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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

As a male who likes to cook, I tend to arouse a lot of curiosity in Japan. I get a lot of questions about what kinds of things I cook, how often I cook, what's my favorite thing to cook, etc. Two questions that used to catch me off guard in this situation were the following:

1) 大好物はなんですか?
daikoubutsu wa nan desu ka?
What's your favorite dish (to eat)?
This one was weird to hear for me because the word 大好物 doesn't SOUND like it has anything to do with food. It always reminded me of 植物 or 動物, so I found myself imagining a giant plant animal beast when I should've been answering with お好み焼き or something like that.

2) 得意な料理はなんですか?
Tokuina ryouri wa nan desu ka?
What food (kind of food) are you good at cooking?

This one gave me pause, not because of the meaning, but because I never knew how to treat the useage of 料理. Was I supposed to name a specific dish, or just say "Mexican," "Italian" or something like that? I've had someone tell me that their 得意な料理 was ナス料理: stuff with eggplant in it.

Recently, I came across some GREAT language trivia that helps solve the problem presented by question number 2, and will help you impress people with more than just your cooking skills, especially if you know the origins of this trivia as well. The kanji for today's trivia have two readings, and both are used, so pay special notice to this:

十八番
じゅうはちばん ・ おはこ
juuhachiban ・ ohako


Where your 得意な料理 might be the KIND of food you're good at cooking, a person's 十八番 is their specialty dish.

I had dinner at a friend's house the other night, and one of the party members had recently returned from a homestay in New Zealand. She prepared New Zealand style roast chicken, and when everyone oohed and aahed over how delicious it was, she said: 私の十八番になったみたい。

This kicked off a lot of discussion around the table of what everyone's 十八番 was. Someone joked that their 十八番 was 卵焼き which I've heard a lot of other people joke about (seems like it's the Japanese version of "I can cook toast"). I was able to catch the meaning pretty quickly, but I was pretty confused.

What the hell did the number 18 have to do with cooking food?

So there are a few schools of thought on this or 説, meaning theories, which you can read about here on Japanese wikipedia, but we'll stick with the main one, because a: it's the most widely held and b: the buddhist explanation is wicked complicated.

The predominant theory is that this expression comes from kabuki theater, way back in the day (early 1800s) when kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro VII selected the 18 kabuki plays that he believed to be the best representations of the aragoto style of kabuki. The kabuki plays that are still performed today are taken from these 18. It took me a while to figure out why, of the 18, the 18th was considered the best. But then I realized that the phrase doesn't have to translate as "the eighteenth." It might just be "the eighteen." So when you say your 十八番、 you're not neccesarily identifying the 18th in a series, you're just referencing the idea of the best selection.

The fact that these same kanji have also been given the 当て字 reading/pronunciation of 「おはこ」 (honorable box) is attributed to the actual boxes that the props and settings for these 18 kabuki plays were stored in. This explanation looks suspect, however, when you consider the fact that there are records of this reading being used that predate the selection of the 18 kabuki plays.

Since my last super historical post ended up pretty dense and obscure, I'll let those of you who want to read more about this follow the wiki link above.

Other than that, you should also know that both readings of 十八番 can be applied to your best Karaoke song, as well as your specialty food.

Also interesting is this note I found, also on wikipedia: "the number [18], along with other eight-related numbers such as 80 and 88, is symbolic of the general concept of "a great many."

Hmm. So what are your 十八番s?

3 comments:

Colin said...

I definitely have a couple of 十八番 karaoke songs. I would like to put I Believe in a Thing Called Love at the top of that list, but only one place in the entire universe has it on their karaokeputers.

My 十八番料理 is pasta. With asparagus. And whatever else that is delicious lying around.

Defendership said...

I also have a little list of 十八番 karaoke songs. The only one that I haven't inherited from somebody else is probably はるか彼方...

Oh man, that's easy - マボー豆腐. I think that's how you write it...

AzzidisRidden said...

My 十八番s are Bell Pepper Gumbo, and the English parts/Japanese chorus of My Way, by Def Tech.

Also, when you're using this one, don't say 十八番料理. Just say "私の十八番は。。。" and trust your 相手 to be smart enough to figure out if what follows is a song or something edible.