Feb 3 2009
I just have to tell you about this manga. This isn’t a typical manga for me to review because it’s not a romance manga, and it’s not really about the characters. It’s about food. I’m a serious foodie. I love exploring foods of all cultures, from low cuisine to high. And I love reading about it as well. Viz Manga has decided to bring over to the US part of one of the most influential food manga series of all time, and if you’re a foodie you’ll probably love it.
First, a note about food manga. The Japanese love them. There are a surprising number of action manga where the hero of the series has special food talents. Yakitate! has a boy with a gift for creating breads unique to Japan. Addicted to Curry is about a chef dedicated to, yep, curries. Kitchen Princess is a shoujo (girl’s) romance about the orphan daughter of pastry chefs who has inherited their talent to please everyone with some dessert.
There are also manga that seek to educate adults. The Drops of the Gods is fairly new one that’s educating the Japanese about Western wines. It has sparked an enormous rise in the sales of wines, especially those discussed in each chapter.
The granddaddy of these manga series is Oishinbo. This massive and extremely popular series of 102 volumes, still ongoing, started in 1983 and sought to educate the Japanese about their cuisine and food customs and give them pride in them. The author says in a short essay that the best word for Japanese cuisine(s) is washoku. The wa means Japanese, but also means harmony. That, he says, is the essence of eating Japanese style. All the elements are present and recognizable, but in harmony. This series attempts to explain all the elements and how they fit together.
Now, Viz can’t bring all 102 volumes over. Well, they could, but they’d probably lose money on a lot of them. Even though I’d buy every one. But they are bringing over select chapters and sections on things Westerners tend to be curious about: sake, rice, noodles, sushi/sashimi.
This first volume covers quite a few basics. Some chapters seem downright silly, as in the cook-off between the demanding bastard father and the (anti-)hero over rice. The father’s chef wins because he goes through every grain of rice and pulls out the ones that are broken or odd shaped so each grain finishes at the same time. It’s so anal it’s ridiculous, but it also serves to support a point all cooks know, and that’s that you want portions you’re cooking to be of equal size so they finish cooking together. It’s a good principle applied in a goofy manner so you remember it.
The book covers why sashimi is an art and not just chopping up raw fish, simplicity as a technique, etiquette with chopsticks, purity of ingredients and letting them stand on their own, and making sure your palate as a chef is clean. It explains several dishes (though doesn’t provide recipes) like daishi broth; it’s more concerned with explaining the heart of it than the how of it, though often the how is involved. There’s also a lengthy section of footnotes, 14 pages in the back, that explain all Japanese customs and words that might not be clear to Western readers. It’s quite thorough and good.
There is a plot of sorts. A young man, Yamaoka Shiro, is a gourmet with a very discriminating palate and an ability to cook that matches it. However, he now works at a newspaper and his main concern is betting on the ponies. One day his editor decides that for their 100th anniversary they will serve the ultimate feast, and knowing Yamaoka’s background appoints him to be in charge (along with a young woman to whom he eventually gets married in a minor part of the story which we don’t really see).
This appointment angers the most important gourmet in town, Yamaoka’s nasty father, a renowned potter who demanded such perfection from his wife in their food that it drove his wife to her grave. Yamaoka in revenge destroyed all his father’s artwork. Needlesstosay, they’re not getting along. Yamaoka’s father sets up a rival feast and constantly challenges his son. (He seriously needs his ass kicked.) The most annoying chapters are when he’s right. But even jerks can teach us things.
The graphics in this are really old-style manga. They’re not bad by any means, but they may look dated to people used to newer manga, especially in their use of block panels a la Western comics. They always illustrate points clearly though, and that’s what concerns me most. Here an American friend of Yamaoka’s has been training in how to make water-chilled sashimi to teach some know-it-alls a lesson (as usual, please start reading from the top of the right page, and please forgive my homemade scans).
As you can see, expressive as they are, the faces leave something to be desired. But the portraits of the food and technique come through clearly. I also included a page from the notes from the back of the book so you could see how useful they are.
The book itself is quality, softbound and larger with a dust-jacket. Viz did a lovely job with it.
I’d read parts of this before, but none of these sections in this first volume. I seriously couldn’t put it down once I got it in the mail yesterday. I found everything about it fascinating, even the irritating father and how he was dealt with by the author, and the anal-retentive bits, because being picky about techniques and ingredients is part of being a good chef. I think anyone with an interest in Japanese cuisines or culture would eat this up. It’s a little choppy because of the way the story was taken apart and put back together, but it should just be read as a series of related short stories, A-.
Oishinbo, by Kariya Tetsu, illus by Hanasaki Akira. Viz. Retail: $12.99. 272 pages. 1/8 compilation volumes. Rated T for teen (probably because kids probably wouldn’t understand terms and such, but there’s no sex or violence; if you’ve got smart young-uns though go for it.). This book is available for discount at most manga stories like Rightstuf.com