In Japanese, Onomatopoeic Words Describe Various Food Textures

The Japanese language is generally said to use more onomatopoeia describing food than any other language. These adjectives capture the perceived sounds that different foods make when we eat them. Saku-saku! Fuwafuwa! According to estimates, there are 445 such words in the Japanese language.

“English has just over 130 words to describe how food feels in our mouths,” reports Kendra Pierre-Louis in popular scienceexplores the texture of food in its latest issue on the theme of taste. She notes that, in the English language, “most—like crackle, crackle, crisp, crunch, and break– refers to the feeling of biting into something firm. You would be hard pressed to find anyone describing a delicious meal as going gurgling Where splash.”

It goes without saying that all cultures value their food traditions, but I would venture to offer the (perhaps biased) opinion that Japan’s attention borders on obsession. Japanese TV stations, from Asahi to NHK, constantly air a stream of shows featuring restaurants, competitive dining and regional dishes. Food companies are constantly innovating products like beer cans that foam when opened (which have sold in two days) and one crisps for every season and region (Citrus from Okinawa!). For a country that places so much emphasis on food, it’s only natural that there’s a vocabulary to match.

The slippery quality of tororo soba is described as neba neba in Japanese. Get the recipe > Photography by Linda Pugliese; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessory styling by Elvis Maynard

A greater range of descriptors allows for greater nuance and specificity in the description. After all, textures vary greatly from food to food. And while a lettuce leaf and a kettle crisp can both be described as crunchy, their mouthfeel differs significantly.

It would be a Herculean effort to list all of the Japanese onomatopoeia describing food textures, but we can start with a tour of our kitchens to identify some of the most common. And let’s not forget that many of the most delicious dishes often take more than one (think brownies, with their crispy tops, chewy corners and soft interiors). Here is an overview of some very varied textural sensations.

Saku-saku

The box of Walkers Shortbread that might be in your pantry is saku saku. Saku saku refers to a crispiness that is also rich (without being chewy). Shortbread, tempura, and kettle chips are saku saku, but a celery salad is definitely not. For the same reason, flaky palms and croissants are also saku saku.

Use it in a sentence: Don’t overwork the dough if you want your cookies to be saku saku.

Shaki-shaki

In direct contrast to the richness that defines saku saku foods, shaki shaki foods are refreshing and healthy. All the crunchy fresh vegetables in your kitchen are shaki shaki. Think the juicy crunch of an Asian pear or the satisfying bite of a green apple.

Use it in a sentence: Order the shaki shaki coleslaw.

kari kari

Kari kari is a very specific crisp describing foods that have been dried or baked so that the fats have melted or foods that have been crispy in the fat. Kari kari is often used to describe the brittle crispness of roasted chicken skin or fried American bacon strips.

Use it in a sentence: The bacon fried for so long it became kari kari.

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It refers to a light and delicate crunch, like that of sembei, or Japanese rice crackers. If we’re talking about potato chips, think of the classic Lay’s or Pringles, rather than the kettle potato variety. The crackle of the thinnest outer layer of a spring roll is also par par.

Use it in a sentence: These fries are so light and par par, perfect for adding crunch to a salad!

Fuwa Fuwa

This is the sound used to convey an airy plush. Imagine soft and chewy foods, like pancakes, marshmallows and chiffon cakes. When done right, eggs from your fridge can be turned into a light and juicy fuwa fuwa omelet.

Use it in a sentence: For the most fuwa fuwa pancakes, beat the batter briskly to incorporate air.

mochi mochi

This refers to dense, chewy foods. Bubble tea pearls, tendon in your bowl of pho, and (of course) mochi are all considered mochi mochi.
Use it in a sentence: The lamb’s lettuce mitarashi dangoThe mochi mochi texture makes them fun to eat.

Takoyaki Recipe
Takoyaki, with its rich and flavorful batter, can best be described as toro toro. Get the recipe > Photography by Linda Pugliese; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessory styling by Elvis Maynard

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Rich and melting dishes are toro toro. Many comfort foods fall into this category: a gooey chocolate lava cake, a simmering mac and cheese, or a slice of slow-braised pork belly. Takoyaki, a diced octopus wrapped in a savory wheat flour batter, is another toro toro dish.

Use it in a sentence: These short ribs are so toro toro they melt in your mouth.

neba neba

A beloved texture in Japanese cuisines, neba neba foods are viscous, so much so that they can form strings between the dish and your utensil. Natto (fermented soy) is perhaps the best known, but okra and nagaimo (also known as Chinese yam) are also neba neba.

Use it in a sentence: Combining neba neba foods like wakame and natto is so refreshing in the summer.

The nuances of these adjectives capture multitudes. Take them with you next time you’re considering between an apple shaki shaki or a slice of fuwa fuwa cake.

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