurant is not the delicious food, but instead, the Kamogawa Detective Agency, which helps customers locate dishes they have long forgotten. Over six chapters, six customers approach the detective agency with their specific dish requests. From a granddaughter trying to recreate a core memory with her ailing grandfather to a young entrepreneur trying to recall the taste of his late mother’s cooking, the 200-pager makes for a wholesome read.

The book reminds you that, while food is about taste, there is so much more that makes it your favourite or least favourite dish. It is an entire experience, which can most definitely help you travel back in time. That is what Nagare and his daughter help their customers do. They not only recreate the smells and flavours but also the experiences which are lodged deep in the corners of the brain.

Each chapter follows a set format. A customer finds their way to the diner, is taken aback by its modest ambience, is wary of the eatery, immediately falls in love with Nagare’s cooking and then eventually reveals what they wish to taste again and shares various clues. After about two weeks, the client returns to taste what was recreated.

Amidst all this, you get to drool over elaborate Japanese meals featuring okara croquettes, miso soup, smoked mackerel, and various kinds of tempura among other delicacies. However, no amount of drool-worthy descriptions of food make up for the repetitive style of writing that pervades the narrative. Hisashi tends to overemphasise certain aspects of the story, using similar phrases and descriptions ad nauseam. This becomes a hindrance to the overall reading experience, as it creates a sense of monotony and predictability. The plot also falls victim to a certain curtness that leaves some elements underexplored. In the end, you leave with a sense of cravings unfulfilled.  

But the book will surely make you wonder, if you were to revisit a dish from your past, what would it be? I would ask Nagare to recreate Koshary, a popular Egyptian street food I have a fond memory associated with but haven’t been able to recreate despite multiple tries. What would you ask for?

Jimbocho is a new monthly column where we sift through popular Japanese books. Often called the ‘town of books’, Jimbocho is a neighbourhood in Tokyo that celebrates Japan’s rich literary heritage. Send your feedback on X @asra_mavad

(Published 02 December 2023, 17:10 IST)

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