It’s not all that often I find myself agreeing with Nakiri Irina (whoever voices her – and both her old and new seiyuu are fine in my book) – characters like her tend to grate on my nerves. But I was right there with her on “You should be ashamed of your ignorance!” when Souma-kun had no idea what “ma la” meant in the context of Szechuan cooking. I am by no stretch of the imagination a chef, just a guy who likes to cook and loves to eat, and I’ve known about ma and la for years. They are indeed the essence of the Szechuan palate, and I find it hard to believe a student at supposedly Japan’s finest cooking school wouldn’t know about them.
Then again, it’s clear Shokugeki no Souma (let’s not forget a professional food researcher is a co-writer of the manga) knows all about this subject. And they get Souma’s struggles trying to master Mapo Dofu just right. His instinct when he realizes his dish is lacking something is to make it spicier, but real Szechuan (or Sichuan as it’s often Romanized) isn’t just about heat. It’s the combination of the numbing, tingly Sichuan peppercorn and the spicy chili peppers that creates the unique deliciousness of Szechuan – and that balance is something it takes years to master for most chefs (if they ever do). Szechuan is my favorite of all regional Chinese cuisines and maybe my favorite regional cuisine period, but sub-par versions of it can be pretty depressing.
That’s why Souma’s decision to go a different route is a smart one. Just because Kuga-sempai is serving Mapo Dofu doesn’t mean he has to – China’s culinary landscape is staggeringly broad and deep, Also shrewd is accepting Megumi’s assistance at his booth – though her relentless solicitousness towards Souma is a bit frustrating at times like this. Souma always seems to want to cowboy up, but there’s no sin in getting a little help when you’re going up against a behemoth like Kuga’s China RS. He also gets a little help from both Nakiri girls as tasters – the interesting part here being that Hisako makes no attempt to beg off the job on behalf of her ojou-sama.
Meanwhile, Nakiri Alice is shoehorning her way into the Moon Festival. Too late to reserve a booth space of her, own she cons Jun-sensei into letting her commandeer Akira’s booth, and she quickly assumed dictatorial control over the production. It’s be interesting to see Akira stretch himself away from his culinary security blankets, though. Polar Star is doing a Taro Stew booth (complete with a homemade river, it seems likely) and all of the other familiar supporting players are getting into the act – but the spotlight is clearly on the battle of Chuka ryori.
I thoroughly approve of Souma-kun’s eventual choice for his booth, because Taiwanese may be my favorite regional Chinese cuisine after Szechuan. Black pepper buns – so simple, but like all great Taiwanese baked items, they can be sublime in their simplicity. And the stone ovens are a nice bit of culinary theatre, of which Souma can use all he can get considering he’s going up against the Forbidden City of pop-up restaurants in Kuga’s “booth”. One could hardly imagine a greater contrast to the numbing-spicy fireworks of Mapo Dofu than a Taiwanese pork bun, but that too is a smart move I think – it’ll be interesting to see how this unofficial shokugeki plays out.