Beyond ‘Oishii’: 10 Tastier Words to Describe Japanese Food

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There you are, watching the news on Japanese TV when the inevitable food segment comes on. As if on cue, every announcer and guest panelist raises their forks to their mouths, closes their eyes and exclaim in unison, “Oishii! (How delicious)!”

You sigh in disbelief, wondering how one dish could evoke the same exaggerated reaction in each person tasting it. This scene plays out hourly on countless televisions across Japan. Every news program or variety show has at least one portion of it dedicated to food, with all of the dishes presented nearly always described as “delicious.”

There must be more to describing the taste and experience of food in Japan than a simple “oishii!” This list presents you with 10 options to help you accurately convey your feelings towards a dish without feeling like a mindless sell-out.

On this list are words that describe the actual qualities of edibles or drinks (e.g. salty, sweet, sour, etc.), as well as words that describe the texture or feeling that a particular dish evokes. Pair them both for maximum effect!

1.しょっぱい (shoppai ) or salty

Photo by Rincewind42

Soy sauce with wasabi

Starting the list with something easy is the Japanese word for “salty.” For maximum effect, drop the final syllable and change the “pa” to “pe” while grimacing: しょっぺ (shoppe)!

Tip: If you don’t want to offend your hosts, offer a simple しおがきいてるね (shio ga kiiteru ne) “The salt is prevalent in this dish… perhaps a bit too much.”

Best paired with: tsukemono (Japanese pickles), miso, soy sauce

2. すっぱい (suppai ) or tangy

Photo by Batholith

Umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums)

From citrus fruits to tom yum soup, suppai goes well with anything that has a sour note.

Tip: Gently let down your hosts with 酸味さんみがあるね (sanmi ga aru ne). “There’s a hint of tang to this.”

Best paired with: umeboshi (dried plum) or anything that has you downing a liter of water in one sitting  

3. しっとり (shittori ) or moist

Photo by Katorisi

Homemade cake.

You may be familiar with shittori in advertising dewy skin for cosmetics. When used with food, shittori means “moist” and evokes the image of a damp sponge. That’s not appetizing at all, is it?

Best paired with: underbaked cookies and Japanese “bread.”

4. さっぱり (sappari ) or light

A dish that is sappari goes easy on the seasonings. Think fresh veggies, spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and sushi.

Best paired with: washoku (Japanese cuisine)

5. さわやか (sawayaka ) or refreshing

Photo by Personal Creations

Green tea mojito

The word sawayaka  conjures images of the perfect weather to hang laundry out to dry — endless blue skies dotted with clouds blissfully floating over a freshly cut green lawn. Sawayaka is less about the taste and more about the feeling.

Best paired with: tropical fruit tea, chocolate mint ice cream, lemon flavored cakes, sparkling water or a cocktail with frozen berries.

6. なめらか (nameraka ) or smooth

Raspberry custard pie

Nameraka shares the kanji for slippery, which should give you an idea of the foods that can be described by it.

Best paired with: custard, yogurt, the inside of a choux créme or cheesecake.

7.こってり (kotteri ) or rich

Photo by Toby Oxborrow

Tantanman noodle dish

Whether bold expressions of seasoning are right up your alley or too strong for you, kotteri perfectly encapsulates the taste.

Take it to the next level: こくがある (koku ga aru) + うまい (umai).

Best paired with: Anything with a deep color and even deeper taste — think a steaming bowl of ramen with slabs of chashu (roasted pork fillet) with pools of oil floating on the top; a fire engine red bowl of tantanmen (Szechuan noodle dish with sesame paste and chili oil).

8.とろり (torori ) or gooey

Cheese fondue

Say it too quickly and you’ll sound like you’re saying the word “trolley.” Write it in katakana and you’ll end up referencing the gummy manufacturer. Just as cheese pulls away slowly from a pizza, you’ve got to sound out the syllables in torori for maximum effect

Best paired with: condensed milk poured on strawberries, yolk oozing out of eggs Benedict, melted cheese

9. 口当くちあたりがいい (kuchi atari ga ii ) or “This goes down easily!”

Photo by Takamorry

Kanpai!

Whether you’re on a date, out drinking with friends or reluctantly headed along to the office party, a drink can always ease tensions. Instead of that annoying gulping sound that beer commercials have (rightly) been banned from using, try expressing pleasure with your drink using, “Kuchi atari ga ii.”

Best paired with: your favorite alcoholic beverage

10. ぜっぴん (zeppin ) or superb

Zeppin!

When you are so delighted with your meal that you don’t know what to say, it’s time to pull out zeppin. Use it lightly, as it literally means “a superb item.”

Best paired with: foods that genuinely meet or exceed your expectations

There you have it, 10 Japanese words to describe your next culinary experience that will help you express yourself better than any TV personality.

Go beyond the regular Japanese vocabulary and cultural knowledge. Check out our “Beyond” series.

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Freelance writer, blogger and kindergarten teacher in Tokyo.

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