Food manga comes in two flavors: the tournament series, in which a brash young baker or chef enters cook-offs that stretch his culinary skills to the limit, and the food-is-life series, in which family, friends, or colleagues prepare food together, resolving their differences over tasty dishes. Delicious in Dungeon straddles the fence between these two types by combining elements of a role-playing game, cooking show, and workplace comedy. Expressed as a recipe, the formula for volume one might look something like this:
2 cups Dungeons & Dragons
1 cup Iron Wok Jan
1/2 cup Toriko
1/2 cup Oishinbo
1/2 cup What Did You Eat Yesterday?
2 tbsp. Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma
2 tbsp. Not Love But Delicious Foods Makes Me Happy!
Dash of Sweetness & Lightning
Though that recipe sounds unappetizing — the manga equivalent of a herring-and-banana smoothie — Delicious in Dungeon is surprisingly good.
Volume one plunges us into the action, pitting a team of warriors and spell-casters against an enormous dragon. Though all six fighters are experienced, they’re so compromised by hunger that they make silly mistakes that result in one member getting eaten. When the team regroups, two members defect to another guild, leaving just Laois, a knight, Chilchuck, a “pick-lock,” and Marcille, an elf magician. The three resolve to rescue Laois’ sister from the Red Dragon’s belly, but their chronic lack of funds forces them to adopt a novel cost-saving strategy: foraging for food inside the dungeon instead buying supplies for the mission.
The trio soon learns that catching and cooking monsters is harder than it looks. Despite the astonishing variety of creatures and man-eating plants that inhabit the dungeon, almost none appear to be edible: some have stingers or hard shells, while others are so disgusting that no one can imagine how to prepare them. When Senshi, a dwarf, volunteers his culinary services, the group is pleasantly surprised by his ability to transform the most unpromising specimen into a delicious array of soups, tempuras, and jerkies. Even more impressive is Senshi’s ability to improvise the tools he needs to make gourmet dishes; he’s the D&D answer to Angus MacGyver.
Subsequent chapters follow a similar template: the group enters a new area of the dungeon, encounters new monsters, and devises new ways to cook them. What prevents this basic plotline from growing stale is Ryoko Kui’s imaginative artwork. Every chapter is studded with charts and diagrams illustrating the dietary habits of dungeon crawlers and the unusual anatomy of dungeon dwellers, from slime molds to basilisks. These meticulous drawings provide a natural jumping-off point for Senshi to wax poetic about the flavor of dried slime, or describe the safest method of harvesting mandrakes.
By contrast, the backgrounds resemble the kind of generic settings of early computer RPGs, providing just enough detail — cobblestone hallways, winding staircases — to establish each location. That allows Kui to lavish attention on the monsters and people — a wise decision, I think, since the artwork plays such a vital role in establishing each character’s personality and powers. Marcille, for example, is a worrywart, her semi-permanent frown mirrored by the angle and shape of her ears. Though her peevish monologues suggest that she’s food-phobic, her slumping posture and clumsy attempts at spell-casting tell a different story: Marcille feels superfluous, and longs for an opportunity to demonstrate her usefulness to the group. Chilchuck, by contrast, is small and nimble; his child-like size belies his maturity and skill as a locksmith and minesweeper, while his cat-like movements remind us that he’s not fully human. (The other characters refer to him as a “halfling.”)
If the series’ rhythm is predictable and the jokes sometimes obvious — one character declares that basilisk “tastes like chicken” — the specificity of Kui’s vision keeps Delicious in Dungeon afloat. Every chapter yields a funky new monster and an even funkier recipe from Senshi — all rendered in precise detail — while the script has the rhythm of a great workplace sitcom; it’s a bit like watching The Office or WKRP in Cincinnati, but with jokes about the merits of giant scorpion meat instead of arguments about the annual Christmas party. I don’t know if I’d want to read 10 or 20 volumes of Delicious in Dungeon, but I’m eager to see where the next installment goes.
DELICIOUS IN DUNGEON, VOL. 1 • BY RYOKO KUI • RATING: T, FOR TEEN (13+) • YEN PRESS