Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Oishinbo: A la Carte

The third volume of Oishinbo: A la Carte, subtitled Ramen & Gyoza, was released today. I don't have it yet, since I live in the middle of freakin' nowhere (ahem) out in the French countryside, far from any bookstore that might carry English translations of Japanese mangas. But happily, it will be in my hands within a week.

If you don't know it, Oishinbo is a massively popular Japanese comic written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki. What's striking about it is that it's all about food and drink, and if you're at all interested in food, drink, Japanese culture and cuisine, or all of the above, it can hardly fail to delight you. First published in 1983, Oishinbo (which translates as something akin to "The Gourmet") traces the adventures of Yamaoka Shiro, a journalist for the Tozai News. For the newspaper's 100th anniversary, Yamaoka has been placed in charge of creating the "Ultimate Menu", designed to showcase the very best of Japanese cuisine. Yamaoka is cynical, bored and a little lazy, but he possesses a sophisticated palate and a keen understanding of food thanks to having been trained from a young age by his father, Kaibara Yuzan. Kaibara is the founder of The Gourmet Club, the most renowned gastronomic society in the country, and is revered for his palate, the sophistication of which is unrivaled, as well as for his unparalleled knowledge of all things culinary. (He's also known for his exquisite pottery and his fierce temper.) Unfortunately, Kaibara and Yamaoka bitterly detest one another, and much of the story is built around their rivalry and their various competitions with each other. As you follow the quest of Yamaoka and his friends, you are simultaneously treated to an entertaining, informative and articulately detailed lesson in the methods, ingredients, culture and philosophies of Japanese cuisine.

As Oishinbo has been running for 25 years, with over 100 publications so far, it wasn't practical to translate the entire collection into English. What the publisher, Viz Media, has done is to compile a selection of editions arranged around various themes: the first of this A la Carte series, released in January 2009, was entitled Japanese Cuisine, presenting an introduction to the fundamentals of Japanese food, such as dashi (stock), knife skills and sashimi. The second was Sake, which, despite its name, covered not only sake but also other drinks such as wine and awamori (an Okinawan distilled liquor).

As I don't read Japanese, I cannot compare the A la Carte editions to the originals, but the format seems to be working out well. Despite the original entries not being originally consecutive, they still trace a cohesive storyline, without feeling jarring or incomplete. There's also a healthy collection of endnotes in the back of the book that fill you in on key background elements to the story, as well as explanations of various Japanese terms and culinary concepts. The approach to food is highly sophisticated, and while the overall artwork is rather simple and utilitarian, the depictions of food and of sake and wine labels are wonderfully detailed. The text is educational without being overly didactic, and it's humorous and light-hearted enough to keep everything flowing. As the comic is republished in its original format, with English text simply replacing the Japanese, you have to read the book from right to left (that includes reading panels from right to left, as well as individual dialogue bubbles), which takes some getting used to, although it's not all that difficult.

I'm looking forward to future releases already in the works: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi (July 14), Vegetables (September 8), The Joy of Rice (November 17) and Izakaya: Pub Food (January 19, 2010). In the meantime, I'll soon be reading Ramen & Gyoza, and trying not to drool on the pages.

3 comments:

kevin said...

Its interesting how your freakin' nowhere (French countryside) seems more interesting than my freakin' nowhere (Kyoto suburb). Do you have any idea how much Champagne costs here?

Marie said...

Wow, I didn't quite expect someone like you talking about Oishinbo so passionately! Well, it does make sense when I think about it since you went to Sake tasting and your favorite restaurant in NYC is Japanese restaurant.
I read some of Oishinbo and I wantched TV show when I was young, but not anymore. Maybe reading Oishinbo now makes more sense as I got older.

Peter Liem said...

Kevin,
I can imagine that champagne isn't cheap there. But you have much, much better food. We could switch places for a while...

Marie,
I think Oishinbo is targeted at adults, and it's enjoyable reading. I suppose I might understand it if I were a kid growing up in Japan, but not necessarily somewhere else.