Japanese Restaurant Menus: Reading the Kanji

Japanese Restaurant Menus: Reading the Kanji

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Reading Japanese menus can be tricky, as you'll often find many kanji you don't encounter elsewhere. Here's a short guide to make it easier.

It’s a deeply rooted idea that Japanese is the hardest language to learn for English speakers. This view is shared even by Japanese natives themselves, who applaud almost any level of language ability with equal measure. However, one aspect of this that rings true is where it comes to specific vocabulary, specifically kanji. You may be a master of kanji when it comes to engineering, but that might be a completely different story when a sushi menu is thrust in front of you. Here is a quick guide to a number of common food-related kanji you may encounter on Japanese restaurant menus.

Other Entries in This Series:

Beyond Noodles: A Guide to the Different Types of Japanese Restaurants
A Simple Guide to Ordering a Meal in a Japanese Restaurant
Tasukatta! Useful Japanese Phrases When Dining Out in Japan

Common Food Kanji on Japanese Restaurant Menus

Before diving into more obscure kanji, let’s start with some more common ones.

First, let’s recap some words we previously discussed in this series. When it comes to eating out, the most important kanji are without a doubt 食 and 飲, to eat and to drink respectively. When you’re browsing the menu, 食べ物 (tabemono) will head the food section, and 飲み物 (nomimono) will head the drinks section. While you won’t often see these kanji standing on their own, knowing to spot them in compound words will help the eagle-eyed among you to spot an eatery from a mile off. 食 will often appear in some words written on some eateries, such as 食堂 (shokudou) telling you that it is a Japanese canteen style restaurant, or you may see 定食 (teishoku), showing you that the restaurant serves up set lunches.

Next up, a few common menu items. Common finger food at places like izakaya include 枝豆 (edamame) soybeans, 唐揚げ (karaage) or fried chicken, and 串 (kushi), skewers. Again, compounds are very easily recognizable in Japanese: 豆 will be used in many bean-based items, such as tofu or soy milk, and 揚げ will be used in anything deep-fried, so keep an eye out! I always smile when I see 串 because it exemplifies the visual nature of kanji, to me.

You’ll also want to know the word 盛り (mori), which means “plate” or “serving.” You will likely see this used with the characters 小 and 大 to denote small or large servings of things like donburi bowls or sides of rice. (In places where rice is offered free, they may also ask if you want an 大盛 (oomori; large) or 普通 (futsuu; regular) serving.

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Here’s a quick run-through of previously discussed menu items:

EnglishJapanese
Rice ご飯 (gohan)
Miso Soup 味噌汁 (mishoshiru)
Ginger-Fried Pork 生姜焼き (shougayaki)
Rice Bowl 丼・~丼 (donburi / –don)
Okonomiyaki お好み焼き (okonomiyaki)
Hot Pot 鍋 (nabe)
Noodle 麺 (men)
Izakaya 居酒屋 (izakaya)

Ready, Steady, Cook

One of the more delightful Japanese restaurant menus: a hand-written sign for a pastry shop.
Chalkboard signs are common at shops with rotating menus. This pastry shop in Kamakura lovingly describes its latest cream puff, made from a combination of Japanese rice and French wheat flour.

The cooking world abounds with different ways to describe how to prepare and cook food. This spills over to Japanese restaurant menus too, and some people can be very picky about how they like things prepared – give me a roast potato over a boiled potato any day. At any rate, it can be a good idea to have this small set of kanji (given as verbs below) to hand if you want to know a little bit about how your dish has been prepared.

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Arthur Reiji Morris

Arthur Reiji Morris is a freelance translator currently based in London. He lived in Tokyo for four years, which he mostly spent playing music in tiny venues, attempting to visit every prefecture in Japan, and finding the best melon pan in town. He spent two years working at a video games company and three weeks working at a coffee chain, before deciding that being able to work from bed was far more appealing.

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