What does a hungry maiko walking the streets of Kyoto and fantasy-fueled, clothes-bursting foodgasms have in common? Both are cooking anime. Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House (Maiko-san chi no Makanai-san) and Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma both use the allure, yet subtle mystery, of cooking to reach their audience and make stomachs rumble. The first cooking anime, Mister Ajiko, aired in 1987. Since then, cooking anime has inspired and delighted viewers with mouthwatering visuals and occasional over-the-top techniques. A good story is also essential. We need action, drama, a dash of romance, a little fanservice, and believable characters, whose struggles we feel. Cooking anime blends with other genres, but they also add three secret ingredients: creation, enjoyment, and presentation.
Let’s start with the main course, Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma. Premiering in April 2015, this series centers on Soma Yukihira as he tries to rise in the ranks and become the best chef at the Tōtsuki Culinary Academy. Along the way, in typical shonen fashion, he helps his friends and befriends rivals through the various Iron Chef-style food battles they take part in. Creation and enjoyment are the heart of Food Wars!. Every cooking battle Soma and his friends are in showcases their ability to take well-known dishes and put their own personal spin on them. Soma has bought ‘on sale’ items and created dishes that overflow with flavor. That fact alone stirs the imagination of anyone watching and whips up their confidence because ‘they can do it too.’ I still want to make the Chaliapin Steak Don from episode seven.
Food Wars! crown jewel is the foodgasm. They are comedic fantasy sequences that depict a character’s inner joy after tasting a dish. They can be heavily ecchi, which can turn off some viewers. Despite their over-the-top nature, they reveal how certain flavors can affect someone on a personal level. Several characters employ their own style of cooking that not only affects flavor but also the enjoyment. One character employs a shock and awe style to create bold, surprising flavors that ensnare you from start to finish. Another uses medicinal cooking techniques and medical knowledge to provide a pleasurable yet healthy dining experience. A third character takes a home-cooked meal approach using balanced flavors to bring happiness.
Kiyo in Kyoto is a quieter show compared to Food Wars!. Starting in February 2021, it is a monthly slice-of-life series about Kiyo who is the live-in cook at a maiko house in Kyoto. In between, learning about the daily lives of maiko (apprentice geisha), the show has small cooking vignettes that involve Kiyo and her friends lovingly discussing dishes seen or related to that episode in a midnight snack fashion. Kiyo in Kyoto is all about comfort food. In each episode, Kiyo designs dishes to reward or ease the spirits of the maiko because she understands how hard they work and train. It could be fruit sandwiches for someone who doesn’t receive a Christmas cake or a secret snack of bread pudding. Regardless of the reason, she cooks with a heartfelt touch with whatever is on hand. The maiko’s enjoyment is best seen during the dish of the day segments as they discuss the dishes and reminisce with personal stories or research ingredients or regional variations.
Visual presentation is key in cooking anime. Food Wars! is all about professional presentation. Each dish is a visual feast from pan to plate. Fat glistens on sizzling meat and sauces artistically line the plates.
Dishes incorporate height, form, and function to be eye-catching.
Kiyo in Kyoto may not have the high-end presentation of Food Wars!, but it has dish familiarity. Fried chicken with mayonnaise, butter cookies, and ozoni (New Year’s mochi soup) make appearances. Meals have a family dinner feel and the presentations are simple yet nostalgic. Kiyo is not a professional chef and learned from her grandmother, which results in her food being filled with love and creativity.
A love of food is the reason we seek cooking anime. Whether to see something new created or to enjoy a childhood favorite. Cooking anime tickles our taste buds with stimulating visuals, creative accessibility, and reminds us to stop and enjoy what we eat.