Earlier this year, I was introduced to the brilliant and popular Japanese manga series, Oishinbo (The Gourmet), by none other than the Queen herself. She thought it was right up my alley being the comical food blogger that I am. Well, she thought right. I was hooked immediately. It totally made sense how the series has racked up over 100 paperback collections since making its debut in 1983. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, the comic follows a young journalist’s attempts to assemble the “Ultimate Menu” for his newspaper’s anniversary edition. The journalist, Yamaoka Shiro, is lazy and snide, but he’s got an extensive culinary background, earned under the tyrannical oversight of his father, who is also a prominent artist and obsessive gourmand named Kaibara Yuzan. Father and son detest each other, but their shared interest in food culture keeps them moving in the same circles. Their spiteful exchanges provide the series’s underlying drama.
But family drama isn’t what the series is known for. The creators’ primary interest seems to be food – its preparation, presentation and history. This is where Kariya and Hanasaki excel. There’s a tremendous amount to learn about Japanese cuisine through Oishinbo, and it’s delivered with detail and effective storytelling.
Its enduring popularity and fascinating culinary bent makes this comic series an intriguing property to be repackaged and published in English. The series have recently been cherry-picked and packed into individual volumes of the book’s “A la Carte” collections. Each volumes illustrates an individual theme through stories selected from Oishinbo’s long run. I was given a few of these books for my birthday which I continue to read with great interest. The one thing I look forward to in each book are the author’s commentaries. Based on the title of the book, Tetsu Kariya shares his insight on a part of Japanese food culture.
In the Izakaya: Pub Food chapter, Kariya shares with us the magic of eating in an izakaya. He writes:
“I get excited just by standing on their doorsteps. When I look into the izakaya from outside the curtain, I can see the drunken people talking happily inside. The staff is carrying the liquor and food around. And when I open the door, I find myself engulfed in that lively atmosphere. I feel intoxicated even before I’ve had anything to drink.”
It’s true. The golden time one enjoys in a Japanese pub cannot be replicated elsewhere. Such as when we entered Sumi-ka to celebrate my birthday. The place was wonderfully noisy and smoky. All the people around us were talking on top of their voices and they smelled like alcohol. But that was okay, soon we too joined in on the fun and found ourselves talking on top of our voices too. We didn’t even have to drink to get high on the atmosphere.
The real spirit of an izakaya is not its bottles of saké, but in a hospitable owner and the crew that runs it. And that’s something a place like Sumi-ka is built on and cannot live without. The quality of any eatery or watering hole is really determined by the owner’s character. A good boss will generate good vibes and this will result in good staffs and working ethics, which makes the customers happy. That is a good cycle to have.
Another important thing is of course the food. An izakaya experience should never be about fancy or elaborated dishes. That’s really unnecessary. In fact, I think those just takes the fun out of being in a pub. Sumi-ka prides itself as a yakitori bar, which means they serve anything and mostly everything on a stick. Everyday ingredients like chicken breast, thighs, wings, minced meat balls were nice grilled with or without leek and eaten al-naturel or topped with various sauces (choose from teriyaki, wasabi or plum). Chicken spare parts were not spared too. Indulge in the fragrantly crispy skewers of chicken skin or the wonderfully fatty bishop’s nose (or chicken hips as Sumi-ka calls it). Adventurous souls will be delighted to find cow tongue (gyutan) on the menu which is grilled with either salt or miso paste. I love them both. Watch with delight as the owner cooks it all up right in front of your eyes on a long and hot grill, while his staff maneuvers around its tight walkways to deliver your orders.
If you’re ever so inclined for a more substantial meal, there’s Oyakodon (which literally means “mother & baby rice” – chicken & egg with rice) and Onigiri (grilled or not, stuffed with salmon or ume plum) to fill up your carbs quota. There’s also the Jyagabrata, baked potato with HEAPS of butter in aluminum foil – the ultimate comfort food. The baked eggplant with bonito flakes were wonderful too. Protein freaks, like us, will find comfort in an order (or two) of the perfectly grilled mackerel. See, nothing too fancy. Just average everyday ingredients done right.
The last component in making the perfect izakaya experience is, of course, friends. For without good company, a trip here would be a tad too boring. Drinking and eating by yourself is really no fun now is there? I couldn’t have ask for more than laughing into my thirties with a set of good friends and McCutie around the table…yes, and presents too – no matter how small they may be.
Jalan SS15/4, Subang Jaya.