Cool Compound – 主食


Over the 4th of July weekend, I went back to the small town in Fukushima where I spent three years teaching English and “coordinating international relations.” I had a nomikai with the students from the English conversation class I taught at the Town Hall, and then a few of us lit fireworks in the parking lot of the town offices. It was a nice little trip, great to get out of the city and just relax the whole weekend.

I ran into one of the great Japanese compounds at the dinner – 主食 (しゅしょく). We started with a toast and then snacked on sashimi, bits of fried food, edamame and a bunch of other things. El vino did flow – beer and 麦焼酎水割り, mostly. Towards the end, I could kind of tell it was time to wrap things up, but then one of the ladies said, だめだ。何か主食とらないと。 We couldn’t leave without having a 主食 – a staple food. The classic Japanese 主食 is rice, but the restaurant had no rice dishes, so we settled for ramen. Apparently noodles count as a staple food. The great illusion with 主食 is that rice is the only one that exists in the world. This proves otherwise.

Because rice isn’t eaten as much abroad, often Japanese will think that there are no 主食 in the US. I always point to Mexican cuisine and the use of corn in tortillas, pupusas, and tamales. Corn and beans are all staple foods all over the world. Don’t fall for the 主食 fallacy.

I’m heading back to my town to help carry the mikoshi in a festival next weekend. Should be fun.

6 thoughts on “Cool Compound – 主食

  1. “The 主食 fallacy” – nice. My favorite part of this is how, if there’s rice in a meal, no matter how small a role it plays, then everything else is おかず. Big fried fish, mounds of pickles, yakitori – they’re all just side-dishes, as long as you have a leedle bowl of rice somewhere.

    I never got people thinking that there was no 主食 in the US; rather, I always got people assuming that in the West bread=rice, so we must have bread with every single meal – i.e., bread is the 主食.

  2. I would love it if people around me would think we had no 主食. I have to constantly explain that we don’t have bread with every meal. I swear I nearly saw some people’s heads explode when I explained that we didn’t have the same cultural concepts of 主食 and おかず even if we ended up eating about the same amount of carbs in a day. By the way, did you know that beer counts as 主食?

  3. Good points, guys. Now that you mention it, I think I probably heard the same thing – that bread must be the 主食 – and responded that it isn’t really a 主食, not in the same way as rice. (And that a lot of the US doesn’t have one. Although I think certain regions of the US definitely have bread at every meal. I know my family was close…and when we didn’t have bread, we had…) Tortillas and corn/beans I think are a lot closer to the Japanese sense of 主食. They’re a critical part of the meal, and I think maybe it has something to do with the fact that the combination of rice, beans and corn can supply all essential amino acids. That’s an interesting way to think about rice – it’s the foundation, and all the おかず are just adding other sections of the nutrients spectrum.

    Robin, I think i know what you’re getting at with the beer = 主食 thing – it’s high in carbs and helps fill you up – and I’ve definitely seen it in action (specifically with some of my friends from the town who have just a bit to eat and then make due with beer for the rest of the night), but I don’t think it’s on the same level as rice and noodles for reasons I’ll explain below.

    And a thread from facebook:
    Corey says Actually, this is a great insight, because this was always the idea that was communicated to me “Corey-sensei, Japanese staple food is rice, what about NZ? Bread of course?”. I personally do not like a lot of bread, rice a bit more but can have too much. Menrui however, would be my 主食。Anytime, anywhere.

    I actually often said potatoes for NZ, and …they seemed to accept that (although it probably really is bread these days). Growing up though, potato was always on the menu – there would be some days without bread, but even takeaways would usually be fish and chips – KFC – fries and potato gravy etc etc

    Wake says This may be one of those words that doesnt translate well. The Japanese give almost a spiritual quality to their 主食, hence the requirement that you all eat some in the above story. In the west bread or potatoes are considered staples, but we dont assign them any special significance. I was about to make a joke about this, but the more I thought …about it, the more it started to make a weird kind of sense. Is red beans and rice a 主食 for New Orleans? We eat it on cetrain days, and there seems to be more significance to RBR than something like jambalaya that we just like a lot.

    Corey responds Wake, I see what you are saying, but in NZ we are a relatively young country with lots of Scottish and Irish immigrants, who were mightly dependent on the potato until probably the last 20-30 odd years, and the Maori definitely assign spiritual significance to the Kumara (Satsumaimo), and no hangi would be complete without Kumara (irrespective of …whether you were Pakeha or Maori)

    That said, I largely agree. For me, the discussions of 主食 did seem to imply something more than just an often eaten food, and for me it certainly was not bread, either way you look at it!!

    Interesting points guys. I think we’re on to something with the idea that bread is a sort of vestigial 主食. “Give us this day our daily bread” and all – we don’t say that and really mean it anymore. I think rice could be considered a staple in and around New Orleans. Jambalaya, Crawfish Etoufee, Dirty Rice… so many classics make use of it, and we always sop it up with a slice of bread.

    The funniest thing about this story to me is that the tone of the lady wasn’t “Shame, shame, you haven’t had your staple,” it was more like, “If you don’t have your staple, you’ll definitely be hungover tomorrow.” Which reminds me of trying to sober up drunk friends in high school – “Quick get him some bread! It’ll soak up the alcohol!” Which I think is the true definition of a 主食. A 主食 is a food that will sop up alcohol and provide limited hangover prevention effects.

  4. With the beer as 主食 thing, I’m just repeating what my colleagues told me, and it makes sense to me. Have you ever noticed that when you are at a 飲み放題/食べ放題 there is rarely any 主食 apart from beer? Anyway, according to the ladies at work it’s an acceptable 主食.

  5. When I was biking around Japan, noodles were definitely my 主食. I had this rotation of soba, ramen, and wa-fuu spaghetti just about every day.

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