Japanese language can be intimidating given its three alphabets. There are the Chinese characters, known as kanji, as well as two syllabic systems known as kana: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used for native Japanese words, while katakana is generally used for foreign names and loan words (known as gairaigo), that have been integrated into Japanese from other languages.
While most people associate these loan words with English, they can also originate from other languages such as Portuguese and German. These words often resemble the original pronunciation, but due to the syllabic quality of Japanese, can also be quite different.
While many of these words can be technological, medical or related to business, there are plenty of food related Japanese words written in katakana.
Fried potato (フライドポテト)
While called french fries in America and chips in England, Japan knows them as "furaido poteto".
Resembling hamburger patties, the Japanese "hambagu" is quite different. Rather than being served on a bun with lettuce and tomatoes, hambagu is usually served similar to a steak, covered in a sauce and served along sides including rice.
Menchi or Minchi (メンチ‐ミンチ)
Minced or ground beef is known as "menchi" and can be seen in menchi katsu, a fried minced meat cutlet.
Derived from French rather than English, "piman" is the Japanese word for green peppers.
While the word for bread in Spanish is "pan" and "pain" in French, the Japanese word "pan" is thought to have come from the Portuguese, "pão". There are many words in Japanese that include the word pan, including shokupan, the typical loaf of white, thick cut sliced bread you find in Japan.
American Dog (アメリカンドッグ)
A more interesting loan word, the American dog is actually what we would call a corn dog and is pronounced "american doggu".
Hot Cake (ホットケーキ)
Slightly different from American and British pancakes, this catchall word pronounced "hotto keiki" is used for both the hot cakes and pancakes seen in Japan.
One of the most popular Western-style desserts in Japan, castella (pronounced "kasutera") is the soft, fluffy, sponge cake of Portuguese origin.
Soft cream (ソフトクリーム)
Derived from English soft serve ice cream, Japanese "sofuto kuriimu" is the typical swirled into cones and can come in an astonishing variety of flavors from soy sauce to wasabi.
Milk Tea (ミルクティー)
Along with bottles of green tea, you can often see bottles of milk tea sold in the many vending machines throughout Japan. Milk tea, pronounced "miruku tea" is exactly what the name implies, black tea with milk.
Pronounced more like "koko-a", this is the word for hot chocolate.
Rather than sugarless or sugar-free, nonsugar or "nonshyuga" is used for products that have no added sugars in Japan.
Surprisingly, viking (pronounced "baikingu") is the Japanese word for buffet. It is thought to have come from the northern European tradition of the smorgasbord and its association with vikings.
Morning Service (モーニングサービス)
While this may have religious connotations, morning service, pronounced "moningu sabizu" is actually the Japanese word for Western-style breakfast specials. These are usually cheaper than traditional Japanese breakfasts and may include toast, salad, an egg, a few sides, and coffee.
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!
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January 30, 2022
Thank you for the comment aileen! We’ve added pronunciations to these words. Enjoy using them next then you’re in Japan!