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Stomach peko peko? Dig into these Japanese food words

by Yukari Sakamoto

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Japanese cuisine is how it stimulates the senses: exquisite presentation, delicious taste, enticing aroma, distinctive texture and unique sound.

The last one stands out most in comparison with Western food culture. While the sounds involved in the consumption of food are minimized in the West, for fear of embarrassment, they are celebrated in Japan — consider the noisy sound made when Japanese slurp noodles: tsuru tsuru (ツルツル).

The Japanese language is filled with words that imitate the sounds we make when eating. I learned many of them several years ago as a sommelier at Nihonbashi’s Takashimaya department store, where colleagues would use them when talking to customers. I too began using this specialized vocabulary to sell wine. A very drinkable low-alcohol wine is one you can gabu gabu nomu (ガブガブ飲む, drink heartily) — reproducing the sound of gulping it. One that is a bit fizzy is shuwa shuwa (シュワシュワ), while a sweet, cloying dessert wine is beta beta(ベタベタ) — from the word bettari (べったり, sticky).

The sound an empty stomach makes (peko peko [from the verb hekomu, へこむ, meaning caved in]) gives us a way to say “I’m hungry” (Onaka ga peko peko, お腹がペコペコ). When thirsty, you can say, Nodo ga kara kara (喉がカラカラ, My throat is dry). The popular game character Pacman got his name in similar fashion: His mouth opens and closes rapidly (paku paku, パクパク) as he scurries across the screen.

Kitchens are filled with sounds such as koto koto (コトコト, a bubbling pot) and ton ton (トントン) — the rhythmic whack of the knife as cabbage is sliced on the cutting board for salad. Jyū jyū (ジュージュー) is the sound of the fat from wagyū (和牛) beef crackling on a hot grill. In summer, you may hear shari shari (シャリシャリ) — ice being shaved for kakigōri (かき氷, flavored shaved ice).

Not only sounds but also sensations have given rise to many Japanese food words. A steaming bowl of ramen is atsu atsu (アツアツ), from the word atsui (熱い, hot). Something cooked to just the right temperature, such as rice just out of the cooker, is hoka hoka (ホカホカ) — from the sensation of having steam touch your face. The feeling you get on your mouth gives rise to hoku hoku (ホクホク) as the description for the steamy, dense texture of yakiimo (焼き芋, hot baked sweet potatoes) or steaming kabocha (南瓜) pumpkin. And piri piri (ピリピリ) describes the sting in your mouth if you put too much wasabi on your sushi.

Staying with the tactile, tsubu tsubu (ツブツブ) describes the bitty feel of pulp in freshly squeezed orange juice. Toro (トロ), the fatty part of tuna, is known to have got its name from a customer of a sushi shop in Nihonbashi who described the melt-in-your-mouth texture as torōtto suru (とろーっとする); fatty pork belly (角煮, kakuni) that falls apart in your mouth is also toro toro. Pounded rice cake is mochi mochi (モチモチ, sticky), while udon noodles are often shiko shiko (シコシコ, chewy). Gomadōfu (胡麻豆腐, sesame tofu) that wiggles and jiggles is puru puru (プルプル). Rice that is dry, such as the jasmine variety, is pasa pasa (パサパサ), and fried rice that is moist but loose enough to be eaten with a spoon is para para (パラパラ).

Some words convey both tactile and aural senses. Saku saku captures the crispy feeling as well as the sound of the light breaded coating of a delicate tempura or tonkatsu (豚カツ, pork cutlet). Pari pari achieves the same with regard to thin potato chips or crisp sheets of nori. Meanwhile, look and touch are evoked with the description of slippery, sticky natto (納豆, fermented soybean) as neba neba (ネバネバ) and fluffy marshmallow as fuwa fuwa (フワフワ).

While all this may get your appetite going, there are contrasting words to sum up bad food experiences too. For example, if you forget to take the sand out of clams, jyari jyari (ジャリジャリ) describes the grit. A box of cornflakes left open on the counter on a humid day becomes funya funya (フニャフニャ).

Sitting at your local sushi counter, ask the chef for his osusume (お薦め, recommendation). He may tell you the shrimp (海老, ebi) is puri puri, with a nice resistance. And if you get to try fresh abalone (鮑, awabi), it is kori kori (コリコリ), chewy and slightly crunchy.

Next time you watch a television program about food, listen carefully. Chances are you will hear these words. Put them into practice. They will help connect you with those who make your food. And when you are full after a big meal, pat your stomach and say “pan pan desu” (パンパンです, full).