Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of RiceAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521442
Released: November 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

At well over one hundred volumes, Oishinbo is one of the most successful and long-running food manga in Japan, winning the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, Oishinbo first began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing although currently the manga is on indefinite hiatus following a controversy of its depiction of the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. Between 2009 and 2010, Viz Media released seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte under its Signature imprint, becoming the first food manga that I ever read. Oishinbo, A la Carte is a series of thematic anthologies collecting chapters from throughout the main Oishinbo manga. Oishinbo, a la Carte: The Joy of Rice was the sixth collection to be released in English in 2009. However, The Joy of Rice was actually the thirteenth volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte to be published in Japan in 2005.

The Joy of Rice collects eight stories and one essay in which rice, an important staple of Japanese diet and cuisine, is featured. In “A Remarkable Mediocrity,” the wrath of a wealthy businessman and gourmand who made his fortune dealing in rice is able to be appeased by the simplest of dishes. “Brown Rice Versus White Rice” examines how people can be mislead even when they make an effort to eat healthily. The structure of rice and how proper storage can make a difference when it comes to cooking it are the focus of “Live Rice.” Yamaoka, Oishinbo‘s protagonist, makes a case against the importation of foreign rice into Japan in “Companions of Rice.” In “The Matsutake Rice of the Sea,” a wager between friends over a rice dish becomes more important than they realize. Kariya opines about the eating manners of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in his essay “The Most Delicious Way to Eat Rice.” A debate on the proper way to eat rice is central to “No Mixing” as well. Rice takes a supporting role in “The Season for Oysters,” but once again takes the spotlight in the three-part “Rice Ball Match.”

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice, page 215Because Oishinbo, A la Carte compiles various stories together by theme rather than by chronology, the series can feel somewhat disjointed. Having read nearly all of the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections available in English, for the most part I’ve gotten used to and even expect this, but it seemed to be particularly glaring in The Joy of Rice. From story to story it’s often difficult to anticipate the status of the characters’ relationships with one another and those relationships are often very important to understand. For example, “A Remarkable Mediocrity” is one of the earliest episodes to be found in Oishinbo proper—it’s a little awkward to have the chapter that originally introduced several of the established recurring characters appear so late in A la Carte. Admittedly, the point of Oishinbo, Al la Carte is to highlight specific foods or themes; only a basic understanding of the underlying premise of Oishinbo and of its characters is absolutely necessary. The translation notes help greatly, but it can still make for an odd reading experience.

The Joy of Rice examines the place of rice within Japanese culture and cuisine, addressing both social and scientific aspects of the grain. Like the other volumes in Oishinbo, A la Carte, The Joy of Rice places a huge emphasis on organically and locally produced food, railing against pesticides, herbicides, and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. The series is not at all subtle about the stance it takes, and Yamaoka can frankly be a jerk about it at times. Initially I was hoping that The Joy of Rice would explore the different varieties of rice found and used in Japan, but the volume instead focuses on the significance of rice in the lives of the country’s people—the nostalgia and memories associated with it and the pure enjoyment and complete satisfaction that it can bring—which was ultimately very gratifying. However, my favorite story in The Joy of Rice, “Rice Ball Match,” uses rice to delve into Japanese culinary culture and history as a whole, which was an excellent way to round out the volume, bringing all of the manga’s themes together in one place.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables

Oishinbo, A la Carte: VegetablesAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521435
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

When it comes to food manga, the long-running and sometimes controversial Oishinbo is one of the most successful series in Japan. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, the popular Oishinbo is well over a hundred volumes long and earned its creators a Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. I don’t expect Oishinbo to ever be released in English in its entirety, but Viz Media did license seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte–thematic collections of stories selected from throughout the series. Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables is technically the nineteenth A la Carte volume, published in Japan in 2006, but in 2009 it became the fifth collection to be released in English under Viz Media’s Signature imprint. If I recall correctly, Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine was the very first food manga that I ever read. Since then, I have enjoyed slowly making my way through the other A la Carte collections available in English, and so was looking forward to a serving of Vegetables.

While Vegetables collects Oishinbo stories from different points the series, it also includes some of the earliest arcs. One of the primary, ongoing plotlines of the manga is the competition between Yamaoka, a newspaper journalist heading the “Ultimate Menu” project, and his estranged father Kaibara, who is developing the “Supreme Menu” for a rival paper. The three-part “Vegetable Showdown!” that opens the volume is only their second official battle for culinary dominance. Appropriately for a volume about vegetables (since getting kids to eat them is apparently a worldwide struggle), many of the stories feature children discovering that produce like eggplants, bean sprouts, and carrots might not be so bad after all. At least when they’re prepared well. Adults preconceived notions are challenged in the manga as well, not just about how vegetables are prepared and taste but also about how they are grown and produced. The stories in Vegetables often follow produce from the field to the table.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables, page 90Oishinbo frequently delves into the politics of food and the series’ characters (and I would assume by extension its creators) have very strong opinions about the matter. Vegetables joins the previous two A la Carte collections in English–Fish, Sushi & Sashimi and Ramen & Gyōza–in particularly stressing the importance of quality ingredients and in arguing very strongly for food that has been safely, responsibly, sustainably, and often locally produced. So far, however, Vegetables seems to be the volume that is most blatant in its activism, villainizing the use of herbicides and pesticides. Opposing viewpoints are briefly entertained, but it is very clear which side of the debate Oishinbo supports. The environmentalist message in Vegetables can be very heavy-handed. Organic produce is often ideal for a number of the reason explained in Vegetables, but the reality is perhaps much more complicated and nuanced than the manga might lead readers to believe.

Overall, I think that Vegetables may actually be one of the weaker A la Carte volumes to have been released in English, but I still enjoyed it. Oishinbo is a series that is educational as well as entertaining and Vegetables is no exception. Although not particularly subtle about its politics, the manga is informative, the individual stories exploring different aspects of produce from how they are grown to what a chef should keep in mind when preparing them. When it comes to vegetables, Oishinbo would seem to argue for simplicity. Produce grown in ideal conditions and in their native environments require very little to enhance their natural goodness and flavor. A dish may be refined, but if the ingredients are of high quality to begin with it does not need to be overly complex. Sometimes only a bit of salt is all that is called for. Food is a major source of the drama in Oishinbo and is often what drives the manga’s plot. And even when it’s not, food–and in this particular volume vegetables–always plays a significant supporting role.

Manga Giveaway: Oi, Oishinbo! Winner

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese CuisineAnd the winner of the Oi, Oishinbo! manga giveaway is…AshLynx!

As the winner, AshLynx will be receiving a copy of Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki. Oishinbo is one of the most successful and well-known food manga out there (at least in Japan), so for this giveaway I asked that people tell me a little about their own favorite food manga. Check out the giveaway comments for everyone’s responses. As usually, I’ve also taken the giveaway as an opportunity to compile a list. Below you’ll find some food-centric manga, as well as a few manga where food isn’t the focus but still plays an important role.

Some of the food manga licensed in English:
Antique Bakery by Fumi Yoshinaga
The Drops of God written by Tadashi Agi and illustrated by Shu Okimoto
Eat For Your Life! by Shigeru Tsuchiyama
Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma written by Yuto Tsukuda, illustrated by Shun Saeki
Gente by Natsume Ono
Iron Wok Jan by Shinji Saijyo
Kitchen Princess written by Miyuki Kobayashi, illustrated by Natsumi Ando
Mixed Vegetables by Ayumi Komura
Moyasimon: Tale of Agriculture by Masayuki Ishikawa
Neko Ramen by Kenji Sonishi
Noodle Fighter Miki by Jun Sadogawa
Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! by Fumi Yoshinaga
Oishinbo, A la Carte written by Tetsu Kariya, illustrated by Akira Hanasaki
Project X: Cup Noodle written by Tadashi Kato, illustrated by Akira Imai
Ristorante Paradiso by Natsume Ono
Seiwa High School Bento Club! by Umitamako
Takasugi-San’s Obento by Nozomi Yanahara
Toriko by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro
What Did You Eat Yesterday? by Fumi Yoshinaga
Yakitate!! Japan by Takashi Hashiguchi

I love food, and I love manga, so food manga is a great combination for me. Thank you to everyone who shared their favorites; now we all have something to tide us over until the next manga giveaway!

Manga Giveaway: Oi, Oishinbo!

May seems to have gone on forever for me and I’m really ready for it to be over. I’ve been traveling so much recently that all I really want to do is to curl up at home for a good, long manga binge. Happily, the end of May finally is approaching, which means it’s time for me to help someone else out by providing manga to read. For this month’s giveaway I offer you a chance to win a copy of Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine. As always, the giveaway is open worldwide!

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine

With Vertical’s release of Fumi Yoshinaga’s What Did You Eat Yesterday?, I’ve recently been thinking quite a bit about food manga. And when I think about food manga (which, like food, I love) I think about Oishinbo—the long-running, award-winning series by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki. In fact, just a few weeks ago I brought the series up in my random musings about sake. (Also, Oishinbo specifically and food manga in general were the subjects of May 2012’s Manga Moveable Feast two years ago. There were some great posts, so I encourage you to check it out!) Oishinbo made headlines not too long ago, too: it’s publication was suspended due to the controversy over its depiction of health issues in the Fukushima area. It’s not the first time that the manga has made political or social commentary, either. I’m actually rather fond of Oishinbo. The series hasn’t and probably never will be released in its entirety in English (it’s already over 110 volumes long in Japan), but seven A la Carte volumes have been published by Viz Media. Basically, these are thematic, “best of” collections. Oishinbo, A la Carte was the first of these to be released in English and it makes a great introduction to Japanese food culture as well to Oishinbo itself.

So, you may be wondering, how can you win a copy of Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine?

1) In the comments below, simply tell me a little about your favorite food manga. (If you don’t have one, or haven’t read any, you can simply mention that.)
2) If you’re on Twitter, you can earn a bonus entry by tweeting about the contest. Make sure to include a link to this post and @PhoenixTerran (that’s me).

There you go! Each person can earn up to two entries for this giveaway and has one week to submit comments. If you have trouble leaving a comment, or if you would prefer, entries may also be submitted via e-mail to phoenixterran(at)gmail(dot)com. (The comments will then be posted in your name.) The giveaway winner will be randomly selected and announced on June 4, 2014. Bon appétit!

VERY IMPORTANT: Include some way that I can contact you. This can be an e-mail address, a link to your website, Twitter username, or whatever. If I can’t figure out how to get a hold of you and you win, I’ll just draw another name.

Contest winner announced—Manga Giveaway: Oi, Oishinbo! Winner

Random Musings: Cultures of Japanese Sake

Cultures of SakeI enjoy sake. I don’t have the opportunity to drink it very often, and I don’t really know much about it, but I do enjoy it and have an interest in it. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to hear Natsuki Kikuya, the founder of Museum of Sake, give her presentation “World of Sake: How It’s Created, and Where It’s Going.” Kikuya is from a family of sake brewers which is part of a collective in the Tōhoku region of northern Honshū. She currently works with chefs in the United Kingdom as a sake sommelier and is in the process of developing a sake documentary; her personal mission is to introduce and promote sake across Europe and the rest of the world. The craft and culture surrounding sake and sake brewing is broad and deep. A comparison can easily be made with wine culture, but Kikuya has found that in the West a “translator” is often needed for sake. Whereas wine has an extensive vocabulary already established to describe it, traditionally sake has had only two descriptors: dry and sweet.

SakeSo, what is sake? In Japanese, “sake” is a word that simply means “alcoholic beverage.” However, when the term is used in English, generally it is specifically referring to what is known in Japan as nihonshu. Sake is a fermented and filtered alcoholic beverage that is no more than 22% alcohol by volume. Typically, sake is brewed using only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji. Approximately 1% of Japan’s total rice production is devoted specifically to the brewing of sake. Though still edible, the rice used in sake is very different from table rice meant for consumption. When making sake the outside of the grains of rice is polished away, leaving behind the starches. In the highest quality sake, more than half of the rice is polished away. (In one exceptional case, only 7% of the rice remained after polishing.) Water is a particularly important ingredient as sake is made up of around 80% water. Water from different sources can significantly change the taste of the sake; generally water with softer qualities is desired. Up until the 20th century, sake production primarily relied on wild yeast, however more than 90% of sake fermentation now uses cultivated yeast. Koji is sake’s “magical ingredient”—a type of mold spore that transforms the starches in the rice into sugars for the yeast to ferment. Sake is often described as being “grown in breweries”; its quality very much depends on the human techniques involved and there is less emphasis placed on vintage as a result.

During her talk, Kikuya outlined a brief history of sake and its development in Japan. Sake had its beginnings over 2,500 years ago, originating as the “drink of the gods” and was associated with Shinto shrines. Between the 7th and 12th centuries, sake came under control of the court. During that time there were thirteen different grades of sake appropriate for the different ranks of nobility. In the Middle Ages the center of sake production moved to Kōfuku-ji in Nara and other Buddhist temples. At this point in history distilled spirits from abroad began to be introduced to Japan as well. The Edo period saw the rise of brewing specialists and the center of sake production once again moved, this time to Itami and Edo. Previously sake had been made year-round, but as the brewing techniques were refined during the Edo period it became a winter-specific process. The Edo period also saw the establishment of izakaya and the culture of eating outside of the home; sake was no longer just for nobles. Homebrewing was prohibited in 1899, mostly for tax reasons, and so sake brewing became more of a corporate affair during the Meiji era.

Sake Aisle

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake

The 20th century brought the “era of synthetic sake.” When rice was not readily available (during times of war, for example), techniques were developed to compensate for this lack, such as the introduction of syrups. The quality of the results were not always particularly good. And then there is sake industry today, which is focusing on modernization, localization, and globalization. This includes the creation of “new gen” sake, such as sparkling sake and sake with low alcohol content, as well as the use of sake in mixed drinks. At one point there were over 4,000 breweries in Japan. Sadly, the industry is dying and only around 1,200 breweries currently remain. Of those, the top twenty account for 80% of the sake production in Japan, however local breweries are beginning to gain increased support. There are several theories as to why interest in sake is declining in Japan: the continued Westernization of the country, the aging and shrinking of the population, and the fact that younger generations simply don’t seem to be drinking sake. Although the sake industry is still dominated by men, Kikuya knows of at least ten women heads of breweries. Interestingly enough, in addition to Japan, the United States is also a leading producer of sake and currently has seven to eight breweries of its own.

Prior to the Kikuya’s talk, my knowledge of sake had primarily been gleaned from what I myself had tasted as well as from manga like Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo (especially the volume Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake) and Masayuki Ishikawa’s Moyasimon. I was quite happy to discover that those series have actually provided me with a fairly strong introduction to and basic understanding of sake and the sake industry, including some of the more unusual and interesting historical tidbits. So, even if you don’t have the chance to take advantage of the knowledge of a sake expert, picking up a copy of Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake and following it up with a bit of Moyasimon (the manga or the anime) is not a bad place to start. (Toko Kawai’s short boys’ love series The Scent of Apple Blossoms also features a sake brewer, though I haven’t read it yet to be able to say how educational the manga might be.) For those interested in learning more about sake, Kikuya’s Museum of Sake is also worth a look, as is Discovery UK’s series Discovering Sake. And sometimes the best way to learn about something is to simply experience it for yourself. Have a taste!