What I’ve learnt about Japanese food so far

Everyone knows that lists are the most lazy form of blogging, so I’ll try to keep these down to a minimum. However, I think the format is amply suited to this particular subject. Just over 10 days in, let’s go through what I’ve learned.

You actually do need katakana


For those of you who don’t know (and I know there are many), Japanese has three scripts. Kanji are the Chinese characters, like 食 or 飲, used liberally for almost all nouns, names, verbs and adjectives. They are non-phonetic, so you need to know it before you can read a word containing it. Hiragana (ひらがな) are phonetic, and are used for particles, conjugations and sometimes words with particularly complicated or esoteric kanji. Katakana (カタカナ) are also phonetic, but are used for loanwords. This is where you’ll get your ビッグマック (Biggu Makku – Big Mac) and your チキンカツ (chikin katsu – chicken katsu), as the script often adorns menus.

I hold my hands up, here. I didn’t quite anticipate just how often this last script is used, nor just how slow I was at reading it. On more than one occasion I’ve had to either order in English or basically pick something at random because I’ve spent so long staring at a menu and painfully reading out the characters that the waiter/barista/chef has gotten slightly restless and resorted to my mother tongue. The pain is only intensified by the fact that 90% of the menu items are either direct English transliterations (chicken katsu is actually called 鳥かつ, ‘torikatsu’ in Japanese) or easily work out-able words like ハツ (hatsu, or ‘heart’) which are really rather useful to know before you put into your mouth parts of an animal that arguably should never be eaten.

Make a battle plan, but be flexible


Despite looking very obviously out of place, I have a distinct streak of wanting to appear totally confident in everything I try here. The restauranteurs see a pale, emaciated gaijin who’s been mouthing out the entire menu for the last ten minutes, but in my mind, as soon as I walk in that door, I’m Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, with such expert language skills and social graces that all who witness my suave handling of the situation will wonder whether I’ve even lived outside Japan.

Of course, the key to this is to know what to do before you do it. One thing I didn’t bank on as I planned my final assault was these ordering machines. Some are more helpful than others, with pictures and touch screens and such, but some merely confront you with words to put your linguistic prowess to the test. It took ten minutes of trying to give my order to the chef (who was having none of it), then finally being led to the machine (which I had assumed was for drinks), paying, and then being told that the ticket I had been fed was meant to be given to the chef, rather than kept by my while I tried to avoid eye contact with any potentially humoured onlookers.

When your チキンカツ (I hope you’ve been paying attention!) arrives with about six eggs cracked over the top and a side order of bizarre pickle-water, you’ve got to go for it. Your companion may not want to tell you exactly which part of a pig that is, but without trying it you’ll just never know. This mindset is only 50% adventurousness. Western food is surprisingly hard to come by, at least in Koenji. If I can’t stomach what I’ve ordered and/or bought, I don’t eat, and I certainly can’t live on food parcels from home. Planning in advance makes sense, but in the event of total bewilderment, close your eyes, grab your chopsticks and dive in regardless.

It probably isn’t

From left: Actual milk, the yoghurt/lemonade mixture-juice that I thought was milk on the first pass

From left: Actual milk, the yoghurt/lemonade mixture-juice that I thought was milk on the first pass

Now, this isn’t limited to food but rather all forms of purchase. As a tourist, supermarket shopping is generally kept to a minimum or non-existent depending on one’s plans, but it dawned on me very quickly that, as I was in this for the long haul, I wouldn’t be able to survive very long on tiffin and biscuits. It was a little like planning for the nuclear apocalypse, only with a slightly less immediate threat of radiation poisoning.

Dear Lord. It was perhaps one of the greatest culture shocks I experienced when I realised that, not only could I hardly read any packets in the supermarket (particularly dangerous in a country where our British concepts of what parts are acceptable to eat are cheerfully thrown out of the figurative window), but that even if I could I had no idea how to prepare something based on packet instructions, and my knowledge would surely fail when it came to buying various condiments. It was a good few days before I managed to get a genuine Japanese guide to help with such things.

As one might reasonably expect, I did the logical thing and used the pictures on the front as my guide. Herein lies the most bewildering problem. Some things don’t have pictures, and thus I end up buying a strange bastard child of barbecue sauce and vinegar rather than the soy sauce I so needed. A colleague of mine told me that she only realised she had bought bathroom disinfectant when she covered herself with it, thinking up until that point that she was using shower gel. This rite of passage is fraught with danger. You have been warned.

Even if it is, it still probably isn’t

The most sour thing I have ever tasted

Actually burned through aluminium lunch boxes in the 60’s

Let’s say you’ve managed to get through the minefield of katakana that constitutes a menu, and, with much gesticulating and slow clear speaking, have successfully ordered your choice of dish. A rice-y soup-y meal with sour apricot. ‘What an exciting combination of tastes this will surely be’, your eager imagination tells you. I mean, if one were to take a sweet fruit and make it sour, surely one would keep aspects of both tastes in order to preserve the spirit of the original medium, with a twist, right? Right?

No, not right. What you see above makes lemon juice and vinegar seem to taste like sugar-coated dolly mixture ice cream. This was so tongue-shrivellingly sour that it makes David Miliband after the 2010 Labour Party leadership election look like a quadruple gold-medallist. If there was some remnant of sweet, juicy apricot left in this orange sphere of acidity, it died along with most of my tastebuds.

The moral of this tale? If even a Japanese person warns you about it, look at the other side of the menu and order from there. Unless it’s ハツ. I’m not that hungry. Yet.


One thought on “What I’ve learnt about Japanese food so far

  1. Yuka says that what seems to be umeboshi ochatsuke in the last picture looks delicious! I think the apricot translation is a bit misleading. It is more commonly translated as plum which if you imagine an unripe sour plum and multiply by a hundred is something approaching the taste of umeboshi. Our children each them on their own as snacks. We can happily arrange for when you come back to England if you end up missing authentic Japan.

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