Oishinbo 5: Vegetables

September 21, 2009

Tetsu Kariya / Akira Hanasaki – Viz – 2009 – 102+ volumes
The Viz edition is a thematically-arranged “best of” version of the series, with each volume featuring short stories focused on a different topic.

Once again, I found myself drawn into the volume despite not having any interest whatsoever in the topic (I do not eat vegetables).  This time, I didn’t really find myself wanting to consume the dishes as I saw them prepared and described, but I was still fascinated with the preparation, the distinctions between good and bad dishes and veggies, and the strange environmentalist messages and frequent stories involving children turned on to vegetables due to Yamaoka’s excellent cooking.

One of the interesting things about these books is the variety of stories they contain. On one hand, I think the longer, multi-chapter stories are nice because their themes tend to be more developed and their descriptions more thorough.  But I think my favorite stories are the single chapter non-sequitor stories that tend to cover topics further off the beaten path.  I like that the topic of each volume has so far had so much variety that the stories have covered many aspects of whatever it is the volume is about.  But frequently there tends to be focus on one type of dish or cuisine, especially with longer stories, with the one-shot stories thrown in for variety.  I’m sure this is an issue with the series itself and the fact it can come back to revisit the exact same dishes and ingredients again and again since it is now over 100 volumes long.  While it’s interesting to see the variety of ways the same thing can be handled, like I said, I think I like the variety better.  This possible repetition-over-time theory of mine was mostly developed while reading this volume, which really does have A LOT of stories about the use of pesticides.  Then again, almost all the stories seemed to take place before Yamaoka married his partner, so they couldn’t have been written that far apart.  I think.

Anyway, after saying all that, it’s worth mentioning that this volume was better about variety of stories than the others I read were.  Eggplant was covered a couple times, but the analysis of good and bad eggplant was very interesting both times.  My favorite stories were a short one at the very end about organic vegetables and a little girl enjoying an old woman’s naturally-grown carrots and a longer story towards the beginning about a contest between Yamaoka and his father for preparing turnips and radishes.  I liked the look at the different ingredients in that story a lot.  There were stories that focused on the negative health issues surrounding the eating of pesticide-sprayed vegetables, ones that focused on organic gardens, and mostly they had a lot on a variety of vegetables in general.  One chapter was on asparagus specifically, and one had a long scene where the preparation of spinach was discussed at length.

As I said, I do not eat vegetables and have no interest in preparing them whatsoever, but once again, volumes of this series make for fascinating reads.  It’s not exactly entertaining, but I enjoy it for covering real topics with a level of detail not present in any other manga series.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Now, this volume had a topic I could really get into.  I actually enjoy eating ramen and noodle dishes quite a bit when I’m out, and my roommate recently turned me on to gyoza.  I was pretty excited about reading this volume.

Weirdly, these stories don’t quite go into the pornographic detail of food preparation that the other volumes did.  Also, most of the stories are about ramen and noodle dishes, and there was only one extended story about gyoza.

One of the ramen stories was about how the noodles were prepared and how care needs to go into both making the noodles as well as cooking them.  A couple of the stories in this volume (including th gyoza story) were about either Japan making Chinese food their own, or making Japanese interpretations of Chinese dishes better by looking at how they are prepared in China.  Also, quality of ingredients is stressed again and again, including things like unbleached flour for noodles, free-range chickens, stuff like that.

Many of the stories were battles between Yamaoka and his father Kaibara.  I wonder how frequently this happens if you were following the series chronologically.  These always strike me as a little humorous.  They follow a very rigid structure, where the two men will happen into one another, Yamaoka will decide he wants to show up Kaibara, the two will glare menacingly at each other for a while, the food will be prepared, and somehow Kaibara will come out on top because he knows the ingredients better.  The menacing glares are really what tickles me, especially coming from Kaibara.

One of the duel stories was kind of interesting, because each one of them took a side between two feuding towns that were both trying to invent a local dish in an attempt to stage a “revival festival” and stimulate the economy.  The approaches in this story were unexpected for this series, where you would imagine that the two would each come up with an elaborate dish made of the finest ingredients.  That wasn’t so much the case.

There’s also an interesting chapter at the very end about the Japanese words for “China,” what Asian countries prefer to be called and why the English titles prevail, the etymology of some of the country names, and some background about how the old name for China is considered racist.  It was a pretty interesting discussion.

While it didn’t go into the insane detail the other two books did, it did what neither of those two could.  I’m going out for ramen and gyoza tomorrow night.  Congratulations, Oishinbo!  Mission accomplished!

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Oishinbo 2: Sake

March 13, 2009

Once again, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a total slob whose eating habits would make most people sick to their stomach.  I am not the person who this series is aimed at, as I have no idea what is being discussed.  Alcohol in particular is a big mystery to me, I almost never drink because I don’t like the taste.  Oishinbo suggests I just haven’t tasted the good stuff though, which may be true.

Though the volume is called “sake,” a variety of alcoholic beverages are discussed.  Admittedly, most others are discussed as a comparison to sake, but reading the volume will net you a great deal of knowledge about how wine is made, what makes it good, how the process between making wine and champagne differs, what foods go well with wine and what foods do not, and there are two different stories about turning people who snub sake, a very Japanese drink, in favor of wine.

If you take anything away from this book, know that apparently most mass produced sake (at least at the time the story was written) was made with volume in mind rather than quality, and things like sugar and alcohol are added into mass-produced brands to reduce the amount of rice needed to make it.  Apparently this is a practice left over from the war when it was done out of necessity since there wasn’t enough rice… but since it’s very cheap, the tradition continues.  According to the book, sake tastes better with no additives, and the point is made several times no false ingredients go into wine or any other high-class drink.  Also, apparently bourbon is American, which I didn’t know.

One story takes up almost half the volume by itself, which strikes me as a bit unusual, though perhaps there are a lot of ongoing stories like this in the series itself.  The story is about a small sake distillery that is about to be consumed by a larger commercial operation due to an outstanding debt.  The story is about the characters convincing a bank to give the distillery the loan since they produce some of the finest sake in the country, sake is a cultural heritage, sake appreciation is on the rise, et cetera.

Oddly, the production of sake is never discussed in that much detail other than to describe how polishing off a certain percentage of the rice increases the quality the more the rice is polished.  Also strange is the fact that most of the stories are about the characters standing up for sake, and only one is really about comparing different types of fine sake (the one with the literary agent).  Brands and sake are compared in the other stories, but mostly it’s to discuss how the additives affect the flavor versus the pure sake made by the small outfits.

Again, if you’re looking for plot or deep characters, you’re not going to find it here.  This series is fascinating because of the indepth look it gives different culinary subjects.  As I said, I have no interest in fine food, but even I’m totally drawn into these books because it’s just interesting to read about this stuff.  I imagine someone who is more of an epicure than I getting a lot more out of this book, so if you are at all inclined, I would invite you to check it out.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

I’m only popping in briefly tonight to post this, which I probably should have posted a couple days ago.  I’ll have more stuff tomorrow.

I should probably get this out of the way: I lack any sort of refined palate.  Most people would either cry or slap me silly if I told them what I’ve eaten over the past week.  Or month.  Or year.  This type of series is totally lost on me because I cannot appreciate the nuances and delicacies that are discussed at length.  I don’t think I’ve ever even had sashimi, which is a focus in many of the stories.  Most people who buy this are going to be reading it to learn how Japanese cuisine is prepared and/or composed, and how what they eat may differ from what things are supposed to taste like.  I have no such frame of reference, so I’m just going to talk about what I enjoyed while I was reading it.  It did make me hungry, for what it’s worth.

The format for the series seems to be that each volume has a different theme, which is an excellent way to present it, because quite frankly, 100 volumes of this would be extremely tedious.  The stories are all taken from different points of the series, I gather, and the theme of this volume is “Japanese Cuisine,” or the basics of cooking Japanese food.  “Japanese Cuisine” seems like a really broad topic for a series that I thought was all about Japanese Cuisine, but it makes more sense when you realize the next volume will cover only drinks, and I assume future volumes will cover more complex things.

There are quite a number of chapters that talk about sashimi.  My favorites were the chapters that focused on the very, very basics.  For instance, one chapter is about the importance of properly handling a knife (which is demonstrated in the end with how to properly cut sashimi).  One chapter discusses only very basic miso and rice, and discusses how the care that goes into making it makes a difference in the flavor.  Another discusses how one can enjoy a simple dish like properly served tea over the most luxurious dishes money can buy.  A few go into detail on the types of plates and pottery the food is served on (two of the reoccurring characters are ceramicists).  My favorite chapter discusses chopsticks at length, discussing the different materials and their affects on the flavor of food, and also shows in detail how wooden chopsticks are made, step by step.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

The characters and plot are entirely secondary to theme of the food.  The recurring characters are little more than brief sketches of personalities, and there is never very much more than a basic set-up for each of the chapters.  That being said, I was surprised by the number of scenarios in the volume.  Most have to do with meeting people, but there is even variety in that.  The only two really important plot points are that the characters are all researching and/or involved with a newspaper column about the ultimate menu, and that the main character and his father hate each other’s guts and often run into each other at important culinary functions.  The main character is a little bit of a jerk… not Jan Akiyama-level, but enough of a jerk that he stirs things up for the purposes of the chefs going into further detail about what is being prepared in order to explain themselves.

And there is an insane level of detail given on whatever is being prepared in each chapter.  Iron Wok Jan is my only real frame of reference for detailed manga food preperation, but it just doesn’t compare to this at all.  What tastes good together and why, how preparing the same dish two slightly different ways can produce a huge difference in flavor, and even things like etiquette are discussed at length.

Like I said, I have zero expertise and no frame of reference for the actual content of this manga.  I read it because I was very curious about the borderline nonfiction nature, plus I’m always ready to try out a series like this, which is specifically to adults and perhaps even a non-manga audience.  I had no interest whatsoever in the subject matter when I first started reading it, but I’m acutally curious to see how the drink stories are handled next volume.  Knowing next to nothing about cooking has made me more curious, I think, because I can’t imagine the types of things that will be discussed.  And… well, I also can’t imagine what other volumes will cover.  I’m interested in it mostly as a novelty, but it is certainly on a different level from most any other manga series you can buy.  If you have any interest in food or cooking whatsoever, it’s definitely worth reading.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.