I love cooking and eating and that is largely because of anime and manga (and video games).
It’s only recently I made this connection. Food and the act of eating is something that was fraught with anxiety for me as a teenager. In middle school, my shifting body and American standards of beauty in the 90s and early 2000s collided to give me an eating disorder. I struggled with it into my twenties, and even now I have to work hard to avoid slipping into disordered patterns of thought. This is a frequent reality for our students, who also contend with unhealthy options and food deserts wherein junk food with dull flavor profiles mean that their relationships with food are inherently problematic, political, and often unhealthy.
It was only through the act of learning about Japanese food and food culture that I found myself building a positive relationship with food, and in turn, the body that food nourishes.
American society ascribes a certain level of shame to the act of eating and the enjoyment of eating. We’ve gotten better in recent years, but students may often feel disconnected from food or the experience of trying new food. I want to explore how food and its portrayals in Japanese media can help students build a more positive relationship with the fuel we put in our body, deepen student enjoyment of these media, and even provide opportunities for personal enrichment and career opportunities.
First, though, let’s talk a bit about Japanese food culture.
You can’t talk about Japanese food without cooked rice, or gohan (ごはん). Rice is the center of Japanese food culture, to the point that the word for meal is the word for cooked rice. Japanese households are almost guaranteed to have a high quality electric rice cooker. These appliances cook rice perfectly and keep it warm for days (if necessary, although the odds of the rice not being eaten in that time span are slim). Rice is eaten for all three meals, and Japanese cooking has a variety of methods of eating it, from a plain side dish to onigiri (rice balls).
There’s a lot of talk about what it is that makes a Japanese diet so healthy, although it basically comes down to a diet high in fish, fermented foods, and vegetables. As an island nation, meat and dairy products are less accessible. However, Japan has its fair share of sweets and junk food. Some of my favorite Japanese foods are patently unhealthy: karaage (a fried chicken dish), tamago sando (an egg salad sandwich which has the benefit of using Japanese mayo, which is lower in fat, but also calls for an addition of sugar to the mix), and an unending list of sweet “pans” or breads. What seems to play into the relative health of the Japanese as a nation, though, is that healthier options are just as readily available as the less healthy options. At a Japanese 7/11, you can get all of those dishes, but you can also get a variety of far healthier options. YouTube is filled with videos documenting the offerings at conbini (convenience stores), if you’re curious. I personally recommend videos by TabiEats, run by a couple living in Japan, which is comprehensive and also includes very accessible recipes.
The key is that Japanese people have more options if they’re too busy for home cooking.
But what stands out to me is how joyous manga characters are when eating. Food is seen, through this lens, as a gateway to bliss. In American media, a character actively eaten is seen as piggish and greedy, or at the very least, irresponsible. Think of Homer Simpson and his donuts. Think of every time you watched a cartoon character eat. Generally, it would have been to excess, and other characters would regularly deride that character for poor decision making.
What Japanese media does, in general, is to celebrate food. The Japanese (and, honestly, most Asian countries) simply have a different relationship with food. Perhaps it has to do with food being integral to ceremonial aspects of Japanese life, or to a complex history involving famine and times of economic hardship. My husband, whose mother lived through famine in North Korea, has instilled within him a need to clean his plate and not put food to waste. Americans, nowadays, are perhaps removed enough from our Depression-era anxieties that we have lost our great-grandparents’ anxieties.
An important early scene from my life as an anime fan was the below scene from InuYasha. Upon returning to her world after many mishaps in feudal Japan, Kagome is ecstatic to find out her mother has made oden. At the time, my relationship with food was probably the worst it ever was. I was in treatment for an eating disorder. I didn’t bring lunch to school, opting instead to just eat the crusts from my best friend’s turkey sandwiches. I was given lunch money, but I was blowing it on Mountain Dew. Seeing Kagome so eager to eat made me curious. What was this magic food that caused such effusive joy?
The episode I saw had a bad translation, and it translated oden as udon. So, I went on a hunt to get udon noodles. Udon is very different from oden. Oden is a hotpot or nabemono dish, so it’s closer to a stew. It also has fishcakes in it. Oden, is, honestly not the most approachable to an American palette. In a Japanese context, it makes perfect sense for a scene of homecoming and celebrating home cooking. It’s a comfort food, traditionally eaten on cold nights. It would have been fairly impossible for me to try at the time, so the mistranslation was almost helpful. Udon noodles are insanely versatile. Thicker than popular Italian pastas, it’s really good at being simple and filling, and grabbing onto sauces. A quick search for udon on Google will bring up a seemingly infinite number of dishes.
The ease with which udon could be cooked and simply put in a simple sauce made it a perfect beginner dish. I also tried soba and somen, and of course I ate ramen. I began to develop a positive relationship with food based in curiosity: can I like food the way that character likes food? I wanted to know what made food less fuel and more joy. And for me, anime was what got me there.
Nowadays, I’m a fairly proficient cook. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur… my brother is a Cordon Bleu trained chef who works for Disney and has won cooking competitions. But I don’t know if I would be so proficient in the kitchen if it weren’t for the curiosity I had.
Students often express that same curiosity. It may be even more pronounced because food based manga and anime has become in vogue lately. I regularly pack bento boxes, and if a student sees me eating from it, they get curious. I’ve even been asked if I can teach them how to do it.
Which brings us to what we can do in the library to foster this curiosity and help our students to have a positive relationship with food.
Bento box making looks complicated, especially if you’re looking at what’s called “decoben”. These are works of art, and are either for making food more appealing to children who are picky eaters or for purely artistic purposes.
However, a regular bento box can still look cute but not require hours of careful assembly and cooking. In the resource list, I’ll share some YouTube videos which give a basic rundown. A bento making program would be a lot of fun. I’m lucky enough to have a culinary program on campus, so we’ve talked about teaming up the program and the anime club for a quick bento program.
Trying various Japanese snacks also helps students to experience Japan without cooking. If you’re near a Japanese supermarket, this can be fairly easy to accommodate. If you’re not, your local grocery store is likely to have the most popular Japanese snack among foreign otaku: Pocky. I’ve even seen this once hard to find snack in WalMart. While Pocky isn’t really the best indicator of Japanese food, it’s something to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in. You can also try a Japanese food subscription box or order snacks online.
The following are blogs, YouTube channels, and books related to Japanese food which can help you plan your own programming. I’ll publish a list of manga and anime with descriptions separately later this week.
Little Miss Bento: Primarily a showcase of bento designs, there are recipes available.
Just One Cookbook: An outstanding blog (and YouTube channel) with easy to follow recipes and great explanations.
TabiEats: This Japan-based couple is dedicated to sharing delicious food from their life in Japan and travels around the world. Their recipes are very easy to follow, and they also regularly review strange cooking gadgets.
Cooking With Dog: An excellent Japanese home chef cooks delicious homestyle Japanese food with narration from her dog, Francis. Francis did pass away within the past couple of years, but he continues to narrate the recipes. Honestly, I refer to this channel a LOT in my own cooking. Every step is clearly outlined, and the presentation is all about the cooking.
Just One Cookbook: The YouTube channel for the blog listed above.
Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond: A Cookbook by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Published by Ten Speed Press. 2013. ISBN: 1607743523
Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Maki Ogawa and Crystal Watanabe. Published by Quirk Books. 2010. ISBN: 9781594744471