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Oishinbo: Sake
I now own my own copies of Oishinbo a la Carte, specifically, volumes 1, 2, 5, and 6. Volume 1 was "Japanese Cuisine", which I discussed earlier. Volume 2 is Sake, Volume 5 is Vegetables, and Volume 6 is "The Joy of Rice".

As I mentioned last time, Oishinbo is a long-running manga series in Japan, and the Viz Media editions are thematic anthologies taken from the ongoing series. Again, I wish Viz would make available the series in chronological order, so that it is possible for me to follow the background plots. One advantage, however, is that it made it easy for me to buy volumes 5 and 6 in the store while waiting for volumes 1 and 2 to arrive from Amazon. The lack of a coherent continuing story meant I didn't miss anything by reading them "out of order".

It is apparent, however, that Viz is not interested in making it easy to order the stories. There are no credits along the lines of "This work reprints stories which appeared in issues #14, #16, #35-40, and #54 of Big Comic Spirits". What I was able to find is that it appears that these volumes, as Oishinbo a la Carte, originally appeared in Japan a few years ago. This would suggest that the thematic anthology format isn't original with Viz, although Viz isn't publishing the volumes in order, either (Viz#1 is #20 is Japan, Viz#2 is 26, Viz#5 is 19, etc). There are no dates attached to the stories, except as may be mentioned within the stories, etc.

This isn't just a problem with trying to follow the back-story. It is vitally missing information when trying to evaluate some of the information presented. One of the transparent purposes of this series is to be critical of food laws and public policy in Japan, and without knowing when the stories were written it is hard to tell if the criticism is still valid.

On to the books.

Sake: Although most of this book is about the rice-wine we know as sake, it should be known that the Japanese word sake (酒) means alcoholic beverage. Two of the chapters are about French wine, and one chapter is about the aged rice-based spirit from Okinawa known as Koshu (古酒). In it, we learn that Beaujolais Nouveau was originally drunk on the vineyard as a celebration, and wasn't intended as the main product -- and pales in comparison with traditional aged Beaujolais, and that ducks should be aged 10 days from slaughter to eating. We also learn that a "certain Japanese company" sold a sweetened, carbonated wine as "champagne", but that practice is now illegal (but when is "now"?).

Six of the remaining 8 chapters are part of one long story in which our heros try to save a financially troubled sake brewery by arranging a bank loan. In order to do so, they have to convince the bankers that the brewery -- and by extension, the entire sake industry -- is worth saving. Along the way, we learn a lot of the dirty secrets of industrial sake production, many of them aided and abetted by government policies designed to boost tax revenue instead of sake quality. Tricks like: in WWII, to boost production, breweries were allowed to dilute sake with distilled alcohol, water, sugar, and MSG to triple the yield while using the same amount of rice, and most breweries never stopped. By adding rice bran syrup, they can add sugar while saying it's made just from rice, etc. We also learn of small breweries doing things the traditional way, and even embracing new technologies and techniques while remaining true to the purity of the sake. Discussed as well is the proper storage and handling of sake -- it is temperature and light sensitive, so bottles sold in brightly-lit warm stores have already been damaged (and, of course, the majority of sake is sold that way), but higher-end bottles sold in cool stores wrapped in paper on the shelf are good, etc.

While this story is intended to educate about sake, it is also a major diatribe against the major breweries and the government policies which have lead to the decline in quality for sake. My assumption is that by publicizing these policies, he is hoping to influence public debate and have them changed. Some changes are mentioned in the story (such as the discontinuance of a "rating" system where any brewer could market his sake as "2nd grade", but to get it rated 1st or superior grade, he had to get it officially rated, and pay a higher tax rate. This left many smaller brewers having to choose between paying the tax to be rated, or trying to sell their sake as 2nd grade sake), but it was clear that there was still a lot to go.

The author is careful to cover his bases when it comes to libel. Although he is generous with naming breweries when talking about the small breweries which do things the right way, he only describes the big breweries as "the ones you see advertising on TV" and similar.

This book was much more of a polemic than the first book in the series. Had I read it first, I'm not sure I'd want to continue. It is informative and somewhat entertaining, but it is very heavy-handed with its message. The other books cover a wider variety of food and concentrate more on what can be done with it. While all the books include recipes, the recipes in this book barely use the "theme ingredient", and are dominated instead by the other ingredients. If you are interested in Japanese cooking, culture, and sake, I would recommend reading this book, but I'd only recommend buying it if you were collecting all of the Oishinbo a la Carte books.

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>It is informative and somewhat entertaining, but it is very heavy-handed with its message.

I wonder if the heavy-handedness could be a quality of the translation.

The heavy-handedness doesn't manifest itself in occasional language choice, but is pervasive in the plot. Twice in the book there are blinded taste tests where heavily advertised big-brewery sakes are judged as tasting horrible, while microbrewed sakes are judged as tasting great. We are shown a department store's treatment of wines (cool, dark storage and shelving) and sake (in clear bottles under bright lights, in the open) and the speaker uses this example to show that sake culture in Japan is dead -- not enough people care for it to be done right. If this is a translation issue, then they "translated" the drawings as well.

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