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!

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.

Kewpie Mayonnaise

5.0 out of 5 stars Just tastes better

I always used to hate mayonnaise, and couldn’t imagine using it as a regular condiment. Turns out I just hated American mayonnaise.

Japanese mayonnaise is made with rice vinegar and a spice called ajinomoto, which gives it a hint of the flavor called umami. Umami is a special flavor, found mainly in Asian cooking, that can be detected by the human tounge outside the four basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Japanese mayonnaise is much better for cooking, especially for making salad dressings. That hint of umami makes all the difference.

Kewpie brand is the most popular brand of Japanese mayonnaise, and so it is a bit of a comfort food like Heinz ketchup is to Americans. Aside from tasting great, it is just nice to see the familiar bottle sitting in the fridge, knowing you can pull it out at any time and make your tacoyaki taste just that much better.

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

3.0 out of 5 stars American Sushi

This is a book, I think, for lovers of the American-style sushi joint. This is for people who judge a hot new sushi place on the different and exciting kinds of rolls they serve, and for people who think a “Volcano Roll” or a “Mango Chutney Roll with Spicy Curry Sauce” sounds like a delectable treat.

On the other hand, if the words “Edo mae,” “Otoro” or “Omakase” have any meaning to you, if the yellow insides of a sea urchin start your mouth drooling instead of gagging, you are probably best off staying away.

Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” is not a pure history book, but instead flip-flops between sushi history in Japan and its development in the US and between telling the story of a class of students enrolled at the California Sushi Academy. The California Sushi Academy offers a 12-week course that circumvents the traditional multi-year apprenticeship system of Japan and delivers sushi-bar ready sushi chefs who are able to meet the current high demand at US restaurants.

From amongst the students Corson chose to follow Kate as his main character. A young woman of around twenty, Kate lacks confidence, has an unspecified eating disorder, is shy and inward, is terrified of her own sushi knives, has no cooking skills and is disgusted at the idea of touching a raw fish, much less cutting one. Directionless and unsure of herself, Kate borrowed money from her parents to attend the sushi school on somewhat of a whim, hoping for a career where she could socialize with customers as her main concern.

Kate is where the book starts, with chapter one, page one, and Kate is where the book fell apart for me. Obviously, Corson saw in Kate someone he hoped his audience could identify with, someone for whom sushi was still slightly “yucky” and who would be grossed out by the concept of eating octopus and squid. I was personally just annoyed by her, and found myself hoping she would drop-out instead of persevere. Her constant whining and self-doubt got to be too much, and she is the kind of character you wish your could somehow reach into the book and give a good smack on the face too.

It’s too bad, because the other students who are relegated to the side-lines seemed so much more interesting than Kate. But we don’t get to here their stories; like Takumi, the hard-working Japanese student who is secretly a pop star in Japan but escaped to the US where his anonymity allowed him to study his true love, cooking. Or even the Japanese-American girl who dropped out halfway through the course. Why? We’ll never know.

As far as the parts of the book that actually focus on sushi history, they are interesting but nothing new. A bit of time browsing wikipedia would bring you the same information, such as the invention of the California Roll by Ichiro Mashita at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in LA in the 1960s when he found himself out of fatty tuna and decided to slip in avocado as a quick substitute, or the ins and outs of the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo where the bounty of the seas is flash-frozen and auctioned to the highest bidder.

Perhaps the lack of any real new historical information or ground to cover is what gave Corson the idea of giving over half of the book to Kate and the California Sushi Academy. If you are a real sushi novice, then perhaps much of this will be new to you and the behind-the-scenes look at the sushi school will be valuable/entertaining. Personally I just didn’t find a lot here.

On one last note: When I bought this book, it was called “The Zen of Sushi” and I see that the name has since been changed to “The Story of Sushi” which makes me happy. For someone who has “resided in Buddhist temples in Tokyo” (as it says in his author’s bio) Corson should know better than to mis-use the term “Zen” in that way.

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