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Review: Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine: A la Carte
blaisepascal
According to Wikipedia, Oishinbo (美味しんぼ) is a long-running manga, dating back to 1983, In Japan, it has been republished in over 100 collected volumes, selling over 100 million total copies. It has also been made into an anime series totalling 136 episodes. The series title roughly translates to "The Gourmet", and is about a newspaper reporter tasked with a series about the "Ultimate Menu", a model meal representing the pinnacle of Japanese food.

US Rights were bought by Viz, who released the first translated volume, Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine: A la Carte, in January 2009. I found it in the library yesterday and checked it out.

Viz decided, when doing the translation, to not present the series in chronological order, but rather group the stories thematically. This first volume consists of 10 stories highlighting the essence of Japanese Cuisine, with "courses" (chapters) titled "The Secret of Dashi", "The Right To Be A Chef", "The Ultimate Etiquette", etc. I am of mixed opinion about this. On the one hand, I would like to read the story as published, but on the other hand, I didn't notice the disjointedness too much. Each course stood well by itself. It's possible that Viz made the editorial decision to choose stand-alone stories when picking their "A la Carte", and that the full series is less episodic.

This is a book which would, in my opinion, appeal to the Japanophile and the Foodie alike. Centered around Japanese Cuisine, the stories delve deeply into the heart of what makes really good food good -- the craft, the ingredients, the culture, etc, surrounding it.

In one story, a foreign food critic challenges the notion that Japanese "Cooking" is meaningful, since cooking is all about applying techniques to food, while Japanese "cooking" is about emphasizing the naturalness of the ingredients -- in other words, doing nothing to them. Citing sashimi -- the centerpiece of many Japanese haute cuisine -- as just sliced raw fish, and thus not "cooking", he challenges the heros to show him otherwise. The rest of the story features a chef preparing sashimi using three very different techniques (four if you count the "control" sashimi he makes for comparison purposes), explaining each technique in terms of how and why, until the critic admits that sashimi is proper "cooking"[*].

While all the stories highlight the epitome of good Japanese cooking and eating, not all of them involve haute cuisine. One story features a contest centered on the traditional Japanese meal of rice and miso soup; another examines the manufacture of traditional chopsticks, while yet another is filled with dishes the main character exclaims only the lowest class of restaurant would serve (and then explains to the chef's satisfaction that he understands what the chef was aiming for better than any of the other experts at the meal).

Many of the stories have B-plots, and there are many recurring characters. This is a problem with this particular format of the story, since the a-la-carte format loses their ongoing stories. In the Ninth Course, one of the characters has a boyfriend, while in the Tenth Course, she's married and pregnant. Clearly the stories are out of order and cover years of time. Two of the main characters, YAMAOKA Shiro and KURITA Yuko, are friendly coworkers in parts of the book, married in other parts, and finish off the book being chastised for arguing-flirting with each other. We don't get to see their relationship grow (although what we do see implies that it does), nor do we see what happens to a lot of the other characters who are introduced. This is, in my opinion, the biggest flaw with the book.

A central conflict in the series is between the main character, YAMAOKA Shiro (a newspaper food reporter and critic), and his father KAIBARA Yuzan, a prominent artist and gourmand. Yamaoka blames his father's impossibly-high food standards for driving his mother to her death, while Kaibara refuses to forgive Yamaoka for leaving the household (especially the way he left). Because they are both heavily involved in the high-end food scene, and both travel in similar social circles, they have opportunity to conflict a lot. When a restaurateur is distraught because another customer has sent back his dashi three times causing the (replacement) cook to storm out, Kaibara volunteers to step into the kitchen, sees the problem, and makes a satisfactory dashi. When the picky customer, Kaibara finds out the satisfactory dashi was made by Yamaoka, however, it isn't good enough and he storms out. In the story about chopsticks, Kaibara and Yamaoka run into each other and Kaibara chastises Yamaoka on a vitally important piece of etiquette that no one else at the meal knew about. Kaibara appears in half the stories in the book.

The book also includes a 3-page essay by the author titled "What is Japanese Cuisine", 14 pages of translators notes, and recipes for two dishes in the book. I had an incredibly unusual experience reading the essay. The book is presented in Japanese-fashion, in that the right side is read first, then the left, and one turns the pages "backwards" to read it. The prose essay was no exception, with the first page of English in a two-page spread on the right, and so forth. What I found unusual is that despite both Japanese and English being read from the top of the page down, I wanted to read the essay from the bottom of the page up. I don't know how, or why, my brain made that decision, but each page I turned to required me to consciously acquire the top of the page.

Overall, I would say it is book well worth reading, and at $13/book list price (less via Amazon.com), I am seriously considering buying my own copies. Each book is 5"x7" R-to-L paperback format, with 275pp and heavy cardstock covers, so the price is a bargain. Amazon.com lists 7 volumes to date: Japanese Cuisine (1/09), Sake (3/09), Ramen and Gyoza (5/09), Fish, Sushi, and Sashimi (8/09), Vegetables (9/09), The Joy of Rice (11/09) and Izakaya - Pub Food (1/10).

[*] Others may disagree. At least one food scientist states that cooking specifically involves the use of heat to transform food. By this definition, fermented pickles and sauerkrauts, traditional unheated cheeses, etc are not cooked, but that isn't a condemnation of them. The definition of "cooking" used in this story broader than that, and basically covers any transformative technique to prepare food.

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