*Oishinbo a la Carte 6: The Joy of Rice — Recommended

I thought the Sushi volume would be the most authentically Japanese, or maybe the Sake book, but no. It’s The Joy of Rice that sums up the Oishinbo series and its unapologetic championing of Japanese cuisine.

Oishinbo a la Carte 6: The Joy of Rice cover
Oishinbo a la Carte:
The Joy of Rice
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The first chapter of the book is an early episode from the long-running series that establishes key themes: Yamaoka, the lead researcher for the Ultimate Menu project, is a jerk to co-workers but really knows his food. Fancy dishes are only good if they use fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared with excellent technique and attention to detail. Don’t trust appearances; big-name restaurants and people may not know best. The best meal is one that affects its eater, bringing back memories.

The contrasts in this story are obvious, perhaps even overdone: When trying to pick the best restaurant to impress a millionaire, Yamaoka turns to someone who knows the truth about every place to eat. That turns out to be a homeless man, who gains his knowledge from the eateries’ trash piles. A similar broad approach is played for comedy in the second story, where a woman’s world champion college judo team craves white rice. Their trainer insists that only brown rice is healthy, but Yamaoka contradicts her, leading to various scenes of Yamaoka being beaten up by bulky women while proving his point.

Still, the broad strokes support wonderful details about a staple food. Who knew that there was so much to think about when making rice? Washing, choosing a type of grain, milling, cooking … if you don’t get all of this right, when you cook for your husband-to-be’s mother, she might not look kindly on your upcoming marriage. That happens in the third story, but Yamaoka, as always, saves the day with a chemistry lesson about storing rice in the proper humidity. Rice is so magical, the right dish can cure stroke-induced amnesia or solve disputes between the owner of the newspaper and its unionized employees, in additional stories found here.

Good rice, the foundation of any meal, when prepared well, causes the eater to “taste the joy of being born Japanese.” As you might guess, this is a volume full of national pride. (I wasn’t insulted, though; it made as much sense as reading extreme Francophilia in a treatise on what makes for true champagne.) One story argues against importing American grains at the same time it encourages nostalgia for simple rice accompaniments like pickled vegetables or salted fish. The ingredients are obscure to American readers, providing lots of educational opportunities and exotic tastebud temptations. Without direct knowledge, imagination takes over for the reader, creating something better than real.

Yamaoka’s father, the bane of his existence and the only one who can challenge his knowledge of food, doesn’t show up until the last story in the volume. I didn’t miss the often pig-headed conflict between the two. Although competition stories between them allow for more dishes to be displayed in a point/counterpoint routine, seeing Yamaoka on his own was something of a temporary palate cleanser. The father/son dispute can be overwrought and a bit tiring.

Here, though, their only face-off involves rice balls, a basic but unique Japanese food. There are all kinds of combinations presented, again involving all kinds of specialty ingredients and mix-ins. (The endnotes are a big help.) But the menu is more than an intriguing blend of variations on a classic dish — it’s an argument for tradition, conservation, and educating the future generations in the techniques of the past. As well as a lesson in why women make better cooks than professional chefs.

I’m loving this series about the wonders of food, cooking, and eating, and this installment is the best yet.

11 Comments

  1. Oishinbo is great stuff that I really need to read more of. What I liked best was that it wasn’t always as easy as “pure and honorable Japanese vs evil foreigners who don’t understand the beauty of being Japanese.” Many times the story would feature a stuffy, pretentious Japanese antagonist who was either embarrassed by Japanese culture or simply out to make a buck and sometimes Yamaoka was even aided by a foreigner or Japanese descendant abroad with a passion for food or Japanese culture (such as a French food expert extolling the virtues of chopsticks to a disillusioned Japanese teen, or a Japanese-American senator forsaking empty spectacle in favor of simple tea in the countryside). As someone who lived in Japan, I enjoyed that because there is definitely a tendency among stuffy types in Japan to assume that all foreigners are either completely ignorant in all matters Japanese or gullible Otaku rubes. Another thing I noticed was that many people in Japan had no idea just how popular Japanese food currently was in the West. A surprising amount of Japanese people assumed that the rest of the world looked down on them, when actually Japanese culture has never been more popular (or romanticized). A lot of Japanese right-wing rhetoric is based on the idea that everyone else is out to get Japan, and sometimes that spills over into Japanese pop culture (America is the same way, we have a lot of accidentally nationalist pop culture and a lot of pundits with weird inferiority complexes). It was nice to see a well made comic that not only celebrated the wonders of Japanese culture and thought, but also celebrated Japan being a part of the world. If any Oishinbo was going to be about nation pride, rice would logically be it, and I can forgive any rice-based nationalism considering how progressive and thoughtful the other volumes have been.

  2. What a thoughtful analysis! Thank you so much for sharing that.

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  4. Are the chapters from the original manga rearranged for the U.S. release? That’s the implication I get from reading your review, particularly this excerpt:

    “The first chapter of the book is an early episode from the long-running series that establishes key themes:”

    Or is it a flashback? Sorry if this is an obtuse question, but I’m relatively new to Oishinbo. I only have the first 2 volumes and admittedly I’ve only read the first couple of chapters.

    Great review, thanks.

  5. Kevin Lighton

    The series has been going for a long time in Japan (I think it was at 80+ volumes last time I noticed, and that was a couple of years ago), so Viz has been releasing volumes containing selected stories on specific themes rather than trying to release everything.

  6. Thanks for that bit of enlightenment, Kevin. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Granted, narrative doesn’t seem to be Oishinbo’s focus but I do get the feeling that there is an emphasis on character development and relationships between some of the characters — particularly Shiro and his dad. Wouldn’t that all become jumbled if the chapters do not follow a linear chronological progression.

    However, if this is the only feasible way Viz could do this, it is much better than nothing.

  7. I’m sorry, I covered the rearrangement in the series in my review of volume 1 of the Viz release, so I didn’t think to mention it again here. There are copious endnotes in every book, and that’s often where significant character changes are mentioned. “This chapter takes place before X and Y were engaged”, that sort of thing.

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