Some visitors to Japan are often surprised by how similar the Japanese diet is to the Western one. Most Japanese people are as likely to be seen munching on a muffin than eating one of the more unusual dishes traditionally associated with Japan. However, you shouldn’t be put off – there are still plenty of weird and wonderful dishes out there and some of them have fascinating names that tell you a lot about the country’s distinct food culture.
親子丼 is such a common dish (basically scrambled eggs and chicken over rice) that most learners of Japanese probably don’t think about how strange the name is. The origin of the kanji that make up this tasty treat is a combination of the Chinese characters for parent 親 (the chicken) and child 子 (the egg). So it’s parent and child in the same bowl. Lovely.
Another scary-sounding (and looking) dish is the Japanese 踊り丼. This dish consists of a squid or an octopus that is basically a zombie: the brainstem has been severed, so the animal is effectively brain-dead; but the muscle cells are still active. When the sodium in the soy sauce makes contact with the still active muscles, they begin to writhe and contract like something from your nightmares.
As these contractions make the tentacles move in a way that looks like a grotesque vaudeville dance, the dish includes the word for dance (踊り) in its name. Unfortunately, 踊り丼 is not the only culinary misadventure that uses the “dancing” idea, as there is also the infamous 白魚の踊り食い (dancing icefish) which consists of a raw egg and little fish that are still swimming.
きつねうどん (Kitsune Udon)
On a lighter note, きつねうどん is a dish of udon noodles with 油揚げ (deep-fried slices of tofu) mixed in with the noodles. Of course, this can seem like a strange concoction, but the name is even stranger: きつね is the Japanese word for a fox, so why would this particular combination of ingredients be named after foxes?
In her writings about the subject, Japanologist Karen Smyers pointed out that in a lot of temples the Japanese god Inari and the きつね are spiritually connected. Inari shares his name with a sushi which consists of 油揚げ and rice. Therefore her theory is that this connection is what lead to the idea that 油揚げ is beloved by the きつね. In addition, Japanese are said to think of foxes when they eat inari sushi (deep-fried tofu pockets filled with rice) as the snacks have pointed ears that look like fox ears. All of this likely lead to the きつね being associated with 油揚げ and to きつねうどん.
Another strange one is 玉子ガニ, (dried crispy crab) a snack that is found in the coastal regions of Japan. The word is made up of 玉子 (egg) and かに (crab), here changed to がに to make it easier to say. In this case, the word 玉子 is being used to describe something that is small instead of an actual egg. Therefore this dish consists of dried tiny hermit crabs. Yum?!
The signature dish of Osaka is お好み焼き: a kind of savory pancake made from batter, cabbage and a variety of toppings. Much like the food itself, this is a fascinating scramble of words. 好み describes something that one likes, such as in the sentence コーヒーのお好みは？(How do you like your coffee?). 焼き is the Japanese word for grilling. Putting those two words together you get お好み焼き or “whatever you like grilled” – a pretty apt way to describe this dish.
One of the interesting things about noticing the Japanese words for what we eat is that a lot of useful vocabulary is being used that can completely escape our attention. Words like 親 and 子, 踊り, and 好み are all very useful kanji and vocabulary terms. Next time you’re at a restaurant, look at the menu and see what words you can find. Just be careful when ordering, as the charming names for some dishes can disguise a weird culinary challenge that you’re about to be served!