So stick with me. This one get weird. There’s this Japanese comic out there about a high school girl who has a crush on her teacher…
Wait! Come back! Let me try again.
One of my favorite genres of fiction is the “lonely single guy has to take care of a charming young girl” genre. Yes, there are enough of these stories (particularly in manga/anime) that I feel pretty secure in calling it a genre.
Another thing I really like? Cooking.
So imagine that there’s a comic book that combines the carnal pleasure of eating with the emotional manipulation of watching a reclusive, broken young man learning how to love again thanks to the precocious antics of his young ward. That’s Sweetness and Lightningin a nutshell. And it’s really wonderful.
Sweetness and Lightning is the story of Kohei Inazuka, a young schoolteacher still reeling from the loss of hi wife just a short time ago. He now finds himself raising his young daughter, Tsumugi, all by himself. And neither of them, it seems, have really dealt with their grief from losing a loved one. However, a chance encounter with a student from Kohei’s class leads to the two of them learning to reconnect, as well as really deal with life’s myriad challenges, by making some of the dishes their wife and mother had made for them before she dies.
…Okay, yes, there is this ongoing subplot about Kotori Iida, the teenager who maybe has a crush on Kohei? It’s a bit awkward, and it totally smacks of unhealthy wish-fulfillment fantasy. But she’s not simply some manic dream waifu. She’s a pretty well-realized character in her own right, who uses her cooking sessions with Kohei to feel closer to her own mother, an accomplished chef who taught Kotori how to cook before more or less disappearing completely from her life.
The central theme of Sweetness and Lightning is on family, and how important it is to break bread with those we love. Good food and good company don’t simply have to be hedonistic rooms or momentary distractions. The bonds we forge over a bowl of soup or a plate of homemade donuts can actually make us more emotionally resilient after we leave the dining room. It reminds me of something I swear I heard Alton Brown say in a podcast or something once about how the most important bit of kitchen hardware for a young family to buy is a kitchen table… but I couldn’t actually find that quote. So you get this one instead:
“You know we fixate on the food so much itself: “Oh, the ultimate brownie or the ultimate this or that” — well, let me tell you something: It’s all poop in about 12 hours, okay? The real power that food has is its ability to connect human beings to each other — that’s the stuff right there and, to me, everything else is secondary to that.”
Of course, we still want our food to taste good. One of the neat tricks Sweetness and Lightning pulls is that it ends each chapter with the recipe for whatever dish Kohei attempted during that part of the story. And so, it was with a great deal of excitement and only a little trepidation that I decided to attempt one of the recipes from this Japanese comic book.
I’m basically trying to be the Binging with Babish of weaboos, I guess.
So I made a few judgment calls. I chose to replace the boullion with vegetable stock in an attempt to control the sodium. I replaced the Japanese eggplants with a single conventional American (?) eggplant, although I suspect two eggplants might have been a better choice. Lastly, I replaced the brown rice in the picture below with burned rice that I threw away, because I’ve been cooking for how long and I STILL can’t cook rice without burning it?!
Frankly, the veggies themselves were so colorful and tasty-looking that I could have probably just added some salt and pepper and walk away with a pretty satisfying meal:
But I persevered. I added everything to the pot that the recipe called for. The recipe took a few curious turns. The addition of grated apple reminded me of a pie filling recipe I made with my mom once, where the drained flesh of an apple was added to a berry mixture as a sort of naturally-occurring pectin meant to help the filling set up. I suspected that the apple here served a similar purpose, but I didn’t notice the sauce getting especially thick.
Meanwhile, the raisins actually somewhat reconstituted in the liquid. Nearly whole grapes seemed like a curious addition to a savory dish like this, but they were sweet and delightful and absolutely worthy of inclusion. I wound up saving the raisins for last, because they were just so good.
So, yeah, this recipe turned out really well. One of the best things I’ve made in recent memory. Who knew one could get such good culinary advice from the back of a Japanese comic book?
…REALLY could have used some rice, though.