Oishinbo a la Carte 6: The Joy of Rice
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.
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 by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki about the wonders of food, cooking, and eating, and this installment is the best yet.