You’d think being good at conveying how food tastes would be a core component of my job as an Eater writer, but I am ashamed to say I think I’m awful at it. I can get you some basic adjectives, telling you the apple I just ate was crispy and juicy, or that the ramen I ordered for dinner last night was rich and the mushrooms in it had an earthy taste, but mostly I’m stuck with the obvious descriptors as opposed to the specific things that the food made me feel. My instinct is to say the mushrooms were really…mushroomy.
One problem is that taste might be the most subjective personal sense. Unlike agreeing with someone that the sky is blue, I can’t exactly point in my mouth to tell if another person is tasting what I’m tasting. And while my critic colleagues do a masterful job of describing just why a certain taco or steak is satisfying, I’ve often wondered if the written word is the most effective medium to describe the sensations of eating, and recently decided that, no, it’s not. But only after watching anime characters writhe around in the nude after eating amazing noodles on Food Wars!.
Food Wars! (or Shokugeki no Soma), based on a Manga with the same name and available to stream on Netflix, is basically what happens when you combine Harry Potter and Iron Chef. Teenager Yukihira Soma, who works at his dad’s diner, begins attending the elite Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute, where he is surrounded by rich kids hellbent on mastering fine cuisine. Yukihira is an incredibly creative chef, typically elevating common diner dishes to extreme culinary heights and surprising his more traditional classmates. He also has a tendency to challenge his fellow students to food wars — battles to see who can create the most delicious dish.
The show takes meticulous care to explain the technique and flavoring behind each dish the students create, thanks to collaborations with chef Yuki Morisaki. But knowing that Yukihira has created Jello-cubes out of chicken stock, or that Takumi Aldini has stuffed his turmeric linguini with parmesan cheese, is not enough to express what it would feel like to actually taste those dishes. Instead, Food Wars! resorts to elaborate, often sexual scenes of food tasting (this is a show for teenage boys, first and foremost). It’s a literal foodgasm — characters’ clothes fly off, they move ecstatically as waves of curry wash over them, and there’s a lot of breast-heaving and glistening muscles. In one scene, student Takodoro Megumi eats honey-braised beef, and she’s transported to a field where bees with Yukihira’s face pour honey over her as she moans in pleasure. In another, a naked man is tightly embraced by a giant eel.
The characters tend to describe what the dish is doing while they experience horny versions of the climactic scene in Ratatouille. It’s the juxtaposition of salted plum rice with the steak and minced onions that’s so enticing, or the double umami of cheese and kelp in an onigiri. But words are superfluous. I can imagine that a dish of freshly caught trout crusted with Kaki no tani rice snack would taste good, but an image of a woman being embraced by a merman with a rice snack for a head is better at explaining the euphoria of new flavor and the surprise and delight of the unexpected.
What the show does so well is not just conveying flavor, but conveying the emotion of experiencing flavor. Food Wars! gets closer to depicting the sensations of a good bite of food than most prestige food TV. There is a mental as well as physical response when eating something good, or weird, or disgusting. There is joy and confusion and curiosity, not just in your tastebuds, but everywhere.
I haven’t been eating many new dishes these past few months. Like many, my cooking and take-out patterns have skewed toward what I find comforting. Food Wars!, however, inspires me to cook or order new things so I can experience the electric rush of the unexpected, but also to appreciate flavors I know and love. It reminds me that eating can be a sublimely pleasurable act, one that borders on the erotic. When something tastes so good, it takes over your whole body.