Have you ever eaten something that you’d describe as orgasmic? Do you, like Marcel Proust or the food critic from Ratatouille, occasionally get transported to a distant memory by a spoonful of chicken soup or a bite of apple pie? Now imagine that, every time that happened, you experienced a euphoric dream sequence in which your clothes flew off into the ether. Or if, when you ate something disgusting, a creepy tentacle monster joined you at the table.
These bizarre, graphic visual metaphors happen at least once an episode in Food Wars, a hugely popular, fairly problematic anime about world cuisine, empty elitism, and a plucky young upstart beating the odds. Food Wars follows Soma Yukihira, an arrogant kid raised in a diner, who transfers into the most competitive culinary school in Japan. There, he meets accomplished cooks from all over the world, is immersed in a mesmerizing smorgasbord of culinary creativity, and flirts with and ogles all the girls around him.
To my mild horror, it was made for me.
I was raised on Miyazaki and Julia Child. By the end of high school, I was deep into Death Note, No Reservations, Cowboy Bebop, Good Eats, and both the American and Japanese versions of Iron Chef. I spent my free time cosplaying when I wasn’t making curry paste or focaccia from scratch.
Not much has changed for me, except for that whole growing up thing. As an adult, I find most anime, even ones I used to love, so sexist they’re nigh unwatchable. So when a friend sat me down in front of Food Wars and said, “I’m going to do something terrible to you. I apologize in advance,” I was prepared to hate it. I figured it was going to be sexist trash, and I was partially right: Food Wars’ women are drawn in hypersexual ways (there’s more T & A in there than most anime I’ve ever seen) and respond to delicious food with those clothes-flying-off dream sequences, and while the sexual sequences are never coercive (which is more than you can say for most anime), I was still like, come on, guys, really?
But here’s the thing: I can’t stop watching this stupid, clichéd, formulaic, sexist-ass show. I’m already well into the third season.
If you ever watched Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z, then you know that anime often use a formulaic plot structure in which every episode raises the stakes. Food Wars applies that competition format to world cuisine, and man does it ever work.
The lives of the students at Totsuki Academy are stressful. Like real culinary students, their schedules are packed, they can ruin their grades by missing one class, and seemingly tiny mistakes can destroy their future prospects. Food Wars takes it one step further, pitting the students against each other in Iron Chef-style battle. These gauntlets can lead to everything from a student’s expulsion to securing a spot on Totsuki’s all-powerful student council, The Elite Ten. And they’re the best part of the show.
Anime characters tend to have specialites. Like Pokemon trainers focus on specific elements, Food Wars characters have cuisines and techniques.
There’s Yuki, an expert in wild game. There’s Shun, who smokes everything he makes. There’s Akira, an Indian street orphan who’s formidable with spices. There’s Nao, a witchy fermentation expert whose jet black curry laksa inspires BDSM dream sequences. Then you have the Aldini brothers, who’ve vowed to make their family restaurant the best in all of Italy. There’s Erina, The God Tongue, whose palate is so refined that high-end restaurants pay her to eviscerate their dishes. This show even has a molecular gastronomist, Alice, who complains if she can’t find an outlet for her centrifuge. Soma, our main character, does a bit of everything, like a good little anime protagonist.
Hilariously, watching Food Wars teaches you more about world cuisine and culinary technique than pretty much anything on the Food Network. I’m obsessed with food, and even I discover new things. Once, my jaw dropped as Megumi, the quiet girl raised in a fishing village, wheeled out a huge monkfish suspended on a hook. She proceeded to butcher it effortlessly as hung in the air, dwarfing her. Who knew that was how that worked?
These characters cook with everything from curry leaves to lemon curd to Sichuan peppercorns. They dry-age meat and make fish sauce in their dorm rooms. In one episode, the Texan meat expert, Ikumi (who wears an American flag bikini at all times, because of course she does), painstakingly explains how to grade A5 wagyu beef. In another, there’s a huge breakfast competition, and Soma makes savory soufflé omelettes while other characters make eggs benedict with bottarga, frittatas served in salad, loco moco with vinaigrette instead of gravy, a reimagined Japanese stew with quail eggs, and even a series of “eggs” made of things like salmon roe, white asparagus mousse, and hollandaise sauce. Just that one episode takes you to France, New York City, Italy, Hawaii, and Japan.
Watching Food Wars can make you a more adventurous, curious eater. It might even make you a better cook. In one episode you might learn about the ancient Roman epicurean Apicius, and in the next, Soma could make a risotto with apples and bacon and serve it for breakfast. Soma and his scrappy friends are always beating the odds, going up against people with more training, money, and power. Yet, nearly every time, Soma’s customers and judges are blown away, because he cooks for the pure joy of feeding people. And who knows? After watching it, maybe you’ll start playing with new ingredients and create some joy yourself. Just minus the tentacle monsters.