MB Recommends: Lucky Peach

October 3, 2011 8:25 am by

What happens when you involve the titans of New York’s food industry—popular TV show host, author and former chef Anthony Bourdain; Korean-American celebrity chef David Chang, who owns the Momofuku chain of noodle bars in New York, Sydney and Toronto; and celebrated molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne—in a conversation about culinary mediocrity? You get three varied and macho opinions, and a highly profane albeit hugely entertaining read.

Their discussion is one of several amusing features packed into the first issue of Lucky Peach, a new, theme-driven journal of food writing published on a quarterly basis by McSweeney’s, an indie American publishing house started by Dave Eggers. The magazine editors, Chang and former New York Times columnist Peter Meehan, explain in the foreword that Lucky Peach started out as an idea for a TV show, then evolved into an iPad application, and was lastly proposed as a magazine as well. Volume one, which hit stands in America in June and is available for purchase in India on Flipkart, is dedicated to what is arguably Japan’s most notable culinary export apart from sushi—ramen.

You don’t have to be a ramen enthusiast or connoisseur to appreciate Chang, Meehan and McSweeney’s first labour of love. Chang, the blue-eyed boy of New York’s culinary scene, got his illustrious food-world friends to contribute articles. The list includes former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl, artisanal ramen chef Ivan Orkin and food author Harold McGee. The journal offers a mix of travelogues, essays, art, interviews, rants and recipes. While the bulk of the writing eulogises ramen, there are some great non-ramen-related pieces too, such as Bourdain, Dufresne and Chang’s drunken rant; an essay on the problem of the authenticity of food by American restaurant critic and author Todd Kliman, and an essay by McGee, which debunks the widely peddled notion that monosodium glutamate (popularly known as MSG) can make you feel unwell.

Our favourite features include the excellent and insightful travelogue by Meehan and Chang, which sees them scour Japan for the country’s most delicious bowls of ramen. Their encounters with ramen icons such as Kazuo Yamagishi and Jun-Ichi Shimazaki are likely to make you ravenous and leave you in splits (after each bowl of “epic” ramen, Chang, who is given to overeating, throws up). Another interesting piece is an essay called “Chang—The Rise of Ramen Boy”, in which, Anthony Bourdain proposes his own skewed theory on what inspired Chang to switch careers from finance to cooking.

Lucky Peach is peppered with quirky illustrations and striking graphics that provide relief from the text. We spent quite a few minutes lingering over the series of graphic homages to the pantheon of Tokyo’s ramen gods whom Chang and Meehan encountered during their travels in Japan. Cute manga-esque illustrations accompany Ruth Reichl’s instant ramen showdown (a brand-by-brand instant ramen taste test). We also loved the illustrated short story about Ryuji Tsukazaki, the world’s largest man whose only desire is to eat a pot of ramen. Photographs too play an important role in the magazine’s immense visual appeal. Almost all the ramen-related recipes are supplemented by pictures of either the ingredients or the finished dish. The recipes are detailed, conversational and no less interactive than they would be on a TV show.

The magazine’s star power is a certain hook, but ultimately, it’s the smart, original and irreverent writing that makes Lucky Peach a worthy addition to our collection of culinary tomes.

Lucky Peach, Issue 1: Ramen, McSweeney’s, Rs477. Buy it from Flipkart.com.