Japan is known for a lot of things—cutting-edge technology, manga, beautiful landscapes, and a long history reflected in the temples, shrines and castles—but one thing everybody seems to have an interest in is the food. Not only do the visitors to Japan fall in love with the flavours, the Japanese themselves are so attached that when they go travelling overseas, many of them will search for a Japanese restaurant.
So why is Japanese food so good? Here I'll try to uncover the secret to the great food in Japan (traditional dishes as well as those taken from other cultures) by taking a look at how the Japanese themselves describe what they like about the food in their own country.
The most obvious and straightforward way of describing food for most people is the taste. Oishii and umai both describe something that is good or delicious. However, this is an overall impression of the taste and doesn’t really tell us much about what exactly the speaker likes about the food. So, let’s get down to the words that give us a clue.
Amai (sweet) or amakarai (sweet and salty) are words that are often heard when people are impressed by traditional Japanese dishes. This leads me to believe that the Japanese generally like sauces on the sweeter side. Just look at the staple ingredients used in traditional cooking: mirin (sweet rice wine), sugar, cooking sake and soy sauce. The combination of the syrupy mirin and sugar, with the soy sauce full of umami, creates a dish that is both sweet and salty.
Maroyaka means mild, which is a nice way of saying that something doesn’t have a whole lot of punch to it. Some dishes, which can at times be too overpowering and bold, such as ramen or stews, can be described as maroyaka—not to say it has no flavour, but to indicate that it is just the right balance (or light as opposed to rich).
This is related to johin, which means elegant or refined and can be used to point out a flavour that is a class above the regular and doesn’t have to be masked by bold seasonings. Yasashii is also used often to describe something nice and light in flavour.
Nohkoh is a word to convey a rich flavour. I often hear it used when talking about dishes involving eggs. The Japanese, being one of the top consumers of eggs, really seem to like the rich yolks. They even breed top brands of chickens to yield eggs with a supposedly nohkoh flavour (these are, of course, more expensive than the regular egg).
Koi, in the context of adjectives, means bold and rich (many people may know the noun meaning ‘carp’). It is similar to nohkoh, however with koi you have to be more careful since it can have a negative connotation meaning something is over-seasoned.
Although Kusakunai literally means “it doesn’t smell”, it often refers to taste when talking about food. Sometimes seafood dishes will have a fishy taste to them, but if made with a fresh catch, one might say kusakunai. This is generally true for any culture; however, the story is different in Japan with game meat. Lamb, for example, has a particular gamey flavour, and that’s what lamb eaters (like me) love about it.
The Japanese, however, when they like a dish of lamb, usually say ‘kusakunai!’, meaning that the meat and its preparation were successful in lessening the gaminess. Lamb raised in Japan somehow has a less gamey flavour (probably related to the feed and environment they create for them).
Kohbashii describes something with a nice char or toastiness. For example, a good cup of barley or hojicha tea, both teas that are made from roasted ingredients, can be kohbashii. Vegetables, as well as meat, can also be called kohbashii when they have been stir-fried or barbequed with a char which acts to enhance the overall flavours. This word can be used to describe the scent of something as well, although I do not hear it as often.
Smell vs. Taste
You may have noticed that I haven’t created a category for describing smells. This is because food can smell good but taste horrible, and vice versa. It doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor in good food; just look at natto or the fermented beans that so many Japanese people eat on a daily basis (they themselves also think it’s smelly).
Taste is not the only important thing to the Japanese. They pay almost as much attention to texture as they do to the taste buds.
Fuwa-fuwa essentially means soft and fluffy, and is used to describe a lot of things from pancakes, bread and sponge cakes to omelettes and okonomiyaki (a savoury, cabbage and meat-filled batter cooked on an iron plate, covered with an amakarai sauce). I have noticed that the Japanese tend to like lighter and fluffier cakes (chiffon and sponge cakes are quite popular) as opposed to the dense kind.
Nameraka is often used to describe something that is smooth and silky with no chunks in it, such as a pudding.
Kuriimi actually comes from the English word for, you guessed it, creamy. If you ask for a chicken stew in Japan, you'll get a white stew where the creamy appeal comes from whipping cream or milk as its base. Corn potage is a type of soup you’ll find in many family restaurants in Japan and is liked for its creaminess in addition to its sweetness.
Toro-toro is used for liquids that are thick or sticky in a good way. Back to the beloved egg, a half-cooked omlette or a runny egg (which are the key to a few standard dishes here) are described as toro-toro.
Meat that has been braised for hours and melts in your mouth is also said to be toro-toro. Since it’s the fat in meat that makes it soft, and the Japanese tend to go for soft meat, you can see why the fattier meat is prized here. In addition to the umami in the fat, it plays a big role in making the meat really tender (which is why the most expensive meat here is so beautifully marbled).
Torokeru and tokeru also have the meaning of ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ but can also be used for velvety chocolate desserts and really soft, smooth puddings or super fluffy pancakes made airy with meringue.
Saku-saku is an onomatopoeic word for crispy. It is used when biting into tempura done well with a light and crispy batter. Things that have been breaded with panko and then fried come out saku-saku, especially when eaten straight after frying, which anybody will probably agree is the best time to eat fried foods.
Shaki-shaki is used for something that has a nice crunch to it. Certain vegetables, such as cabbage or bean sprouts, remain shaki-shaki even after briefly adding heat to them, and these seem appealing to the Japanese. When raw vegetables are described as shaki-shaki it can be validation for their freshness. The Japanese often serve shredded cabbage alongside fried items or in salads, and to make it extra shaki-shaki, they will soak it in cold water for a few minutes.
Other Textures: Juicy and Slippery
Puri-puri is desirable in seafood such as shrimp or lobster and is used to describe a juicy piece of meat. When shrimp is overcooked, it becomes rubbery and stiff, but when it’s cooked to perfection, it is puri-puri. Some jelly-like desserts can have the same bouncy burst when you bit into them, and these can also be puri-puri.
Tsuru-tsuru literally means slippery, smooth or shiny, and is used when eating noodles. It basically tells how slurpable the noodles are. The Japanese love to slurp their udon or soba noodles because they believe it makes it taste better (it’s like wrapping spaghetti on a fork, you get one big mouthful of it when you keep slurping the long noodles). It’s also easier to eat noodles this way as that’s how they've probably learned to eat them at a young age.
Atsu-atsu means something that is almost scalding hot. Normally I hear it used in a positive way to describe foods that are warming and nice to eat on a cold day such as hot pot or a baked potato. It can also let you know that something is just pulled out of the oven, like a pizza, or just out of the fryer, such as French fries.
Kin-kin is the opposite and makes a beer seem really appealing.
Japanese food is notorious for being plated in a pretty and appetizing way. They pay special attention to the variation of colours making up the overall appearance.
Irodori describes a colourful dish. A particularly vibrant colour is described as azayaka.
Kawaii or cute is probably the number one used word for appearance. For example, a mini cake, a small macaron, or a boxed lunch that uses the ingredients to form an anime character may be referred to as kawaii.
Insutabae is a more recent way to describe the appearance of something. It means that the dish will make a suitable photo to post on Instagram. This can be something that is unusual, colourful, cute, pretty, extravagant or anything that will get ‘likes’ on Instagram.
Just as in other cultures, the way a food makes you feel is also a way to describe how scrumptious something is. The Japanese often say, nihon ni umarete yokatta, meaning 'I’m glad I was born in Japan'. It’s an expression often used in regard to the satisfaction of eating great food.
Sawayaka and sukkiri are good ways to describe something refreshing such as a cold tea or lemonade.
Haha no aji, is used for the comforting feeling that homemade food gives. Literally, it means ‘the taste of mom’s cooking’, but I think that more than the taste, it describes the comfort since the same dish made by different moms may have different flavours but have a homemade appeal.
"It Makes Me Want More Rice"
Gohan ga susumu, if you translated this directly, it would become ‘rice is progressing’. The staple in Japan is rice, and it goes so well with the local food. You’ll often see people taking a bite of the main dish and then following it immediately with a mouthful of rice. Or they may top their rice with a bite-sized piece of the main and put both into their mouth simultaneously. So when describing how much they like a dish, the Japanese may say gohan ga susumu, to say that the dish is so good that they need another bowl of rice.
When you think about it, it also means that there are some bold or rich flavours in the dish, which are perfectly mellowed out by a bowl of warm rice. Bringing up the point again of the love for amakarai dishes, usually, these sweet and salty ones lead people to say "gohan ga susumu".
Another phrase which makes reference to rice is gohan o tabetaku naru (it makes me want a bowl of rice). This is used when there is no rice around, but the dish is so good that it makes you say that you want some rice to go along with it. The palate-cleansing effect of rice would allow you to eat more and more of the dish bursting with flavours.
"It Makes Me Want a Glass of Wine"
Wain o nomitaku naru: You may be wondering “what about dishes that aren’t served with rice?” such as pizza and pasta. In these cases, if you are an adult, you may say “wain o nomitaku naru” or “it makes me want a glass of wine”. Perhaps it is a bit stereotypical, but the Japanese often say this when eating Italian food or Spanish tapas. Cheeses and cured meats seem to spark this feeling.
There is the same saying for beer and sake, just swapping out wine for the latter. It is usually used when eating things that have a high sodium content, including sushi and sashimi, which, as we know, is dipped in soy sauce that is fairly high in sodium. In the West, we think of fries, quesadillas, buffalo wings, nacho dips, burgers and other high-calorie foods as pairing well with beer, but in Japan, it can be almost anything that is slightly on the salty side and makes you crave a drink.
When they share a recipe on TV cooking shows, I often hear them saying that the dish is great for moms (the cook) because it’ll satisfy both the picky child and the beer-drinking dad.
Think of These Words When You Eat
Of course, there are always exceptions and individual opinions as to what makes food good or bad, but I chose the descriptions commonly heard. On television programs, they try to express how good something is (very rarely will you see a negative comment about a restaurant or shop's food), and so they use words that generally everybody will agree are qualities that make the food tasty; the appeal can be easily conveyed.
This list of words may explain why Japanese people (although not all the same) are willing to try new foods but seem to always go back to the flavours they are used to. In my home country of Canada, people like to cook or search for ethnic and international food that is authentic. However, when this type of food enters Japan, the recipes are often tweaked a bit in order to appeal to the Japanese palate.
So to answer the question of what makes food in Japan so good, just refer to this list of commonly used descriptive words, and you may find yourself paying more attention to the softness, crispiness, sweetness, saltiness, or umami of the food you eat.