story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
A journalist is given the task of finding the Ultimate Menu, the best of all his country’s food, for his newspaper’s 100th anniversary. The series that catalogues his quest has been running for over 25 years and 100 books in its native Japan, and highlights have been collected in the Viz manga series Oishinbo a la Carte.
The first volume, Japanese Cuisine, focuses on several key meal ingredients, starting with dashi (stock/broth). Additional chapters cover rice and miso soup; sashimi; the tea ceremony; knife skills, with an American training to become a sushi chef; the beauty and history of chopsticks; the virtue of home cooking; and philosophical debates over who deserves to be a chef. One particularly striking tale has the journalist Yamaoka helping a chef his father fired get his job back, with an underscore message of how those who love food can’t smoke.
The art style is classic: caricatured faces, open style, simplified features, and exaggerated emotional reactions. Yamaoka’s hooded eyes demonstrate his disdain, characteristic of his jaded cynicism. Many of the illustrations are head shots, as the characters talk over food, or illustrations of the dishes. What little motion there is is during a demonstration, and even those are static, focusing only on the specific motion of stirring a pot or shaving a fish (to make bonito flakes).
There’s a continuing character conflict between Yamaoka and his estranged father. Dad is nationally known both for his gourmet knowledge and his dictatorial temper in search of obsessive cooking perfection. Growing up with him gave Yamaoka both a lot of food experience and an unwillingness to resemble his dad in any way, even though both believe in similar things, like the importance of having the best quality ingredients.
While the father screams at people doing things the wrong way, Yamaoka is willing to give lessons and demonstrate how to improve. He’s been trained better than a professional chef, but memories of how harshly his father treated his mother due to her cooking keep him from enjoying much about food. Dad, meanwhile, uses his position for petty grudges and allows his perception of the chef to influence his opinion. Others try to force a reconciliation between the two, including a genius potter who’s an old friend of the family, but their estrangement runs deep, and both are stubborn.
Lessons learned from these stories include
- A disdain for flash and presentation at the expense of taste.
- Fidelity to ancient principles and techniques.
- The virtue of patience over speed.
- Flavor isn’t determined by cost or reputation.
- The ultimate importance of heart in making a dish that can touch others.
Overall, a superior sense of taste supports their view of themselves as good Japanese, showing how their cuisine is just as good as French cooking or any other. (A task that takes even more precedence in the second volume, with a case being made for sake being as good as other wines.) It’s not just about food, but culture. Notes in the back explain names and techniques a little further as well as clarifying how the characters relate to each other, given the time jumps. Future volumes are grouped by specific topics, and any of them would make a unique gift for anyone interested in any kind of food.