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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Japanese Language: Rice


A variegated vocabulary develops around food staples in any language. In meat-eating Western countries, for example, we have cows, bulls, beef, calves, veal; or pig, swine, pork, ham, bacon – all of which basically refer to the same food sources. Japan is the same when it comes to its own staple, rice.

The rice plant, i.e., rice when still growing in the ground, or even in its harvested state before threshing, is called ine. Due to the particularly warm temperatures this summer, and the lack of typhoons, ine production has been particularly high this year.

Once rice has been threshed and you are left with just the grains, it become kome, or, with the usually honorific o- in front of it, o-kome. Because ine production was so high this year, the price of kome is set to fall.

Once the o-kome has been put in the suihanki, or rice cooker, and gently boiled till soft, it is now go-han, and ready to eat. The go- is also honorific, but, unlike kome, where the o- is sometimes left off, you never hear the word han, only go-han – except when it is incorporated in other words like the above suihanki (sui=to cook, esp. grain, pulses, etc., such as rice or beans + han=rice + ki=device) or sekihan (seki=red, han=rice), red rice used for auspicious occasions.

Han is the Chinese reading of the character. One of the native Japanese readings is meshi, which also has the extending meaning of “food”. Therefore, while yakimeshi means “fried rice”, meshi by itself means “a meal”. Asameshi (asa=morning + meshi=meal) means breakfast. As an idiom, asameshi mae (asa=morning + meshi=meal + mae=before) i.e., “before breakfast,” means “a piece of cake” or “easy as pie” in English.

Another, somewhat less common, alternative pronunciation of the han character is manma or mama. Interestingly, manma not only means cooked rice, but is the word used to describe baby talk; and the other pronunciation mama appears in the word mamagoto (mama=rice, goto=affair, business, thing) which means “playing house"!

Last week's Japanese lesson

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