Why do Japanese cook the pasta first?

My students swear no one does this, but I’ve both seen it and read about it, and finally find an explanation. According to a story on the originator of Japanese “Napolitan spaghetti” in Japan Times:

“He later supposedly left the pasta for hours after cooking it so that the texture would become more like that of udon noodles suited to Japanese tastes”


Why is a turkey called “shichimencho” in Japanese?

… because “seven face bird” is an odd name even for as strange a creature as a turkey. According to a page on the topic on a Japanese site on word origins, it is because the neck looks like it has many different colours, which kind of makes sense. The Xmas edition of The Economist says that the name came from Chinese and spread to Japanese and Korean, though in China it later became “‘fire chicken’ for its face’s tendency to flare up shades of red, white and blue”.

Why is it only okay to slurp noodles in Japan?

not rice, soup, spaghetti, etc…

The most common explanation is that slurping makes noodles taste better because you can eat them hotter, the oyaji (older men) who slurp their soup, coffee and rice would probably say the same about those things. Slurping noodles also seems to help with no getting whiplash and hence stains all over your shirt (or even your neighbour), so I’d suggest that this is more of a reason than the taste thing.

From my new Japanese table manners explained page.


Why don’t people (often) eat koi?

There are obvious reasons for not eating a $5000 prize fish, but there are plenty of koi in the wild. Apparently they have lots of bones and taste crap, but that’s true of plenty of fish and a good recipe can make up for anything. I therefore think there might be another reason.

Koi tend to live in slow moving or stagnant water, so I wonder if they particularly accumulate diseases, pollution and/ or parasites. There’s a story that eating the koi from “Abraham’s Pond” in Sanliurfa in Eastern Turkey makes you go blind and while that is unlikely to literally be true, such culinary taboos tend to be based on some kind of health risk (as, apparently, with pork in Arabia).

Why do the Japanese call sake ‘nihonshu’?

My memory is probably exaggerating, but the way I remember it I arrived in Japan only knowing the words “sake” and “sayonara”, only to find that the Japanese rarely use either in the way I had expected. Still, that’s not as bad as believing my French teacher when he told use that “baiser” means kiss…

“Sake” in fact has two meanings, being the normal way to refer to all alcoholic drinks as well as the famous Japanese rice wine in particular, and is more often used with the former meaning. There is also the only very slightly differently pronounced “sake” that means “salmon”…

To avoid possible misunderstandings, the clearer expression “nihonshu” (“Japanese alcohol” or perhaps “Japanese spirits”) is therefore more often used when talking about Japanese rice wine, though there is also the word “atsukan” for “nihonshu” served hot.

Why do the Japanese sell health foods by colour?

Today I saw an advert for a diet food including ‘five blacks’ (itsutsu no kuro) and there are plenty of juices boasting how many purple things are in them. Although generalising the health properties of foods by colour is certainly not unique to Japan, it seems to be more common and more discussed than I remember back home.

I wonder if it all started with the more traditional health drink of ao jiru (green juice- or literally blue juice – made from various green leaves including kale) and spread from there colour by colour in a typical Japanese process of innovations through variations.

Why is Asian bread so sweet?

This question still pops into my head when I bite into a sausage roll with sweet and milky bread surrounding it. When I first moved to Japan it was an almost daily question – one that expanded in geographical reach when I went back to Thailand on holiday and suddenly remembered having the exact same reaction to almost exactly the same kind of bread when I lived there in the late 90s.

And it was in a book on Thai popular culture that I found the answer. The bread was brought to Asia by the Portuguese back in the late 16th century when they dominated the area. One reason for it then remaining popular was probably what I first thought was the reason, the general lack of a clear black and white distinction between savoury and sweet in Asian cultures (and one could argue a dislike of Western-style black and white distinctions more generally).

Older answer to this here.

Why is Kit Kat popular in Japan?

Other former Rowntree’s sweets sold by Nestle like Polo mints have quickly disappeared in Japan and most Mars and Cadbury sweets (Milky Way, Fruit and Nut etc.) are limited to import shops, but for some reason every convenience store and airport shop in Japan has Kit Kats, often in bizarre flavours like cherry blossom. It could well be this use of the very Japanese approach of innovation into craziness by lots of small changes that has made Kit Kat a success here, and foreign tourists buying molasses syrup and bean powder Kit Kat to “impress” their relatives back home can’t hurt. However, the latest edition of the British Chambers of Commerce Japan newsletter has another explanation:

“In Japan, those studying for entrance exams consider the chocolate good luck, because the name, as pronounced by the Japanese, sounds like the phrase kitto katsu (you’re sure to win)”.

Not sure how much of their market that could explain, but buying foods due to ridiculous and tenuous connections between their names and good luck has a long history in Japan, probably originally borrowed from China. See the Japanese New Year page for many examples of this.

For more practical tips on getting British (and kind of British) food in Japan, see my other Japan blog Tips for Brits in Tokyo.

Why do cafes in Japan want to heat everything?

On top of the wilted lettuce that’s being annoying me for years, I recently had muffins and quiche that fall apart in your hand, and donuts that reach almost Macdonald’s apple pie levels of heat danger – all of which I found later are better without going in the oven.

It could well be part of the idea that more effort always means better service – in this case even when it leads to worse food, but often even when it means everything taking twice as long as it needs to…


Why “university potato” (daigaku imo)?

It’s long struck me as an odd name, and finally got round to looking at the daigaku imo Wikipedia page. Alternative explanations given are:

– In the Taisho period university students in the Kanda area of Tokyo liked eating it

– In early Showa period Tokyo University students made and sold it to help support themselves

– There was a popular shop for this dish in front of the main gate of Tokyo University


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