Leafing through The Pokémon Cookbook, released earlier this month by Viz Media, I was inevitably reminded of the bevy of Pokémon literature I’d read growing up, ranging from guidebooks to walkthrough manuals for each new game. I was just another kid in the American suburbia of the nineties, after all.
Like its predecessors, the Pokémon Cookbook is a book with garish, bubbly fonts and a generally exclamatory aesthetic. It is 80 pages long, containing kid-friendly recipes crafted in the likeness of these small monsters. The Pokémon Cookbook is based on an original Japanese volume published in 2009 by Japanese nutritionist and food writer Maki Kudo. That the American version of this book has come out seven years later no doubt represents the gestalt of our current cultural moment. 2016 has seen a resurgence in affection for the Pokémon franchise, cresting with the mania surrounding Pokémon Go this summer.
The Pokémon Cookbook is written for kids. This comes through in the book’s language and layout—the opening pages are full of helpful tips like, It’s dangerous if you’re not paying attention or are goofing around! The book begins with promising to teach “three eating habits” to readers—to enjoy eating, eat a balanced meal, and have three meals a day. It displays a tendency to be instructive and gentle, to hold the reader’s hand.
There are more jarring aspects to this book, too. One recipe tells me I can assemble a hamburger through cooking raw meat in a microwave. I also counted nearly ten asterisks explaining what certain Japanese ingredients were, outlining some recommended substitutes for those ingredients for Americans who didn't live near an Asian food market. One recipe footnote says that a can of fruit cocktail can be used in the absence of mitsumame, the Japanese dessert with red beans, gelatin cubes, tangerines, and peaches. I understand we're talking about dishes made to resemble creatures that don't exist, but I began to worry. Didn't this motley of substitutions pervert Kudo's original Japanese sensibility—or, worse, compromise the essence of these dishes altogether?
Earlier this week, I spoke to Beth Kawasaki, the Senior Editorial Director for Viz Media in the United States. She's the woman responsible for shepherding the original Japanese version of the book to the this country. Viz has been publishing Pokémon books and DVDs for nearly two decades. 2016 happens to be the Pokémon brand’s 20th anniversary, so Viz focused on bringing “some fun additions" to the catalog that they thought "would be instant fan favorites,” as Kawasaki put it.
“When we were first looking into acquiring the rights [for the cookbook], countless co-workers would stop by my desk to browse through the book," Kawasaki told me. "We have so many fans in the office so we knew that was a very good indicator that the book would be a success.” The book is also coming out in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand in the coming years; Kawasaki reminded me that there are Pokémon fans everywhere.
The English version of the cookbook includes all 36 recipes that were in Kudo's Japanese original. Kawasaki told me that it took a good six months to adapt the book from Japanese to English. Most of this process included laborious back-and-forth about which ingredients are more readily available in Japan than they are in the States, and how the American cookbook could compensate for these deficits. (The Japanese editorial team behind the cookbook was not available for comment for this story.)
The cookbook isn't Viz Media’s first foray into the cookbook sphere. Earlier this year, they’d published a book of original recipes inspired by a hit YouTube show, Easy Eats: A Bee and PuppyCat Cookbook, with dishes made by both fans and production team members. Viz had also brought over Sushi: Jiro Gastronomy, a pictorial how-to-eat guide from master chef Jiro Ono, famous in the West for 2011's documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. (As reviewers both amateur and professional have pointed out, Sushi: Jiro Gastronomy is not a book of recipes.)
The biggest challenge in bringing The Pokémon Cookbook to a new market, Kawasaki claimed, was finding analogous ingredients for foods that weren’t as readily available in the States as they were in Japan. Some recipe substitutions were fairly innocuous in Kawasaki's eyes. For example, ready-to-eat castella cake—a brick-shaped, yellow cake with a brown crust on top and a crystalized-sugar layer on the bottom—is sold in most supermarkets in Japan. In The Pokémon Cookbook, castella cake forms the foundation of the Pikachu Happy Face Cake. The book suggests, though, that American cooks could use a store-bought or homemade yellow cake as a substitute for castella cake instead. On the other hand, if you're looking for a sweeter substitute for mochi that’s roughly the same size, the book recommends a donut hole. This may gave pause to anyone who's familiar with the consistency and taste of mochi, markedly different from that of a store-bought mini-donut.
Kawasaki spun this positively, though. “These recipes are fun to eat and hopefully will give readers a great way to discover some new flavors,” she suggested. “The essence of the book is also about creating a visual menu and making your favorite Pokémon characters. In fact, we encourage cooks to try their own versions of these recipes.”
In the Pokémon Cookbook, the pleasure gleaned from food is purely cosmetic. Is this a bad thing? After speaking to Kawasaki, I decided to try my hand at two of these substitution-heavy recipes she mentioned. I began with the Pikachu Happy Face Cake, subbing in some plain old yellow pound cake for the elusive castella. Carving this cake into the exact shape of a Pikachu's head is much more difficult than it looks, and arranging the slices correctly such that the whipping cream and strawberries sandwiched in the middle of these two cake layers is especially taxing. Yet I found that nothing of the intended taste, really, was lost with the use of a pound cake—but that's because I'd never had castella cake. I then made the Burmy Three-Colored Mochi. In the book, these were three ovular bagworms made of mochi. Instead, I used three donut holes, which just weren't the same. Perhaps it's because I began this exercise acutely aware of what textures and flavors I'd sacrificed by not using mochi. I may as well have stuck a toothpick in these donut holes and called it a day.
A cookbook is, of course, more than two recipes. But I'd argue that both recipes are representative of a larger question that lingers as one reads the book: How much do these recipes lose when there’s one substitution here, another there? And when it's a cookbook for kids, I'd say this question takes on more urgency: What potential tastes are kids deprived of? Perhaps this isn't the book's fault. Blame the lack of Japanese grocery stores in the States. That's fair, but there's still an educational opportunity I can't help but feel that this book misses out on. At their most basic level, the dishes in this cookbook present an opportunity to teach kids about Japanese culture. Can a donut hole do that? Compared to mochi, well, I'm not so sure. Reading this book, I'm reminded of a problem that the original dub of Pokémon first had when it came to the United States decades ago—the onigiri, or rice balls, that characters ate were intentionally referred to as "jelly donuts," "cookies," and "sandwiches" in the English-language version. Anything but onigiri.
The Pokémon Cookbook is available now for purchase from Viz Media.