Japanese Cuisine introduces us to the fundamental ingredients–rice, sashimi, green tea, and dashi (cooking stock)–that constitute the soul of the Japanese kitchen. In each story we learn about the proper preparation and presentation of different dishes, as well as their history and cultural significance. The result is a moveable feast of a book, as informative as it is engaging.
Oishinbo was the first “foodie” title I ever read, though it wasn’t this volume. I read the Fish, Sashimi and Sushi volume a few years ago, and while I didn’t care for the Yamaoka/Kaibara animosity, I did enjoy all the stories about the food. This volume is no different, in that I really enjoyed all the stories about the different Japanese cuisine (and didn’t mind the “flag waving”), but didn’t really care for the Yamaoka/Kaibara animosity, though this volume makes it clear why it exists. And I can’t say I blame Yamaoka in any way.
The stories featured in this volume of Oishinbo deal not only with different traditional Japanese meals, but also how those meals fit into Japanese culture, or in some cases, define it. “Basic Knife Skills” and “The Principles of Japanese Cuisine” concentrate on more of the technical skills required to cook Japanese dishes. “The Secret of Dashi” and “A Hot Cup of Tea” touch on some techniques as well. But most of the stories deal with how food is an extension of Japanese culture and society. “The Soul of Hospitality”, “The Ultimate Etiquette”, “The Tea Master and the Strawberry”, and “The Real Feast”, it is the thoughts and thoughtfulness of the cook that makes the difference in the food just as much as how it is made. Just the way rice is served, the proper use of chopsticks, and how food is offered and procured for the meal makes a world of difference in the meals prepared in this volume. It’s kind of like “Mom’s Home Cooking” being better than a 5 star restaurant’s. It’s the feeling that goes in to the cooking that makes the meal all that much better, and in a country where hospitality is prized highly, it comes as little surprise that this would be a theme in a volume about its food.
The other theme in this volume is that of Yamaoka’s and Kaibara’s feud with each other. The first chapter gets right to the heart of the matter, explaining why father and son are so angry with each other. While both have reasons, I don’t find Kaibara’s as good as Yamaoka’s. Kaibara’s strikes at his pride and pocket-book.. Yamaoka has a deeper anger from a greater betrayal, and I can’t blame him in the slightest for what he did. Beyond the first chapter, there are a couple of attempts to get Yamaoka and Kaibara to reconcile, and it’s the competition that comes from them that I like least. I really don’t like Kaibara, and the absolute glee he feels when he shows his son up. It really burns me as much as it does Yamaoka. At least there aren’t any “official” competitions in this volume. Those were the chapters I disliked the most in the previous volume I read.
Overall, Oishinbo is a fascinating series. I really do enjoy all the different foods that are described and the reasoning behind the choices made in dish and preparation. This volume goes the extra mile by adding the cultural context that is carried on in future volumes. Most of the characters are fun to read, and despite Yamaoka’s seeming indifference and cynicism, he really does come through in a pinch. I’m definitely going to keep reading this series, and thankfully Viz Media has them available digitally, so I don’t have to make room on my bookshelf. My digital bookshelf has plenty of room.