The sheer joys of watching people eat

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here’s what to point it at


‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’ is perfect for a late-night television bite after hours of bingeing on drug-lords and corrupt politicos.
‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’ is perfect for a late-night television bite after hours of bingeing on drug-lords and corrupt politicos.

What you deserve to watch:

What is the opposite of schadenfreude?

The Buddhist concept of Mudita, which translates to finding ‘happiness in another’s good fortune’ or ‘sympathetic joy,’ comes close. We witness satisfaction and we feel satisfied, and there is perhaps no universal visual that can immediately make us feel good like the sight of a person tucking into a completely fulfilling meal. Joy spreads from their plates to our faraway mouths, and while the scene of a person eating often makes us crave what is chomped down on screen, it paradoxically does go a long way in making us feel content.

We can’t taste or smell the food, but the eyes and the imagination work overtime as we breathe in the experience, and this is where it helps to have actors who appear to truly relish what they’re eating: sucking down the last bit of the marrow, spearing each slice of mushroom with panache, draining the gravy noisily from the bowl because wasting even a drop would be criminal. What, then, is the simplest way to simulate such glorious gluttony?

By serving up a feast.

Kaoru Kobayashi plays The Master in ‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’
Kaoru Kobayashi plays The Master in ‘Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories’

Netflix is doling out some meticulously prepared goodness with its latest original series, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Based on a best-selling manga series called Shinya Shokudo and directed by award-winning Japanese filmmaker Joji Matsuoka, the show is about a chef who runs a diner from midnight to 7am, thus attracting a colourfully offbeat clientele. The actors on the show—from 65-year-old veteran Kaoru Kobayashi who plays The Master who runs the restaurant, to Korean actress Go Ah-sung (from Snowpiercer) who shows up for one memorable episode—are all actually fed on the sets, getting to eat intricately made hot food instead of pretending for the sake of a take. Even the saké poured into the glasses is the genuine article.

Therefore, this simple, soulful, frequently lyrical show—one that sounds like an Asian take on the ‘where everybody knows your name’ credo from Cheers—is also the perfect gateway show to work up an appetite for foodporn. The diner menu offers only drinks and miso soup, but The Master promises that he’ll rustle up anything a client may want, provided the ingredients are at hand. Each episode then tells a story revolving around one particular preparation, and while some of these may sound unspectacular, the mouth nevertheless waters.

The stories are deliciously evocative. The modest diner is a far cry from the neon wildness Tokyo can offer, but the night brings up hungry folk of varied profession, from radio jockeys to standup comedians, and as they intimately pause their lives to gorge on The Master’s cooking, we get to peek inside them and find secrets they live with, resentment they can’t let go of, dreams they ignore. There is an understated wistfulness to the stories, which start with a brilliant one about a man who can’t quite get over a television show from his youth once he’s reminded of it. Men obsess over the names of superhero characters from the show while women—wearing fuchsia wigs—roll their eyes at their childishness.

This is a calming show, each episode barely more than 20 minutes, and it feels almost therapeutically relaxing in such a short, straightforward dose. Perfect for a late-night television bite after hours of bingeing on drug-lords and corrupt politicos. Just make sure you don’t watch Midnight Diner on an empty stomach.

A still from ‘Insecure’
A still from ‘Insecure’

What everyone’s watching:

Your coolest friends ought to currently be drinking up HBO’s energetic new comedy, Insecure, created by and starring Issa Rae. Once you see Issa in action—playing a girl who tries on different accents and personalities with shades of lipstick, and who proudly calls herself “aggressively passive” in real life (but writes raps to vent)—she is a character immensely hard to resist.

An extension of Rae’s web series Awkward Black Girl, Insecure features her as a black girl working in a non-profit organisation supporting inner-city children, hired largely so she can shoot down dated ideas about what underprivileged minority kids might need —and so her white co-workers can ask her what “fleek” means. (She says she doesn’t know.) Meanwhile, her closest friend Molly, a lawyer, is loved by both black and white people, and has a coolness summed up by Issa as “Will Smith of corporate.”

Both ladies face relationship troubles and—rallying against cliché—the show shines a light on, among other things, the way black men expect black women to behave. Calling Insecure a black Girls would be a disservice, but the vivid sharpness and energy Rae brings to the writing is something Lena Dunham would, and should, envy. “Every black girl who went to college likes Drake,” says a guy about the Canadian rapper, dismissively and, it appears, with much accuracy. Insecure is now streaming on Hotstar, and it hits many a bullseye. Bon appetit.

Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

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