It's Kariya's typical education/rants about food ... only now with noodles.
Writer/Artist: Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki
Translation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
Adaptation: Tetsuichiro Miyaki
What They Say
As part of the celebrations for its 100th anniversary, the publishers of the Tozai News have decided to commission the creation of the 'Ultimate Menu," a model meal embodying the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. This all-important task has been entrusted to journalist Shiro Yamaoka, an inveterate cynic who possesses no initiative, but does have an incredibly refined palate and an encyclopedic knowledge of food.Each volume of Oishinbo follows Yamaoka and his colleagues through another adventure on their quest for the Ultimate Menu. Now, the best stories from the hundred-plus volume series have been selected and compiled into A la Carte editions, arranged by subject.
Noodles are an integral part of world cuisine, from East (pad thai) to West (lasagna), refined (lobster fettuccine) to humble (mac n cheese). But few noodle dishes evoke as much passion, ignite as much debate, or inspire such loyal devotees as ramen does in Japan. At first it seems like a simple thing: a bowl of noodles in broth with toppings. But as Yamaoka discovers in this volume, sometimes the simplest things are the best and the hardest to perfect. Starting from scratch, with the flour to make the noodles and the meat to make the broth, he embarks a mission to find The Soul of Ramen.
Since we don't get much educational manga here in North America, Oishinbo is unusual among the series that I review in the sense that it's almost not worth talking about the quality of the narrative. That's not saying that educational manga can't have entertaining plots; but in Oishinbo's case, the storytelling isn't really the point, especially since Viz is publishing it in topic-specific compilations (ramen and gyoza, in this case) rather than in chronological order. And it's almost a fortunate thing that readers shouldn't come in expecting much along the lines of a compelling narrative from Oishinbo, because the plots in each "course" only seem to get more and more ridiculous each new volume. No less than three of the six story arcs in Volume 3 degenerate into showdowns between Yamaoka and Kaibara as they compete to create the ultimate ramen/hiyashi chuka/gyoza dish for completely absurd stakes. There's a tongue-in-cheek nod to the silliness of these stories during the "A New Gyoza" arc -- Yamaoka tells his editor that the newspaper's sales won't actually be affected by something as trivial as a cookoff -- but for the most part it's hard to ignore the absurd trajectories that these stories follow. (It doesn't help that a couple of chapters before Kariya's wink at the reader, a group of spectators in another story actually DO threaten to stop buying the Tozai News when it looks like things are going badly for Yamaoka's dish.)
But as far as the actual educational material goes, Oishinbo is still reasonably strong here; if you're like me and don't recognize dishes like hiyashi chuka or gyoza by name, then Kariya has plenty of detailed information about how the dishes are prepared plus background about their introduction into Japanese culture. It's even occasionally got some practical gems for non-Japanese diners, like in "French Food and Ramen Rice", a short one-parter about Yamaoka educating his working-class friend Hirakawa -- and the reader by extension -- about dining at fine French restaurants. (For added entertainment value, Yamaoka's lesson is later contrasted by Hirakawa's humorous advice on eating ramen rice, which boils down to simultaneously cramming as much food down your gullet as possible.) Most of the other stories tend to follow Kariya's pattern of mixing interesting historical tidbits with extended rants about how all of his fellow countrymen prepare food the wrong way. As much educational value as I got out of stories like "Soup and Noodles" (about hiyashi chuka, or chilled ramen noodles), "Battle! Village Revival" (two villages face off to attract culinary tourists), or "A New Gyoza" (the Japanese take on Chinese potstickers), the repeated complaints about ingredients that aren't up to Kariya's exacting standards are starting to get tiring. Like with the plot-related silliness, there're a few concessions from Yamaoka about how you don't need to go all-out on extravagant dishes as long as you enjoy what you're eating; but they're too few and far between to see them as anything more than a half-hearted gesture.
That said, if you're coming back for your third installment of Oishinbo, then you should already expect these kinds of things from the series (or already think my opinion is way off-base), and there's really no reason not to pick up Volume 3 if you know what you're getting into. I'd recommend that new readers give Volume 1 a shot first, unless they happen to have a special interest in the dishes being covered here; even though the quality of the releases has been pretty even so far, Volume 1 very slightly edges out its two follow-ups just out of sheer variety.