By Helen McCarthy.
Many years ago, as editor of Anime UK magazine, I started Ah Oishi!!, a regular A5 recipe card series inside the back cover. Absurdly easy recipes were presented in five or six steps through manga and anime characters, illustrated in full colour. It was one of our most successful features: make it simple enough and everyone can unleash their inner chef.
Japanese Cooking with Manga: Easy Recipes Your Friends Will Love! takes a different approach to the same end. It’s only connected with manga in the sense that manga is the Japanese term for all comics. Three friends – one Japanese, one Italian, one Spanish, all living and working in Barcelona for around 15 years – created Gourmand Gohan, a team with a mission to self-publish recipe-driven graphic pamphlets showing how to cook Japanese food. Starting out in 2014 with 32-page zines in Spanish, the trio progressed through local food markets, a blog, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr accounts to this attractive English-language paperback from Tuttle.
The authenticity of the recipes is attested to by Maiko-san, the chef of the trio, who was born in Penguin Village, just like Arale-chan in Akira Toriyama’s manga Dr. Slump. This level of wide-eyed winsomeness persists throughout the book, part of its mission to convince us that Japanese cooking is FUN!!! And EASY!!!
Throughout, the aim is to entice those who’ve always thought Japanese food is complicated to prepare, difficult to shop for and overwhelmingly foreign. There’s a comforting list of familiar ingredients and recipes in the mix – ham, cheese, potato salad, mozzarella, quiche, mayonnaise, burgers – along with explanations of how foreign foods came into Japan and a few fascinating historical snippets. There’s a strong emphasis on fresh vegetables and fish, and the reassuring “Japanese ingredients” section lets novice chefs know exactly what to look for and which supermarket sections to visit.
When it comes to the most important part of the mission – the recipes – the book delivers exactly what it promises. They are easy to follow and tasty. I tried the okonomiyaki, and while it won’t put Japanese restaurants out of business it’s a good, solid home-style recipe. The chawan mushi custard is lovely. The asazuke pickles are fast, easy and good. Its sunomono – literally “vinegary thing” – dressing uses lemon juice instead of rice vinegar, but the result is delicious. I’m looking forward to trying out some of the heartier recipes as winter gets closer.
All this solid content makes the book worthwhile, but that relentless whimsy is grating. I blame Tuttle’s editors for the irritating multiplication of letters in the text – “ooooh” and “mmmmm” are acceptable emphasis, but ten n’s at the end of “fusion” look absurd, while a slither of s’s tagged onto “delicious” introduce an unwelcome echo of Hannibal Lecter. And the assertion that “eating raw fish always seemed strange to us” might ring true for the American reader, but it sounds odd coming from Alex, a native of Spain: European food has a tradition of raw fish dishes including Catalonia’s xato and esqueixada.
Still, overall, this is a solidly enjoyable, easy-to-use introduction to Japanese-style cooking, with much to recommend it. It treats its readers like American college kids in linguistic terms, and its connection with manga is very tenuous, but don’t let that put you off. The proof is in the eating.
Helen McCarthy is the author of A Brief History of Manga. Japanese Cooking with Manga: Easy Recipes Your Friends will Love! is published by Tuttle.