Delightful and delectable as the food concocted in the series itself, Delicious in Dungeon is the introduction to fantasy we need in this current world of bleak media. As the series’ fifth volume receives its English release this May, the growing collection of titles featuring accessible, fantastical worlds to welcome new readers and participants alike is significant more than ever. When it can be difficult to find answers within nonfiction, fantasy serves as a channel to reach for dreams and embrace escapism. In a genre especially so riddled historically with boys’ club exclusivity, the manga relieves the stresses of entering a whole world that should have been open all along.
Alternatively known as Dungeon Meshi, (literally “Dungeon Food“), its English title appears to be a play on words, given its heavy homage to Dungeons & Dragons, which is often abbreviated as “D&D” or “DnD.” Written and drawn by Ryōko Kui, the series follows a party traversing a dungeon, cooking and eating its monsters along the way for their survival. In an unnamed, fantastical land, dungeon exploration is commonplace. In one particular dungeon system, parties go on raids in hopes of uncovering the treasure and truths behind the legendary Golden Kingdom, supposedly a once regal civilization that has since fallen into the complex ruin it now is.
A party is nearly wiped after a dragon engulfs one of their own, Falin, a human spellcaster. A couple of members leave said party, leaving behind Laois, a human swordsman, Chilchuck, a halfling rogue-esque locksmith (in Yen Press’ English translation, a “half-foot”), and Marcille, an elven mage.
Despite their grief, the team brainstorms in hopes Falin would not have been fully digested if they were to quickly catch up again with the dragon. However, they also realize most of their resources are depleted and that to return to the surface to replenish would take up more time and work than necessary. Laois reveals that he has secretly always pondered if dungeon monsters were consumable and thus hatches up a plan to depend on them for survival, much to Chilchuck and Marcille’s aversion.
The party eventually runs into Senshi, a dwarf who has had years of experience apparently sustaining himself by eating monsters within the dungeon’s ecosystem. Not only does Senshi’s addition to the party prove Laois’ theories of dungeon survival true, but his unconventional wisdom and eccentricity enables the group to form a stronger bond through cooking skills and courage attained in the journey deeper to rescue one of their own.
Delicious in Dungeon largely draws elements from lore standardized in Dungeons & Dragons, but generalizes elements that have been consistent in most fantasy. From Elves, Orcs, mimics, and the like, Ryōko Kui’s own interpretation of many of these creatures makes immersion more comfortable to those unfamiliar with the genre.
Mushroom monsters and assorted aquatic creatures make all the more sense to eat when the party starts compromising food. But when it comes to addressing the edibility and biology of creatures like slimes, golems, and possessed armor, Ryōko Kui goes out of her way to put interesting, and thoughtful creative spins initially unheard of. One chapter, for example, asserts that given golems are made of soil, their backs can be prepped as miniature gardens to grow vegetables. Much detail goes into the process of how the cooking process is illustrated, the party’s rhetorical meals even given stats and ingredients specifically laid out and broken down.
Delicious in Dungeon can simply be described as refreshing. Ryōko Kui approaches the genre from an unconventional angle, making it all the more accessible to audiences who would have otherwise previously had no interest in fantasy.
The challenges faced by the party in the series not only revolve around themes of survival, but also the bumps and bruises that come along with camaraderie and collaboration. For instance, Marcille comes from a place of privilege and higher upstanding due to her elven upbringing. She initially faces hesitation in accepting the party’s current, desperate situation, but slowly learns how to ground and humble herself, even finding to finally enjoy eating the monsters. Laois tends to have a goofy, nonchalant exterior, but when challenged in dire situations it brings to light his abilities to be serious and how much he genuinely cares about the others.
Delicious in Dungeon is very much still a fantasy, however, focusing on the daily-life vignettes of the adventurers’ personal dramas and micro issues that are not often explored when combat and big picture politics are more prioritized in other works.
The element of fantasy in the series is reaffirmed as a source of friendship and coping. The recent resurgence of the tabletop playing and fantasy genres has provided outlets for more diverse groups of people who otherwise would not have been able to find themselves enjoying these things in the past. Due in part to the popularity of media, such as web series Critical Role and references in popular shows like Stranger Things, the integration of “nerdy” interests into the mainstream, particularly into Dungeons and Dragons, urges these outlets to be inclusive.
That is not to say that representation and actually enacting that inclusivity in the genre is still not a problem. Not only should it be simplified that Ryōko Kui is creating fantasy as a woman creator, but she is creating within a genre where the current market and trending subgenres of other manga and light novels undeniably pander to the male gaze. The recent popularity of works like Sword Art Online, Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls In a Dungeon?, and The Seven Deadly Sins prove these points to be true. All feature a male protagonist often subjected to fanservice elements targeting him specifically, and many other titles in the market follow this structure. It still takes meditation to name a fantasy title featuring a female or otherwise other identities as protagonist when considering recent releases. Managing to be one of these titles, Delicious in Dungeon aims to not simply titillate the senses, but to provide a place of comfort in a nice, warm dish.
Delicious in Dungeon so far succeeds by not only thriving on a unique premise, but it succeeds by emphasizing the more subtler elements in fantasy that people find comforting. Not only would fans of fantasy and players of games like D&D find charm exploring this dungeon, but it is also not threatening to newcomers to attempt as well. Escapism in Ryōko Kui’s quirky world is easy to get into when the aromas of a home-cooked meal are coming from a door wide open.