story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki
published by Viz; $12.99 US
The more I read this series, the more I enjoy it. I just have to learn not to read it when I’m hungry, because I start craving food that I can’t find!
Oh, some types of ramen (noodle soup) and gyoza (dumplings) are available in my area, but I never dreamed of the possible variations covered here. And it’s not just about the food: The first two stories bring emotion to the forefront.
In the first, Yuko (co-worker and girlfriend of Yamaoka, the journalist responsible for developing the Ultimate Menu, as described in the first volume of the series) attends her high school reunion, where she meets twins married to competing noodle shop owners. Originally, their husbands (also twins) worked together in one restaurant, but after getting a high rating, they split up over arguments over whether the making or the cooking of the noodles were more responsible for the praise.
You can guess the answer they come to realize, guided by Yamaoka: the best ramen is made from them working together. Beyond the happy ending of a reconciliation, though, there’s the appreciation of how much craft goes into such a simple dish, and how many factors are involved. It’s easy to have just one of them be off, hard to reach the perfection of getting all of them right.
The second story is a romance. A co-worker wants to impressive a lady with an elite background, so he seeks out Yamaoka’s advice on French restaurants. I was impressed with the behaviorial advice Yamaoka provides and how subtly he assists his friend, a pleasant change from the polemics he tends to engage in, demonstrating his passion over what he eats. (This attitude is fully on display in later scenes, where he tells a noodle maker to his face, for example, that his product is terrible but he wants to know where he buys his flour.)
The other stories are longer, with multiple chapters, which allow for more conflict and twists. In one, the reporters investigate hiyashi chuka, a summer dish of chilled noodles with toppings that varies greatly among chefs and restaurants. This one brings him back into conflict with his gourmet father and leads to a cook-off. Another story featuring two competing neighboring villages puts a spotlight on how to get safe, local food and bring customers more in touch with what they eat.
The last long story covers gyoza, often served as a side dish to ramen. To the Japanese, both are considered to have been derived from Chinese cooking. Although we know them as pan-fried pork-stuffed dumplings, this story shows just how many different variations gyoza can have. It’s followed by a kind of coda about racism and Chinese/Japanese relations.
The art doesn’t stand out. It’s competent, focused on discussion and emotion. The faces tend to be caricatures, especially Yamaoka’s, with his egg-like eyes. The parts I recall best are those where technique is demonstrated. In the noodle shop story, for instance, there’s a page where a master is shown hand-pulling and snapping dough until it forms the noodles.
What I learn most from this series are the universal pieces of advice Yamaoka shares, precepts like, “Whenever the staff has an attitude, the food’s never good,” or how to enjoy eating in an unfamiliar restaurant (ask the staff for suggestions, and they’ll help you have a great experience). But I also love learning about all these various kinds of Japanese dishes — reading about them makes my mouth water.Ã‚Â
As typical of the series, the translation notes are essential, not just in discussing cooking techniques but in explaining cultural aspects underlying the stories. I’ve previously discussed the second volume of the series, Sake.