If I’m at home and working on my laptop, I’ll often leave the TV on, alternating between the Asian Food Channel and Food Network. That way, in between writing chores I might pick up a food idea or two.
Recently there was nothing interesting on either channel, so I looked at Netflix and spotted something called The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House.
I eagerly started the first episode but quickly discovered a story revolving around two 16-year-olds bound for Kyoto, where they wanted to train as geishas. Not a cooking show at all!
It was a good thing I saw some food stills or I would have discontinued watching and missed out on one of the loveliest TV series ever.
The friendship between Kiyo and Sumire is touching and sweet, even as one evolves into an accomplished young geisha and the other becomes the makanai, or home cook of the maiko house where young geishas are trained. There is a family where everyone is addressed as “sister” or “mother” even if they are not related.
From the get go, when Kiyo prepares her first meal of an egg-y oyakodon, I wanted to cook everything in this show, which has as its essential ingredients a simple plot, home cooking, a dreamy soundtrack and lashings of bittersweet nostalgia, unrequited longings and the bonds of pure friendship.
Since then I have been obsessed two ways: I want to recreate all the dishes, and I am dreaming of being able to compose something as simple and as moving as the soundtrack cuts Minari, Breakfast at Yakata and the ending theme—all counterpoints (two melodies with the same basic notes layered on top of each other.)
So in that lull before full summer classes start, here I am researching, deconstructing, practicing the character Kiyo’s take on her grandmother’s recipes, dishes that make other characters swoon, reminisce or cry.
I already cook and teach most things of these, but the series has taught me refinement and finesse.
It’s a good thing other fans of the show are as bent on recreating the iconic recipes such as the braised eggplant that moved Sumire’s father to tears.
From a Japanese fan, I got this: halve a fat eggplant and cut into this slices. Fry in oil till lightly browned, drain off excess oil and add equal amounts of Kikkoman, mirin, and sugar. Add a tablespoon of pounded, toasted sesame seeds. Delicious!
And my daughter says it tastes just like the starter they serve you at Astoria’s Minami Saki.
Then there’s that haunting soundtrack, with three of the songs playing repeatedly in my mind. The music is much harder to chase because I left off piano at age 12, choosing instead to grow my nails.
Sigh. The incredible stupidity of youth.
So the trip down music lane means having to relearn to read notes, recording the tunes that come unbidden to my head. To make matters more challenging, the good Lord gave me melodies but not the voice to articulate them!
So to this end, I have taken guitar lessons, singing lessons (cringe!) and songwriting lessons. My husband bought me a guitar when it was clear there was no space for a piano in our house. He likes my songs, and thinks I sound like Jennifer Lawrence struggling to sing in The Hunger Games. The emphasis is on struggling.
But the guitar lessons with Itchyworms’ Chino Singson and songwriting classes with our high school heartthrob Jim Paredes were as much fun as they were challenging.
I could never even imagine having anything to do with music, though childhood trips to the beach and Baguio had a soundtrack of Burt Bacharach, the Association and other ’60s and ’70s staples. But music puts me very much outside my comfort zone.
So what am I to do? I wake up hearing complete songs in my head and struggle to communicate these melodies to other people.
But after watching The Makanai, my guitar is right next to me and all I need to get started is for everyone to be out of the house!