When I’m sick, sad, or don’t know what to eat for lunch, I always turn to Asian food for comfort. Usually it’s some kind of spicy noodles, like pad Thai or the Tetsu Hell Fire dipping ramen at Samurai noodle, a dish you can’t eat without looking like a barbarian. Similarly, when I wander into the dining room at night for something to read, I pull down a book from the Asian food shelf.
Sometimes my hand finds a classic cookbook like Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet or Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time curled up with David Thompson’s epic Thai Street Food, which is heavy enough to put a dent in your lap, but it’s worth it. Most often, however, I want a volume of Oishinbo, a long running Japanese comic book (manga) series of which, sadly, only seven greatest-hit volumes have been translated into English.
Oishinbo follows the misadventures of Shiro Yamaoka, a lazy, hot-tempered reporter at a top Tokyo newspaper. The food-obsessed Yamaoka has been put in charge of the paper’s Ultimate Menu project, and he travels around Japan collecting examples of the best dishes the nation has to offer, from humble to refined. In the process, he repeatedly butts heads with his estranged father, a renowned gourmet.
The series offers little in terms of character development. For one thing, because the English translations are anthologies, they jump around in time, which spoils the will-they-won’t-they plot involving Yamaoka and a coworker. (Will they? Wait, they already did? What?)
But all the heart and humanity of Oishinbo is in the food. I’ve discovered some of my favorite dishes in the pages of this comic, like the summer noodle salad hiyashi chuka, and a more wintry one-pot meal of rice, chicken, Chinese sausage, and fennel called takikomi gohan. (This one appears in the Oishinbo: Joy of Rice volume when the buffoonish managing editor of the newspaper bans mixed-rice dishes from the cafeteria on the grounds that they muddle the minds of journalists. Naturally, Yamaoka leads an employee revolt.)
Yamaoka and his father (who is assembling a competing greatest-hits menu) face off in frequent Iron Chef-style cooking contests. In Oishinbo: Ramen & Gyoza, during a brutal Chinese dumpling battle, Yamaoka’s dad sneers that any idiot (this means you, Yamaoka) can make boiled or fried gyoza, so he has made delicately steamed gyoza. (This is really dramatic. Trust me.) Yamaoka counters with boiled gyoza plus a surprise: dessert gyoza! The battle is a rare draw; usually Yamaoka loses so the reader can keep rooting for the underdog.
There are over 100 issues of Oishinbo in Japanese, where Yamaoka has been feuding deliciously with his father since 1983. The existence of these books is so tantalizing that I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to learn Japanese in order to read the rest of the series.
Learning a new language in order to read a food book is the sort of thing Shiro Yamaoka might do, if he weren’t busy napping at his desk.
Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater author Matthew Amster-Burton joins other food writers at The Scoop on Food to discuss creating and writing about Pacific Northwest cuisine (at the Central Library on Thursday, November 10, at 7 p.m.) The Scoop on Food is presented in partnership with The Seattle Times. Thank you, Matthew, for being our guest blogger today!