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Posted on Jul 2, 2008 in For Kids, Review | 26 comments

Book Review: The Manga Cookbook

Book Review: The Manga Cookbook

Manga Cookbook cover There aren’t that many English-language bento cookbooks out there, so when I saw that The Manga Cookbook (available now) was going to be sold bundled with an Urara bento box set in September 2008 I was curious. Was it a cookbook with bento how-to tips and recipes, or a straightforward Japanese cookbook in manga style? As with my review of the coffee table book Face Food, what’s important here is for people buying this book to know what it is and what is not.

In Japan, as in France, comics aren’t just for kids: There are interesting and popular comics (manga) for adults, and even product manuals for complex consumer electronics often feature playful drawings and cartoon characters to illustrate directions in a fun manner. As a result, it’s not immediately clear that The Manga Cookbook is intended to be a cookbook for children, not adults. In fact, I too had assumed it was for adults until the book’s editor e-mailed me describing it as a book for kids, which put it into context. (Read on for the full review.)

So if you pick this up thinking that it’ll be a full-on cookbook for adults done in manga style, think again. Written by Yoko Ishihara (a nutritionist and chef) and illustrated by manga artist Chihiro Hattori, this 144-page book from Japanime is a collection of 27 simplified recipes for Japanese dishes that are suited for bento box lunches, including some cute bento how-to’s with decorative food and tips on bento composition. There’s some introductory material about ingredients, setting the table, and how to use chopsticks, followed by seven pages of color photos depicting all of the dishes. Brief cultural notes and tips follow many of the recipes, giving additional information in a chatty manner without overwhelming the reader. The English is natural, and captures the spirit of manga without seeming like a clumsy translation from Japanese (what you’d expect from the organization that brought you the popular “How to Draw Manga” series, “Kanji De Manga”, “Kana de Manga”, and 50 Things We Love About Japan).

As a cookbook aimed at kids, it’s quite appealing:

  • Particularly easy recipes are marked as being beginner-friendly.
  • Ingredients should be widely available in mainstream markets.
  • The illustrations are well done, playful, and clearly depict the important steps of each dish’s preparation. The manga style makes the dishes seem approachable and not scary or too complex.

On the other hand, some aspects may frustrate adults or more experienced cooks relying on it to prepare food. The recipes seem to sacrifice flavor and authenticity for simplicity, and the book is not a substitute for a serious Japanese cookbook. Two examples:

  • The book often omits important and sometimes hard-to-find ingredients, and streamlines preparation steps to an extreme degree. This can be good in some cases, such as the shortcut tamagoyaki rolled omelet. But it’s more of a problem with other dishes. The recipe for apple rabbits, for instance, omits the ice water soak that curls the ears, and the okonomiyaki recipe leaves out tenkasu, nagaimo, benishoga and aonori, which usually keep it from turning into a chewy hockey puck.
  • Calorie counts are provided for each 2-serving recipe, but seem to be way off in some cases. Wait, only 42 calories total for two servings of teriyaki sauce made with 1 cup each of sugar, mirin, sake and soy sauce?!? This can’t be correct — how many servings does the recipe actually make?

Amazon currently sells the book for about US$10 in the U.S., and has since 2007. It’s also available with international shipping via J-List and J-Box for $18.50. Starting in September 2008, Amazon will be selling the book bundled together with a cheap Urara-brand bento box, chopsticks, chopsticks case, and matching kinchaku lunch bag for about US$16.50. That’s a substantial discount from Manga University’s official cookbook website, where they currently want almost $50 for the same thing.  The bundled gift set would probably make a nice gift for a novice or anime fan just getting into bento lunches or Japanese food, but it’s not worth $50. If you don’t want to shell out that much but still want the bento box set before September, here are your options:

  • Buy exactly the same Urara bento components at Daiso discount store for $6 total. While you’re at it, get yourself an elastic bento belt for $1.50 to keep the two-tier box fastened.
  • Find the same or a similar bento set cheaper with help from my online store list or the Bento Store Locator (BSL) for retail stores near you.

(Disclaimers: Lunch in a Box received a free review copy of The Manga Cookbook from the publisher, but I have no commercial affiliations with Japanime or Daiso. See the Reviews page for my product review policies. Amazon and J-List links are affiliate links that support Lunch in a Box at no additional cost when you use them to get to the sites when shopping there anyway.)

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  1. Haha, wow, I just got that book yesterday! I like it.. Have yet to try anything from it, but it looks like it has plenty of good examples.

  2. My daughter has had this book for a while – she’s 17 and loves it. She used it yesterday and today for Gyudon, but she made adjustments to it also (used tofu instead of beef and added sake etc… and today she added Chinese Broccoli to it) It tasted close enough to the beef don I got at one of the Japanese restaurants in the Mitsuwa store. I think she uses it more for ideas and reference for doing her own thing :)

  3. Thank you for telling me this. I was wondering about it and almost bought it with the bento box. It doesn’t sound like a book for me. Also, thanks to you I learned about Ichibankan and can now buy bentos at a decent price.

  4. I bought it last week for my daughter and she LOVED it and dove right in. She’s been making onigiri, tako “sausage,” and teriyaki like crazy and is very eager to try making dango.

    She always notices what characters are eating in manga :) and now she can make some of the items herself.

  5. Biggie-san!

    I had a question about the book – does it heavily focus on pork / pork-related products? If it does, can they easily be substituted? I know Asian culture uses a lot of pork in its dishes but, since I can’t eat it, it sort of kills it for me.

    I would love to buy it when it comes out, but I don’t know if it would be worth it if I can’t make half the recipes.

    Thanks so much for the blog! As always, I love it.

    -DGchans

  6. @5 from DGchans: I just looked through the recipes, and there’s not a strong focus on pork. I’d say you’re fine on that aspect — there are a couple recipes calling for sliced ham or little sausages, but you could easily substitute other things for pork there. And just to clarify, the book itself is already out and available on Amazon, J-List, etc. — it’s just the bento box plus book set that’s coming out in late September 2008.

  7. I bought this book a few months back. I love it as a beginner in Japanese cooking and bento. I made the dango and anko paste…something that I would probably not have made unless it was made to look so simply. I even made the anko cake for my dad who is not inclined to try new things, but he loved it. The book is not for a pro Japanese cook, but perfect for beginners and kids.

  8. This might be a bit much to ask, but is there a way you could tell us what recipes are in there? Like a TOC or something?

  9. Oh, I should add that you click on the arrows on the edge of the page to see the next (or previous) page :)

  10. I’m a special orders clerk at a bookstore and we have to reorder these all the time! The people who are into manga/anime who are also into bento seem to really like it.

    I’m nowhere near a Daiso or Ichibankan so I’ll be waiting for the newer edition in September. My daughter has been wanting that Urara set for a while!

  11. :) Great review! Sounds like something I would like to take a look at. ^^ ;) And… September 2008 hasn’t happened yet… o.o

  12. Biggie, thanks again for the great review. I also bought this book, and frankly didn’t know enough to realize that the recipes had been “streamlined”. I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but when I do I’ll keep your comments in mind. Thanks!

  13. First of all, I’d like to thank Biggie for her thorough review of our book. We appreciate both the praise and the constructive criticism. Both will help us as we work on revisions for future editions of the book.

    Thanks, too, to all of you who have posted here and shared your thoughts about the book. We’re thrilled to hear that so many of you like it!

    I’d like to point out that the bento box that will be included with the special gift set we release later this year will in fact not be the Urara-brand box pictured on Amazon (and our own site), but actually a custom-made box complete with the Manga Cookbook logo and “Coo” character on the lid. This will be a true “Manga University Culinary Institute” exclusive! (For the time being, though, the bento sets pictured on our site come with the Urara box.)

    And finally, I’d like to mention that we are in Los Angeles this weekend (July 3-6) for Anime Expo at the LA Convention Center, where we are holding Manga Cookbook cooking demonstrations every afternoon. If you’re in town and want to check us out, stop by!

    Cheers,

    Glenn Kardy
    Publisher and Editor
    The Manga Cookbook

  14. my friend gave me a book like that and really like it.

  15. I have the book and didn’t realise it had been ‘streamlined’ either. I love that book and have made a few recipes from it that have turned out great!

    Thanks for the tips on the missing ingredients though Biggie!

  16. @17 from Glenn: Thanks for your informative comment, Glenn. Some questions on the upcoming commemorative MU bento box. Will Amazon actually be selling the special bento box in the bundled set that I linked to, or will the box just be the plain Urara box? Can you give us more detail about the Manga University bento box? How many tiers, what’s the capacity/color, does it have a watertight lid, what comprises the set, etc. If people have pre-ordered the bundled set on Amazon expecting the Urara box in the photo, they may be surprised to receive something totally different. Thanks!

  17. If you read the description on Amazon, this is what it says. “Comes packaged in a deluxe gift set, complete with a Japanese-style “bento” lunch box and chopsticks emblazoned with the official Manga University logo!”

    It is supposed to be the special box. I preordered this months ago only for the box.

  18. @21 from Courtney: Do you know any other details about the Manga University-logo bento box? Size, shape, tiers, capacity, etc.? Just looking for more info at this point.

  19. As far as I can gather, it is basically the same box as the Urara, just done with a custom logo. Hope that helps!

  20. Hi there! Thanks for recommending this book. I JUST ordered it and I’m so excited to get it!! I just bought my first bento book from Uwajimaya and I’m hooked now- I need more! (o’-')b

  21. @25 from Crazy_Japanese_Lady: Thanks for the recommend on the Kurihara books — I need to look at some more Japanese cookbooks written in English, not just Japanese, so I can have something to recommend to folks.

  22. I began a contribution as site for exclusive use of naruto. Please link to this site if I do not trouble you. I intend to publish a related story of naruto serially steadily from now on. Please cheer it.

  23. They’re selling the bundle already. I’m tempted to get it, just for some little things in there…but not sure if it’s worth it when I’m familiar with a lot of that already…aaaaaand, I can refer to your website, which has been a big help in getting started with this stuff. :)

  24. @28 from Poemi: Ha ha, very sweet of you! I think it’s a little light on content for a more accomplished bento-er/cook, but good for kids. I wonder if your library has a copy?

  25. Omigosh! The cookbook and bento box set is now only available used starting at US$700. Talk about a mark-up!

  26. @30 from kristinjp: $700?!?! That’s insane!!! I wonder if that’s someone’s idea of a joke…

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