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“Ready to order?”
Some handy expressions for using a Japanese menu

August 7, 2017

A confession – despite years of living in Japan, I am still far from fluent in the spoken language, and woefully less competent at reading and writing. Literacy is something most of us take for granted, and finding oneself both abroad and functionally illiterate can be sobering, especially when it’s your adopted homeland. Though I’ve always prided myself on my flexibility and willingness to try new things, my pioneering spirit has rarely extended to dining alone at establishments with menus that don’t offer pictures or even the most tokenistic English explanations. Fatigue, hunger, fear and laziness have resulted in far too many lonely lunches at fast food chains, and even when eating out with friends more adept in Japanese than myself, on more than one occasion my shame and embarrassment have led me to mumble the old standby “Uh, I’ll have what he’s having.”
Sad, but true.
So heed this warning, brave traveler: you don’t have to be like me! As a matter of fact, neither do I! Take up this handy guide to Japanese menus, swallow your fear, and set out on your adventure into the delicious unknown. I may be right behind you.

What's for dinner?

Here are some useful keywords, commonly found on a typical Japanese menu, that will help you out when ordering:

“Teishoku” (定食; tay-sho-ku)

Above: shoga-yaki teishoku

This is basically a set menu, especially common at lunchtime. It's typically delivered on a tray, and consists of a main dish with several smaller side items, such as rice, soup, salad, or pickles.

“Donburi” (; don-boo-ree)

Above: Oyakodon

A one-dish meal of various toppings over rice. Common examples include “oyakodon’ (親子丼), chicken, egg, and onions in a sweet/savory sauce; “katsudon’ (カツ丼), a deep-fried pork cutlet; “tendon’ (天丼), tempura seafood and vegetables; and “gyudon’ (牛丼), sautéed beef.

“Men” (; men)

Above: Ramen

This simply means noodles, including the “big three”: “udon” (うどん), thick, wheat-based noodles often served in a light soup with green onions; “soba” (そば), thinner buckwheat noodles sometimes served next to a dipping sauce; and the world-famous “ramen” (ラーメン), egg noodles in a rich soy sauce, miso, or pork-based broth.

If things are still unclear, a little more basic vocabulary will help you get a handle on what you may be in for. “Niku” (; nee-ku) is meat, including beef (牛肉; gyu-nee-ku), pork (豚肉; bu-ta-nee-ku), and chicken (鶏肉; to-ree-nee-ku). “Sakana” () is fish, and “yasai” (野菜) are vegetables. Common methods of preparation include:

“yaku” (焼く) – grilled, roasted, or baked
“niru” (煮る) – simmered
“ageru” (揚げる; a-ge-roo) – deep-fried
“itameru” (炒める; ee-ta-may-roo) – fried

Getting thirsty yet? Drinks can also be found in their own section, and typically fall into two categories:

“Osake” (お酒; oh-sa-kay)

Perhaps not what you were expecting! In Japan, “sake” simply refers to alcoholic drinks such as beer (ビール; bee-ru), cocktails (カクテル; coc-tay-ru), and, yes, traditional sake (日本酒; nee-hon-shu).

“Soft drinks” (ソフトドリンク; softo-do-rin-ku)

Again, this may be a little different from what you’re used to at home. All non-alcoholic drinks fall under this expression. This typically includes juice (ジュース; joo-su), cola (コーラ; koh-ra), ginger ale (ジンジャーエール; jinja-ay-ru), and (ウーロン茶; oorong-cha) Chinese oolong tea.

While this is by no means a comprehensive guide to the myriad options on the table, it should give you a running start. But remember, you will make mistakes. You may not get exactly what you were expecting, but perhaps that is as it should be. After all, this is meant to be an adventure, and if you’re the sort that doesn’t like surprises, you probably wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Text: Marcus Hutchings

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