Oishinbo a la Carte 3: Ramen & Gyoza

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!

Oishinbo a la Carte: Ramen & Gyoza cover
Oishinbo a la Carte: Ramen & Gyoza
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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. 

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.

12 Comments

  1. [...] Draper Carlson on vol. 1 of The Lapis Lazuli Crown (Comics Worth Reading) Johanna Draper Carlson on Oishinbo a la Carte 3: Ramen & Gyoza (Comics Worth Reading) Michelle Smith on vol. 7 of One Piece (Soliloquy in Blue) Tiamat’s [...]

  2. I would love to pick up this series sometime, but there’s so much other manga that I’m reading right now and I don’t think my budget can handle it…

  3. This series of Manga is fairly pricey, isn’t it? I have the first volume, but that was a gift. Sure, the paper stock used is quality and the few full-color pages interspersed in the book are nice, but I don’t see the inherent value at that price, especially considering this is a fairly old manga with a new translation.

    Still, I love manga and anime that focus on food and cooking, so I will stick with it.

  4. Viz has several series aimed at the older reader in this format. For $12.99, the books are larger, with nicer covers (including flaps) and paper, including some color pages. Pluto and 20th Century Boys are two others I can think of produced in that format.

  5. I’m not bothered by the price myself (two of the series I’m reading right now are Pluto, which is the same price per book, and Black Jack, which is more), it’s just that I can’t afford to pick up a new series – any series – right now.

    Maybe when Pluto’s done, I’ll start on Oishinbo; from the reviews so far, it sounds like my kind of series.

  6. I picked this up based on your review, and I quite liked it. I’ll probably look for the others in the series, though the completist in me squirms at realizing that these are never going to cover more than a smattering of stories in a series that’s been running continuously for over twenty-five years…

  7. But like good food, sometimes a taste is plenty, and you don’t want to over-consume. At least, that’s how I think of it.

  8. James Langdell

    I’ve read the first two volumes and eagerly picked up this Ramen.Gyoza book today. When I started reading, I expected to enjoy the discourse about food, but I’m suprised at how engaging the interactions between the characters are. I’m curious, after seeing these “a la carte” anthologies, what the continuity of this long running story is like. Week to week, is there more storytelling about the characters and a lower proportion of pages focused so intently on the food information?

  9. That’s a good question. I would suspect not, but I don’t know.

  10. [...] most identified with Japan in the Western world: sushi. The subjects of previous books, sake and ramen, are familiar to many readers, but they’re more likely to have experienced authentic Japanese [...]

  11. [...] to me: I enjoy the Oishinbo volumes even more if I like the food less. With something like Sushi or Gyoza, I suspect I’m distracted by the food. Here, with Vegetables, I found myself surprised by how [...]

  12. [...] one, just turn the page for more chances to laugh. There are known audiences for cat manga and for food manga, so that makes for lots of potential readers interested in at least part of the concept. And with [...]

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