Tempest’s Downpour – Anime In-Jokes 9 – Food in Anime

Posted on Mar 13 2011

Remember back in the day when Pokemon was a hot new thing and your weekday anime options were Dragonball Z in the morning, Sailor Moon in the afternoon and Speed Racer in the evening? No? I’m the only one here? Okay, fine.

Back in the day a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and anime was carved in stone, there were donuts. Wait, back up. They weren’t actually donuts. I mean, do donuts typically look like this?

Riceballs, in Japanese: onigiri.  Most definitely NOT donuts.
Riceballs, in Japanese: onigiri. Most definitely NOT donuts

The point I’m desperately scraping for is that a significant part of a culture is the food and such things are reflected in the animated programs we import and adore. Characters talk about food, talk over food, bond regarding food and enjoy food in manners that should not be physically possible.

How is this even physically possible?!
How is this even physically possible?!

Whenever the story arc of Pokemon remembered that Brock has capabilities other than hitting on women, there was an episode that featured his culinary skills. In these episodes, he talked endlessly about crafting the perfect food for Pokemon. Meanwhile, he fed the people in his party pasty-white foods that had a weird black square at the bottom. “Donuts,” the voice actors told us.

“That doesn’t look like any donut I’ve ever met,” replied the child viewers.

If you do some research into the Japanese version (or watch the current episodes), you’ll find that Brock actually used his culinary skills to make riceballs for his friends. Here are the steps to make riceballs at home so you can pretend you’re a young adult womanizer too: make rice, scoop rice, form rice into a ball. Sometimes you slap a bit of seaweed on. Occasionally riceballs have fillings (like in Fruits Basket). No dough, no nuts, no talent.

Brock shows off his nonexistent culinary skills.
Brock shows off his nonexistent culinary skills

Riceballs are a snack-food, much like how potato chips are in the United States. They’re a grouping of simple carbohydrates with little nutrition to help get the day done. But taking the time to explain all of this in a kid’s show would have been useless, so 4kids turned riceballs into something simpler for Americans to swallow (you see what I did there).

Rice is so important to the Japanese culture that typically every meal includes a bowl of rice per person. If rice isn’t blatantly sitting on a table or in a bento (lunch) box, the main course is made out of some sort of rice product. Popular snack foods like mochi and crackers are made of rice, and panko (rice-based crumbs) are used instead of breadcrumbs in dishes like meatballs.

Hey, other dinosaurs out there who watched Sailor Moon – remember how mad Serena got every time Darian called her “meatball head”? It was a pretty good insult, and rather close to the original. In the Japanese version, Mamoru (Darian) called Usagi (Serena) “odango atama” or odango head. Odango are little balls of sweetened glutinous rice served on a skewer and dipped in a yellowish/brown syrup.

Odango only vaguely resemble meatballs in appearance.
Usagi’s hair – Odango only vaguely resemble meatballs in appearance

All of you food-otaku out there – DON’T buy odango from a supermarket. It is GROSS when it isn’t fresh. In Japan, odango is served by vendors, much like how big cities in the US offer pretzel vendors, hot dog vendors and of course salted nut vendors. Odango is a sweet snack, slightly more befitting of a glutton like Usagi than meatballs.

Incidentally, “odango” is also the technical term used for the hairstyle Usagi uses, so Mamoru was completely justified in calling her “odango-head” – he was just noting her preferred hairstyle.

Whoops... I think I made her mad.
Whoops… I think I made her mad

Moving on, as slice-of-life shows look for new topics, it’s easy to fall back on food. Lucky Star is a great example of this. If the main characters aren’t munching on Pocky (and commenting about it), they’re eating chocolate cornets (and commenting about it).

Konata is especially vocal about the fact that she can’t figure out what end to start eating the horn-shaped cornet. Tsukasa tells her to start at the “head,” so Konata assumes that is the smaller end of the cornet. As she eats it, chocolate leaks out the other end, making her work twice as hard at her meal.

Konata is enjoying a chocolate cornet in the worst way possible.
Konata is enjoying a chocolate cornet in the worst way possible

Pocky, on the other hand, is a work of genius – not because it’s particularly tasty, but because it’s particularly famous. We can thank Onegai Teacher for that. That show sensationalized Pocky and made it the iconic anime treat — if an anime character of the last ten years is eating a snack food, there’s a good chance it’s Pocky: X/1999, Ah! My Goddess (famous for the Pocky kiss), Gravitation (which made Strawberry Pocky famous), even the more recent Venus Versus Virus shows the main characters chowing down on these sweet-coated biscuit-sticks.*

What anime is complete without making reference to Japan’s own southern comfort foods? Takoyaki and okonomiyaki are the pride of Osaka, a city in the Kansai region known for its unusual culture and dialect. If a character is from Osaka, takoyaki and okonomiyaki will have to make an appearance either as a dish or floating in the background. Takoyaki are little fried dumpling balls filled with octopus. Takoyaki first became popular in Osaka in 1935. Over time, the dish has been given different dipping sauces: everything from mayonnaise to soy sauce.

Okonomiyaki is literally “a bit of everything you like grilled.” Toppings and fillings vary according to region, but the most famous and popular style is Kansai-style. Okonomiyaki is either prepared in front of you, or set up in a restaurant where you are given the raw ingredients and cook it yourself using little metal spatulas. This may be rumor, but okonomiyaki is sometimes known as “Osaka soul food.”

Mokona is slurping down the okonomiyaki that Kamui and Fuuma made, spawning a fight.
Mokona is slurping down the okonomiyaki that Kamui and Fuuma made, spawning a fight

Sometimes character names reference tasty treats. Gohan from Dragonball Z means rice. The heroes of Sorceror Hunters are Carrot, Tira, Chocolate, Marron, Gateau etc. Do you think you know Naruto? You don’t know anything until you’ve seen this:


Food has become its own Olympic sport. Yakitate!! Japan is like the Dragonball Z of the pastry world, with Naruto-esque tournaments and Bobobo-esque overreactions. The best part is the fact that Kazuma calls his baked products “Ja-pan” a pun on the word “pan” which means “bread.” Japan doesn’t have a long history of eating bread, though the culture has a huge respect for food, so the overreactions of the judges are meant to reflect and parody Japan’s attitude towards delicious cuisine. Every one of Kazuma’s creations are based on an already-existing dish, pointing out how Japan takes things from other cultures and integrates them into its own culture.

Food can do a lot of damage. Remember Fighting Foodons? That was an anime under the title “Martial Arts Cooking Bistro-Recipe” or “really long Japanese title is long.” If you want something truly cringe-worthy, read the plot description.

In video games, food can save your life. Have you played any Japanese RPGs lately? 9 times out of 10, the healing item is some sort of food product. And if the game is a Square Enix game, you’ve probably never ordered this food from a menu before: blackened eel, melon pie, red curry and more.

Food is culturally-significant and, in some experts’ opinions, the best form of communication. Nothing makes cultural knowledge more open than by sharing a hot dish with friends. The way people interact with and around their food is a lesson in itself. Itadakimasu.

*For an in-depth guide into the shows that continue to make Pocky famous visit: http://www.intothesea.com/PockyShrine/Pockyinanime.htm.

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  • ace8489 March 13, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    This was an awesome read.

  • toyNN March 13, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    yummmmmm…ramen and Pocky – it may not be balanced but you can survive for many days just eating these. Great post Tempest!

  • nerdwerld March 13, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Food! I like this

  • Renku March 13, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    Sailor Moon was better at making you think they where actully eating what they said. Like in one episode they where eatting ‘ice cream’, it was really crapes.
    XD Pokemon is the worst.

  • Gannon133 March 13, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    This was a great read. I thought you would go into the edits of the Japanese food into an American food like what happened in the Pokemon anime with the Onigiri/Sandwich swap. Anyways, thank you for telling me of the culinary arts in anime!

  • Jubilee March 13, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    I have been lied to all these years… =(

  • Kayarath March 13, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    Frankly I’m shocked that you never even mention Iron Chef 🙁

    • Tempest Wind March 19, 2011 at 7:40 PM

      OH MY GOD IRON CHEF. *bows to you* I am SO sorry. I didn’t even think of that one! And I love that show!

  • Tyto March 15, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    The full pun with Naruto is that his full name in Japanese format is Uzumaki Naruto (as opposed to Narrtoe Uzumacky ala the Eng dubs), but it’s written in hiragana and katakana, rather than Kanji, so it has no inherent meaning. However, a fishpaste cake is called a Maki Naruto. The surname, Uzumaki shares the same reading as the kanji for “spiral”, which is a play on words that refers to the spiral on aforementioned fishcake. In essence Naruto’s name is just a lame pun, and his love of ramen is just another lame joke ontop of his name.

    In short, his name could effectively be translated into English as Fishcake McSwirly.

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