One of the problems I had with the Oishinbo A la Carte series was its lack of context. By collecting stories based on the foods they cover, they gave you a generous helping of a particular subject, but there were also snippets of actual plot that were tantalizing, but ultimately not very filling—they just made you hungry for more.
Read multiple volumes, however, and the larger picture starts to emerge. It’s still somewhat fragmentary, but sometimes it seems like the stories were chosen far more carefully than just by what foods they feature. One volume may reference a story that happens to appear in another volume; others may contain essential back story.
So it seems in Oishinbo A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine, where they take a more general direction with the food spotlighted. Here, the focus is on the “fundamental ingredients” that constitute the “soul of the Japanese kitchen.” We get to read about making dashi (stock), sashimi, chopsticks, the tea ceremony, and general hospitality. At the same time, we receive a healthy dose of the cast, learning more about Toyama, Kyogoku, Tomii, and even Kaibara and Yamaoka. Want to know why Yamaoka can’t stand his father? The answer is revealed here!
It’s always interesting to see early chapters of the manga, as there have been significant changes in the character design (never mind the art style). Kurita has seen the most dramatic progression, but even Yamaoka has his evolution as well—in early chapters he seems to sport a bad attempt at facial hair and he tends to roll the sleeves of his suit up. It is also in the earlier chapters that we see the most plot development; in running so long with the same plot (the Ultimate Menu), the characters end up stuck in a holding pattern. I suppose things will start to progress again once the creators decide to end it, but we’re almost at thirty years already.
On to the food! This volume feels a bit less instructional than others, because they focus more on the culture surrounding food in addition to the food itself. There is still a bit about cutting sashimi that was very informative, and the volume contains two recipes for seabream sashimi, both of which sound delicious and appear relatively easy to prepare. However, this volume’s main instructional purpose is to make the reader aware of their etiquette, both in preparing and serving food as well as eating it. Food is more than taste; it’s an experience.
Oishinbo A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine
story by Tetsu Kariya
art by Akira Hanasaki
translated by Tetsuchiro Miyaki
edited by Leyla Aker
published by Viz Signature (San Francisco, 2009)