The first chapter of Oishinbo shows Tozai News’ attempt in finding the journalist for their upcoming ‘Ultimate Menu’ feature in their magazine. They’ve lined up their employees in a dining hall and presented them with a tray containing 3 glasses of water and 3 bowls of tofu with their respective labels. With a smug smile, the editor of the Arts & Culture division, Mr. Hideo Tanimura, asked his employees to identify which glasses of water were tap water, water from the restaurant’s well, and mineral water from the Tanzawa mountains. For the bowls of tofu, they must precisely point out which tofu came from the supermarket, from the famous tofu shop in Ueno, and tofu from a famous Kyoto tofu-maker.
Clearly, not everyone can easily distinguish these flavors. How could anyone figure out different tofu let alone distinguish the subtleties in water?! In the comic, Yamaoka simply shove them down his mouth and guessed it perfectly. Kurita was more modest in tasting but guessed it just as perfectly. Some of us would think that it would take natural talent or a golden tongue to figure these things out but if Oishinbo (or food manga) can ever attest to anything, knowledge and a curious tongue is your key to developing an exquisite taste.
The Physiology of Taste?
Try tasting water from your tap and then try drinking a bottle of Perrier. Can you taste the difference? What about trying regular cola and a diet cola? If you manage to taste the strike of soft bitterness after the drinking the diet cola or the mild salty hum from a bottle of Perrier, then perhaps you might just have a chance in becoming a writer for the Ultimate Menu.
I used to believe that Yamaoka and Kurita were perhaps gifted with a good sense of taste. The best of sommeliers are born with curved noses to best capture the flavors of wine. I imagined that since Yamaoka had a gourmand for a father, maybe he inherited the same taste too. But what of Kurita?
As I read from one volume to the next, I realized that just as much as taste is acquired, so is the gourmand’s tongue. There is no physical requirement beyond a clear nose and a clean mouth. What’s more required is an adventurous tongue and an open-minded brain that won’t faze down at the idea of putting strange things in your mouth. Courage is a requirement for taste as it takes all the courage you need to try new flavors to identify. It’s probably best to look after Kurita who tasted whatever food Yamaoka threw her way. Even if your gut says it’s not good, give it a taste because at least you’ll know then that such flavors exist.
The more you taste food, the more you understand its flavors. Because of Japan’s non-aversion towards raw food, Kurita and Yamaoka understand flavors at its humblest. A mild segue to Drops of God shows that sometimes, tasting even the soil is an indicator how your food will taste. Not that we should all start tasting soil but do note that if we taste or drink something good, then it means that whatever it ate or photosynthesized must also taste good as well.
I learned from Oishinbo that a level of knowledge and imagination is required in defining the flavors we eat. Oishinbo goes to great extents in visiting farms, showing happy chickens and cows, cool seas, and early morning pickings just to tell the various factors that define a particular meal’s flavor. Vegetables taste earthy, meat can taste as sweet as corn, and tofu might exhibit the crispness of Kyoto’s waters. These little things affect how we taste our food and the more we taste these elements, the more we begin to understand the diversity of flavors. Like Yamaoka, we can tell the story of our food.
And isn’t it a lot more fun if we can experience food this way than simply shoving it in our mouth?
The charm in Oishinbo lies in understanding the origins and story of our food. Because we are engaged in the what Yamaoka and Kurita are eating, we learn a new-found appreciation for food that we’re eating. Suddenly, food doesn’t just come out in the kitchen. You begin to see the love and care involved in preparing even the simplest raw dish of sashimi. As that old Rosanjin’ scholar often said “these vegetables tastle like they’re happy to have been cooked.”
As soon as you’ve tried tasting food, why not start practicing your…
The Reaction Shot
Reaction shots are crucial in food appreciation. People are paid great dollars for a fantastic “reaction” shot. There’s tons of cooking shows that seem to thrive on that.
While Oishinbo didn’t have outrageous reactions unlike other food manga, the reactions people had upon eating food is a telling sign that they’ve eaten something great. Wait… I forgot that a guy did get out of a coma in Matsutake from the Sea. Or how Kurita’s grangran is alive because of chickens. How could I even possibly forget that alcoholic who stopped drinking alcohol after getting a good sake from Okinawa. All of these are in many ways, fantastic reactions to food. I think, it’s telling how food has the capacity to change our lives.
The point where we react is a point of memory. While we may not be eating the food in Oishinbo, their experience becomes our experience in remembering a dish and we learn to appreciate food a little more than we used to. Food begins to move us and when that happens, we know that our oishinbo life has begun.
And for posterity’s sake, have a reaction shot from Kuroyan, my King of Reaction Shots, in Yakitate! Japan.