Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterSweet Bean Paste
By Durian Sukegawa
Translated by Alison Watts
“It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate. You know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”
Attributed to culinary celebrity Julia Child, this quote is a reminder that everything we eat is the product of someone’s hard work — and hopefully their care.
In the opening pages of Durian Sukegawa’s novel “Sweet Bean Paste,” a man named Sentaro is working hard in the food industry. But he doesn’t particularly care.
He makes dorayaki, a confection consisting of two pancakes forming a sandwich around a filling of anko sweet bean paste. He’s the one-man staff of a struggling shop on a less-than-thriving shopping street in Tokyo.
We learn early on that Sentaro has a criminal record, that his mother died while he was in prison, and that he drinks a lot. His employment is a form of indentured servitude, as he works to pay off a debt to the shop’s absentee owner. He works hard just so that he can someday leave, but that day is slow in coming.
He doesn’t socialize with the customers (or anyone else), and the only ones to make an impression on him are some annoying schoolgirls who “occupied the only five seats at the counter, made a lot of noise, and left food scattered about.” When some cherry blossom petals blow in through the shop’s open window one spring day, one of the girls complains that they have contaminated her dorayaki. When he gives her a free one, the other girls demand the same treatment. “Then one got out her phone and started broadcasting to all her friends that there was free dorayaki.”
Some people would think that having a sakura petal in your pastry makes the treat special. But many think different means wrong.
Another thing to blow into Sentaro’s dreary life that spring is a mysterious old lady named Tokue, who is looking for a part-time job. She’s a bit different herself, with a physically odd appearance that includes some strangely curled fingers, and she’s evasive about her past.
But Sentaro doesn’t like to talk about his own past either, and those fingers make the most delicious anko he has ever tasted, so he accepts her into the shop.
Over the course of a year, from one cherry blossom season to the next, they slowly learn each other’s secrets and change each other’s lives. It’s a tale of misfit characters trying to find their place in the world — a world in which, the author says in an afterword, the meaning of life is often too simply defined as being “a useful member of society.”
“Sweet Bean Paste” is a short book that can be read quickly, yet it unfolds at a relaxed pace. The changing seasons provide reference points for the changes in the characters, but never in a way that seems forced.
As Tokue, drawing on long experience, observes near the end: “People’s lives never stay the same colour forever. There are times when the colour of life changes completely.”
Especially when someone’s fingers have been all over it.
Where to Read
Sitting on a park bench, observing the changing seasons and munching on a dorayaki.