Words for Meat and Fish
August 25, 2016
No distinction between meat and flesh
Tonkatsu, yakitori, nikujaga (simmered meat and potatoes). These are just some of the many popular meat dishes made in Japan. In fact, in recent years, the Japanese diet has shifted from mostly fish to mostly meat, with households now spending more money on meat than fish.
Still, Japan has a long history of regarding meat eating as taboo, partly due to the influence of Buddhism. Until the 19th century and the introduction of Western food culture following the end of Japan's closed-door policy, the consumption of a number of meats was officially banned.
This is why vocabulary associated with meat is so limited compared to that of fish. For instance, beef is written with the kanji characters for "cow-meat," and pork, "pig-meat." Unlike English, there is no clear distinction between the live animal and its meat. The same kanji is also used for both flesh and meat. There's no difference, at least in the kanji, between the bloody carcass upon which a carnivore feeds after a successful hunt in the savannah and an exquisitely prepared dish of meat in a flavorful rich sauce.
In Western culture, each cut of beef has a separate name -- sirloin, rib roast, fillet etc. With so little beef consumed historically in Japan, beef was beef. There was no need to differentiate between the cuts and so even today, there are no Japanese equivalents. The English names are used as is, albeit with Japanese pronunciation.
Cooking with dry heat vs. cooking with moist heat
Searing, roasting, grilling, broiling, toasting, baking, barbecuing: there are so many different culinary terms in English used to describe cooking with dry heat. But in Japanese, there is only one term to describe all these cooking methods -- yaku.
In Japanese, there's no distinction between toasting bread, baking a potato, or grilling meat. It all falls under the category of yaku -- cooking with dry heat.
Conversely, Japanese has far more words than English to describe cooking with moist heat. What may simply be referred as boiling in English can be referred to in different ways in Japanese depending on the situation. The word for boiling vegetables or eggs is different from that for boiling water. There's also a different word to describe simmering food in a seasoned liquid as compared to water.
These are just a few examples of how different food outlooks are reflected in the word choices in the two languages.
Text: Shinichi Nagano