Food and language are the two pillars of every culture. There are other components -- religion, code of behavior, costume, games and rituals -- that interest cultural historians. But language and food are the most deeply ingrained features of everyday life in any culture, and, so, they appear so "natural" to the "natives" that their conventionality eludes them. To the Japanese, unless they have struggled with English, find <light> and <right> sound exactly the same, and they find nothing peculiar about answering yes when they mean no as when answering a negative question. Cross-cultural studies, indeed, raise questions about normalcy.

Japanese books are printed backwards; they open from right to left. So I was repeated told when I first came to America. No, I protested silently, you are backwards. My first Jewish friend told me triumphantly; our Hebrew books open from right to left. The computer normalized the habit; we all read on line from left to right.

A friend turned to me from the book he was reading and asked me: what is okazu? Out of the blue the question momentarily baffled me. "What?" I said. "Let's see." The word appeared in a chanpon conversation within a story set, of course, in Japan. "Oh, okazu," I said, "well, it's a kinda complicated. It's the dishes in a meal you eat rice with." "Dishes?" "No, I mean the food stuff other than rice. Sometimes it's served on a dish but sometimes in a bowl."

Most Japanese-English dictionaries translate okazu as side dish. This is not quite accurate. A typical Japanese meal consists of rice and, accompanying it, a dish of fish or, sometimes meat, and vegetables. These are seasoned food whereas rice is plain, unseasoned. Most commonly, an okazu is fish). It may be sautéed, poached, pan-fried, deep-fried, boiled, broiled, roasted, steamed, stewed in soy sauce, pickled, etc. Then, there are various fish products: kamaboko, hanpen, chikuwa, and such, all made from ground fish paste. But there are also western-style okazu: omelette, wiener schnitzel, croquette, curried meat, beef stew, and there are vegetarian okazu: potato, yam, eggplant, green beans, fava beans, spinach, cabbage, etc. These may be the principal okazu, or they may be secondary to a fish or meat dish. Taro cooked in sweet sour sauce can be an okazu by itself. So, a synonym of okazu is osai, which literary means vegetables. So'ozai is another synonym; it signifies a set of okazu [so'o: all or all kinds of, zai: same as sai] and implies a combination of fish or meat and a vegetable dish or two.

My Japanese-English dictionary defines so'ozai as "everyday dish." Huh? Well, everyday as opposed to feast or banquet food, I suppose. The word so'ozai also implies, in usage, family meal, and, therefore, homecooking as opposed to restaurant cooking, which is by definition more elaborate, except for Edo-period fast foods like noodles (udon and soba), sushi, tempura, and unagi (eels).

At a family dinner, a person normally eats three bowls of rice; seasoned food is eaten between bites of rice -- chopsticks potions, to be precise. Okazu is an accompaniment in this sense; it plays a supporting role. But in substance, the dishes that constitute okazu correspond to what is called entrée in the western menu. Vegetables are usually designated as side dishes, and the staples like rice and potato are considered accompaniment to the main dish. By contrast, in Japan, each meal is called go-han, the word for cooked rice -- as opposed to raw rice, which is kome. The same distinction is made in Korean (pap and ssal, respectively) and in Chinese (mi and fan, respective). In fact, the rice growing in the field is still another word: i'ne (dao and ttyo in Chinese and Korean, respectively).

So, A husband may walk into the kitchen and ask: "What's for dinner?" A Japanese husband would ask his wife: "What is the okazu today?" Saying this, he is asking what's for dinner, not what's the side dish.

Okazu in origin was a woman's word. Literally, it means the number. The first syllable <o> is the honorific-o, which is seen in polite language as well as in feminine diction; o-kome for kome and o-sakana for sakana (fish) are example as is go in go-han. Kazu is number; what the word okazu originally meant was a set of dishes of seasoned food. The proper translation, therefore, is something like "dishes accompanying the rice in a meal." But the number got trimmed down on the modern table, and today it means one principal seasoned food, fish, meat, or vegetable, trimmed with a variety of pickles and accompanied with a bowl of soup. Chinese cuisine, though served with rice, is opulent next to the Japanese single dish fare.

There is something curious about the word entrée, too. It means entry, and in the formal dinner in the nineteenth century, it designated the first dish in the two-part main offering. As we read in the OED, quoting Sir H. Thompson, Food and Feeding (1880), "A family dinner may consist of soup, fish, entrée, roast and sweet." Eventually, the main offering became one single dish, the entrée in today's restaurant menu and the main subject of the family dinner. The hors d'oeuvres, which literally means outside the works, has become the appetizer today; but originally it consisted of several dishes which remained on the table throughout the meal.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese, in their first encounter with Commodore Perry and his cohorts, thought of them as voracious ogres whose copious diet accounted for their height and hairy body.

In Italy the entrée in the standard dinner menu is called il secondo. It's the second because it follows the first, il primo, and that can be soup, pasta, or risotto, quite hearty, so that il secondo, consisting of meat or fish, is not quite so substantial as the French-derived entrée. In German cooking the all prevailing kartoffeln -- potatoes -- feature prominently. But no Western meal makes the okazu subservient to the staple -- rice, pasta, potato, or bread. A child who sniffs at the unfamiliar seasoning in the main dish may be scolded for eating just bread. A Japanese child, by contrast, is often told not to eat okazu only: Eat more rice! Don't be an okazukkui: okazu-eater.

Japanese meals are austere, almost fit for the poor. Italians in poverty-stricken families content themselves with il primo and omit il secondo; meat is too costly. The extreme poor will have spaghetti sprinkled with olive oil and parmisan cheese to serve as a meal. Potatoes constitute the whole meal in Van Gogh's famous Potato Eaters. The poor people in Japan must satisfy themselves with minimal okazu with the obligatory bowls of rice. These may be tsukemono (pickled vegetables like takuwan, narazuke, and oshinko), salted fish, tsukudani -- fish, seaweed, or vegetable boiled down in soy sauce -- and umeboshi, pickled sour plum, often dyed bright red, so sour that a tiny bit makes your face grimace and the body tremble. We eat a tiny bit of these picked up on the tips of the chopsticks between mouthfuls of rice.

But the point of special interest is that the well-to-do also eat this kind of meal, say for lunch or for a midnight snack, sometimes with green tea over rice -- the ochazuke. So, the tsukudani, umeboshi, shiojake (salted salmon), and takuwan (pickled daikon, very yellow) come in gourmet quality as well as in the everyday, plebian quality. We might characterize the upscale simple meal as poverty chic. It is the alimentary counterpart to the rustic hut favored in the tea master Rikyu's exquisite ritual of tea, and the shoestring (or waraji) journey of the poet Basho through northern Japan on foot like a hobo.

Rice reigns supreme. At a family dinner, it is brought to the side of the table in a wooden tub to keep it warm, and the hostess serves; she may be the maid who sits by the table without eating (she will eat later in the kitchen) or else the mother serves. Each member of the family, having finished his or her bowl, will sticks it out in the direction of the hostess. In a large family, mother has hardly time to eat herself, if she is the hostess.

In Japanese inns and restaurants in Japan, the guest is provided with a small wooden or lacquerware tub of rice for one or two customers, a bigger one for a company. In Japanese restaurants here in America, only one small bowl of rice is delivered to the table, already filled. This is Americanization. I always feel sheepish about asking for the second bowl but I do. I never ask for the third, however, even when I could use a little more. I don't because more often the okazu is oversized here.

A senryu(a humorous or satirical haiku) says: Iso'oro'o sanbaime niwa sottodasu. Freely translated it says: A freeload lodger sticks out the bowl for the third diffidently.



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T. Kaori Kitao, 08.15.02