I’m an easy sell when it comes to Japanese television shows about food, from Midnight Diner to Samurai Gourmet (as my writing history can attest), so it’s probably not surprising that Netflix was quick to deliver me The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House. The show is a bit of a slow roll, but it’s easy to get transfixed by its heartwarming story about the young women training to be geisha (“geiko” in the Kyoto dialect), and the would-be trainee Kiyo (Nana Mori), who finds her true calling as the makanai, chief cook for the household.
Kiyo’s friendship with Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi), her childhood companion whose dream to become a maiko (or geiko in training) inspired their apprenticeship, is at the heart of the show, a quietly feminist story where each character forges a different path to achieve their dreams. Kiyo’s mind is never far away from the next meal she’s planning: She’s distracted in a stern talk about her future because her teacher’s udon is getting cold, and nothing lights up her face more than seeing the comfort that her cooking brings her housemates. It’s a charming quality that’s instantly relatable to the food-fixated among us, and Kiyo’s decision to dedicate herself to cooking is celebrated as an embrace of her true passion, a way for her to find agency and share her talents with her newfound sisters.
Given the show’s focus, it’s unsurprising that food becomes a linking thread — and a source for appealing visuals and for generating near-instant cravings. The show’s lovely opening credits (I’m still thinking about the perfect onigiri Kiyo shapes by hand, set to soft music) always end with a different food that will be a plot point in the episode, whether it be oyakodon or cream stew; my husband and I found ourselves making bets trying to guess which homestyle Japanese dish would dominate the next vignette.
Specific dishes frequently lead to emotional moments in The Makanai. Nabekko dumplings in red bean soup provide a full-circle moment for the characters: First prepared by Kiyo’s grandmother to send her and Sumire off on their journey, Kiyo prepares them again to wish another student well when she decides life as a maiko isn’t for her. Tiny Japanese sandos become a source of inspiration for Sumire; they represent her full transformation to a maiko, since the women eat the delicate sandwiches in one bite to avoid mussing their appearance, and she and Kiyo share the dish on her debut night. Kiyo also prepares the warming fermented rice drink Amazake for Sumire when she struggles to sleep on her stiff, performance-ready hairstyle.
Within the short time I spent binging the nine-episode series, I found myself compelled to cook everything from a full Japanese breakfast (including rolled omelet) to celebratory New Year’s soba noodles. I started hunting around for the proper ingredients to make tonjiru (which has been in my brain since the opening credits of Midnight Diner, though konjac has been trickier to find around Northern Virginia than I expected; apparently it’s a little notorious as a choking hazard), after a hilarious episode where the women perform as zombies for a theatrical celebration. I was instantly inspired to make Kyoto-style udon after a quest-like episode in which Kiyo goes on a search for ingredients to make an authentic version of the local dish (my use of instant dashi would probably make the characters raise a derisive eyebrow, even if I did have to go on a bit of a journey myself for kitsune-style fried tofu).
I don’t doubt that other viewers of the series will be similarly inspired; luckily, superstar Japanese recipe blogger Just One Cookbook has been smart enough to assemble a full collection of recipes devoted to dishes featured in the show. Time to track down that konjac, even if it means buying an unnecessary six-pack online…