[Update] As of March 2014, Kinou Nani Tabeta?, re-titled What Did You Eat Yesterday? is now being released in English by Vertical! Volume 1 is available now (links to Amazon) . I am re-featuring this review that I wrote in December 2010 to commemorate this happy news. ^^
While I was in Japan this time around, by sheer chance I came across the first volume of a manga series called Kinou Nani Tabeta? (What did you eat yesterday?)  by Fumi Yoshinaga. As soon as it was finished, I picked up the 3 other volumes available as fast as I could. (The story is still being serialized in Morning magazine, and the episodes are collected into volumes later.) Kinou Nani Tabeta? is about a 40-something gay couple: Shiro, a lawyer, and Kenji, a hairdresser. The stories mostly revolve around their domestic life, and each episode features Shiro, or occasionally someone else, planning out dinner and making it, with the recipes to go along. While I was initially drawn to this manga because of the food - the recipes are actually really good, mostly simple, practical Japanese home cooking - I also fell in love with the story itself. It’s one of the nicest depictions of an ordinary middle-aged couple who happen to be gay that I’ve seen anywhere.
The reasons why Shiro, a hardheaded (though hiding a soft heart within) lawyer by day, comes home and cooks their meals every night are threefold. First, he really enjoys cooking - he find it involving and creative, as well as relaxing. Second, Kenji always enjoys his cooking with abandon, telling him how oishii (great tasting) his food is while gobbling it up enthusiastically. Kenji is the type of person who can express his emotions openly and without guile, and Shiro really treasures that in him. But there’s a third, more practical reason. Since they are gay, Shiro knows that there will be no children or grandchildren to take care of them in their old age, so they have to provide for themselves. So he limits their food budget to 25,000 yen per month, approximately 300 US dollars, and saves as much as he can for an uncertain future.
Kenji is openly gay, since his line of work is more permissive, but Shiro is still stuck firmly in the closet at his workplace. (His parents know, and are in a state of semi-denial, though they’ve come to slowly accept the idea that they’ll never have grandchildren, the one thing that really hurts them knowing their only son is gay.) He hasn’t told any of his co-workers, let alone his clients. Coming home to cook for himself and Kenji is his way of unwinding and being himself too.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of BL/yaoi type manga (read on for a definition). Most of the ones I’ve seen just make me feel silly reading them, mainly because they seem so otherworldly and unrealistic. But Kinou Nani Tabata? is quite different. It’s really a very well written domestic story and a well-rounded portrayal of a couple who are essentially married, though they can’t be legally married under Japanese law. Being gay in Japan is not an easy thing at all, especially if one works in a conservative field like the law, or in any corporation. This manga addresses those issues in a gentle way too. One of the subtle yet more chilling scenes is when Shiro is asked for some legal advice an older friend, who is also gay and has been in a relationship for years. He wants to make a will leaving his business to his life partner, and says casually with a smile on his face that he cannot stand the thought of a single yen of his hard earned money going to his parents. The bitterness behind that smile is palpable, even in a manga.
Being the budget-watcher that he is, Shiro loves to get free gifts of food. (When someone gives you a portion of a big gift they’ve received, it’s called osusowake. Since gift-giving is still big in Japan, there’s a lot of osusowake going on, especially at this time of year.) In one episode his boss gets a big shipment of apples from a client in Aomori prefecture, which is renowned as an apple growing area, and gives Shiro a big sackful as osusowake. He turns most of the apples into these stewed apples with caramel sauce, and brings a jar for his boss to thank her. This recipe is adapted from the one in the manga. It’s so simple to make, and yields a potful of softly cooked apples saturated with caramel flavor that are perfect on toast, pancakes, yogurt, and many other things.
(adapted from Kinou Nani Tabeta?)
Makes about 4-5 cups of stewed apple. Use eating apples, not tart cooking apples, for this dish, since not much sugar in proportion to the apples is used. I’ve tried various apple varieties, and so far have liked Gala, Fuji and Gravenstein the best. If you plan to use unpeeled apples, select a rosy-skinned one for the best color.
Wash the apples (peel them if you prefer), cut into half and core them, then cut into wedges or slices. Do this as you cook the caramel, if you’re brave. Otherwise deal with the apples in advance so that you can pay full attention to the caramel.
Put the sugar in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over high heat. Heat the pan until the sugar starts to melt. Stir if you see clumps. The sugar will start to caramelize quickly at some point. If it looks like it’s going to turn black, take the pan off the heat for a while to cool it down. Continue melting the sugar until a thick caramel is formed.
Tip all the sliced apples into the pan at once - be careful, the pot might spit at you when the moisture of the apples hits the caramel, and spitting caramel is very painful. Stir to combine the apple and caramel as well as you can - the caramel will stick to the bottom of the pan and your stirring spatula quite a lot, but don’t worry about it. If your spatula gets too caramel-clogged, scrape it off gently with the back of a knife and plop the caramel lump back into the pot. It will melt as the apple cooks down and exudes more moisture.
Lower the heat to low, just high enough so that the pan is barely simmering. Put a lid on, and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the apple slices are permeated with caramel color, as in the photo above. At this point add the optional butter and stir it in, though it’s fine to leave it out if you wish.
Let cool thoroughly before packing into jars or plastic containers. Since this doesn’t have the large amount of sugar that jams or preserves do, it needs to be stored in the refrigerator, where it will keep for a couple of weeks, or the freezer, where it should keep for a month or more.
Eat hot or cold. It’s really nice on pancakes, with or without butter, as well as on oatmeal, yogurt, ice cream, or on its own. In the manga they lightly toast some bread, pile the apple on top with a pat of butter, and toast it again in a toaster oven.
Fumi Yoshinaga is considered to be one of the most important shojo manga authors to emerge in the last couple of decades. Many of her books have been translated to English , so I hope Kinou Nani Tabeta? will be too.
A warning for the those with delicate sensibilities: Fumi Yoshinaga does mostly specialize in yaoi/BL manga, and if it has to be classified, Kinou Nani Tabeta? would fall under the BL umbrella. If you’re unfamiliar with manga, BL, yaoi and sho-nen ai are manga genres written for a female (mostly heterosexual) audience, usually (though not always) by female authors, with gay love as the central theme. It may sound very strange to you, but it’s a long established niche in manga. While some manga in this genre are sexually explicit to varying degrees, Kinou Nani Tabeta? is definitely not, so you can pick it up and enjoy it without worrying about your moral fibre being corrupted in any way. (Unless you think homosexuality in any format, even in a nice domestic drama with lots of yummy recipes, is somehow offensive.)