I is for Itadakimasu
“Itadakimasu,” is a polite expression used before eating meals in Japan. It literally means, “I humbly receive,” but its colloquial use is more like, “Bon Apetit!” or “Let’s eat.” Some of my students used to tell me it was like saying grace ~ thanking God for the food.
It’s associated with the Buddhist belief and it’s a way of thanking each living organism (plant or animal) for giving itself up to be our food.
And because each food has sacrificed its life, we should respect it and be sure to eat everything on our plate to be polite. [source]
Well, I guess it’s most important to finish what you take. It means you are “full, and satisfied.” If you leave anything, your hosts will think you’re still hungry and offer more.
In Japan, there is always a correct or formal way for doing everything. When you say, “Itadakimasu,” it’s said with clasped hands and a slight bow. I was friends with the secretary of our language facility. One day she invited me to eat dinner at her home (and try on kimonos afterward). Our secretary and her parents were seated (on some pillows on the floor) at the traditional low, black-lacquered table in the small, crowded living room. My legs were already a little strained from the effort but I leaned forward, ready to eat. I remembered this special phrase just in time.
I nodded to my friend’s parents, clasping my hands together and chimed, “Itadakimasu,” adding an extra syllable at the end making it sound like su [as in put]. They didn’t correct me then, either. Surprised, they repeated it back to me. Observing this tradition definitely put me in their good graces. Her parents were delighted I had taken the time to familiarize myself with this cultural norm.
Dinner consisted of sukiyaki, rice noodles and vegetables (cabbage, onion and mushrooms) For those readers who aren’t familiar with sukiyaki, it’s a hotpot dish served during the winter.
Very thin slices of beef are dipped in raw egg (each person has his or her own bowl) and cooked in a hotpot in the middle of the table, along with the veggies and noodles. Then it’s taken out and served over the noodles (or sometimes rice) and dipped in a special sukiyaki sauce made from rice wine, soy sauce and sugar.
Back then, I wasn’t very proficient in using my chopsticks. The dipping, cooking, and transporting all these ingredients was tricky for me. I was really concentrating hard. And guess what? I’d just picked up a piece of sliced beef, dipped it in the raw egg mixture and moving it to the hotpot (with my hand under it so the egg wouldn’t drip) when my hand bumped something, the chopstick separated and … you got it, the beef went flying.
I was mortified because the piece of sliced beef landed half on the table and half in a special small dish used to hold the sukiyaki sauce. And that dish wasn’t mine!
At least the mom laughed. I did see the humor of it when she covered her mouth with her hand to hide her laughter. I think it was impolite to show her teeth. I thought, wow, there is even a right and a wrong way to laugh! The dad and my friend gave me a lesson in using chopsticks correctly, by positioning my fingers on the chopsticks. (I remembered this lesson when I taught my college students in Asian Studies how to use chopsticks. It was great fun for everyone!)
I figured the “itadakimasu,” which had earned me valuable points with her parents, sure came in handy then!
The meal ended with a typical dessert called natto, sweet fermented soy beans. It’s not something that most people like the first time they eat it. It’s an acquired taste. My friend taught me a new phrase. It’s the response to “Itadakimasu,” “Gochisosama-deshita.” [prounounced Go-chee-sewww-samah-desh-ta]. It means “You are a feast-preparer.” The “sama” is an honorific of respect to the cook.
I loved learning cultural aspects like this, especially when it came to food. SO much of any culture revolves around food. I remember hearing various Japanese women say, “Itadakimasu,” in their somewhat higher-pitched, musical voices. Listen to the pronunciation here.
I used to “collect” these phrases, learn all about them and practice them often with my Japanese friends. Later, I wrote monthly newsletters home and shared these insights with friends and family.
Do you observe any special traditions when it comes to eating in your household? How formal is your family when you have guests? Have you ever embarrassed yourself as a guest?
You have just read, “I is for Itadaikimasu,” by Amy L. Bovaird. Copyright April 11, 2015. You can see who else is participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge HERE.