Discovering Japanese food culture through manga and anime

I’m not a great cook. I get by with the basics sure, but making those fancy dishes has never been my cup of tea. Mistake not, I do love good food and appreciate them a great deal. That is why when I see people cooking as if their life depended on it in reality shows like Masterchef Australia, it fascinates me.

I enjoy them because they help me experience the joy and feel of cooking without actually having to do it. So I go in search of such TV shows that appease to my visual senses and my enthusiasm in learning about food in different cultures. And that is how I stumbled upon cooking manga and anime.

Manga are Japanese comics and the most popular form of literature in Japan. Cooking manga has a cult following there and the manga like Oishinbo is one of the longest running manga since 1986. Oishinbo focuses on cultural aspect of Japanese food, its history. It also deals with political stance on food related issues especially agriculture and hence makes it quite unique. The story revolves around quest of culinary journalists Shiro Yamaoka and his co-worker Yūko Kurita in finding what they term as ultimate dish. They establish this through cooking contests. During the course of the manga, you get to understand underlying sentiments about Japanese obsession towards rice, sake and daikon (raddish) among many others.

For example, there was a section in Oishinbo that dealt with agrarian issues like inflow of imported rice from the US and its impact on indigenous food culture. It revealed so many details that would have taken me hours to browse and in the end I might not have grasped them well.

I did not know that there were four varieties of rice koshihikari, sasanishik, akitakomachi and hitomobere and each variety serve different purpose. Japanese have good knowledge on oriental pottery and some of high quality food wares are made out of clay from rice fields. Even Japanese alcoholic drink sake is made out of rice. So rice is an integral part of Japanese economy and there is too much interdependence. This justifies the country’s obsession towards rice. 

We know Japan has one of the longest living population in the world. But we wonder why or assume. In one such episode the manga explains why people in Japan, especially Okinawa, are one of the longest living people in the world. The magic recipe lies in pork, herbs, black eel, tofu and seaweed that are unique to Okinawa and this aids in prolonging life. 

If just reading these bits and pieces from the manga I can learn so much, I can only imagine how much I can learn by reading everything this manga has to offer. For this serialisation covers everything starting from breakfast to supper. It is in short a cornucopia of information about Japan and food that makes this manga relevant than its counterparts. This for me is a treasure trove and a guide to understanding Japanese culture.

But Oishinbo was not the first comic about cooking. There is Chugo Ichiban, Shokugeki no Soma, Yakitake Japan! and Yumerio Patissiere. Most of these manga are set in ancient and modern times and they too encourage cooking contest to settle personal as well as professional disputes. Since these manga run for decades or longer, they serve as a self-evolving platform for chef, where he or she matures professionally and also as a person.

These manga have anime adaptations as well and present more interactive way of enjoying food culture. They are interesting in their own way. For rather than just presenting views with nail biting contests, they educate people about Japanese way of food and cooking. Shokugeki no Soma is a popular manga in recent times. Here students in Totsuki Academy fight against each other to reach the top. I liked the way how it portrays the way a person feels while eating food. Sometimes it liberates them, for some it takes them down the memory lane and for most it is pure ecstasy.

Ramen from Shokugeki no Soma
Ramen from Shokugeki no Soma

Though I’m no foodie, the colourful array of dishes made my mouth water and I was hooked to this show which is in its second season. But more than that if you look closely, it gives you insight into what goes into popular Japanese food like ramen. Apparently ramen has three basic ingredients – the broth, ramen and the toppings. Broth is the most important part of the the food and could be rich or light. Ramen and toppings are decided based on the broth. Bento is another culture unique Japan, which are similar to lunch boxes but richer and fuller.

These were two just examples and are different in how they represent food. Both have been successful. One of the main reasons for the success of cooking manga is not that people love to read about food. Gurume (Gourmet) boom was another major contributor, especially in the 1980s. A little digging would tell you that was the period of economic boom in Japan and it reflected in the food consumption resulting in gourmet boom. Imports of sophisticated drinks and food materials increased. There was thirst among population for the richness and they became culturally sophisticated. All these factors contributed to rise the popularity of cooking manga.

But whether it is manga or in anime, what comes out most is the spirit and feeling that goes into cooking food and how the affection and care can be perceived by customers. It made me realise how most of us do not really enjoy the food we eat and just gobble up dishes.

Now I just have to sit tight and wait for the time when I can actually go to Japan and taste ramen and the famous rice with daikon!



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