[From September Issue 2010]
Something that non-Japanese must find inconvenient is restaurant menus. Called “oshinagaki” in Japanese, the term “menu” is now also casually used. Nevertheless, most restaurants still only provide ones written in Japanese.
What many restaurants in Japan do provide are menus with photos so that customers can see what food is available, however, it is still difficult to know what ingredients make up each dish.
On most menus you will often see the following kanji: “肉” (niku) or meat, “魚” (sakana) or fish and “野菜” (yasai) or vegetable. Meat dishes usually include these kanji: “牛” (gyuu) or beef, “豚” (ton / buta) or pork and “鶏” (tori) or chicken. Most Japanese know these English words, so you can use them when ordering from the waiter/waitress, just in case you forgot the kanji.
However, most Japanese do not know the English names of specific fish or vegetables, for instance, maguro (tuna), katsuo (bonito), negi (leek) and nasu (eggplant).
Other important kanji to know are “ご飯” (gohan) or rice and “麺” (men) or noodles, as they are Japan’s staple foods. Also cooking terms such as “～焼” (yaki) or grilled/baked, “～炒め” (itame) or fried, “～揚げ” (age) or deep fried and “～煮” (ni / niru) or boiled are also essential. “甘” (ama / amai / kan) or sweet, “辛” (kara / karai / sin) or hot and “酢” (su / suppai) or sour are also often used.
Regarding drinks, sake is usually written in kanji as “酒.” Sake traditionally means Japanese rice wine, but it can also refer to any alcohol, including beer, wine, whisky, shochuu, and so on.
“O.cha” is generally translated as “tea” in Japanese. Usually in Japan, restaurants serve free drinks such as water “水” (mizu) and Japanese tea “お茶” (o.cha). But if you ask a waiter/waitress for “tea,” he/she will probably bring you red tea, for which you have to pay, just like coffee. So if you want free Japanese tea, please ask for “o.cha” or “green tea.”
Most restaurant signboards written in Japanese read like “日本料理” (Japanese cuisine), “居酒屋” (izakaya) or pub and “寿司” (sushi). Inside some izakaya that many non-Japanese enjoy, there are more menu items written in Japanese on the walls. So, in order to truly enjoy Japanese food, it is necessary to learn a minimum amount of kanji.
While katakana is generally used for the names of animals and plants, so can both kanji and hiragana.