JOK Notebook

Eating Rainbows

A few years ago I read a fascinating article about Oliver Sacks's work with synesthesia. For those with this condition, it's as if sensory cues have crossed wires, enabling people to do things such as hear purple or see the aroma of coffee.

A comment from my proofreader this week seemed to suggest that Japanese people have such powers!

While reviewing the forthcoming essay 1373 on 旬 (10-day period; season (for specific products)), we were discussing the following sentence in which is part of the phrase 旬のもの (しゅんのもの: thing currently in season):

This shincha is currently in season, so it should have the flavor and fragrance of fresh green leaves.

新茶* (しんちゃ: "new tea"; shincha); 新緑 (しんりょく: new, green leaves); 爽やかな (さわやか: fresh); 味 (あじ: flavor); 香り (かおり: fragrance); 特徴 (とくちょう: feature, trait, characteristic)

This sentence came in an email from a friend, who was telling me about the wonderful green tea she had just given me. I translated the sentence as shown here but had doubts about the last part, "have the flavor and fragrance of fresh green leaves."

My proofreader liked the translation, preferring it to his own:

it has a refreshing taste and fragrance like fresh green.

Fresh green? Assuming he hadn't inadvertently dropped a noun at the end, I found this usage quite curious. It reminded me of how my alma mater, Dartmouth, is known as The Big Green, prompting everyone to ask jokingly, "The Big Green What?"

I wrote back to my proofreader, inquiring about his treatment of "green" as a thing with a flavor and fragrance. "In English," I said, "that sounds really strange (e.g., I bit into a plum, and it tasted so purple!). Is this normal usage in Japanese? If so, is green the only color you can taste and smell? Is the idea that foods or drinks seem like fresh green grass or something?"

He replied right away: "It’s a big surprise for me because I was under the impression it was a universal human thing."

Nope. Not in the least!

To elaborate on his thought, he reused my plum example (which turned out to be a plum example in several ways!): "When the Japanese eat plums they often say,「青臭い!(あおくさい!)」. This literally means 'It tastes green,' conveying that it tastes like grass."

Another proofreader disagrees, translating this as "It smells like (young, green) grass. Three dictionaries—Breen, Daijisen, and Daijirinsupport him on this interpretation of 青臭い, and of course  is all about the way things smell. Still, because the senses of taste and smell are intertwined, I can't help thinking that people might really mean "It tastes green" or "It tastes like grass."

Do plums actually taste like grass, though? And if so, is that a good thing?! I don't know, but at least we've ruled out synesthesia. The Japanese aren't really saying that they taste or smell a color. It's more that with 青臭い, the 青 stands in for 青草 (あおくさ: green grass), which happens to have a nearly identical yomi! (Apparently, that's just a coincidence. It's not as if something happened along the evolutionary trail to make people go from saying 青草 to 青臭い!)

Even if the Japanese don't truly talk about tasting or smelling colors, they do emphasize the importance of eating certain colors. People say things like this on a daily basis:

You have to eat not only green and yellow but also red.

緑* (みどり: green); 黄色 (きいろ: yellow); 赤* (あか: red); 食べる* (たべる: to eat)

With this they are referring to vegetables. (Oh, drat. I could easily accomplish that if we were talking about fruit.)

A Net search reveals that the Japanese frequently use the following term when discussing health in conjunction with vegetables:

緑黄色野菜 (りょくおうしょくやさい) 
      green + yellow (next 2 kanji) + vegetables (last 2 kanji)

Hmm. The yomi of 黄色 has changed from the kun-kun きいろ to the on-on おうしょく here. For that matter, 緑 has changed in the same way, going from みどり to りょく, but that makes more sense to me; it was a singleton in the sentence above and is part of a compound here.

The term 緑黄色野菜 refers in a sweeping way to any vegetables rich in beta carotene, such as pumpkins and carrots. The antonym, in the vegetable world, is this term:

淡色野菜 (たんしょくやさい: light-colored vegetables; vegetables not high in beta carotene)      light-colored (1st 2 kanji) + vegetables (last 2 kanji)

This isn't just a topic that people discuss idly. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has gotten in on the action, determining which vegetables belong to which category. (If there's one thing we need from our governments, it's classification of veggies!) That bureau has produced a list of 緑黄色野菜 versus 淡色野菜. Technically, the difference has to do not with the actual color but with the amount of beta carotene in each type of vegetable.

My proofreader also dug up an article with a title that implores people to do the following:

Get energized with red. Rejuvenate with purple. Eat colors and get healthy!

紫* (むらさき: purple); 若返り (わかがえり: rejuvenation); 色* (いろ: colors); 元気 (げんき: healthy)

The article urges people to eat these six colors:

Eat six colors: red, purple, yellow, green, white, and black.

黄 (き: yellow); 白 (しろ: white); 黒 (くろ: black)

The idea isn't just to have a colorful plate each day. The article explains the close relationships between nutrients and colors:

• Brightly colored vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots contain beta carotene.

• Light-colored vegetables such as radishes, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage abound in Vitamin C.

• The red in a tomato indicates that it has lots of lycopene, which helps to prevent cancer and protects skin from UV rays.

• The purple in blueberries and in eggplant is a pigment called anthocyanin that is said to be good for the eyes.

The reference to eyes reminds me that my eye doctor (who is prone to tangents off of tangents off of tangents) once lectured me about eating all the colors of the rainbow. Thus, I know that these ideas exist in the West, too, but the difference is that we don't speak of the fragrance of red or the flavor of blue. Then again, as it turns out, neither do the Japanese! They draw the line at green. And in that sense, even purple plums abound in green!

As long as we're talking about color, I'll share a photo from the new essay on 玩 (to play with; trifle with; fiddle with; take pleasure in; make fun of; relish; cherish):

Photo Credit: Fg2

Japanese Wikipedia explains that the five colors atop this top (!) relate to the theory of yin and yang and to the five elements. Who would have guessed that tops could have such depth!

Here's a sneak preview of the new essay:

Have a great weekend. Hope it's full of color (even though snow season is upon some of us)!


eve's picture
Since posting this, I've learned that 青臭い usually has a negative connotation. "The plum tastes green!" doesn't mean that the plum tastes grassy but rather that it's unripe! However, 青臭い is positive in other contexts, as when the Japanese laud the benefits of 青汁 (あおじる), a well-known vegetable drink made from green leafy vegetables. Saying 青臭い after sipping 青汁 means that the drink is natural and abounds in green goodness.

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