Oishinbo, A La Carte is a seinen, comedy manga series, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, that revolves around food culture in Japan, and specifically how some of the dishes came be a marker of Japanese identity through time. There are seven English volumes in the series collectively, and in Japan there are one-hundred-eleven volumes and was the tenth longest running serial of all-time. There were tons of things that I enjoyed about this manga, with only a few things that I felt detracted from its quality overall.
The narrative follows two food journalists—Shirō Yamaoka and Yūko Kurita—at a local newspaper who’ve been tasked with creating The Ultimate Menu of Japanese cuisine. In addition, Yamaoka (the male protagonist), is bitterly resentful of his father and the abuse his father gave Yamaoka’s mother’s cooking while he was growing up, and as such he has a personal agenda of surpassing his father with his knowledge and talent for creating spectacular gourmet dishes, without being a self-entitled asshole about it.
As I mentioned in my introduction, there are plenty of things to appreciate and relish about Oishinbo. The first is the title itself! The word oishinbo is a portmanteau (blending of two words to make a new word) of the Japanese words oishi, or delicious, and kuishinbo, or someone who loves to eat. I felt that was an imaginative title as the series really is about the passion of yummy foods.
Another aspect I loved, and one of the manga’s greatest strengths, is that it offers tons of information on Japanese foods, such as preparation methods and techniques, different recipes for a specific ingredient (e.g.: eggplant, seabream, etc.), and why some methods of preparation are much better than others, specifically where sanitation and flavour are concerned. There’s also quite a bit of history that traces how the dish originated, which more often than not led to it being brought over to the country via China, and how that particular dish has evolved over time to become an inherent part of Japanese identity and culture.
The seven English volumes all focus on one particular dish. For example, volume one is about Japanese cuisine in general and provides a brief introduction to how the Japanese people—explicitly food enthusiasts—approach trying out new meals and the etiquettes they follow. Volume two is about saké, going into detail about its history, how it was diluted during the Second World War, and how to tell the difference between diluted saké and authentic, traditionally crafted saké. The good thing about the acute focus given to these dishes is that I obtained plenty of knowledge surrounding them. I honestly never realised how much of Japan’s most popularised dishes originated in different countries! It was also quite pleasant learning about how uniquely independent Japanese traits found their way into the meals to create a brand-new sort of food culture and identity. As a foodie myself, it’s something I appreciate about multicultural cuisines.
Other enjoyable characteristics are the author’s own anecdotes detailing a personal experience that he had with the relevant dish. More often than not, he talks about how he had to adapt Japanese foods and cooking for living in Australia where you may not find the same sort of ingredients or even certain utensils that are necessary to create a faithfully Japanese flavour. Most of these anecdotes are rather hilarious, but once in a while, I came across one that I found may be construed as offensive to Westerners, as it does belittle their foods and ignorance towards Asian cuisine a bit.
This leads me to the somewhat bad aspects of Oishinbo. Each chapter is episodic, which in and of itself isn’t a bad quality. But while I was reading the English volumes back to back, it creates a lot of inconsistencies. I did some research into the English translations and discovered that each volume is essentially a collection of the best of the best from the series over time, pulling chapters from all one-hundred-eleven Japanese volumes. This explained all of the discrepancies that sprouted up while reading. For example, in one of the volumes, a couple of the characters end up getting engaged, however, in a much later volume, they are being teased for being close yet single. Clearly, it was pulled from a part of the original Japanese narrative that predated the engagement. Of course, this is just one example of such an incongruity. There are others, but I don’t want to give any spoilers if I can help it.
Another thing that I found mildly grating is the conflict that Yamaoka has with his father. It can be entertaining at times and helps to create an element of tension to the overtly simple plotline, but more often than not, it was irritating and felt too prolonged. His father is also a royally rude fellow, which makes it sensationally difficult to like him or enjoy his presence on the pages, no matter how short-lived. His arrogance and pompous nature are over-the-top ridiculous.
The illustrations are also rather hit and miss. Due to the comedic tone and atmosphere for the story, the drawings are all done in a cartoon-like aesthetic, reminiscent of Barefoot Gen. The facial expressions are silly and comical, the reactions—positive or negative—to the flavours of food, or interactions with people, are very exaggerated. I didn’t particularly mind these exaggerations, as I know it was done to rouse laughter. Nonetheless, when it came to depictions of the most important thing—food—it failed spectacularly. For some dishes, the details are marvellous, and I could almost imagine the dish in real life, or at the very least in an anime form. But that was an uncommon occurrence. Usually the shading on the dishes, or the use of black to help develop texture was too heavy, blurring all of the minute details together to make is extremely difficult to decipher what the dish entailed. This made me sad. One of my main reasons for wanting to read the manga was because of my foodie passion.
All in all, I recommend Oishinbo, A La Carte for people interested in learning about Japanese cuisine and how it has shaped and contributed to Japanese culture and identity as we know it today. Just go into it with the awareness that the English volumes have their shortcomings. If you decide to read the Japanese editions, please note that the manga in Japan was put on an indefinite hiatus in 2014 after the author received much criticism for his treatment of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.