It’s sometimes said that in the context of Asian cuisine Japanese food is a little bland. While neighboring countries like Korea and Thailand are full of explosive flavors and food sprinkled with mind-blowing spices, Japanese people are more content with treats like ふぐ刺身 (raw puffer fish) and 豆腐 (tofu) with flavors so subtle that you have to train yourself to appreciate them.
One thing that critics of Japanese cuisine tend to overlook is that Japanese people often judge food using different criteria. The 辛い (spicy) food that countries like India create are somewhat rare here, sure, but instead, they tend to focus more on texture than other cultures, even to the point of scientists spending years researching the consistency of many Japanese foods.
As a general rule, foods are divided into 煮物 (dishes that have been simmered, broiled, etc.), 焼き物 (grilled foods), 和え物 (marinated chopped fish, shellfish or vegetables), 香の物 (pickled items) and similarly 酢の物 (foods containing vinegar). Recently, 揚げ物 (fried things) have been added. The combination of all these observed flavors and varied textures is what gives Japanese food its unique identity.
Favorite Japanese food onomatopoeias
The first category are the fried, crunchy 揚げ物. You will often hear these complimented as being “カリカリ!” (“So crispy!”). The term カリカリ should be easy for English speakers as it’s supposed to be an onomatopoeia and even sounds like the English word crispy. A similar word is パリパリ which describes the crunchy feeling of spring rolls and gyoza. In other words, things that are crispy, but not quite カリカリ levels of crispy!
When you bite into the fried food, you might hear that crunching sound. If you say さくさく quickly, you can soon see why this word represents crunchy, flaky food (as in pastry). The most obvious use is for the feeling of biting into that Japanese-by-way-of-Portugal food, tempura.
The sensation of eating tempura is very similar to that of eating crumbly, flaky foods such as those fish-shaped たい焼き pastries found at festivals and freshly baked bread. Therefore さくさく is often associated with pastries (サクサクパイ is a common brand) and even with the horrors of the popular but scary サクサクイナゴ (crunchy fried grasshoppers). Presumably, the サクサク is an attempt to make the inedible sound almost appetizing — something nigh on impossible when the food in question consists of a plate of crunchy bugs!
A similar word is シャキシャキ which is supposed to sound like your teeth biting into something crisp. Some common pairings include シャキシャキキャベツ, レタス and もやし.
Those chewy foods found in 焼き物 and 煮物 are described with different words. Living in Osaka I am used to the word ホクホク, which describes a lot of Osakan foods, most notably the famous たこ焼き (octopus dumplings).
While 弁当 (bento) lovers will be familiar with ホクホク and ホカホカ, most others won’t. These two words sound similar, so are easily confused. ホクホク is the texture of food with just the right amount of moisture, therefore it is often used to describe stew or potatoes as well as たこ焼き.
ホカホカ, on the other hand, is the ideal fluffy texture of steamed things, so is often used to describe rice, steamed sweet potatoes or Chinese-style 肉まん (meat-filled buns). ホカホカ is probably best known as the name of a famous 弁当 company Hoka Hoka Bento, which is based on the phrase ホカホカ弁当 (a hot lunchbox).
A similar word is じゅわ, which describes the sound of bubbling, burning or — intriguingly — melting food. A common use is to describe meat full of savory juices such as 肉汁がじゅわじゅわと溢れ出す (meat overflowing with meaty juices).
Finally, シコシコ is one that is used for noodles and spaghetti. It’s probably the closest word that Japanese has for the Italian term al dente or the springy feeling of perfectly cooked pasta.
After you’ve eaten your main course, you will, of course, want to try a デザート (dessert) or 甘い物 (sweet). Generally, the more traditional ones are called 和菓子 (Japanese-style confectionery), お菓子 (general sweets) or even 駄菓子 (cheap candy that kids like).
One of the useful words for describing these foods is モチモチ. The term モチモチ even sounds like the word もち (sticky rice cake), so unsurprisingly, it’s found in words for chewy things. It is best understood by holding bread or cake — that kind of squidgy, springy texture is モチモチ.
Of course, these aren’t the only foods here that require some mastication and Japanese sweets can often be readily distinguished as being モグモグ (also chewy but more in a sticky sense). The opposite extreme is the feeling of soft, fluffy imported foods such as pancakes and similar which are described as being フワフワ.
More chewy foods are usually found with コリコリ. These include ホルモン (the cheaper cuts of cow or pig offal on offer at a yakiniku restaurant) and 軟骨 (cartilage). Vegetarians can rejoice, however, as it’s not only found with meat. The word コリコリ is used to market salads and even fruits, as well, to appeal to customers who like that crunchy-chewy, almost gritty texture.
Of course, while food texture is important to Japanese people, learners of the language won’t be able to skip common words for foods such as すっぱい, 爽やか, とろり and しょっぱい covered previously in choosing tastier words to describe Japanese food.
Still, armed with these expressions in your vocabulary, you may finally be able to describe the almost impossible: the sensation of eating 豆腐!
For more on learning Japanese
- Learn Japanese with our original study materials on GaijinPot Study
- Questions about studying Japanese in Japan? Take a look at the Japan 101 section on Higher Education and Studying Japanese
- Join our GaijinPot Study Facebook group to connect with fellow learners
- Learn more about the GaijinPot Study Placement Program