I could almost feel the fiery spiciness from Mapo Tofu, a traditional Chinese dish, even before I could see the dish. The aroma from fermented beans and minced meat that painted the dish red made me drool. My entire body tingled with excitement as I looked forward to tasting the super-spicy dish.
Unfortunately, looking is as far as I can go, since it is from a page out of Shokugeki no Soma , a cooking manga written by Yuto Tsukuda and illustrated by Shun Saeki.
Manga and anime are Japanese-styled comics and animation and are widely consumed in Japan. Cooking or food-related manga and anime have a cult following across the world, where works like Oishinbo have been running since 1983. But you are gravely mistaken if you think that is all cooking manga and anime attempt to do, for they offer more than vibrant-looking dishes. They are a roller-coaster ride of exploring spices and indigenous dishes; delve deeper into what it means to be a chef for the Japanese, whose cuisine comes under UNESCO cultural heritage.
Let us take Oishinbo for instance. It revolves around the quest of culinary journalists Shiro Yamaoka and his co-worker Yuko Kurita, in finding the ultimate dish through cooking contests. As the story progresses, they take us through Japanese sentiments about food, ingredients they use and also why rice continues to dominate the food scene there.
I did not know that there were four popular rice varieties, koshihikari, sasanishiki, akitakomachi and hitomebore, and each serves a different purpose. Some of the highest quality oriental pottery used in Japanese homes is made out of clay from the rice fields. The Japanese alcoholic drink Sake is made from rice too. Politics around food-related issues are not left out as well. The work dealt in detail with food-related policy issues, like rice imports from the US. Oishinbo argued that import would affect the indigenous food culture, which is dependent on rice.
The secret elixir
We know Japan leads in terms of life expectancy in the world. Oishinbo delves into that as well. This particular arc starts with Shiro Yamaoka and his team going to Okinawa, Japan, to learn the recipe for a long life. He learns that the magic recipe for long life lies in pork, herbs, black eel, tofu and seaweed, that are unique to the Okinawan diet.
The knowledge about the indigenous food culture was what got C Dinesh, a foodie and an engineering student, hooked onto this genre. “When you are reading such manga, it is not just about fiery battles and the story, it is about the language of vegetables, meat, spices and herbs,” he says. “This genre opens a whole new world of not just Japanese cuisine, but also popular ones like French, Italian and Chinese. Frankly, I would not have been interested in it if not for this vibrant platform,” he added.
- Japan has the maximum number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Around 557 stars between 429 restaurants in four cities — Nara, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
- Tokyo has the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants with 304 stars, followed by Kyoto at 135 and Paris at 134.
- Usuki Fugu Yamadaya, with three stars to its name, is in Tokyo. It specialises in Fugu, or pufferfish, which can be deadly if it’s not prepared correctly.
- Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, has the largest number of traditional restaurants, that have been in business for more than 300 years.
- Oishinbo is the longest-running cooking manga. The title is a portmanteau of the Japanese word for delicious, oishii, and the word for a gourmand, kuishinbo.
- Tetsu Kariya, the writer of Oishinbo , said in a 1986 interview that he was not a food connoisseur, and that he felt embarrassed whenever food experts read the comic.
Watching and reading about cooking are enjoyable indeed. But could that be the only reason for the success of cooking literature? Probably not, says Jun Arisue, Japanese Language Instructor at The Japan Foundation, New Delhi. According to him, food and cooking are an inherent part of Japanese culture, with or without cooking manga.
Some researches link the interest in food and cooking to the Gurume (Gourmet) boom, especially in the 1980s, that saw a lot of cooking literature coming into the market. According to the book Food Culture in Japan, written by Michael Ashkenazi and Jeanne Jacob, the 1980s was the period of the economic boom in Japan, and it reflected in the food consumption, resulting in a gourmet boom.
Imports of sophisticated drinks and food materials increased. The result, courses in table etiquette increased and appreciation for fine food, drink and dining became accessible to a wider audience, that even smaller towns were assured delivery of gourmet food within 24 hours.
Deb Aoki, a blogger and comic critic, feels that cooking or food manga could have simply been a reflection of an overall cultural interest in food and cooking. Apart from the two mentioned, there is a range of cooking manga post the 1980s, like The Drops of God , which was a best-seller across Asia and influenced wine consumption in the region, Yakitate!! Japan, Cooking Papa and Kitchen Princess .
Says Aoki: “Considering that manga is read widely across Japan, it is also a platform for artistes to express their stand on food-related issues.” For instance, the author of Oishinbo uses manga as a platform to talk about food issues, like the Japanese view on eating whale, the “right” way to slice fish, organic farming and rice imports.
Swetha Madan, a recent foodie and cooking manga lover, says it is the spirit of the Japanese chef, who shows his appreciation for ingredients and the people who eat them.
“It is the idea that the people who eat the food will know it is made with a lot of love and care. It was not something I thought of before,” Madan said, and confessed that cooking manga was in part what made her interested in cooking.
Is it any wonder that Japan has the highest number of restaurants (28) with three Michelin stars in the world, followed by France at 27?