Oishinbo: Izakaya–Pub Food: A la Carte

3.0 out of 5 stars Sliced too thin

Oishinbo: Izakaya–Pub Food: A la Carte (Oishinbo: a la Carte)

There are two issues to address here: “Oishinbo” the series, and “Oishinbo” as released by Viz Signature. I love the one, but am disappointed with the other.

“Oishinbo” (Translating directly as “Delicious Boy”) is a long running (over 100 volumes) and super-popular Japanese comic that deals with Japanese cooking and journalist Yamaoka Shiro’s quest for “The Ultimate Menu.” The series delves deeply into Japanese cuisine, and has been adapted into animation and a live-action TV show. Perhaps daunted by the length of the series, Viz Signature has released what they call “Oishinbo A La Carte” where they take chunks of stories from the comic and group them thematically.

This particular volume is based around a unique form of Japanese pub grub restaurants called Izakaya. Literally translating as “Drink-Eat Shops,” izakayas are usually small little local joints where you can stop by at any time and expect to get drinks, small bits of unpretentious food, and conversation at a cheap price. I love izakayas, and cooked at one for a short while when I lived in Japan. They are probably what I miss most about the country.

“Oisihnbo: Izakaya Pub Food” does a great job at getting across the spirit of the izakaya, and of some of the dishes you might find there. In typical “Oishinbo”-fashion, Yamaoka’s izakayas are far off the beaten path, serving delicacies like black edamame from Tanba, chicken skin hot pot, and four-hour boiled potatoes. All of the recipes look fantastic–some of them fantastic in the literal sense. “Oishinbo” is also famous in Japan for fancy recipes that aren’t actually any good when you try to make them–and all of them make me long for Japanese izakaya fare. If you like to cook, “Oishinbo” is an inspiration, and every time I read a volume it isn’t long before I head to the kitchen.

And while the food all looks good, not all the stories in this volume are strictly speaking “izakaya tales.” Viz seemed to have struggled with the theme, so you get some very loosely related episodes. But still good.

The big problem with this book is that while the cooking portions are intact, the story is random. One episode might have Yamaoka being pursued by the rich and beautiful Futaki Mariko, and the next episode could have Yamaoka and his wife Yuko giving birth to twins. Characters appear and disappear at random, being introduced in other comics not included in this particular collection.

I like the story of “Oishinbo” as well as the food, and it is frustrating when in one episode Yamaoka and Yuko are busy designing their wedding costumes with a famous fashion designer, but then you never get to actually see the results because the next episode has them long married. I think Viz underestimated the potential of this series, and should have released them in serialized order just like every other Japanese comic.

Presented as it is, it makes for a disappointing reading experience.


Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish

5.0 out of 5 stars The Folklore of Eels

I love eels. And by that, I mean I love to eat them. I discovered the joys of unagi kabayaki (broiled eel) when I lived in Japan, and after one taste I was scarking down as many of them as I could afford. They are a unique and delicous animal.

But aside from their taste, I didn’t know much about eels. I knew little about their biology, about thier habitats and territory. I didn’t even know if they were fish, or some other form of marine life.

After reading James Prosek’s “Eels,” I found that I was not alone in my ignorance. Eels are a mysterious creature, apparently, even to those who have dedicated their lives to studying them. They are spawned somewhere and somehow in the deep Sargasso Sea, then swim hundreds of miles as tiny little glass eels to the freshwater river systems of the world to live out their lives. When they get big enough, they head back out to the same place in the ocean, where they mate and die to start the cycle all over again. Maybe. That is the equivilent of the scientific “best guest” and know one knows for sure what the life-cycle of an eel is.

Perhaps it is this lack of solid information that sent Prosek in search of the mythological. Because “Eels” is more of a Joseph Campbell book than a Stephen Jay Gould. Prosek explores four cultures that are rich with eel-lore. The first is a solitary man, Ray Turner, who runs an ancient Eel Weir on the Delaware River in the Catskills Mountains. Ray is the very picture of a back-to-nature mountain man/philosopher. His weir is hand-built every year from stones he hauled with his own hand, and he forbids the use of machinery to aid in his back-breaking labor. The eels he catches are hand-smoked and sold for Ray’s only income. From there, Prosek goes to New Zealand and the Moari, who catch and eat eels as traditional food but still consider certain eels to be sacred, called taniwha. When discovered, taniwha must be set free or else suffer terrible curses. After New Zealand, Prosek takes a look at the place where eels go to die, Japan. The endless appetite of Japanese people for unagi kabayaki has fueled an industry that leads to baby glass eels being worth more than their weight in gold. Finally, the tiny island of Phohnpei where all eels are sacred and they would no more eat an eel than your average American would eat a dog or a Hindu a cow.

I love mythology and folklore, and especially travel, so I enjoyed Prosek’s exploration of these native cultures and their eel lore. The island of Phohnpei was particularly fascinating, with an entire creation mythology built around eels that is told in a sacred story. Each person knows a part of the story, and it is thought that if a human being completes the story than they finish their lives. My previous knowledge of Phohnpei had consisted entirely of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, where Phohnpei is the closets human-populated island to the sunken city of R’lyeh. The island was so mythological to me that I didn’t even know it was a real place!

A cool book altogether, but not what I was suspecting. There is little here of biology or cooking. Sure, those aspects were touched upon, but not to any great degree. But the Story of Eels was fascinating and will give me something to think about the next time I set down to a dish of unagi kabayaki!

Toriko, Vol. 1

4.0 out of 5 stars Gourmet Hunter Toriko!

Toriko, Vol. 1

What would happen if you crossed Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Gourmet Club with Ishiro Honda’s kaiju flick All Monsters Attack, and then bound them together as a Shonen Jump comic? Well, you might not exactly get “Toriko” but you would get something pretty close.

In the future Gourmet Era, when the quest for exotic flavors is the primary drive of people everywhere, and when the rich and powerful will spare no expense to bring the rarest and most delectable treats to their plate. Of course, most of these exotic tastes come in the form of giant monsters such as the Baron Tiger (capture level 3) or the massive Swamp Snake (capture level 5) who have no intention of winding up on anyone’s plate.

Each monster-type is assigned a capture level, starting with capture level 1 which is defined as an animal so large it would require ten professional hunters armed with shotguns. When a five-star hotel sets their sites on a 300-year old Garara Gator (capture level eight) they can only rely on one man to bring it in, Gourmet Hunter Toriko! Accompanying Toriko is the meek Komatsu, a chef at a 5-star hotel who wants to study with Toriko and get to know ingredients in their natural form, instead of as pre-packaged ingredients delivered to his hotel. Together they go off in search of not only the Garara Gator, but also the mythical Rainbow Fruit, said to be the single most delicious desert on the planet.

“Toriko” combines two of Japan’s obsessions; gourmet dinning and monsters. This is the country after all, where simply being able to eat a whole lot can make you a nation-wide celebrity (I’m looking at you Gal Sone!) and a country that has spent sixty years being cinematically destroyed by a giant lizard of their own making. You have to admit that at least once in your life you wondered what Godzilla would taste like.

Toriko himself is a superhuman monster with an appetite that outstrips any of his prey. Of course, even though Toriko consumes more food and drink than a fully-booked restaurant, he is a massively muscled fighter. (Because whereas watching a fit, healthy person eat a shocking amount of food is good fun, watching a fat person eat all that food just makes you feel bad, right?). Toriko lives his life in search of the ingredients for his perfect meal. Although his fees are large for hunting down the dangerous delicacies demanded by the hotel, his true purpose is to sample every rare flavor on Earth until he decides his dinner. Komatsu suspects that Toriko might be something more than human when he unveils his true aspect when engaging in battle.

Like most series in Viz’s Shonen Jump line, “Toriko” is good fun, but not too deep. The art is dynamic and vibrant, and the monster battles are great. I love the scene when Toriko unveils mankinds greatest weapons, a knife and fork, and shows that humans have always demonstrated their dominance over other animals by eating them.

My only real disappointment with “Toriko” is that there is far more monster fighting than cooking going on. I love cooking myself, but unfortunately author Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro doesn’t seem like he knows the ins and outs of the gourmet world as much as he knows how to draw cool four-armed apes who vomit on you as a way of attacking. (There is a scene that made me laugh where Toriko is polishing off a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon, which while being a fine mid-level bourbon is hardly something on the same level as all of Toriko’s other ingredients. In Japan, however, Maker’s Mark is considered a top brand.)

I would personally prefer a greater balance between the cooking and the monster-bashing, with Komatsu being able to show off his skills as a chef with the various ingredients, ut that is probably just me. “Toriko” is definitely an action comic with a cooking theme rather than a cooking comic with a monster theme.

There are some hints in this first issue of more to come, such as the “Four Heavenly Kings” and a promise of an undersea adventure for Toriko and Komatsu. I had lot of fun with “Toriko” and I am looking forward to the next issue!

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

4.0 out of 5 stars The College Textbook on Tea

I used to live about twenty minutes by train outside of Uji, the heart of Japan’s tea culture. Whenever I had out-of-country visitors, I would always take them to Uji, not only because it is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved of Japan’s old merchant towns, but the experience of walking down Byodo-in Omotesando street and stepping into century-old tea houses and getting a tea tasting from some of Japan’s highest ranked tea masters is something that can be had no where else.

So imagine my delight when I was flipping through “The Story of Tea,” and there was one of those places I used to visit, the 370-year old tea trader’s house of Furon Izumi-en! Seeing that picture assured me that “The Story of Tea” had got it right, and that Mary and Robert Heiss were people I could trust as tour guides through the various worlds and cultures of teas.

Considerably more than just a book on tea, “The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide” is like a college textbook on tea. It is a large and heavy and dense tome that starts in the farthest known or speculated past of tea’s history, from the initial chewing of wild-growing leaves as a stimulant, the modern and efficient factory farming of the plant people once fought wars over. There is almost no aspect of tea that is not touched in this book, including the often overlooked tea cultures of Vietnam, Korea and Africa. It feels like if there is a tea plant growing in someone’s backyard in some part of the world, the Heisses have been up there and had a taste.

Some of the information is general enough to be found in any tea book, but the details of manufacturing, of the region-specific elements known as terrior, and even a scientific look into levels of caffeine in various types of tea were new to me. There is some repetition to be found between chapters, which I appreciated because so many of the Chinese names were unfamiliar that I needed them to be explained again. Although I have experience and knowledge of Japan and Japanese tea, there was much of the tea world I did not know, and “The Story of Tea” provided that in spades. (I am especially obliged for introducing me to Lapsang Souchong, a new favorite that I had never tried before.)

Aside from the main chapters of A Brief History of Tea,” “Manufacturing: From Fresh Leaves to Distinctive Tea,” and “Journeying Along the Tea Trail,” there are several smaller chapters that work almost like an appendix, covering such topics as “Cooking with Tea,” “Brewing the Perfect Cup,” and “The Health Benefits of Tea.” I appreciated these smaller chapters as much as the large ones, and I especially appreciated how the Heisses were quick to point out that most of the perceived health benefits of tea are unproven. All we really know for sure is that tea is not bad for you.

Like many books of this type, however, “The Story of Tea” is definitely a book with an agenda and that was the only place I had a problem with it. The Heisses own an import tea business dealing in specialty teas, and they are definitely not without bias. They constantly promote the quality of “Orthodox tea” which has been prepared by traditional methods over “CTC (Cut-Tear-Curl) tea” which is machine processed for bulk production. There are even a few appeals giving cost break-downs of price per cup of tea when buying twenty dollar quarter pounds versus the price per cup of buying a twenty dollar bottle of wine.

And like many books of this type, by promoting more expensive teas they are also selling the romance of tea, of misty mountain tops with century-old tea trees picked by local villagers who have had no other life for generations. While these aspects of tea are fun and enjoyable, I find it does not paint a real picture of how tea is enjoyed worldwide.

Even with the delights of Uji just twenty minutes away, most of the Japanese people I know brewed their tea from a pack just like everyone else. The austere rituals of the tea ceremony may be fascinating, but they are practiced nowadays by only a few and then only on rare occasions. As much fun as it is to let words like Green Dragon Pearl Tea and Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea slip through your mouth, the truth is they are completely outsold by Stash Premium Green Tea.

So “The Story of Tea” is really the story of expensive handmade teas, and not the story of the tea that 99% of tea drinkers imbibe daily. No Lipton’s here, nor Bigelow nor Tazo nor Snapple. Nothing that doesn’t carry that twinge of romance.

That aside, I don’t mind drifting into the romance of tea for awhile, and sipping thoughtfully from my Aritayaki tea set. Even though it is only a peephole into the worldwide tea industry, I would probably have gotten bored if the Heisses had taken me on a tour of a modern processing facility and doled out figures of profits and margins.

Oroshi (garlic paste) in tube

5.0 out of 5 stars Convenient and delicious

There isn’t too much one can say about this, other than it is great and a constant companion in my kitchen. It is basically minced garlic in a tube, and that’s about it. The consistency and flavor is roughly identical to garlic that has been through a garlic press.

However, anyone who does a lot of cooking with garlic knows what a pain it is to peel and crush the stinking rose, and just grabbing this little tube saves you a lot of time and energy. It substitutes just fine for any recipe requiring minced or crushed garlic. Obviously, if you want big chunks then you still have to do it the old fashioned way, but this is one of those short cuts that actually work. In fact, it works so good it is surprising that this is an imported Japanese product, and not a regular US food item found in any grocery store.

Cool Tools: Cooking Utensils from the Japanese Kitchen

4.0 out of 5 stars Treasures of the kitchen cabinet

After being so impressed with Kate Klippensteen and Yasuo Konishi’s Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes, I wanted to check out their previous kitchen collaboration “Cool Tools: Cooking Utensils from the Japanese Kitchen.”

This is quite a different book from “Japanese Kitchen Knives.” There, they were collaborating with chef Hiromitsu Nozaki and the book was about one-third knife history and information, one-third knife skills course, and one-third cook book with recipes. “Cool Tools,” on the other hand, is about Japanese cooking implements as works of art, filled with Konishi’s beautiful photographs and Klippensteen’s insightful and appreciative prose.

“Cool Tools” is split into four main sections; The Preparation (covering knives, mortar and pestle, nut toasters, graters, bonito planes, metal pots, strainers and other), The Cooking (covering rice cookers, ceramic pots and hot plates, copper oden pots, bronze tempura pots, oyakudon and tamagoyaki pans, stirrers, spatulas, skimmers, ladels, metal grills, drop lids, chopsticks, colanders and others), The Presentation (different graters and chopsticks, rice scoops, rice tubs, rolling mats and molds) and finally Cleaning Up (brushes, cleaning cloths, odds and ends and style),

Each section gives a description and history of the cooking tools, their various functions and how they are used. The focus is on typical items you would find in any Japanese household, rather than exotic implements with only a specialty function. Probably my favorite section of “Cool Tools” is when Konishi and Klippensteen delve into actual people’s cupboards, and show a series of photographs of the tools as they are in average households.

For example, with the yukihara-nabe, or hammered-metal pan, there is a series of six photographs, showing the yukihara-nabes of a songwriter, aged 23, a mother aged 40, a housewife aged 48, a Japanese language instructor aged 52, a cook aged 45ish, and a bank employee aged 40-something. These series put a human touch on the cooking tools, showing how they are loved and used in daily life in Japan.

“Cool Tools” is definitely more of a specialty book than “Japanese Kitchen Knives.” Whereas that book gave practical cooking tips and recipes, this is more about appreciation of design. If you are serious about your Japanese cooking, however, you will enjoy learning more about the tools that are essential to your art.

Blue 3 Piece Glass Cold Sake Set

5.0 out of 5 stars Keeping it cold

Nice sake should always be drunk cold. Heating it up is only for the poor quality stuff when you want to disguise the taste. And while I like a cup of cheap hot sake on a cold winter’s night as much as the next guy, heating up a ginjo or better would be like using single malt scotch to mix a cocktail. A total waste.

Which is why I love this “Cold Sake Set” so much. The bottle is inset with a reservoir for ice that keeps chilling the sake from the inside while you drink it. The bottle holds 12 oz of sake, about the same amount as your standard tokkuri used for heating sake. There are two glasses included, which are the same blue glass as the bottle. The set is available in several colors, but I went for the blue one because I liked its color the best.

About the only problem I have had with this “Cold Sake Set” is that the opening for the ice is smaller than your standard-sized ice cube. You either need to invest in an ice cube tray that makes smaller cubes, or do like I do and just smash your ice cubes down to a manageable size. You could put a little cold water in there with the ice, but I find this makes it difficult to pour especially after the carafe has been refilled a few times!

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