Japanese menu with poetic Oshinagaki


Blue sea soup served with hailstone crackers is just one of the poetic names found on Japanese menus called oshinagaki.  For centuries, the Japanese have been selecting what to eat based on lyrical and romantic menu names, bringing an added level of joy and pleasure to meals.

Who wouldn’t feel more upbeat and optimistic after being served takarabune, a lucky treasure ship consisting of an upended crusty fish filled to the brim with a spicy cargo of red snapper and shrimp? Creativity and imagination in oshinagaki reflect a time-honored Zen mindfulness that permeates the realm of Japanese cuisine.  This tradition came to fruition during the Edo Period (1603-1868) when poetic names were assigned to dishes served at kaiseki, artfully-presented banquets.  The names evoked sun-drenched fields, moonlit nights, and even everyday pastimes. The essence of each dish was woven into a short food poem of color, flavor, shape, and texture.

In times past and present, playful oshinagaki would also allow the average person to imagine a sumptuous feast while eating within budget. In 1237, Zen Master Dogen, in his role as monastery cook, set a precedent when he wrote, “Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens.”  Today, during the Tsukimi “moon-viewing” festivals, people order Tsukimi baaga at their favorite burger eateries.  These “moon-viewing” burgers consist of a ground-beef patty topped by a poached egg representing the moon. Tsukimi dango, full-moon dumplings, and Tsukimi udon, noodles wearing an egg, are also popular.

The poetry of oshinagaki nourishes the senses. A landmark cookbook published in 18th century Japan called “Anthology of Special Delicacies” refers to many imaginative menu names, including chuya imo, day-and-night yams;  mekuri mochi, blinded rice cakes; and arare tofu, snow-pellet tofu.  Nenbutsu jiru, Buddha’s name soup, involves witty wordplay connecting the name of the fish used in the bouillon to the sound of a monastic bell invoking the name of Buddha.

Just as a recipe strives for a savoriness beyond the individual flavors of its ingredients, a poetic name engages metaphors beyond individual word meaning.  Momiji oroshi is a condiment referring to the amber color of maple trees in the fall.  Made from grated daikon radish and hot red pepper, it enhances the flavor of fish in the same sense that autumn enhances the color of maple trees. People smile when they order oyakodon, parent-child donburi, as they summon the image of chicken and egg brought together in a bowlful of rice.

Many oshinagaki names invoke good luck. Lucky number seven appears frequently as in nanakusa gayu, the “seven spring flowers”, a porridge of herbs.  Fukujin zuke, a pickle relish, refers to the Shichi Fukujin, the seven gods of good fortune.

The aesthetic imageries invoked by oshinagaki complement what Dogen Zenji called the positive attitude of the “Joyful Mind”.   In his cookbook he muses, “How fortunate we are to have been born as human beings given the opportunity to prepare meals for the Three Treasures. Our attitude should truly be one of Joy…”


Photo by: Marie Tomita

6 comments » Write a comment

  1. Menus in the US are becoming much the same as this. To call something simply what it is, does not sound as appetizing as a poetic name for a dish.

  2. What a boon to National Poetry Month! It’s always a good day when I learn a new little tid-bit to my storehouse of poetry knowledge.

  3. I always choose a meal by it’s name from a menue. I think I should have been born in Japan! Naming things so opulantly is just the high-end customer experince that I love and look for.

  4. Wow! This post is so interesting and informative. I love that many are metaphors like the metaphor involving fall and the tree. Beautiful.

  5. I love small details that play into the whole food experience. Word play makes a regular food item way more interesting and appetizing on a menu, for sure. Very smart. :)

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