Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya (writer) & Akira Hanasaki (artist)
(Pages read from left to right)

A very serious discussion awaits HU readers next week, so I’ve decided to dwell on one of the more simple-minded manga series published in the last few years — the info-food manga, Oishinbo. The sole purpose of this manga mutate is to entertain while conveying information. So not exactly the equivalent of Jeremy Issac’s The World at War, but certainly a distant cousin of Anthony Bourdain eating a warthog anus.

The creators of Oishinbo are the “good” kind of fascist — food fascists. That breed of benevolent despot who shakes his fist at supermarkets which display their sake out of their cases and under harsh fluorescent lights; that friend who slaps her children’s hands if they use their chopsticks incorrectly; or the sniffy office mate who raises his eyebrows when he discovers that you’ve taken your steak well done. This kind of tyranny is catching, and ever since reading the volume titled, “Sake”, I’ve stopped buying that strain of salacious sake which doesn’t come under wraps. Of course, as with all good fascists, the food fascist is best observed at a distance, the better to preserve our sanity (and also to giggle). Which makes this manga an ideal instrument for such encounters.

Why anyone would want to dwell on the underlying plot of Oishinbo is beyond me, so I won’t. Let’s start with the champagne instead.

The authors of Oishinbo are only interested in the best.  This means otoro when it comes to tuna, and it means Dom Pérignon and Krug when it comes to champagne. It’s a reasonable choice. As champagne goes, Dom Pérignon and Krug are pretty tasty.

In this episode, the hero is trying to initiate a company man into the romance of champagne, a drink which that unbeliever has developed an acute phobia towards in view of a prior drunken episode (he opened 3 bottles but we’re never told how much he actually drank).

All the basic information on that gassy beverage is neatly laid out: the myth of the monk; flutes > saucer-shaped glasses etc. That’s when the French boosterism starts: the pooh-poohing of sparkling wines; and the reverent tones as the mysteries of the “traditional method” (remuage, degorgement, what have you) are laid bare. Most amusing and edifying of all is this statement:

“…of all drinks, champagne is the least likely to get you drunk and give you a hangover.”

In other words, this is licence to drink a couple of bottles of Krug or Dom P. without fear of getting pissed. Begone inferior Japanese copycats!

Anyways, a far cry indeed from the demystification Jancis Robinson opts for in her Wine Course TV series. I particularly enjoyed the bemused tone as Robinson describes the process of remuage with her hands moving in opposite directions as if rotating a pair of breasts. Then there’s the gentle ribbing of Richard Geoffroy (Chef de Cave at Dom Pérignon) when he describes champagne sediment with dulcet tones of awe (“Looks rather horrid to me,” she smirks. “Some respect please,” he admonishes). That’s the kind of levity you can afford when you’re a Master of Wine I suppose.

So Kariya and Hanasaki: not so good with the champagne but better with the sake. What about the salmon, you ask?

Now some of you might think that salmon is a rather pricey fish when sensitively smoked or turned into gravad lax. But in sashimi circles, salmon is the fish of plebs; undoubtedly one of the most common fish types you will find on your sashimi platter in Asia. This is the fish they serve you if you don’t have any money. And look at the fury on this man’s face once he discovers that his son has ingeniously decided to serve raw fresh salmon fillet on a bed of chrysanthemum petals as part of a food challenge.

[“I cannot accept this dish! It’s a failure!”]

Now some of you will be thinking that the man (a food connoisseur) has a problem with chrysanthemums (maybe he prefers carnations?). But it’s much simpler than that.  You see, raw salmon is poison! It will turn you into a shivering wreck and make you look like Maria Callas on tapeworms.

Consider exhibit A:

[Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!]

Look at the face of this man.

Just two pages before this, the hero killed his dog and served it to him raw.

Well, not quite, but close enough. Dispensers of raw salmon (a sizable part of the human race I should add) are indubitably the progenitors of an incipient world wide food cataclysm. After Oishinbo, you will never look at that meaty pink fish at your local restaurant the same again.

It doesn’t end there of course. I have neither the time nor energy to touch on the ramen cabals (more strict than Tsutomu Yamazaki in the movie Tampopo) and the gyoza fast food outlets with more flavors than a Baskin-Robbins.

For the initiated, gyoza (or jiaozhi as it’s pronounced in Chinese) is a fried dumpling which has its origins in China. You can find them at your local Shanghainese or Szechuan restaurant and, yes, your ramen outlet as well. Now, I can understand why the Japanese invented machines to dispense soiled women’s  panties, but the idea of  frequenting an outlet so that you can stuff yourself with endless amounts of fried flour wrapped around meat, and in 100 flavors? What kind of glutton would even want to eat at such a place?

Well, Oishinbo tells you this and more. I enjoyed every minute of it, you will too.

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