How to Practice Japanese Mindful Eating for More Joyful Meals

Overcoming the most confusing part of eating well

Illustrations by Kaki Okumura

There are several standard principles to follow when managing weight and maintaining a healing and nourishing relationship with food, some principles which I have come to understand in Japanese ideas:

Out of all these ideas, mindful eating is arguably the most important and also the most difficult — it’s definitely the one I struggled with the most.

Coming from a former background where food was a source of stress and also a source of temporary relief, I became to associate food with a sort of guilty curse. I felt bad so I would eat, and I would eat more because I felt worse for eating. In the most rational sense it was crazy because why couldn’t I just exercise self-control? But mindful eating is the most finicky thing in that it’s so intangible.

I could look at my plate and physically see whether it was a lot of food or not enough, as I could similarly count the number of vegetables on my plate and see the different colors and dishes that compromised my meal. I could see moderation, variety, and an assortment of vegetables, but I couldn’t see mindful eating. Like all psychological states we strive for — happiness, security, and confidence — being mindful only exists within my own experience.

So what does mindful eating even mean? How do you approach it? Is it actually important? Interestingly enough, mindful eating began to make more sense to me not when I studied the techniques for it, but when I happened upon a random statistic about the Japanese language.

Do you know how many words the Japanese have for food texture?

Japanese has 445 terms just to describe texture.

Do you know how many terms English has? A limited set of 77.

In Japanese, descriptor terms in Japanese are often onomatopoeic words, words that mimic the sound of said texture. For example, descriptors like fuwafuwa, fukafuka, hokohoko, and hokkuri are all ways to describe the softness of food, but these all differ slightly in what they represent. Karikari, garigari, sakusaku, and paripari describe crunchiness, but again with slight nuances.

It makes sense to establish the difference between crunches: the crunchiness of a fresh cucumber is different from the crunch of a potato chip. This crunch is also different from that of a piece of fried chicken, which would be different from the crunch of a bitten ice lolly.

Varied terms for texture also extends to softness, fizziness, chewiness, stickiness, dryness, and lightness, among other textures we could think of for food.

Now why would I care if there are 445 words to describe food in Japanese, while only 77 in English? For me, putting a quantitative measure on how languages differ has shown me a bit about the way I think and made me more aware of the way that language has shaped the way I experience the world around me.

I was lacking in gratitude not for the food, but for the moment

What I realized is that having a range of terms for the way we describe our food can help expand the way we experience the moment. More words mean that I can taste and understand the difference of garigari to karikari. I can understand a recipe for a sakusaku cookie, and see how it’s different from a paripari one.

It seems silly at times, but having the words to describe food made me understand that my foods are not limited to either being crispy or crunchy, but can be understood as a whole range of textures in between and beyond. Languages develop the words they need, and perhaps that’s why Japanese developed so many terms for food texture — these details are important.

The sheer fact that Japanese has over 400 words for food texture has shown me that the key to mindful eating is paying attention to these details, details which can only be experienced in that moment you’re eating. It’s a form of appreciation to look for the nuanced: if it’s not just crunchy, what kind of crunchy is it? If it’s not just soft, what kind of softness?

Japanese mindful eating for more joyful meals

That there are 445 terms for food texture in Japanese is not of major importance, but the fact that so many terms exist revealed to me the depth of appreciation Japanese culture has for their food. It’s taught me that mindful eating is more than just identifying food texture, but it’s about a kind of gratitude for the moment. We appreciate the foods we can identify as special, and we take the time to eat the foods which we feel grateful for.

Born in Dallas, raised in New York and Tokyo. I care about helping others learn to live a better, healthier life. My site: 🌱

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