Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Cooking with Wild Game
Asuta Tsurumi's family restaurant is under siege from unscrupulous developers desperate for their land, so when an “accident” lands his dad in the hospital, Asuta can't bear to see the man lose his beloved cooking knife along with everything else. This leads him to dive into the flames of the burning building, which collapses on top of him—and the next thing he knows, Asuta's waking up in a mysterious forest with nothing but the clothes on his back and his father's knife. Taken in (reluctantly) by Ai Fa, a young woman of the remote forest's edge community, Asuta does his best to make his new life work, by using his dad's training to teach Ai Fa and her neighbors the joys of well-cooked food.
It's always interesting when popular genres collide, and while we've seen the foodie story mix with the perennial isekai tale before, EDA's Cooking with Wild Game still brings something new to the mash-up. Unlike in similar works like The Hero and His Elf Bride Open a Pizza Parlor in Another World, Cooking with Wild Game throws protagonist Asuta into a world where people are well-fed and healthy, but simply don't take any pleasure in eating – or even know any of the basics of butchering and food preparation. As the son of a restauranteur, this horrifies Asuta more than, say, primitive outhouses, and he makes it his goal to teach Ai Fa that eating is for more than just staying alive.
Because Asuta's new life plan is based in his previous existence as a chef-in-training, that means that his past in Tokyo is never far from his mind. Although he is doing his level best to adapt to life in Forest's Edge, he needs to rely on what his father taught him, which causes a sense of lingering sadness to suffuse some of his narration. It isn't overwhelming, but it's clear that he's a seventeen-year-old boy who misses his dad and his childhood/best friend Reina and he hates the fact that he's not likely to ever see them again. He knows that there's no way he survived the collapse of the burning building, meaning that there isn't a feasible point of return for him even if inter-world travel was once again possible. That gives a slight air of resignation to some of his work with Ai Fa, as well as imbuing his father's cooking knife with not only its keen cutting edge, but also an almost reliquary feel as the symbol of the life that Asuta lost. None of this is lingered over, and the novel isn't angsty in the slightest, but the fact that Asuta isn't thrilled with what has transpired and is plainly trying to just make the best of it does help to keep the book grounded.
On the subject of “grounded,” readers had better be prepared for detailed descriptions of not just cooking, but of butchering as well. Asuta isn't going to use fancy fantasy techniques, and Ai Fa's world resembles something more in the early hunter/gather realm than anything more advanced. (Although there are hints that more technologically advanced society does exist; Ai Fa's people just aren't allowed in it.) That means that when a boar-like animal has to be butchered, Asuta has to start from the beginning – draining the blood before skinning the beast in such a way as to keep the skin intact for tanning and the fat more on the flesh than the skin. While readers not familiar with these processes might find them a little gross (though honestly the description of gore is very minimal; goblin killing scenes in Goblin Slayer are far gorier), the issue is really with the length of the descriptions. Although this is an ebook and thus doesn't have the page counts of a print edition, the entire boar butchering scene from start to finish is roughly the equivalent of anywhere between forty to sixty pages. That's a lot of time to devote to the subject matter, and while I can appreciate EDA's devotion to authenticity (or at least a facsimile thereof), it definitely drags.
Interestingly enough, cooking scenes, although far more plentiful, do not share the same excessive detail as the butchering scene. Whether this is because the author's interests simply don't lie in this direction or because Asuta is working with a severely limited set of ingredients, there's more time devoted to him dicing boar meat for burgers than figuring out how to use a potato-like native vegetable, which is a much more difficult process for him. Likewise eating scenes are relatively quick, even though Ai Fa's reaction to eating actual tasty food ought to be a bit more of a focus, given Asuta's goal of teaching her to enjoy eating.
That, however, is in part due to Ai Fa as a character. The only surviving member of her clan (the Fas), Ai Fa became ostracized by the rest of the villagers when she spurned the attentions of the scion of a much more powerful group. Afraid of displeasing that clan, other villagers largely opted to leave Ai Fa alone, something Ai herself encouraged so as not to foment unrest in the settlement. The result is that Ai Fa is living behind a very thick wall of armor, intent of protecting herself from both the young man in question and the rest of the world's potential rejection in general. Given that her father's death has allowed (or made, in the eyes of others) her to live in the traditionally masculine role of hunter rather than homemaker, Ai Fa is well able to defend herself, but her caution in dealing with others, Asuta included, does speak to her near-assault after her father's death. In an interesting real-world parallel, Ai Fa makes it clear to Asuta that such things are in no way tolerated by the people of her village…unless someone powerful is the culprit, in which case apparently it becomes the woman's fault.
Cooking with Wild Game isn't the most thrilling of books, but it is setting up to perhaps spend more time on things that aren't excessive amounts of game-preparation. Cultural differences, such as Asuta's discomfort with the less covering clothing of Ai Fa's world, are decently handled, and the translation is largely good, although “waist” feels a bit too literal for a descriptor of what the women's clothing covers; “hips” might have sounded more natural. If you enjoy cooking stories, this is an interesting one, even if it has yet to achieve a perfect balance of its story elements.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Asuta never forgets where he came from, some interesting cross-cultural moments
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