Things That Make You Go N

22 Dec

Whoops!  It’s been far too long between posts and the winter solstice is upon us yet again.  Japan has a few traditions relating to this date.  Yuzu-yu is one, there are also ideas about eating azukigayu, a kind of red bean and rice gruel, but I also recently stumbled across some information about eating food with a specific phonetic value.

Fresh yuzu. Lovely fragrance, not so lovely taste.

I have mentioned this in passing, usually related to homophones (the kelp kombu sounds similar to yorokobu – to be happy) or shape (soba noodles which are long and therefore associated with long life).  Only this time, the desired phonetic value is an “n”.

Left: The kanji (Chinese character) “mu”. Right: the hiragana “n” which is derived from it.

Let me explain a little about the Japanese language.  It is a syllabic language, and every syllable (or, more correctly, mora) contains a vowel value, either as a stand-alone vowel or consonant-plus-vowel combination  – except the “n” mora.  This odd-man-out is also sometimes represented by an “m” (as in the above-mentioned “kombu”) since it often changes phonetic value when preceding a “b”, “m” or “p”.

Anyway, there is a belief that eating food with the “n” sound will prevent cerebrovascular disease, or at least bring good luck (“n” sounds similar to un, meaning “luck”)

Up close and personal with a raw lotus root from the supermarket. I love these sliced finely and fried into chips!

Examples include carrots (ninjin), giant radish (daikon), lotus root (renkon), udon noodles (which have the added advantage of being long, therefore promoting long life into the bargain) and pumpkin.  (That’s winter squash for those of you from the U.S.A., who think that pumpkins come in orange only.)

Pumpkin is an interesting example because its most common Japanese name (kabocha – said to be derived from the Portuguese name for “Cambodia”, whence Portuguese sailors first brought pumpkin to Japan in the mid-16th century) doesn’t have the “n” sound.

But don’t worry.  As regular readers of this blog know, many things in Japan have more than one name, and the pumpkin is no exception.  One of its other names is nankin uri (南京瓜) – literally “Nangking gourd” – and often simply shortened to nankin (with two of the lucky “n”s!)  Curiously, the afore-mentioned word kabocha is rendered into kanji as 南瓜.

A quarter pumpkin from the supermarket. Believe it or not, they price these things by the one hundred grams.

The most common pumpkin dish is possibly pumpkin simmered in stock.  Personally, I prefer pumpkin tempura, which also has the lucky “n” – although I can’t recall it making me particularly lucky.

With its high sugar content, it is one of the few autumn vegetables that will keep into the winter.  It is also rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin A and beta carotene, and is frequently listed as a food to prevent colds and flu.

While there is a fair chance that I won’t be eating pumpkin this solstice, typing this has given me a craving for pumpkin.  And – who knows –  maybe I might just get lucky.

On my hand for some sense of proportion. You can see the green skin around the edges.

 

Today’s Wild In Japan was brought to you by vitamin A, β carrotene, and by the mora “n”.

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