The Kamogawa Food Detectives: By Hisashi Kashiwai
Translated from Japanese by Jesse Kirkwood
Published by Pan Macmillan
Japanese detective stories have been gradually infiltrating the consciousness of Indian readers and creating their own waves of effect. The Kamogawa Food Detectives however, puts a different spin on detection. This is not a book about bodies and violence though it is definitely about putting the clues together – it is a book about finding lost food.
Memories are often based on food experiences – we link experiences very often to our favourite dishes. A mother’s cooking, the meal shared on a first date, all these linger in the memory. Looking back in time people half remember these dishes and want to recreate them so they can relive their memories but most of the time they cannot do it exactly.
Hisashi Kashiwai’s book settles itself in an obscure diner hidden in a side lane in Kyoto. Very few people know about it – only the ones who stumble across an advertisement in the Gourmet Monthly with a mysterious one line descriptor come looking for it and those are the clientele Nagare and his daughter Koishi welcome. Selective is putting it mildly – despite the artistry and flavour of Nagare’s cooking and the exquisite Japanese ware he serves it in, he prefers his customers to be few and far in between – he does not even have a signboard outside the Diner. His restaurant is in many senses a memorial to his late wife who loved cooking which is why he and his daughter recreate recipes with love and labour.
Each of the stories is about a quest for a forgotten or lost flavour and follows a set format. A man or a young woman or an elderly woman finds his or her way to the diner, is taken aback by its unpretentious ambience won over by the food and then gradually reveals what he or she wishes to taste again. Two weeks are usually requested, after which the client returns to taste what was recreated. Nagare Komogawa is the chef, a retired policeman, and his daughter is the one who takes down the details in her notebook and briefs her father.
Clues may include colour, irrelevant word associations with noodles like ‘mountain’ and the flimsiest of hints as to what the lost dish might have been. Very often the clients tasted it when they were children, sometimes half a century ago or it was cooked by a loved one who succumbed to Alzheimer’s or coincided with an earthshaking moment in the person’s life. As important as the ingredients are the way in which the dish was eaten, where it was eaten, and the season.
Seasonality in food we all know is important – there are seasonal vegetables and fruits which bring their own distinction to the table. But equally important is the memory of when and how exactly the dish was tasted. The seasons of Kyoto form a subtle backdrop to the stories, the rain, women’s umbrellas, the unfurling cherry blossoms or the evening snow which to Nagare evoke memories of his wife and their time together.
Nagare branches out from Kyoto to various other districts as he hunts for insights into what made a certain dish just so for his client. Food is after all not restricted to what is just on the plate. The result of this travelling to the provinces of Japan and going back in time by questioning witnesses – what one might refer to as the detective procedure one expects in the usual mysteries – helps him to piece together the various clues into a final dish, finally served in the Diner as it was most probably originally served to the person who ate it. Clients, as they eat, are told the exact process by which Nagare was able to recreate the dish – mackerel sushi or nikujaga or any of the others that he is called upon to craft.
Tasting that forgotten dish helps Nagare’s clients come to terms with things that sometimes were only half understood or clarify misunderstandings. There is something Proustian about it, even though the stories are quintessentially Japanese in their insistence on perfection and their acceptance of the imperfections in life which is, after all, elusive. Memory is understandably imperfect.
A lot of care goes into the descriptions – every time a client comes to the diner, he or she is served something whether it is a set meal or soup with mizo broth and fish ending in the mizugashi or fruit dish which is incorrectly referred to as dessert by the Westernised. Foodies will lick their lips over the descriptions and the plating which sums up the essence of Japanese wabi sabi. Each story has its own set of food and plating though those unfamiliar with Japanese flat ware and ceramics may have to do a little research on the subject. To add to the comfort is an indulgent cat named Drowsy who winds in and out of people’s legs and presumably doesn’t raid the kitchen out of fear for Nagare.
In all, the book is an enjoyable read, especially for lovers of food and Japanese culture, though the structure of the stories does call for slight variations.