Father's Day is June 16

I’ve been thinking a lot about food and nostalgia. I always think about food, but lately I’ve been interested in the way people discuss and remember food -- things we eat, things we used to eat, and the memories associated with various kinds of food. Much has been written on the subject of food and nostalgia, of course, but it seems appropriate to continue musing on the subject.

Perhaps it is part of personal writing, which invariably involves mulling a lot over events that have already happened. Perhaps it is also that this age (note this alarming propensity for making sweeping statements about the kind of world we live in), like previous ages, seems to be suffused with nostalgia -- those pesky, rose-tinted feelings about "How things were better back then," or "Oh I used to eat this when I was A kid," and "When I was six, we didn’t have smartphones like kids these days..."

This is also an era, I think, in which young people like myself are far too aware and cynical about age and aging. But I digress.

In any case, due to my final year dissertation -- eep! -- I’ve been consuming various texts on food and nostalgia. One of the most glorious payoffs of several years of intense language study is finally being able to read, without too much effort, some writings in their original Japanese form. As you may have guessed, I also get to read food writing in Japanese. (No, it’s not all fun work.)

One of the books I’m currently savouring is a collection of short food essays by Sawako Agawa. She apparently began her career as a reporter and news reader, then went on to write novels and win awards for her writing. Not that I knew any of this until five minutes ago -- I purchased this particular essay collection on the strength of the title alone: Nokoru wa shokuyoku, (What’s Left is Hunger*). It’s not especially deep or emotional, but it is rather delightful, the kind of book you can dip into and return to as and when you like. There are humorous vignettes about finding a traditional tofu shop hidden somewhere in Shibuya; reminiscing about her family’s curry rice eating habits; being scolded for eating too much butter; and humorous observations on people who know exactly what to order when they’re at restaurants.

Agawa has a long string of books to her name, and her writing is amusing and charming. It’s a shame that none of them, particularly her musings on food, seem to have been translated into English. This is my attempt at remedying that.

The following essay, Sweet Nostalgia describes her thoughts about certain foods and the nostalgia surrounding them, after the scent of sweet potatoes in Tokyo Station calls forth a host of memories. A particularly interesting observation she made (which was unfortunately not explored in greater depth) was on the way people use ‘nostalgic’ as a means of praising something. This is definitely something that crops up time and time again in Japanese advertisements, and in conversations I’ve had with friends in Japan about food and other intangible experiences. So many people my own age -- and I’m barely into my twenties -- wax lyrical about dishes that taste like ‘home cooking’ or have ‘nostalgic flavours,’ and more often than not have a fondness for dimly-lit, intimate, maybe even slightly dingy dining establishments. Some friends have even spoken of how what they were doing right now, right then, already felt nostalgic. (It is at this point that I should confess that I am not immune to such tendencies).

In any case, I enjoyed the essay greatly, and as with several of her other pieces, wanted to share it with other food-lovers who don’t read Japanese. Agawa’s writing is elegant with the occasional, gentle burst of sarcasm and irony. But as a mere beginner to translation, and because my grasp of the finer nuances of Japanese writing might be a bit shaky, I can’t fully replicate the finer nuances of her writing in English, so the piece below has a rather directly translated flavour. This is, of course, no fault of Agawa’s, but mine.

*Shokuyoku’ means ‘appetite,’ but in this case I thought ‘hunger’ was a better translation for the title.

Sweet Nostalgia
By Sawako Agawa
Translated by Flory Leow

An intensely sweet fragrance wafting through the air in Tokyo Station beckoned me. I looked at my watch; it seemed like I still had time before my train departed. Before I knew it, I found myself being drawn irresistibly towards the source of that scent.

It was a fragrance brimming with warmth, the kind that made your jaw slacken ever-so-inelegantly as you opened your mouth to take a deep breath. I wonder why I was filled with such bliss when I came across this scent amidst the hustle and bustle of the station.

It was a long time ago, when I was in either middle or high school. When you took the stairs from the Hachiko exit to the second floor passage linking the JR and Inokashira ticket barriers in Shibuya Station, for some reason, there was a tea shop on the right-hand corner. They were roasting tea leaves at the front of the shop. It was such a wonderful fragrance…

I cannot recall being enticed by that aroma into buying some tea. But every time I caught a whiff of the smell of roasted tea leaves, all of my weariness from the crowded train journeys, my irritation at the throngs of commuters, the stress of being short on time – I would forget all of that in an instant, feeling as though my soul had been cleansed.

There was a time when, if you walked past that tea shop and wandered a little towards the west side of Shibuya Station, there used to be a corner stand selling Belgian waffles. The sweet scent of waffles was extraordinarily tempting. But since there was a permanent queue in front of it, and I was always short on time, I went without buying a single one.

This time, the source of the sweet fragrance in Tokyo Station was not waffles, but sweet potatoes. In the glass display case were several kinds of sweet potatoes. Among these, those that caught my eye were the plain and apple-flavoured ones. Which should I choose? How many should I buy? There were four of us going on a business trip together that day. After much dithering, I bought four plain ones and four apple-flavoured ones – eight sweet potatoes in all – and boarded my train.

“Ooh, sweet potatoes? Two each?”

No sooner had we sat down and opened the box, and everyone had expressed suitable amazement, and hemmed and hawed over whether we should finish eating it all, the sweet potatoes disappeared down our gullets in a twinkling.

“Ah, how nostalgic!”

“Yes, it really was delicious!”

I would concur with those sentiments. But then something occurred to me. Lately, people have taken to using words like ‘nostalgic’ and ‘traditional’ as high praise, particularly when talking about sweets. What, I wondered, was the reason behind that? Certainly, the sweet potato had a straightforward, uncomplicated flavour. And, its taste notwithstanding, the fact of the sweet potato as a bonbon in itself was nostalgic. But if you asked me to compare the flavour of this sweet potato to the ones of my childhood – whether it was the ones I bought from the sweet shop, or the ones we made and ate at home – I couldn’t have assured you that it tasted exactly like the ones I remembered, much less declare that those from way back then tasted better.

I feel that way about pudding, too. As of late, ‘a traditional flavour’ has become a terribly overused catchphrase.

“What’s the difference?” I asked a friend who knew quite a lot about sweets.

“There’s the the kind of pudding that’s so fragile that it looks like it’s going to break apart when you take it out of the mould, the super creamy kind that’s taken the world by storm for the time being.” They replied. “And then there’s the other kind of pudding, the firmer kind that you can unmould onto a plate, the type with lashings of burnt caramel sauce. Basically, the traditional pudding is making a comeback.”

Ah, I see. When you put it like that, I do like the more traditional style of pudding. Rather than the ridiculously silky and creamy sort, I prefer a pudding of the eggy variety, one with a slightly uneven surface that hints at having been steamed just a little too long.

Still, even with ‘traditional flavours’ there were sweets that tasted pretty terrible no matter how you think about it. Whether you call it a sweet or a dessert, you really do have to be amazed at the way almond jelly has evolved. Before, the almond jelly that you were served at the end of a meal in a Chinese restaurant was invariably diamond-shaped, firm and gelatinous, arriving at the table floating in sugar syrup and accompanied by the usual canned oranges, peaches and bright red cherries. While it was certainly a welcome and refreshing end to a rich meal, the almond jelly of yore pales in comparison to to the blancmange-like versions served these days. The speed at which almond jelly has evolved is very much like how mobile phones have changed.

Back then there were treats that always used to be sold in bakeries, but which you don’t see at all these days. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve loved rum babas since I was a child. When I received gifts of Western confectionery from clients, I would remove the lid from the white box, and would always choose the remarkably plain-looking rum baba nestled between the shortcake, eclairs and bavarois. It would have the barest smear of pastry cream on its crown, and a bright red maraschino cherry perched atop. Although it was just a modest liqueur-soaked brioche, I loved the way it tasted. In the moments I cut into it with a fork and liqueur seeped out of the baba in a little puddle, I would feel an indescribable joy.

Come to think of it, where has the rum baba gone to? Was it buried somewhere in the past while ever-more complicated desserts continued to appear? My sadness knows no words. Where did it go? Did I simply lose sight of it? I don’t need change. I don’t need it all jazzed up with fruits and other complicated flavours. Oh, how I long for that pure, simple taste. How I long for a rum baba, the way it used to be.

*This article was originally published on The Adventures of Furo-chan in October 2013.