… (a.k.a. umami)

Three dots.  The ellipsis, it’s called.  It’s my favorite form of punctuation and I wonder why.

Officially, the ellipsis is used to suggest a word, to convey something better left unsaid.  The absence, of course, packs more of a punch that the word the ellipsis is meant to suggest.

I like this idea, and the notion that written language should afford us a non-word for that speechless moment, for being at a loss for words.  We all recognize it daily, right?  It’s humbling and humanizing, that awkwardness.  You know those people who are never at a loss for words, who always have something to say, well there’s a name for people like that…

But I digress.  Ellipsis.


I’ve been gobbling through Oishinbo à la carte as part of my research for my imminent trip to Japan, where I’ll be photographically exploring the world of Kaiseki cuisine.

It’s my first Manga.  Loving it.  The story is all about Japanese cuisine, the depth of culinary knowledge, the history of food, even the chemistry of taste – and it’s all woven into the lives of a dozen-odd characters embroiled in the challenge of creating ‘the ultimate menu’ for a newspaper’s anniversary publication.  The protaganist, Yamaoka, is a likeable slacker with a encyclopedic knowledge of food and daddy issues.  With his blasé Joe Cool attitude gambling habits and a good heart, he grows on you.


There’s a beautiful formulaic rhythm to the stories. They’re uplifting, and the message – at times saccharine in analogies they draw (but I’m a sucker for that) – the message goes way beyond tips on Japanese cooking.  The review says it best: “Lessons learned from these stories include:

  • A disdain for flash and presentation at the expense of taste.
  • Fidelity to ancient principles and techniques.
  • The virtue of patience over speed.
  • Flavor isn’t determined by cost or reputation.
  • The ultimate importance of heart in making a dish that can touch others.”

Being a manga, each and every page explodes with crazy melodrama.  And it reads back to front (from a Western perspective), which is cool… and took me about 26 pages to figure this out, which was a bit embarrassing…


It’s also loaded with the ellipsis, as the characters are frequently at a loss to express themselves, faced with the daily vicissitudes of learning all these lessons and applying them to life.  And there’s even maybe a subtle flavor of cultural narcissism there, just a hint, with ample side-dishes of contemporary social critique thrown in.

And speaking of flavors and tastes and things we don’t have words for… umami (うま味)

Kikunae_IkedaIn 1908 University of Tokyo Professor Kikunae Ikeda introduced umami as a 5th sense of taste, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  Reading Oishinbo, I’m not at all surprised that a more subtle variant of flavor was first championed in Japan.  What’s more, the exact flavor of umami is pretty hard to pin down, as Wikipedia explains it.

“Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe…By itself, umami is not palatable, but it makes a great variety of foods pleasant especially in the presence of a matching aroma”

I’m only remotely inspired by the blather about the synergistic chemistry of food parings. Admittedly, my own slap-dash approach to the kitchen lacks this finesse.  But I’m intrigued by the idea of some subtle and ineffable ingredient, a non-taste that makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts… well that’s actually what Oishinbo is all about.

Let there be umami…

oil and lightThese images are all part of a unique foodie book project.

Itamae: My Life in Front of the Cutting Board is the story of Chef Avi Sternberg‘s journey as a foreigner through the hard knock school of Kaiseki cuisine, the hierarchy of the kitchen, and life as a Westerner in Japan.


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