Hoku hoku is fall (and some Japanese words for food)

My general 'simple is better' attitude to food has continued into the fall. At the moment I'm not cooking much per se, but I am enjoying the foods that are so good at this time of the year. A lot of these foods share a similar quality, for which I can't think of an appropriate word in English to describe. There's a perfect word in Japanese though - hoku hoku. Hoku hoku is the word that is used for a starchy, dense, sweet flavor and texture. Think of roasted sweet chestnuts, winter squash, and sweet potatoes. Baked white potatoes can be hoku hoku too.


My favorite hoku hoku food is sweet potato - though I do mean the kind we get in Japan (called satsuma-imo), not the kind that's most commonly seen in the U.S. (and here in Europe too). The U.S. kind of sweet potato has an orange skin and bright orange-yellow flesh, but the Japanese kind that I grew up with has a pale cream-white flesh and pink-purple skin. It's less fibrous and sweeter than the orange-flesh kind, which I feel needs added sweeteners most of the time (which is why it's so great in sweet potato pie and the like).

When I was growing up, we lived for a year in the Mita section of Minato-ku in Tokyo, in a mansion (mansion means a high-rise apartment building in Japan) opposite the Italian embassy. There was a polite yet simmering feud going on between the residents of the apartment building and the embassy, because they didn't like the typically Japanese things the residents did, such as hanging their futon out on their balconies to air out in the sun, not to mention the laundry. Apparently to Italian sensibilities the laundry and futons looked terrible. They complained so much that the building management sent out a notice to the residents asking them to not put out the futon on the balconies facing the embassy. (My always rebellious mother put them out anyway, braving the constant battles with the management. Maybe it was a good thing we moved out fairly soon.)

Another thing the Italians did not like was the ishi yakiimo (stone roasted sweet potato) cart. On cool evenings the cart would come and park in front of the apartment building, and the vendor would pull out his loud speaker and start chanting,

ishi yaki-imo
hokka hoka dayo...

Hoka hoka is another descriptive word used for food - it means steamy-hot.

That was guaranteed to lure several residents out for their newspaper-wrapped packet of hot (hoka hoka) roasted sweet and dense (hoku hoku) sweet potatoes.

There are several ways of cooking sweet potatoes, but my favorite way is to just roast them whole in their skins. No added butter or anything is necessary, though a tiny sprinkle of salt can bring out the sweetness.

While we don't have sweet potato carts here in Switzerland, we do have roasted chestnut carts, which help to warm the body and spirit with their hoka hoka hoku hoku-ness too.

Japanese adjectives for food

Japanese is full of very descriptive yet not really directly translatable adjectives to describe how food tastes and feels. A lot of them repeat the same sound twice. Knowing when to use which adjective may be one of the hurdles to overcome in order to master Japanese - the differences can be rather subtle. Here are a few:

  • shiko shiko - Chewy, textured, al dente.
  • tsuru tsuru - Slippery, smooth.

Example: "These noodles are so tsuru tsuru and shiko shiko". (This was used to describe the perfect ramen noodle in Tampopo.)

  • hoku hoku - dense, floury, sweet. Example: "These baked potatoes are hoku hoku."
  • hoka hoka - hot. Used only for hot foods (and other hot things) that can be held in the hand and are steamy-hot or warming. Actually there are other words to describe hotness or warmth: atsu atsu (piping hot), poka poka (warming...never used for food though, but an electric blanket can be poka poka, and your body can feel poka poka after eating an atsu atsu soup), etc.
  • nuru nuru - slippery, slimy (e.g. okra).
  • nume nume - even more slimy
  • shaki shaki - crispy, crunchy - only used for vegetables and fruit, never for something like potato chips
  • kari kari - dry-crispy
  • sara sara - flowing, not sticky - e.g. cold noodles are better if they are sara sara
  • puri puri - chewy, lively, fresh
  • pichi pichi - fresh, young, taut (can be used for a fresh fish or a young and pretty girl)

(If you are in Zürich, you can find the the pink-skinned satsumaimo type of sweet potato at Barkat.)

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