Wordcatcher Tales: Chouzame, Hogeisen, Zakkoku

蝶鮫 chouzame (lit. ‘butterfly-shark’) ‘sturgeon, Acipenseridae’ – This summer we visited Miyazaki Prefecture, the last of the 46 on the main islands that we hadn’t yet visited. (Maybe we’ll finally visit Okinawa next year.) Halfway up Mt. Aso, in the deep, dark gorges of Takachiho, where the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is said to have been coaxed out of her cave to found the imperial dynasty of Japan, commencing with Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C., we found some very unusual fish swimming in a large pool that should have been filled with carp. A sign by the fishfood dispensers confirmed that they were chouzame (lit. ‘butterfly-shark’) ‘sturgeon’, and a poster in a nearby souvenir shop confirmed that they were part of a campaign beginning in 1983 to build up Japan’s domestic caviar industry. Unfortunately we did’t get to sample any of their caviar, although we ate several other kinds of fish roe on that trip.

捕鯨船 hogeisen (lit. ‘catch-whale-ship’) ‘whaler’ – Our trip included a day walking the waterfront of Shimonoseki, a major port city whose culinary fame centers around fugu ‘pufferfish, blowfish, globefish’ (usually written 河豚 lit. ‘river-pork’ when written in kanji, but also written with several other kanji), but also includes 鯨 kujira ‘whale’. We ate fugu (cooked, not raw) and we passed a whalegun monument to the whaler (hogeisen ‘catch-whale-ship’) Toshi Maru No. 25.

The kanji for ‘whale’ is composed of two elements, 魚 uo hen indicating the semantic domain of ‘fish’, and 京 ‘capital’, indicating its sound in Chinese (currently jing in Mandarin, as in Beijing and Nanjing). (‘Whale = capital fish’ is an easy mnemonic for the kanji.) The word for ‘capital’ seems to have entered Japanese more than once, so its Sino-Japanese pronunciation varies between kyou as in Kyoto, and kei as in Keihan ‘Kyoto-Osaka’ (or Keihin ‘Tokyo-Yokohama’). The Sino-Japanese pronunciation of 鯨 ‘whale’ is closer to the kei variant, as in 鯨肉 geiniku ‘whale meat’, 鯨脂 geishi ‘whale blubber’, or 鯨飲馬食 geiin-bashoku (lit. ‘whale-drink horse-eat’) ‘heavy eating and drinking’.

雑穀 zakkoku (lit. ‘mixed-grains’) ‘millet, lesser grains’ – Japanese restaurants do not generally offer the choice of brown rice in place of white rice, but at one exceptional tonkatsu restaurant in Miyazaki City, we were offered the option of 十六穀 juurokkoku ’16-grain’ rice. At home we also have little ’16-grain’ packets to add to the cups of rice we cook.

The kanji 穀 koku translates ‘cereal, grain’, as in 穀食 kokushoku ‘cereal diet’ or 穀倉 kokusou ‘granary’, but the ’16-grain’ mixture contains more than we think of as ‘cereal grains’. In addition to barley, maize, sorghum, and various millet grains, it includes soy and adzuki beans, and amaranthus, quinoa, and sesame seeds. The generic term for all these ‘lesser grains’ is 雑穀 zakkoku ‘mixed-grains’ and it also includes pumpkin, sunflower, shiso, and cannabis seeds. The kanji 雑 zatsu, zou ‘mixture, miscellany’ occurs in many compounds where its connotations range from neutral, as in 雑貨店 zakkaten ’emporium, variety store’, 雑誌 zasshi ‘magazine, periodical’, or zousui ‘medley soup’; to derogatory, as in 雑人zounin ‘low-class people’, 雑物 zoumotsu ‘inferior goods, entrails’, or 雑草 zassou ‘weeds’.

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