Depicted above is Tonjiru, a Japanese miso-based soup with pork and vegetables. Simple but hearty and delicious, it’s one of the few menu items at Midnight Diner, probably the most famous fictional Izakaya in Japan.
“When people finish their day and hurry home, my day starts” is an iconic phrase in Japanese pop culture. It belongs to the man known only as “The Master,” the owner of a small nameless Meshi-ya (an eating establishment that specializes in simple foods) and the main character of the long-running manga series called Midnight Diner (or Shinya Shokudo) created by Abe Yaro.
If it were up to me to choose just one fictional media piece every food-lover in the world has to consume, this is the one I’d choose. Not just because the food always looks delicious (which it does), but because it has me rethink my relationship with food over and over again. And it does so in a good way.
What is Midnight Diner?
The premise of the story is as straightforward as it gets. There’s a small izakaya in Shinjuku. It’s owned by the man we know nothing about, not even his name. Going only by the name of Master, he opens his izakaya at midnight and keeps it open until 7 AM.
At first glance, his establishment is nothing special. His menu is short and to the point: Tonjiru soup to eat and sake, beer, and shochu to drink. Enjoy.
Only not, really.
While the menu is limited, Master is always ready to cook something special for each customer, as long as the dish is simple enough and he has ingredients on hand. Each episode brings a new dish to the screen, somehow crucial to the story's central character. Each dish is not just a plot device; it's almost a character by itself. And yes, no matter what Master cooks, it always looks delicious (and is made to look even more delectable by the way the characters react to it).
Midnight Diner has brought some of the most iconic late night snacks to the TV screens. Delicious but simple dishes are designed to bring comfort not only to the show's characters but also to the viewers.
What’s interesting is that Midnight Diner isn’t the type of story that we’re used to seeing get mainstream success these days. It’s not loud, action-packed, tragic, or boisterously comedic. On the contrary, it’s small, quiet, and largely introspective. It doesn’t even have a set of main characters, with the series mainly using anthology format, focusing on a new character every chapter/episode. And yet it’s been running for sixteen years now and adapted over and over again (I doubt we’ve seen the last of it on our silver screens).
Food, Comfort, and Catharsis on Midnight Diner
Food can have a profoundly comforting effect on a person. We all know this, even if we don’t really talk about it. Sometime in recent years, getting comfort through food has shifted from a time-honored tradition to something to feel discomfort about. Partially due to the change in comfort foods themselves, with unhealthy ultra-processed options like chips, cookies, and chocolate establishing themselves as top comfort foods. Partially due to the rising number of eating disorders.
Food is increasingly seen as something to be consumed primarily for sustenance and health and with enjoyment a side effect, not the primary goal. It’s not liking food that’s seen as harmful; it’s being emotionally dependent upon it. It’s unhealthy, it’s dangerous, food shouldn’t be given this much power. And as someone who’s had an intimate experience with an eating disorder yet continues to put massive importance on food, I understand where the people are coming from.
And that’s the biggest strength of Midnight Diner: it does comfort food right. In each story, the central character has a profound connection with the dish the Master cooks for them, and in each story, the dish plays a role in bringing resolution for them. Whether the tone of the story is light or melancholy, whether the final lesson is simple or complicated, even the saddest characters get a sliver of comfort through the food Master cooks them. The characters’ connection with what they’re served is deeply emotional, and it’s portrayed as a healthy, helpful thing that brings joy (if only momentarily) to their lives.
When I say Midnight Diner had me rethink my own relationship with food several times, I didn’t exaggerate. I like watching the characters enjoy the food on the show, and I like questioning myself when I do so: what would I ask Master to cook? What food brings me comfort and joy? Not just through the flavor and texture, but through the memories it evokes.
Enjoying food is a good thing on Midnight Diner. Finding comfort through food is a good thing, even if that food isn’t particularly healthy or nutritious and is consumed along with a bit of alcohol in the middle of the night (basically every other influencer’s biggest nightmare).
Eat what you love, for it’ll bring you joy. And do it in the middle of the night if you need a pick me up. But be honest about the food you choose; otherwise, it won’t bring you comfort.
That’s my food lesson from Midnight Diner. If you’ve seen the show or read the manga (or decide to give it a chance), do tell me what your’s is.
Cook Like the Master: 9 Dishes to Try Cooking Yourself
The latest silver screen adaptation of the series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, streaming on Netflix, probably had the most visually appealing presentation of dishes cooked by the Master. Here are 9 late night snacks (or meals) that are relatively simple to prepare.
Kitsune udon is a popular Japanese noodle dish consisting of hearty dashi broth (made with kelp and bonito flakes), thick, chewy udon noodles, and deep-fried tofu pouches called Aburaage. In Japanese mythology, Aburaage is fox spirits’ (Kitsune) favorite dish, and that’s where it gets the name from. Kitsune udon is light on the toppings, typically sticking to fish cakes and thinly sliced green onions aside from Aburaage.
Ham Katsu is a popular variety of deep-fried pork cutlets. But where classic tonkatsu is made with pork fillet or loin, ham katsu is made with black forest ham slices. The preparation process is the same for both: the meat is lightly dredged in flour, dipped into a beaten egg from both sides, coated in panko, and deep-fried. But since ham slices are thinner, ham katsu is crispier and crunchier. Like tonkatsu, it’s typically served with shredded cabbage. It’s considered a classic appetizer pairing for a cold beer.
Chicken Cheese Katsu
Another katsu cutlet variety, chicken katsu, can be roughly described as a Japanese version of chicken tenders. It’s made the same way tonkatsu and ham katsu are made: meat is seasoned, dreddged in flour, coated in egg and panko, and deep-fried. The version Master cooks in S02E02, though, one-ups classic chicken katsu by being stuffed with cheese, similar to Cordon Bleu, but without ham.
The Japanese love curry, and they love ramen, so it’s not surprising that curry ramen is one of the most popular comfort foods in the country. To make things simpler and quicker, you can use instant ramen (it’s what Master does, after all) and combine it with hearty curry sauce with potatoes and carrots. Basically, we’re substituting classic rice with instant ramen as a side to the curry sauce.
Sauteed yam is one of the easiest dishes on the list. It’s a classic Japanese snack that goes well with both sake and beer. You’ll need to cut a large Nagaimo (Japanese mountain yam) into thick circles, fry it on medium heat on both sides, and finish off with soy sauce right in the pan. Once the sauce thickens and Nagaimo is golden-brown, the dish is ready. The tricky part is substituting Nagaimo, but I’ve heard other yam varieties aren’t bad at all.
Chicken Fried Rice
The opening dish of the second season is a Western fusion made with ketchup-based sauce (a combination of ketchup, tomato paste, and water for more liquid consistency). It’s all made in one pan, so the dish is ridiculously quick and easy to cook, as long as you’ve got day-old rice on hand. Roast small chunks of chicken thighs in the pan, add sliced mushrooms when the meat’s no longer pink, and add the sauce and rice right into the pan once the mushrooms are cooked. Voila!
A Mie Prefecture specialty, Tonteki is a pork loin cooked in thick soy sauce and flavored with lots of garlic. Simple but delicious.
Hot Pot (For One)
A simple soup cooked on the base of dashi broth, like Kitsune udon. Hot Pots don’t adhere to specific rules, which makes them easy to cook: whatever veggies and meat you have in the fridge can go right into the broth. But to make the version from Midnight Diner, you’ll need pork belly, napa cabbage, and enoki mushrooms.
A crossover between a famous Japanese noodle dish and a hot dog, the Yakisoba bun consists of a buttery soft roll stuffed with fried Yakisoba noodles. It’s one of Japan’s signature sandwiches.
Is Midnight Diner a Real Establishment?
Unfortunately, Midnight Diner itself is an entirely fictional establishment. Even in busy Shinjuku that never seems to sleep, bars and Izakayas do not stay open until 7 AM, and if any of them are run by a charismatic, uncannily wise Chef that’s ready to cook dishes, not on the menu, then it’s a very well kept secret. However, as it always is with the best fairy tales, there’s a kernel of truth in the story.
There’s a small district located in Shinjuku called Golden Gai. If you’ve ever seen a photo of narrow alleyways aglow with multiple small signs crawling with people in the middle of the night, that’s likely the one. Consisting only of 6 narrow alleyways, it’s the most tightly packed area in Shinjuku, with over 200 establishments, including bars, clubs, and Izakayas. It’s not far-fetched to assume that Abe Yaro found his inspiration at one of them (or several) while bar-hopping in Golden Gai.
If you ever find yourself visiting Japan, setting aside a night to visit Golden Gai as a foodie is a must. Shinjuku doesn’t skimp on food and entertainment, but there’s no place more authentic than these six small alleyways that remain a hot spot among locals despite recent tourist invasions.
By the way, if you do visit, you need to be aware that Golden Gai has strict rules, and disrespecting them won’t end well for you. Photographing the area without permission isn’t allowed; most establishments only accept cash and charge for entrance, and drinking isn’t allowed outside bars.
Due to the increasing number of tourists, some establishments have explicitly prohibited foreigners from visiting to preserve their long-standing Japanese clientele. Don’t try to force yourself in. If the place is not for you, then it’s not for you. There are plenty of bars that’ll serve you.
Here are some that have established themselves as the favorites and could give you… well, maybe not an authentic Midnight Diner experience, but have you understand where the author was coming from when writing the manga:
1. La Jetee
Most Golden Gai establishments are small, but La Jetee is tiny: it only sits 8 people. It’s also likely the most famous establishment in the district and a celebrity hot spot that has been visited by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Johnny Depp over the years. The bar gets its name from French director Chris Marker’s movie and sticks to the cinematography theme in the decor. La Jetee has a great assortment of drinks and simple appetizers, and all visitors get the owner’s signature tofu appetizer as part of the cover charge.
2. Kenzo’s Bar
If your primary interest is meeting an establishment owner as interesting as The Midnight Diner’s Master, then Kenzo’s Bar would be your best bet. Kenzo, an occasional actor and screenwriter, greets the guests himself and is very welcoming towards tourists. Be aware, though, that his bar is more of a local hotspot. If you want to hang out with the locals, it’s a great place, but if you can’t handle being the only foreigner in the establishment, it may not be for you. Still, the reasonably priced alcohol, 80’s ambiance, and overall atmosphere are well worth taking a chance.
3. Bistro Pavo
If you’re prioritizing food over drinks, Bistro Pavo has one of the largest food selections among Golden Gai establishments. It’s primarily an eatery specializing in Japanese and European cuisine (and is particularly beloved for its risotto). Each plate of food costs only around ¥500. Bistro Pavo is often the harbor where exhausted Golden Gai visitors “dock” when tired from bar-hopping. A quiet place for comfort, small-talk, and reasonably priced alcohol.