I studied the novella Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto for my Japanese A Level. Following a university student named Mikage, the novella is short but packed with both drama and cosy mundanities. After Mikage’s last living relative, her grandmother, dies, she is visited by an acquaintance, Yuichi. Although the two don’t know each other well, Yuichi explains that he was close to Mikage’s grandmother and suggests that she stay with him and his mother, Eriko, so as not to be lonely. Mikage reluctantly agrees, having spent days lying on her kitchen floor, repressing her grief. At Yuichi and Eriko’s house, Mikage grows more interested in food and cooking, sleeping on the sofa in the kitchen and regularly preparing meals for the family. 

Mikage eventually decides to pursue her hobby of cooking more professionally at culinary school to navigate and process her grandmother’s death. When Yuichi is also struck with grief after the murder of his mother, it is food that brings Mikage and Yuichi back together. Too afraid to deal with the overwhelming nature of his heartache, Yuichi runs away to a faraway inn that serves only tofu. He is chased down by Mikage, who carries with her some fried pork that she’d tried at a restaurant. Overwhelmed by the delectability of the pork, she insists that Yuichi at least try the food to begin confronting his painful emotions. Since food saved Mikage, she shares her love of eating and cooking with Yuichi, who had been there for her in her times of depression. 

The kitchen is a constant with familiar smells and sights: it is where life unfolds, where people perform the repeated actions of cutting, cooking, and cleaning. With its gentle hum of activity and the warmth of simmering pots, it is a sanctuary where grief is kneaded into the dough, where the rhythm of chopping vegetables echoes across the kitchen counters. People share meals and their daily lives, and one can bask in the mundanity of just eating something without any fears. Mikage enjoys the predictability of the kitchen. It is her safe space where she feels she has the room to explore her grief. Here, every dish tells a story, every aroma carries a memory, and the simple act of sharing a meal becomes a bridge between souls. Through the comforting embrace of culinary creation, Mikage finds solace and strength, moving closer to processing her emotions with each flavourful bite. She asks herself:

Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much? A kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul. 

Indeed, the kitchen has become a sanctuary for me too. When I first studied Kitchen, I was not sure I understood Mikage’s fascination with the kitchen. At age seventeen, I was completely and utterly incompetent in the kitchen, not even being able to use the family microwave without blowing it up (true story). Since coming to university, however, I’ve been forced to learn how to fend for myself in the kitchen. In times of longing for a taste of home, I’ve had to scramble together fragments of what I’d find in my family kitchen to create a dish that somewhat simulates that of my mother’s cooking, for example. 

As it turns out, I really enjoy cooking; sometimes it is the repeated cutting or stirring that relaxes me, or how I can make the same dish a hundred times and it always turns out as expected, with the same aromas and flavours. The thought of being able to share a part of my identity with others by cooking for them warms my heart, especially when I see that it has brightened up their taste palates. Similarly, the idea of food as a language seems to run in my family: my family, instead of uttering “I love you”, prefers preparing a hearty mouth-watering dish to show their affection. This extends even just to cutting fruit or making tea to show that they’re thinking about me. 

I could not imagine my life without the kitchen. As rightfully highlighted by Banana Yoshimoto, culinary creation is like a comforting embrace that brings everyone together in times of despair.