Japanese cuisine is something of a specialty: we know some of the more internationalized dishes, but there are several foods that can only be found in Japan.
These manga titles explore Japanese cuisine from different viewpoints: Oishinbo volumes 1 and 2 seek to introduce us to the peculiarities of the food and its possible combinations with sake, the Japanese national beverage, and Solitary Gourmet is a far more commonplace experience, with a person recording where and what he eats on a daily basis.
This is the first volume on this long-running cooking manga written by Tetsu Kariya and drawn by Akira Hanasaki. Published in English in 2009, it follows the adventures of culinary journalist Shirō Yamaoka and his partner Yūko Kurita. They are in charge of preparing the “Definitive Menu” on Japanese cuisine, and therefore must try out everything: from simple miso based broths to more elaborate plates.
They are fairly critical with fashionable and expensive food. They will favor taste above looks, and often emphasize how the dedication and care bestowed by a chef are far more important than the price.
Each story focuses on a different aspect of Japanese dining and food preparation, from the right way to hold a tea ceremony to the secret ways to use a knife for sashimi. Manga is different from western comics in the way it approaches the visuals. It is not only that you have to read it left to right, but also that it includes far more “contemplative” scenes: you get to see the plates in a perfectly arranged scene, so real it may seem you are looking at a photograph, and then the reactions of the people tasting the food are more caricature-like.
Shirō knows a lot about Japanese food, and is in constant war with his own father: Kaibara, a renowned gourmet. They argue a lot, and teach each other lessons by the method of yelling and calling each other names. Sometimes the father is correct, sometimes the son, but I wonder if they are going to end up in friendlier or more respectful terms at some point of the narrative.
Of course, the series has won many awards and have been adapted to anime and live-action film, all early in the ’90s.
This one is all about this beverage: how it is made, how the rice must be sorted and polished, how the process of fermentation begins and, of course, the correct way to store it and drink it.
They really got me curious and made me realize I have never tasted the real stuff. As with French wines, small factories have the best of the product, and large companies sell you a very much altered drink that should not be called sake at all.
Since the manga was first released in the ’80s, the Japanese legislation on the matter was just beginning. Probably by now they have a much clearer way to distinguish good sake (that can be stored up to 100 years, which is far more than the average old whiskey!) and sake-like cheap drinks. This volume is more technical by far, but an interesting way to learn about the distilling process nonetheless.
The Oishinbo series cover all kinds of food, starting in 1983 and finishing in 2014. The manga is licensed in English in North America by Viz Media, and they have adapted it to fit thematic compilations (that jump back and forth in continuity). The collected volumes continue with different specialties; and I am dying to read the following five:
Now, the path of manga into the Western world is a long one, taking up to twenty years for a title to reach American stores. In this aspect, it is different from the European market, far more attentive to Japanese novelties. Glénat editorial, for instance, has many recent manga titles, and that is why my next title is not directly available to the English-speaking world (at least, not yet).
Kodoku no Gourmet
(孤独のグルメ, “Solitary Gourmet”) is written by Masayuki Kusumi and illustrated by Jiro Taniguchi, and was first published in Japan in 2008. The French edition is from 2017.
This manga follows the adventures of Gorō Inogashira, a salesman who travels around Japan. He walks around a lot, and gets hungry in the most unexpected places. When hunger hits, he is not squeamish about local restaurants and street booths. Each chapter features a different place and dish. And what he likes is comfort food: cheap plates that can be served immediately.
“This act (eating) is the only comfort given equally to any man.” That is his motto. And there is something oddly satisfying in watching him eat: he sometimes orders the entire menu and chomps happily away.
It is so good at depicting what he does, in fact, that the manga has been adapted into a Japanese television drama series, now in its 6th season!
There cannot be a more different approach to Oishinbo than this man. However, some things they do have in common are the way the Japanese plates must all have a bit of everything: rice, fish, broth and vegetables. They also have to bestow that famous “umami” flavor, the fifth flavor apart from sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
They search for food that gives you joy, and leave you satisfied. Whether it is a fancy dinner in a posh restaurant or just the food stall around the corner, food is all about the nourishment. And you bet I am willing to try all of it, from salty teriyaki that is worth 400 yen to a crushed ice sashimi that can be only found by word of mouth.