Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oishinbo - Wonderful Japanese Food Manga

At the suggestion of Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appétit's "Foodist," I have been reading the Japanese manga series, Oishinbo, and it is wonderful.

Being married to a Japanese art dealer and having lived in Japan for several years, I have come to know Japan, its people and its cuisine reasonably well. What I love about the Japanese people is how they care so much about what they do and always strive to do their best, just for the sake of it. Linked to this are the values placed on humility and sensitivity to the needs and desires of others. All of this is rooted in centuries-old Confucian traditions that still affect the soul of the people, although the prosperity of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are no doubt taking their toll on some of Japan's traditional values.

Oishinbo, an amazingly successful series of more than 100 manga written by Tetsu Kariya, is a really fun way to learn about Japanese culinary traditions and also the community values that distinguish the Japanese from other cultures. Starting in 2009, Viz Media has published English versions of selections anthologized from the hundred plus volumes in the series, arranged by topics: Japanese Cuisine generally, rice, vegetables, fish, ramen and gyoza, sake and pub food.

The subject is a quest by Yamaoka Shirô, a culinary journalist, to discover the "Ultimate Menu," a meal that embodies the best of Japanese cooking traditions. Yamaoka was trained as a chef by his father, Kaibara Yûzan, who is one of Japan's greatest chefs, but he left his father's exclusive restaurant because he couldn't stand the way Kaibara's obsession with food caused him to mistreat his wife and family. The two are completely estranged, but their paths cross frequently because a competing newspaper has hired Kaibara to come up with a "Supreme Menu." Although he is a jerk, Kaibara knows food, and has the occasional victory over Yamaoka.

It is worth giving some examples. To see them, click "more" below.
The rice-making contest

Yamaoka and his father Kaibara are involved in a rice making challenge. It takes place at a traditional inn with a wood-burning hearth, so conditions are optimal. Yamaoka describes his rice:
This is from the koshihikari variety, from Niigata Prefecture. A farm grew it for their own use, without any pesticides. The grains were dried in the sun and we milled them just a little while ago, right before boiling them in spring water from Otakifudô, which is considered to be one of the hundred best spring waters of Japan. Needless to say, I boiled it over a wood-burning hearth and added a fistful of straw at the end to steam it.

Everyone loves the rice, saying that it is fluffy and sweet, with each each grain cooked perfectly, "smooth on the tongue with just the right degree of firmness."

But he loses.

The great gourmet who is one of the judges tastes Kaibara's rice (actually made by an assistant):

[Yamaoka's] rice seemed perfect, but now that I've had [Kaibara's], I can see that it wasn't. Compared to this, [Yamaoka's] lacks uniformity. I thought his was fluffy, but compared to [Kaibara's], it's like a hard cotton mattress against a feather bed. And the moment you chew on the rice an enchanting sweetness and aroma fill your mouth . . . whereas [Yamaok's] rice smells of bran.

The secret: Kaibara's assistant put the rice on a black tray and then picked out the grains that wer broken, cracked, dark or too small, resulting in perfect uniformity of texture and taste.

Lots to learn about the importance of rice but, even more, the importance of respect for the ingredients and of attention to the smallest detail.

The Banquet

Yamaoka's boss asks him to arrange a banquet in honor of his friend, a third-generation Japanese-American who is a United States senator. It turns out that the competing publishing company got there first, and put on an extraordinary feast for the Senator, including sashimi cut at the banquet from a whole bluefin tuna and an entire hand-raised wagyu cow. The senator is clearly exhausted and over-sated by this showy banquet.

To his boss's dismay, Yamaoka responds the next day by leading the Senator on a hot mountainous walk to a lovely traditional inn. In a cool room overlooking the mountains the senator is served hot hôjicha, which paradoxically cools him down. After that he is served elegant gyokuro tea slowly steeped in 130 degree water. Waiting for the tea to brew, the senator describes his trip to Japan. "Day after day, I've being going to rich, extravagant banquets. But the food was only rich in cost. All of it lacked the most essential ingredient. And lacking that, it can't truly please anybody, no matter how expensive it may be."

The gyokuro is finally brewed and served. The Senator is enchanted.
What a pretty color . . . a kind of goldish-green, with an emerald tint to it . . . a sweet gentle slightly bitter flavor with a soft aftertaste . . . it's as if a breeze from a mountain stream has just blown through my body. I probably wouldn't have understood this flavor if you had just given it to me the moment I arrived here after walking under the sun. It's because I drank that hot hôjicha first . . . . Now I get it! You made me walk under the scorching sun so that I'd understand the flavor of this tea . . .

Yamaoka's boss tells the senator that this completes his meal. The senator responds that he'd be angry if he was served anything else. He continues, "I've just had a taste of the real Japan. The spirit of Japan. ... This is the essential ingredient all those expensive feasts were lacking. So what more could I ask for?"

What indeed?

Bobby Jay

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