by Ed Sizemore
I don’t like seafood. Just to be clear — nothing from the sea. What about…? Nope. Not even…? Nope. To be honest, I’m not crazy about most vegetables either. So it should come as no surprise that I don’t like most Japanese cuisine. There are some exceptions. I’m a big fan of teriyaki beef and enjoy a nice breaded pork cutlet. My finicky eating habits do make me something of an oddity in the manga community. So this month’s Manga Moveable Feast focused on food manga provides something of a challenge for me.
Here’s the thing. While I might despise Japanese cuisine, I actually enjoy reading food manga. In fact, I’ve read Oishinbo twice now. I’m getting ready to reread Not Love But Delicious Foods too. So what’s the appeal of manga talking about food I don’t like?
For Oishinbo, I like learning about the science behind Japanese cuisine. I’m impressed how through trial and error chefs over the centuries discovered preparation and cooking methods that brought out the best flavor from a particular ingredient. These methods became part of a fine cuisine tradition in Japan. Now we have the scientific tools to explain why these methods work so well.
For example, on pages 54-55 of the Japanese Cuisine volume, the lead character, Yamaoka, explains the proper cutting technique for making sashimi. “[Y]ou draw the full length of the blade through the fish in one gentle sweep…” He explains that this preserves the cell structure of the fish and thus the flavor, too. I won’t ever eat any raw fish, but I enjoyed learning why slow and steady preparation is needed for the best tasting sashimi.
I’m also fascinated by some of the extremes to which people go for the perfect dish of a particular food. Later on page 137 of the same volume, we discover the secret to creating the perfect bowl of rice. “[I]f the size of the grains is not uniform, the rice will cook unevenly.” How do you ensure such uniformity? You have to inspect each grain of rice. That’s a lot of work for a ingredient most Americans consider a bland side item.
This brings us to a second reason I like food manga. It lets me peek inside a different world. I’m not a gourmand by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the time, I’m eating just to put fuel in my body. It’s rare that I take time to actually sit down and focus on the food I’m eating. Food manga gives me a new perspective on what I’m shoveling into my face.
A great example of the gourmand world is Yoshinaga’s Not Love But Delicious Foods. This woman loves food, and her passion jumps off the pages. My reactions reading this book best capture my odd relationship to food manga. So often I find her descriptions of the food enticing, and the joy shown as she eats makes me a bit envious of the good time she’s having. But when I look at the ingredient list for some of the dishes my only thought is, “Gross!”
Her descriptions of the taste and texture of the food are truly impressive. Here are a few samples. “[T]his red wine stew is what I wanted to eat. The sweet, thick taste of meat that melts.” (53) “The salt flavoring and sesame seed oil give it a great aroma, and the slight sweetness of the meat itself combined with the chopped garlic really does the trick.” (73)
I’m amazed at how she and others can pick out all the ingredients within a dish. Another series that shows off an impressive sense of taste is Drops of God. The protagonist, Shizuku, is able to distinguish different fruits and spices added to wines. For example, “That most wine-like complexity, the fresh piercing mint scent, and the trademark black-currant aroma.” I realize that’s not a skill accomplished overnight. Since it’s not a skill I’m willing to learn, food manga allows me a glimpse of this world.
When you really get down to it, food manga has the same appeal all manga has always had for me; it takes me outside my world. I fell in love with manga because it was a new way to look at the world, storytelling, and comics. I don’t agree with everything I read, but I appreciate having my horizons broadened.
Food manga is simply another way my world is being expanded. I’m introduced to dishes and ingredients I’ve never heard of before. I’m given a new perspective on food and an education on why I should care more about the food I’m eating. I can’t say that I’ll be eating any of the dishes I’ve read about, but I can apply those lessons to the food I do enjoy. Food manga just reinforces my love and appreciation of manga itself.