I was 17 when I started baking, and 21 when I started baking successfully.
Until then, I was just setting off smoke alarms.
The first two times I attempted croissants, I set off the smoke detector and filled the entire floor of my apartment building with smoke. It took two attempts for me to learn that rimless baking sheets are not ideal when you’re using that much butter. I have since learned, however, how to make a croissant with some crois-swagger.
Now, my soufflés souf-fly all the way to the moon, my macarons are maca-licious, and I can braise an entire village and still have time to put a pie in the oven. But 8 years ago, I was no Julia Child.
Even Julia Child was no Julia Child when she started, and she had to learn to cook in a foreign language (French).
Coincidentally, learning to cook in a foreign language is an amazing way to learn said language.
Ready to eat your way to Japanese fluency?
Well, before you can whip up a rich green tea éclair by following a Japanese-language recipe, you may want to learn how to read a cookbook.
Why You Should Learn About Japanese Cooking
Isn’t it all just miso soup and grilled fish? How hard can it be?
Japanese cuisine, 和食 (わしょく) or washoku, is primarily based on dishes like grilled mackerel, pickled root vegetables and lightly-flavored soups made from bonito or seaweed broth, but Japan is more than just its seaweed: Every region features its own variety of modern and traditional Japanese foods, local produce, gag-inducing specialties* and foreign-influenced fares.
*For the record, the only one that makes me gag is the fish sperm.
Let’s not dismiss the traditional diet, though: washoku is, in fact, a UNESCO-protected world heritage.
And to throw salt on the minor burns and cuts of Pierre Hermes, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Japan has surpassed France as the culinary capital of the world. It’s Osaka versus Le Cordon Bleu and Osaka’s got far more fight in it than the old homme français.
When you eat in Japan, you eat all over the world.
Whether you’re chowing your way through Osaka, stuttering to ask your waitress if the grilled smelt is really pregnant or just putting on winter weight, or trying to figure out where to store the skillets in your tiny kitchen, having a grasp on Japanese food vocabulary will help you get in touch with the culture, the environment, the seasons and the language, as well as manage your own body and budget.
How to Learn Japanese Through Cooking
Once you’re armed with a handy dandy dictionary, smartphone dictionary app or online translation tool, get yourself into the kitchen!
Actually, sit yourself down on the couch, with your computer. Let’s learn Japanese culinarily by:
- Get a subscription to the Kawaii Box. It’s a sweet little box of Japanese cuteness that often contains one or two Japanese snacks, and sometimes a nifty little gadget that can be used for cooking, eating or playing with your food.
- Watching Japanese variety shows. They talk about food a lot. Rachel Ray’s not so popular, but they have their own share of cooking segments.
- Following Japanese YouTube channels.
- Reading food blogs, like Simply Oishii, Ruu No Oishii Gohan, Sake To Ryouri or Cafe&Meal Muji. By following Japanese bloggers, we’ll feed two birds with one stone fruit: learning the language and learning to cook!
- Perusing a Japanese recipe database, like Rakuten Recipes, Gourmet Navigator (GuruNavi) or Japanese CookPad.
150 Delicious Japanese Vocabulary Words About Food and Cooking
Ingredients: 食材 (しょくざい)
Japan is intensely seasonal, so a short stroll through the supermarket every month will show you what’s fresh now, and also what’s local to your area.
What’s good right at this moment? Pumpkins, 南瓜 (かぼちゃ), chestnuts, 栗 (くり), and mushrooms, 榎茸 (えのきだけ)!
Fruit: 果物 (くだもの)
yuzu: 柚子 (ゆず)
柚子 is a Japanese citrus fruit most closely related to lemons, but with a sweeter and more floral taste. Once the hot weather hits, you’ll find 柚子 everywhere and in everything. Additionally, in the middle of the winter, you can find “yuzu hot springs,” refreshing, fragrant and natural hot springs filled with 柚子.
fig: 無花果 (いちじく)
strawberry: 苺 (いちご) or ストローベリー (すとろべりー)
watermelon: 西瓜 (すいか)
grape(s): 葡萄 (ぶどう)
Vegetables and Herbs: 野菜とハーブ(やさいとはーぶ)
eggplant: 茄子 (なす)
carrot: 人参 (にんじん)
lotus root: 蓮根 (れんこん) or 蓮 (はす)
ginger: 生姜 (しょうが)
bell pepper: ピーマン (ぴーまん)
いも by itself refers to tubers related to potatoes (like yams, sweet potatoes, taro root and so on). じゃがいも is one of the more common types. さつまいも are Japanese sweet potatoes: purple on the outside and yellow on the inside, unlike the American orange variety.
shiso, Japanese mint: しそ
Where we have peppermint, spearmint and regular mint in the States, they have しそ in Japan. The flavor is closer to spearmint, or even basil, than peppermint, and the herb is popularly served battered and deep-fried or wrapped up in red meat and grilled.
onion: 玉ねぎ (たまねぎ)
scallion: ねぎ or 長ねぎ (ながねぎ)
red pepper or chili pepper: 唐辛子 (とうがらし) or パプリカ (ぱぷりか)
shishito pepper: 獅子唐 (ししとう)
獅子唐 is a type of Japanese sweet pepper, like a small, green bell pepper. These are best grilled over charcoal.
Nuts and Grains: 木の実と穀物 (きのみとこくもつ)
rice: 米 (こめ)
uncooked rice: 米 (こめ)
cooked rice: ご飯 (ごはん)
also cooked rice: 飯 (めし)
As the Inuit are said to have many words for “snow,” Japan has many words for “rice.” Raw, uncooked grain is generally 米, and different strains of the crop are variations on that word. ご飯 and 飯 are the same word, pronounced differently.
sesame seeds: 胡麻 (ごま)
walnuts: 胡桃 (くるみ)
oats: 麦 (むぎ)
麦 also refers to barley and wheat.
Condiments: 調味料 (ちょうみりょう)
If you want to cook in Japan, some things you’ll definitely need in your kitchen are:
soy sauce: 醤油 (しょうゆ)
rice wine vinegar: みりん
sesame oil: 胡麻油 (ごま あぶら)
vegetable oil: サラダ油 (さらだ ゆ/さらだ あぶら)
water: 水 (みず)
sauce: たれ or ソース (そーす)
broth: 出汁 (だし)
rice wine: 酒 (さけ) or 日本酒 (にほんしゅ)
olive oil: オリーブ油 (おりーぶ ゆ/おりーぶ おいる)
salt: 塩 (しお)
black pepper: 胡椒 (こしょう)
Japanese pepper: 山椒 (さんしょう)
vinegar: 酢 (す)
mustard: 辛子 (からし)
honey: 蜂蜜 (はちみつ)
蜂蜜 is a compound of 蜂, “wasp” or “bee,” and 蜜, “nectar.” If you reverse the characters, 蜜蜂 (みつばち), you end up with “honeybee.” I’ll pass on the honeybee cake, thank you.
oyster sauce: オイスターソース (おいすたー そーす)
wine: ワイン (わいん)
white wine: 白ワイン (しろ わいん)
red wine: 赤ワイン (あか わいん)
Animal Products: 畜産物 (ちくさんぶつ)
When it comes to eating living things, Japan is far from squeamish. In some restaurants, they even serve fish sperm, which looks like mayo. For meat eaters, the must-see spots are Japanese grills and chicken barbecue restaurants, where they’ll serve every part of any animal they can find.
gelatin: ゼラチン (ぜらちん)
egg: 卵 (たまご)
egg yolk: 卵黄 (らんおう)
egg white: 卵白 (らんぱく)
milk: ミルク (みるく) or 牛乳 (ぎゅうにゅう)
condensed milk: 練乳 (れんにゅう)
mentaiko, seasoned pollack roe: 明太子 (めんたいこ)
bonito flakes: かつお節 (かつおぶし)
unsalted butter: 無塩バター (むえん ばたー)
salted butter: 有塩バター (ゆうえん ばたー)
cream: 生クリーム (なま くりーむ)
meat: 肉 (にく)
ground meat: ひき肉 (ひきにく)
chicken: 鶏肉 (とりにく)
chicken wings: 手羽先 (てばさき)
chicken tender: ささ身 (ささみ)
fish: 魚 (さかな)
mackerel: 鯖 (さば)
shrimp: 海老 (えび)
oyster: 牡蠣 (かき)
pork: 豚肉 (ぶたにく)
beef: 牛肉 (ぎゅうにく)
chicken gizzard: 砂肝 (すなぎも)
I once made the mistake of buying 砂肝. The name is a compound of 砂, “sand,” and 肝, “liver,” but I ended up completely ignoring the other half-dozen characters on the package, and I just zeroed in on “liver.” I had never had chicken liver before! Imagine my disappointment when I bit into a piece of gizzard, the texture of which is diametrically opposite that of liver, and promptly tossed it all into the garbage.
pork bone: 豚骨 (とんこつ)
豚骨 is the standard base for Japanese ramen, and it produces a rich, heavy, oily and milky broth… it’s like heaven in my mouth.
cartilage: 軟骨 (なんこつ)
Quail isn’t something you see every day, but in Japan they love quail eggs, うずらの卵 (うずらの たまご), and you’ll often find them steamed (like tea eggs) or grilled, skewered and wrapped in bacon.
sausage: ソーセージ (そーせーじ)
つくね is a Japanese meat ball, usually made from poultry instead of red meat.
Making Pastries: お菓子作り (おかし づくり)
There are traditional Japanese sweets, but Japan is far more enamored with French and German pastries, and everywhere you go, you’ll find a French patissier or a bread baker.
However, though European sweets are popular, baking at home is not and many people don’t have the space to bake (Japanese kitchens are small, and their ovens minuscule). As a result, finding ingredients can be difficult, and finding them in appropriate quantities a pain.
agar-agar: 寒天 (かんてん)
寒天 is a gelatin obtained from seaweed (and thus a good substitute in vegan baking), used in pastry as a binder and thickener.
granulated sugar: グラニュー糖 (ぐらにゅー とう)
brown sugar: 黒砂糖 (くろ ざとう)
light brown sugar: きび砂糖 (きび ざとう)
powdered sugar: 粉砂糖 (こな ざとう)
wheat flour: 麦粉 (むぎこ) or 小麦粉 (こむぎこ)
Japanese flours, 麦粉, are named according to the amount of protein: “strong” refers to bread flour (強力粉, きょうりき こ), “medium” (中力粉, ちゅうりき こ) would be all-purpose and “weak” is cake or pastry flour (薄力粉, はくりき こ).
roasted soybean flour: きな粉 (きなこ)
きな粉 is a nutty, flavorful, light brown flour used for dusting Japanese confections or adding flavor to sweets. It’s not the same as soy flour.
rice flour: 米粉 (こめこ)
Like different types of 米, there are different types of 米粉: 餅粉 (もちこ) is a sticky rice flour used in making sticky rice buns, 餅 (もち), and often used in gluten-free baking. It can also be called 団子粉 (だんごこ). 玄米粉 (げんまいこ) is the brown, fibrous sister of 餅粉: brown rice flour.
amazake: 甘酒 (あまざけ)
甘酒 is sweet rice wine used in cooking or baking, or just drinking.
whole wheat flour: 全粒粉 (ぜんりゅう ふん)
almond flour: アーモンドプードル (あーもんど ぷーどる)
Not “poodle,” but poudre, from French.
potato starch: 片栗粉 (かたくりこ)
cocoa powder: ココアパウダー (ここあ ぱうだー)
yeast: イースト (いーすと)
baking powder: ベーキングパウダー (べーきんぐ ぱうだー)
caramel: キャラメル (きゃらめる)
vanilla essence: バニラエッセンス (ばにら えっせんす)
poppy seeds: 芥子粒 (けしつぶ)
cinnamon: シナモン (しなもん)
cardamom: カルダモン (かるだもん)
star anise: 八角 (はっかく) or アニス (あにす)
soy milk: 豆乳 (とうにゅう)
sweet red bean paste: 餡子 (あんこ)
Counters: 助数詞 (じょすうし)
teaspoon: 小さじ (こさじ)
tablespoon: 大さじ (おおさじ)
piece: 個 (こ)
This can be used for eggs, fruit or things that are generally just measured by numbers without amounts.
small piece, seed, drop: 粒 (つぶ)
can: 缶 (かん)
sheets, leaves: 枚 (まい)
slices/pieces (of meat): 切れ (きれ)
sticks, stalks: 本 (ほん/ぼん/ぽん)
This is the counter for long, round things like stalks of asparagus.
Preparation: 作り方 (つくり かた)
To Cook: 料理をする (りょうりをする)
to fry, grill, roast, bake: 焼く (やく)
In the case of rice or noodles (“fried rice,” “stir-fried noodles” and so on), this means “to stir-fry” or “to pan fry.” The next verb below is used with meat, vegetables and sautéing. 焼く is for baking pastries, frying pancakes or omelets, grilling, roasting in the oven, pan searing (steak, etc.) and the aforementioned stir-fried noodles and rice.
to stir-fry: 炒める (いためる)
to deep fry: 揚げる (あげる)
to steam: 蒸す (むす)
to cut: 切る (きる)
to heat: 熱する (ねっする)
to pre-heat: 予熱をする (よねつをする)
to turn off the stove: 火を止める (ひをとめる)
to mix together: 混ぜる (まぜる)
to serve: 盛り付ける (もりつける)
to grate (ginger, sesame seeds, etc.): 卸す (おろす)
to add: 加える (くわえる)
to boil: 茹でる (ゆでる)
to stew, simmer, boil: 煮る (にる)
茹でる and 煮る both mean “to boil,” but the former implies cooking an object in boiling liquid: e.g., hard-boiled eggs, 茹で卵 (ゆでたまご). The latter means “to boil” or “to simmer” a liquid, either with the goal of reducing it (stews and braises) or cooking what’s inside.
to come to a simmer: 煮立つ (にたつ)
煮立つ, is the intransitive verb: the stew “boils” or “comes to a simmer.”
Utensils/Tools 道具 (どうぐ)
skillet: フライパン (ふらいぱん)
knife: 包丁 (ほうちょう) or ナイフ (ないふ)
rubber spatula: ゴムベラ (ごむべら)
strainer: こし器 (こしき)
whisk: 泡立て器 (あわだてき)
baking sheet or jelly roll pan: バット (ばっと) or オーブン用鉄板 (おーぶん よう てっぱん)
parchment paper: オーブンシート (おーぶん しーと) or クッキングシート (くっきんぐ しーと)
Let’s Cook!: 料理をしよう！(りょうりをしよう！)
Much of modern Japanese cooking is foreign-inspired, but all of it is simple. The recipe below is a personal favorite.
See if you can decipher the instructions with your new knowledge of food vocabulary! In some places, hiragana have been added in parentheses next to words, in order to give you a helping hand.
豚肉の生姜焼き (ぶたにくの しょうが やき)
豚のロース肉 (ぶたの ろーす にく)：２５０〜３００g
The above is a thin slice of pork loin used for quick grilling and frying.
玉ねぎの皮 (かわ) をむき、半分 (はんぶん) にする。薄く (うすく) (５mmぐらい) 切る。
Remove the onion skin and cut the onion in half. Slice the onion thinly (about 5-millimeter slices).
Peel and grate the ginger.
バットに生姜、醤油、酒とグラニュー糖を入れて (いれて) 混ぜ、豚肉を広げて (ひろげて) 入れる。全部 (ぜんぶ) を混ぜ、約５分 (やく ごふん) 置いて (おいて) おく。
Put the ginger, soy sauce, rice wine and sugar into a small baking pan and mix it together. Spread the pork in the sauce and mix. Let it marinate for about 5 minutes.
フライパンにサラダ油を入れて、中火 (ちゅうび) で熱し、豚肉をざっと広げて入れる。
Heat the oil in the skillet on medium heat, and spread the pork out in the pan.
小麦粉も加え、そのまま２〜３分間 (に、さん ぷんかん) 焼き、肉の色 (いろ) が変わった (かわった) ら、玉ねぎも加える。
Add the flour and let the pork cook for 2-3 minutes, until the color starts to change, then add the onion.
バットに残っている (のこっている) たれを加え、弱火 (よわび) で焼き続ける (やきつづける)。
Pour in the remaining sauce from the baking pan, and continue cooking on low heat.
When the sauce is almost all evaporated, turn off the heat and transfer the pork to a serving dish. (“Serve it.”)