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Why Cook When You Can Play These Three Great Food Games?

Cook Indian food, Japanese fare, and pizza on your phone 

Sarah’s Cooking Party

I love video games, and I love food, and I love video games about food. Which is why it breaks my heart that finding good video games featuring food, like Final Fantasy XV and its beautiful road trip cuisine or Gordon Ramsay Dash’s mix of addictive gameplay and celebrity, can be as tedious and frustrating as shucking and peeling fava beans. The app store seems like it’s got a cornucopia of cooking-based mobile games, but on closer examination, it’s mostly just a slimy stew of nearly identical restaurant management apps, all of them basically the same uninteresting gameplay with different coats of paint. Pasta Maker is the same as Ramen Master is the same as Burger Shop, and they’re all boring and shameless grabs at money via in-app purchases.

But the situation is not completely hopeless. In the morass are a few actually good mobile games, those that stand out as unique, or, at the very least, interesting twists on a familiar formula. Here are three food-based mobile games that are worth the download.

Hungry Hearts Diner

Hungry Hearts Diner: A Tale of Star-Crossed Souls (iOS/Android)

Not all games are out to test your reflexes and skills. Some, like Hungry Hearts Diner, are just there to make you feel relaxed and give you something pleasant to pass the time. This game follows the tale of a sweet little old grandma running a diner in Japan after her husband has fallen ill and is no longer able to operate it himself. The diner and its customers exist in an unspecified city in an unspecified year in the Showa period. It doesn’t take a great knowledge of Japanese culture or cuisine to enjoy the mood of Hungry Hearts Diner; everything is just a little slower, a little softer, a little more sepia-toned.

The actual game play of Hungry Hearts Diner is simple. Grandma cooks a dish from the menu, customers come in to the diner and order it, and with a tap, they’re served. Many games in the running-a-restaurant genre have a time component, but the customers in the Hungry Hearts Diner are happy to wait as long as it takes for the old woman running the place by herself to cook for and serve them. Grandma’s menu starts out small — just rice balls, more or less — but the more that she cooks, the more types of dishes open up. Hungry Hearts Diner involves a wide selection of traditional Japanese food, going beyond well-known fare such as ramen and miso soup to less-familiar dishes like nikujaga and tonjiru, making the game a way to learn a little more about Japanese cuisine.

There’s more to Hungry Hearts Diner than cooking and serving, though. The customers who come into the diner all have unique personalities and preferences, and serving them dishes they like opens up conversations. The storylines of the different characters are woven together — for example, a young policeman mourns his wife while his father-in-law resents him as the two dine side by side. Everyone has a story, and more of it opens up when they’re fed the food that they crave. The stories are all a little melodramatic and heartstring-tugging, culminating in learning each character’s truest wish for happiness.

There’s actually an end to Hungry Hearts Diner, which is unusual for a mobile game: It comes to a close when every customer has been satisfied and the story has ended. There’s very little enticement to make in-app purchases, either. Hungry Hearts Diner just seems satisfied to tell its small stories and provide a gentle, relaxing experience without asking for more.

Sara’s Cooking Party

Sara’s Cooking Party (iOS/Android)

Who is Sara? I don’t know! But she’s all about throwing dinner parties, and she wants you to throw them too. The main gameplay of Sara’s Cooking Party is similar to the venerable Cooking Mama series of cooking preparation simulation games. Making a pizza, for example, involves going through mini-games that represent every step of the recipe process, like chopping garlic with taps, slicing tomatoes and mozzarella with well-timed finger swipes, and rolling out dough with presses across the screen. Some of the steps are a little simpler than they could be — cooking a sofrito, for instance, involves just turning on the stove instead of any actual tap-and-swipe sauteing, but there are enough meatier mini-games to balance out the uncomplicated ones and still create a feeling of satisfaction.

One thing that sets Sara’s Cooking Party apart from other similar cooking-simulation games is the quality of its graphics and sound. The kitchen and ingredients are attractively 3D-modeled in bright colors, making for appealing representations of food. The uncanny valley for food definitely exists in video games, with some graphics looking too gloopy, too saucy, too oily, just too real, but Sara’s Cooking Party avoids it with its pretty polygons. The sound in Sara’s Cooking Party is also intensely satisfying. I’d wager that most mobile games are played with the sound effects off, but here, every bing and tinkle and beep makes you feel like a success. Perfectly slicing an onion sounds as good as finding a secret in The Legend of Zelda, and that’s the kind of easy zap of dopamine that keeps me playing a mobile game.

Another interesting feature of Sara’s Cooking Party comes from the event referenced in the title. Once per real-world hour (or more often, if you spend premium in-game currency), you can throw a party for your attractive little cartoon friends, each of whom has specific culinary desires that must be met. You woo them not just with your recipes, but also with the attractiveness of your tablescape. I’m a sucker for any game that lets you decorate, and I happily cooked the same porchetta over and over again to get the coins to outfit my dinner-party table with fancier place settings, tablecloths, and glassware. Throwing more parties unlocks more decorations for your kitchen, in addition to unlocking more recipes, which lets you throw better parties, which unlock more decorations and more recipes... so on and so forth until you’ve run your phone’s battery down.

All of Sara’s Cooking Party’s celebrations are in the service of your in-game food blog. The more you cook, the better your dinner parties, the more followers your blog has, and the more sweet, sweet coins you get to keep you in the cooking loop. Hungry Hearts Diner is happy to let you finish playing, but Sara’s Cooking Party is there to hook you in.

Cooking Game: Masala Express

Cooking Game: Masala Express (iOS/Android)

Masala Express begins with the tale of Priya, a young woman who grew up with a love of cooking. Tragically, her parents died in an accident, leaving Priya heartbroken — until she decided to honor them by opening up a restaurant and taking their shared love of cooking to the people. Masala Express is essentially exactly like Gordon Ramsay Dash (or any of the other variations of the Diner Dash formula), but entirely with Indian food.

Customers sit down in Priya’s restaurant and make their orders, and it takes just a few taps to get Priya cooking. Tap on the paneer and the chef will pick it up. Another tap will put the ingredients on the tandoor, one more will lift them up when they’re done cooking, and a final tap delivers the dish to the waiting customer. More ingredients and combinations of dishes are added in higher levels of the game, and more customers come ordering, until Priya is juggling tandoori chicken and kadai paneer and lassi all at once. Masala Express is a game that requires quick reflexes and attention to detail, so you don’t end up cooking fish curry when your customer ordered paneer tikka.

I appreciated that Masala Express was made in India and intended for an Indian audience. My knowledge of Indian food doesn’t go much further than the saag paneer served at the place a few blocks down from me, but I felt like Masala Express was, in its simplified video-game way, teaching me about Indian cuisine. Priya’s restaurant begins by focusing on Northern Indian recipes, but progressing in the game unlocks southern and coastal dishes as well. And also? The background music completely bangs. Masala Express is a game that kept my brain alert, and made my stomach growl, too.

Sara’s Cooking Party is best played while waiting for your own oven to preheat, and Hungry Hearts Diner is perfect to wind down just before bed, while Masala Express is the kind of game that makes a commute fly by. There are more quality food-based games to be found out there, like Battle Chef Brigade, but these three are a solid start that will keep you sated.

Whitney Reynolds is a writer and podcaster living in Brooklyn, New York.
Editor: Greg Morabito

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