Oishinbo a la Carte 7: Izakaya: Pub Food

Oishinbo a la Carte: Izakaya: Pub Food cover

I’m very sorry to hear that this is the last volume in the series that Viz will be translating and publishing in the US. Oishinbo was one of my best manga of 2009, and each volume is better than the last.

Which would make Izakaya: Pub Food the best yet, or at least the most diverse, and a great note to end on. Izakaya, according to this volume, are bars that serve, along with the alcohol, food that goes well with drinks. I’m thinking the American equivalent is a TGI Friday’s, with the food being the Japanese equivalent of potato skins, cheese sticks, and buffalo wings. As a result, the stories in this book are the widest ranging yet in the series by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, since they revolve around a varied group of dishes and different reasons for people to eat together. In fact, the food often takes a distinct second place.

The book starts with a simple favorite that’s available here as well: edamame, blanched soybeans in the pod. They’re served with beer in a story about valuing the experienced knowledge of a master beer pourer. Misconceptions damage his relationship with a new boss, and in a rather Japanese way, he’d rather be thought badly of than stand up for himself when he knows he’s right. It takes Yamaoka’s intervention to reconcile the two. Since he knows more about food than almost anyone else alive, that’s not a problem. His biggest risk is annoying those he needs to persuade, since he’s got almost no positive personality skills.

Oishinbo a la Carte: Izakaya: Pub Food cover

Next, Yamaoka, the reporter creating the Ultimate Menu, has to put his knowledge into practice when he’s asked to manage a new restaurant based on the project. This story has a lot of character background that would make more sense to a reader of the full series, instead of these extract volumes; we have to rely on the endnotes to tell us all the history among the cast. I thought this chapter would have been better off left out, because the food shown — all sardine dishes — isn’t particularly interesting, and the character relations confusing. It’s interesting to see the slacker Yamaoka being given responsibility, but it doesn’t go much of anywhere, and we never see the payoff. Including it in a final volume feels like a frustrating tease.

The next chapter is much more interesting. Two older newlyweds are having trouble adapting to sharing married life, as symbolized by how they prepare a shellfish delicacy differently. Yamaoka pushes them towards reconciliation by showing them a really odd French way to prepare yuba (tofu skin), as an example of how boundaries can be crossed deliciously. Then we jump ahead to planning the wedding of Yamaoka and his girlfriend/co-worker, an event that’s become promotion for the Ultimate Menu and the paper that publishes it.

While planning, they find an apprentice at a local restaurant working hard to participate in his chosen field. There’s an interesting statement about how creativity is viewed in Japan when it comes to starting out:

Even the great Okaboshi started by copying his master, right?
That’s right. Yuichi’s dishes today may not be completely original … but creation starts from imitation.

Here in the US, doing something new is often more important than doing something well, and imitation is considered a sin or a crime. They go on to discuss how natural talent is not as important as working hard to develop your gifts. As you might have guessed from these descriptions, the food is a lot less important here than in other volumes. Relationships are what matter, as demonstrated by eating together or preparing food for someone. Near the end of the book comes the most important one, as Yamaoka and his then-wife have to figure out what to name their babies.

There are some food-centered stories, though. In one two-parter, Yamaoka is asked to create new dishes for a chain of izakaya. These chapters present a whole line of delicious options that sound mouth-watering. But probably the tale most emblematic of the series is an odd story where a guy who absolutely hates potatoes — because he almost choked to death on them as a kid — has to find a way to eat them. It takes a ridiculous challenge, where food has great importance (more so than it does for most people) and resolves it with surprisingly effective emotional impact. That’s the quintessential Oishinbo story.

Given that this is the final entry in the US, I did miss seeing one more cookoff between Yamaoka and his showoff gourmet father, who doesn’t even appear in this book. It would have been nice to have felt a little more resolution in that area. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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