The new issue of Monocle hits newsstands today and its theme is Japan. There was one Japanese quality that we were unable to squeeze into the pages of our March number, however. The Japanese language is a tricky beast for the outsider to get to grips with. “Menu Japanese” is one thing, “business-meeting Japanese” is another but mastering the whole caboodle is like operating a crane after too many drinks: you think your hands are smooth on the controls but, in fact, you flattened a windmill, worried a car-park and you’re heading straight into a ditch.
One reason may be the extraordinary specificity of some of the language. We know that the Sami people of the northern Nordic nations are reputed to have 50 words for snow and that the Portuguese have cornered the market in melancholy with the sort of saudade that is expressed exclusively in fado, but the Japanese are the best: there are reams of onomatopoeic words just to describe what you and I might call “crunchy”, for example.
Eating a poppadum? They’re dry and crispy, aren’t they? That’s kari-kari. Munching on carrot sticks? Shaki-shaki. Not to be confused with shari-shari, which is the sort of crunch you’d get from something hard but with a thin skin, like a radish. And don’t go around town giving it all the pari-pari, as if you’re eating something like crispy seaweed when what you obviously mean is kori-kori because you’ve got the slightly bony crunch of some yakitori in your mouth. As a palette cleanser you’ll want something light but crunchy, perhaps: something saku-saku. So that’s a few of the options for different sorts of crunchiness Got that? You can see why we didn’t do this in the magazine, can’t you?
If, as Lady Bracknell believed, we live in a world of surfaces, you’ll be lost without a small arsenal of laser-beam specific descriptors for texture. We’ll stick to food again because it offers a wealth of wonders and, once again, they’re all double-headers. Like a little linguistic double-barrelled shotgun going off. In your mouth.
Now, sliminess is obviously a quality to want in your noodle bowl, isn’t it? Don’t worry, you’ve got it: the sort of flowing slipperiness you get from cold noodles is sara-sara; the incubi and succubi floating in your lunch, nuru-nuru and nume-nume are, respectively, slimy and super slimy. Yum! Mmmm, “but what about stickiness, Rob?”, I hear you say. Fear not. Beto-beto should sort you out in most sticky situations, but becha-becha if it’s too sticky and neto-neto if it’s sticky and thick. Are we still talking about food? Sounds a little bit…
Boso-boso is dry and tasteless like a tofu nightmare; pasa-pasa sounds like an Italian striker who wants the ball but means dry and flaky; gito-gito is oily and greasy. Don’t go on a date with them. The wonders will have to cease, but learn one and impress the chef at the ramen bar at lunchtime today. Your adjectival fireworks may win an extra helping. Remember slurping’s not rude but flirting with the waitress so clumsily may be seen as nume-nume. Super. Slimy.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s culture editor.