Japanese author, Tetsu Kariya, magically combines a Japanese cookbook (Oishinbo A la Carte), Japanese culinary art and insights into Japanese culture with an engaging storyline involving one man’s quest for the “ultimate menu”. The story unravels via an intriguing manga — a Japanese style cartoon.
“The art style is classic, says Johanna Draper, “caricatured faces, open style, simplified features, and exaggerated emotional reactions. Yamaoka’s hooded eyes demonstrate his disdain, characteristic of his jaded cynicism. Many of the illustrations are head shots, as the characters talk over food, or illustrations of the dishes. What little motion there is is during a demonstration, and even those are static, focusing only on the specific motion of stirring a pot or shaving a fish (to make bonito flakes“).
The highlights outlining the main character’s journey from the one hundred two book series which debuted in 1983, have been collected and compiled into the Viz manga series Oishinbo A la Carte. The chapters are divided by course with each section telling a story. Stories center on the main character, Yamaoka Shiro, and his journey to visit an assortment of Japanese chefs on his path to find the culinary holy grail, the “ultimate menu” — the quintessential Japanese cuisine, where rice, knife skills, sashimi, sea bream, green tea, careful crafting of chopsticks, the secrets of cooking stock, and intricacies of food preparation are explored.
Yamaoka Shiro and his overbearing, great Santini-like father, Kaibara Yuzan, compete with each other in an on-going battle for top chef dominance in the art of cooking simplicity. While Yamaoka prepares just-milled rice dried in the sun and boiled in spring water, his father counters by sorting precooked rice, plucking broken, cracked, and uneven grains to achieve an even balance when cooked. Several interesting forms of Japanese cuisine are covered, from the use of paper to add food texture to preparing gauze wrapped fish skin for boiling.
In Japan, according to Leroy Douresseaux, “the Oishinbo manga series is considered culturally significant because the journey it takes through the world of Japanese cooking and food culture, as it also examines so many aspects of the wider Japanese culture. For instance, one of the stories in Ramen & Gyoza explains the complex relationship between Japan and China by examining what name each nation uses for the other and why“.
The main characters featured in “OISHINBO” are:
Shiro Yamaoka – A journalist for Tozai News who knows his food and how things are created but he is estranged from his father, a prominent artist and founder and director of the Gourmet Club. He despises his father because of the death of his mother. Yamaoka was trained from a young age by his father, Kaibara.
Kaibara Yuzan – The father of Shiro Yamaoka is a prominent artist and founder and director of the Gourmet Club. Because of his prominent stature, all restaurants fear him and thus feel the need to create perfect food for him. Estranged from his son Shiro and despises him for destroying all of his paintings and pottery worth tens or hundreds of million yen. A man widely revered for his sense of taste and feared for his ferocious temper. He heads the “Supreme Menu” project for Teito Times, rival paper to the Tozai News that his son works for.
“OISHINBO A la Carte” is broken up in chapters:
1. FIRST COURSE – THE SOUL OF RAMEN – Mayumi and Masumi are twins married to men who own a ramen shop together. But because of a dispute on who could make the better ramen, both brothers went on to have their own competing ramen shops and now are bitter rivals. Which ramen shop is the best?
2. SECOND COURSE – FRENCH FOOD AND RAMEN RICE – Junichi Hirakawa works in the science department and recently has a new girlfriend from a rich family. Problem is that Junichi is not rich and is a basic ramen and rice guy but he wants to impress his girlfriend so he asks Yamaoka to help him impress his girlfriend by showing him how to order food at a French restaurant.
3. THIRD COURSE – SOUP AND NOODLES – Hoshimura Rumiko, a home and garden reporter wants to do an article on Hiyashi Chuka and wants to asks both her friend Yuko and Yamaoka to find the best restaurants that serve the dish but Yamaoka is not a big fan of the dish.
4. THIRD COURSE – SOUP AND NOODLES PART TWO – Somehow their search for the best Hiyashi Chuka ended up a competition between Yamaoka and his father Kaibara-sensei. Now Yamaoka must find the best ingredients.
5. THIRD COURSE – SOUP AND NOODLES PART THREE – Its the day of the Hiyashi Chuka dish competition between Yamaoka and his father Kaibara-sensei.
6. FOURTH COURSE – BATTLE! VILLAGE REVIVAL (PART ONE) – The Konishi Village and the Kohigashi Village are bitter rivals and now they are working on cuisine that represents their villages. The Konishi Village has allied with Kaibara-sensei and now the Kohigashi Village has asked Yamaoka to help them.
7. FOURTH COURSE – BATTLE! VILLAGE REVIVAL (PART TWO) – It’s another competition between father and son as Yamaoka and his father Kaibara try to show who has the best cuisine…the Kohigashi Village or the Konishi Village.
8. FIFTH COURSE – A NEW GYOZA (PART ONE) – Yoshiko is smitten by the owner of the Gyoza Shop Oharu but the owner wants to make better gyoza but doesn’t know where to start. So, Yoshiko asks Yuko for help. Yuko goes to Yamaoka for help.
9. FIFTH COURSE – A NEW GYOZA (PART TWO) – Yamaoka has agreed to help Yamawaki-san of Gyoza Shop Oharu and create a new ultimate gyoza. But first they need to do research on the other gyoza shops in the local area.
10. FIFTH COURSE – A NEW GYOZA (PART THREE) – While the group are doing research on gyoza, both Yamaoka and his father Kaibara-sensei get into another competition on who can make the best gyoza.
11. SIXTH COURSE – CHINESE FOOD AND CHINA – Yamaoka’s boss has gotten himself into a predicament when he brought his two Chinese business guests to a ramen shop with a name that is racist for Chinese. Yamaoka explains why the businessmen were offended by the name.
(Source – Dennis Amith, J-ENT)