by Elizabeth Andoh
Translated literally, some oshinagaki, or Japanese restaurant menus, could be mistaken for poetry, especially those that are penned in flowing brush strokes on gossamer rice paper scrolls. Dishes with names such as tsukimi wan ("moon-viewing" broth), momiji oroshi ("red maple" sauce), and shigure ni ("autumn rains") read like an ode to autumn. As fall turns to winter and icicle radishes reach their peak of flavor, furofuki ("steaming hot, hot-tub" vegetables), and mizore ae ("sleet" sauce) appear frequently on menus in traditional-style restaurants.
Poetic names such as these evoke special images to the educated Japanese palate, but they also convey specific information about the food. Tsukimi wan will most likely contain a perfectly round poached egg, or perhaps bean curd cut in a perfect circle to mimic the full harvest moon. (By the way, a poached egg on a hamburger has been an autumn special menu item at McDonald's in Japan for many years now; they call it a tsukimi baaga or "moon-viewing" burger.) Momiji oroshi signals the inclusion of fiery red togarashi pepper in the grated radish condiment often served with fried or simmered foods. Shigure ni alerts diners to expect an intensely ginger-flavored soy stewed food. Versatile daikon radishes are enjoyed throughout the year. Furofuki daikon, piping hot chunks of radish served with fragrant, seasoned miso, is a cold weather favorite. The furo refers to the neck-deep, hot baths the Japanese love to soak in, the fuki refers to blowing away steam. Grated radish suspended in a sweet and sour sauce, what the Japanese call mizore ae, looks very much like the chilling sleet that coats bare branches and blankets wintry city streets.
Aside from frequent seasonal and poetic allusions, Japanese food names often derive from legendary characters. Best known, perhaps, is the cucumber-loving water sprite called Kappa, who lends his name to kappa maki, rolls of sushi stuffed with cucumbers.
In Japanese folklore, two creatures, foxes (kitsune) and badgers (tanuki), have been known for their deceitful ways. Like their Western counterpart, kitsune are thought to be sly and wily. They often assume human form in Japanese fairytales in order to trick people; indeed, they are "foxy." Because their pelts are a golden brown color (what the Japanese call kitsune iro, or "fox colored"), and because they are said to like the taste of abura age (fried bean curd), reference to kitsune on a menu will typically signal the inclusion of fried bean curd in the dish. Throughout Japan, kitsune udon, or "fox" noodles are thick, slithery white noodles in broth, topped with slightly sweet, soy-simmered, fried bean curd. In a recipe, kitsune iro will mean food has been fried, sauteed or toasted to a golden brown color. Most storybook tanuki badgers look rather cute pounding their distended bellies under a full moon. But beware: they are known primarily for their nasty tricks. No wonder then, that tanuki noodles are garnished with only scraps of fried tempura batter (ten kasu, in Japanese). Tricking people into not noticing that the shrimp are "missing," is typical of deceitful badger ways. The same soup and buckwheat noodles with fried batter has a different, rather chic, image in the Kansai region, especially Osaka. There, ten kasu is often called haikara, a reference to the foreign fashion of high collared shirts at the turn of the century. In Kansai, tanuki soba is the name for buckwheat noodles topped with bean curd; the cunning deception being substituting soba for udon noodles.
Foxes play yet another role in Japanese folklore: they act as assistants to the deity Inari. Because of this association of foxes, bean curd, and Inari shrines, the slightly sweet, soy-simmered, fried bean curd pouches that are stuffed with vinegared rice are known as inari-zushi. In the Kansai region, the pouches are triangular (mimicing fox ears!), while in Kanto, inari-zushi are typically rectangular, or pillow-shaped.
An additional association of foxes and bean curd reveals yet another menu mystery: Shinoda-maki means something will be wrapped in bean curd. The Shinoda forest, not far from Osaka, is inhabited by foxes in several local folk tales. On many shojin, or temple vegetarian, menus, carrots, radishes, mountain ferns, or burdock will be wrapped in sheets of bean curd, then tied with ribbons of kampyo gourd. These sausage-like logs are simmered in a sweetened soy broth before being sliced into individual rounds.
Place names provide inspiration for menus, too. The Tatsuta River, near Nara, is famous for its red autumn maples. If a menu includes tatsuta age you can be sure you'll be served crispy fish or chicken that was marinated in soy sauce before it was dredged in cornstarch and deep fried. The cornstarch coating absorbs some of the soy, so that when it is fried it takes on a burnished, russet color. Locales lend their identity to the names of certain foods, too. For example, isobe ("seashore"), indicates that nori (laver, harvested from the sea) has been used.
Often menu items have names related to their shape. Shigi nasu are long, slender eggplants that have been slit lengthwise, grilled, then slathered with savory miso sauce. Ordinarily when foods such as eggplant, bean curd or even scallops are skewered and topped with miso it is referred to as dengaku, an allusion to a scarecrow-like dancing figure in Japanese traditional stage arts. But when the word shigi appears on the menu, it refers to the long beak of the shigi bird. Tazuna means "rein of a horse" and indicates a twisted configuration, not unlike curling streamers. Foods such as kamaboko (fish sausage) and konnyaku (a jelly-like loaf made from a tuber vegetable) lend themselves to this decorative presentation. If tazuna-zushi appears on a menu, look for logs of pressed vinegared rice, topped with foods set in diagonal stripes, somewhat like a regimental tie pattern.
Like the Earl of Sandwich, whose fondness for putting sliced meat between two pieces of bread lent his name to the now-familiar sandwich, still other names refer to famous people. Takuan Osho, a 17th century monk who perfected a pickling process bestows his name to takuan-zuke . I have a particular fondness for these crunchy, yellow pickled radishes, especially the deeply golden-toned ones that have been allowed to mellow in roasted rice-bran for several years with dried persimmon peels. Just when you think you've understood the system, you run up against those Japanese foods that have more than one name for the exact same thing. These multiple labels seem assigned in an arbitrary fashion without regard to the geography, gender, or generation of the speaker. In fact, I used to think these sorts of double labels were created just to test the patience of gaijin trying to learn the language. At the supermarket you ask where the renkon (lotus root) is, and are told the hasu (lotus root) is over there. At the sushi bar, you comment on the wonderful herbaceous flavor of shiso (a flat leafed herb), and are told that indeed oba (the same flat leafed herb) lends a lovely accent to food. So tell me, when Japanese moms are shaping rice into triangles, spheres, or thick logs for their kids' lunch, are they making omusubi (rice "sandwiches")? or onigiri (rice "sandwiches")? I think I'll stand at Shibuya station one morning and take a poll among commuters.