It is said that, after Cantonese, the most popular restaurants in Hong Kong are Japanese. We have our favourite sushi bars and look out for new izakayas. And we have in our repertoire words for an impressive range of Japanese food and drink: in the Oxford English Dictionary, of the 525 entries of Japanese origin, 47 are related to consumables. The names of some of these Japanese staples have interesting etymologies.
The earliest mentions of “sake” in English (in a 1687 account, as the Japanese people’s “ordinary drink”, and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1797) define it as a fermented liquor made of rice, a specification that the word maintains in English.
The word sake in Japanese, though, encompasses alcoholic beverages in general. When referring to what English defines as sake, Japanese say nihonshu, literally meaning “Japanese sake”, while on bottle labels, one sees seishu, the legal term for the drink.
This is an instance of semantic narrowing, which often occurs with words borrowed from another language.
Documented in English publications on Japan from 1920 is “tempura”, described as a characteristic dish from Japan – the dipping in batter and deep-frying of white fish, shellfish or vegetables. Several explanations exist for the word, the two widely accepted ones establishing an origin in Portuguese from the end of the 16th century. This would be a consequence of contact with Portuguese explorers, merchants and missionaries in Japan.
One account points to the Portuguese word tempêro, meaning “condiment, seasoning”. Another cites the religious term tempora – from the Latin quattuor anni tempora, or “four seasons of the year”, and known in English as Ember Days.
In the Western Christian church calendar, these are three days in each of the four seasons set aside for fasting, abstinence and prayer, with fish consumed instead of meat. Some hold that the Japanese, observing the practice of missionaries, adopted the word to denote fish fried in oil.
One Portuguese chef suggests that peixinhos da horta (“little fish of the garden”), a traditional Portuguese dish of battered fried green beans, was introduced by Jesuits to local converts for such meatless periods. The Japanese elevated that dish to the dry, crisp lightness that we associate with tempura today.
Whether names are derived through narrowing or association, the culinary expansion from cultural contact is surely something to toast. Kanpai!