Menu Translation in Japan, What a Great Job!

Soba, Tempura, Tonkatsu…and yes, Abalone! So many new delicacies to discover!

I feel very lucky that part of my job is Japanese to English menu translation. Do you know how many little jewels lie silent on that Japanese menu in front of you every time you enter a soba, tempura or tonkatsu restaurant in Japan? Ahhh! Yes, that is right, most people visiting Japan have heard of Soba, Tempura or Tonkatsu but don't really know exactly what it is…only that it is super tasty.

Well, putting it simply, Soba noodles are the darker color noodles that you can get at stand-up Tachigui Soba shops on train platforms, ancient shops run by Grandmas and Grandpas or packed in plastic bento boxes at the convenience store. The noodles are made with “Soba Ko” or Soba flour and the original soba is made from a flowering vegetable. Famous Soba comes from Yamagata Prefecture and you might want to ask what percentage of the noodles is actual Soba-ko. Percentages vary widely since the Soba-ko is a bit pricier. You can find 100% Soba ko noodles in the grocery store to take home and most of the traditional soba shops (run but the grandmas and grandpas and usually on back streets around major train stations) are higher in percentage.

When you eat them cold, don't forget to put the raw onion and a bit of wasabi that comes as a side in the soba dipping Tsuyu sauce. Dip your soba lightly, and slurp (with the slurping sound) them right up in the true Japanese style. Yummy.

Soba, Tempura and Tonkatsu

Next is Tempura, which most of you have heard of. Are you a vegetarian? Well, Yasai (Vegetable) Tempura is readily available anywhere. Put it on top of rice for a Ten-Don dish or have it with cold soba in a dish called Ten-Seiro at any soba shop. Don't wait too long to eat your Tempura because all Tempura chefs will say that three minutes is all you have to enjoy the fresh crunchy Tempura batter and lovely vegetable, shrimp or fish taste at its peak.

Last but not least, Tonkatsu. Yes, “Ton” stands for Pork so if you want to avoid pork, you want to avoid anything that has the word “ton” in it. For instance, much Ramen in Japan is made with “Ton-kotsu” soup. You guessed it!! Pork base! So Ton-katsu is a deep fried pork cutlet that is served with lots of chopped cabbage, mustard/Tonkatsu sauce, rice and Miso Soup. It is a very good balance in terms of nutrients but if you are not into meat or fish, there is not much to choose from at a Tonkatsu shop for you. If you can eat chicken, enjoy the Chicken katsu (chicken cutlet) that has cheese and shiso vegetable inside. What a creamy and slightly sweet way to eat fried chicken! Just remember that the chicken and other food will most likely be deep fried in the same oil as the pork, so for all of the more strict-on-pork people out there, you might want to keep this in mind.

Dont Forget Abalone!

Oh wait, I forgot one other ingredient I have seen in a recent menu! Abalone!!! “What?” you say? You knew that Abalone comes in a very pretty shell and I’ve always enjoyed those rainbow colored shell necklaces and earrings, but actually eating the inside? I bet many of you don't know what it looks like. Okay, I don't want to be condescending and maybe I am the only one who didn't know, but Abalone is a big deal in Japan especially during the Summer when it is at its freshest. Basically, it is the season or “shun” for Abalone.

I recently translated a menu for Ginza Aster Honten which has traditional Chinese food flavored and presented for the Japanese palate. The restaurant has been going strong for 90 years and now has 38 restaurants in and around Tokyo so they must be doing something extremely right. I spent several hours working through the Abalone dish translation and by the time I was done, I felt more than ready to try this unusual cuisine. I know a lot of friends who crave the flavor in sushi but I had never found the courage to order it raw. Maybe I will start with a more cooked and deeply flavored version at Ginza Aster.

Here is a bit of background for your reference. Abalone is considered one of the eight great and valuable seafoods and is known to have been popular during China’s Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). An abalone can take up to 8 years to mature and that is one reason it was a food of the royals for so long (limited supply) and only eaten fresh. There are over 100 different species of Abalone and being temperature sensitive, I would guess the abalone we eat today is different from those eaten in 1644 since oceans have become warmer. The Chinese believe that Abalone is good for the immune system and can boost your appetite and help with kidney and liver function. You can learn more here:

So I am off to my adventure eating oyster sauce flavored Abalone at Ginza Aster. It seems the new Summer menu I translated actually features Abalone as the special way to raise energy levels and boost appetite on hot Summer days. It wont be cheap, but I would rather eat less and have really good things go into my system than eat a lot of junk at a lower price. My company Jarman International offers a lunch for two gift every month via our JI Japan report so please sign up and take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy precious and delicious Abalone (or Awabi in Japanese) at a lovely restaurant in Ginza.


Former Deep Japan Writer

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