How to Pronounce Nigiri, Tonkotsu, Karaage, and Many Other Popular Japanese Foods Like a Native (Beatrix Kiddo Level)

Hearing Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitts character) pronounce Gorlami to the “Italian” speaker Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in the movie Inglorious Basterds reminds me of hearing all the mispronounced Japanese foods throughout social media, which is only a Google search away.

For the record, Christoph Waltz is not fluent in Italian, but for the role he killed it because he was fluent enough. The languages he is proficient in are English, German, and French.

You typically will not find most people saying na-gear-ree (nigiri), que-suh-dillah (quesadilla), foe (pho), or brew-shet-uh  (bruschetta). Although we Americans have a diverse food culture, which contributes to pronunciation being a challenge, it may also be why most of us still struggle with the former and Japanese foods. 

Gyro (Greek), fillet mignon (French), quesadilla (Spanish), pho (Vietnamese), and tonkotsu (Japanese) are a few words we Americans have to learn to pronounce, to not sound like fill-it mig-non, que-suh-dilla, foe, or tone-cat-sue.

You know, the OG sounding Murica with Orientals and Colored folk, so just give us a minute or a decade or two to figure it out.

So to make it easier on you, I have included common words and a few words that will help when traveling to Japan or eating Japanese food in coastal cities, which are often Japanese-owned and operated businesses (to help you blend in like an octopus in hentai).

Languages can be broken down into three categories: 1. syllable-timed, 2. mora-timed, and 3. stress-timed. Japanese is a mora-timed language.

I already went past my pay grade, but this is a key point to help you with pronunciation (except there is no way I can tell you the difference between morae and syllable timed).

My Latino homies typically always get Japanese words right (vs. my gringo homies) like with the pronunciation of sayonara because it is not too far off from de nada (sigh-yo-na-rah) and with Portuguese abrigado and arigato are not stretch from one another although I am obviously no linguist because English, Spanish, and Portuguese are all stress-timed languages, not mora-timed.

Photo Description: a picture from the movie Inglorious Basterds with Brad Pitt playing an American trying to speak Italian.
A pronunciation as Italian as Pizza Hut and Starbucks (ventee and grandee). Screenshot used under fair use.

This is the Easiest Technique to Pronounce Japanese Food Words

With the popularity of Japanese food, I hope people spend the time to try and pronounce things correctly, although you do not have to take it to the level of rolling your “r’s” like a reporter pronouncing “burrito.”

Morae or mora-timed language means it is “a basic timing unit in the phonology of some spoken languages, equal to or shorter than a syllable.”

Via (yes, I have donated to Wikipedia, and I suggest you do the same)

Like everything I do, I break things down into simple and easy ways that I can understand because I am a simpleton. With Japanese word pronunciation, my simple ways will help you break down words like gochisousamadeshita (go-chi-sou-sa-ma-desh’ta) by syllables or by kana (phonological units).

From Kana to Romaji

Just bust out your secret decoder below

two-2 icon

Two Examples

How to Pronounce Mirin

Mi-ri-n, sounds more like “me-r’een” vs. “mear-in.”

How to Pronounce Nigiri

Ni-gi-ri, sounds more like “nee-gah-ree” vs. “naaaaahh-gear-reee.”

Hiragana Characters

Photo Description: a hiragana chart with the various kana. If you want to lean how to pronounce nirigi, tonkotsu, mirin, or karaage. This chart is like a secret decoder which will break Japanese words down into kana or syllables.
You do not have to go out and learn hiragana or katakana, but it helps a lot vs. relying on romaji.

To sound more like Beatrix (GOOD), you have to make sure you time each kana/syllable equally, and you cannot draw it out like Lt. Aldo Raine (BAAAAAAD).

How to Pronounce Nigiri, Tonkotsu, Karaage, and Many Other Japanese Words like a Native

Thank you so very much for making the effort to learn the correct pronunciation.

I think making the effort to learn somebody else’s culture is a good thing, and I do the same with Russian and German words (unfortunately, individuals such as Christopher Kimball of Milk Street spends absolutely no time to learn basic words)
Age dashiA deep-fried tofu dish in a soy sauce based broth.age daaaaa’sheah-geh-da-shi(she)
Arigato“thank you”areeeee’gah’toeaa-ri-ga-to
Borrachouniversally understood word in Espanol for drunk in the BOH.una cerveza por favor???bo-rr’acho
BruschettaItalian toasted bread, olive oil, garlic, tomatobrew’shet’tuhhbrus’ketta
Chikuwafish cake formed around a piece of bamboo or stick.chick’a’waaahchi-ku-wa
Daisukea common dudes name (sushi chefs name).Die’sook’eeedie-su-keh
Edamameimmature soybean pods.ed’ugggh’mommy
(not your daddy)
“thank you for this wonderful meal” (a polite expression after a meal).(probably most won’t attempt it)???go-chi-sou-sa-ma-desh’ta
Gunkan“battleship” sushigooon’caaangoon-kahn
GyozaJapanese potstickers, steamed and pan-fried.guy’ohhh’zagi-yoh-zah
Gyu-kakua chain of Japanese yakiniku restaurants.Guy’you’cock’youg’you-ka-ku(koo)
Hikarimono“shiny fish”he’caree’monohee-kah-ree-mo-no
Hiramehalibut (flukes and flounders).hi, raaaam’me!hi-ra-me (hee-rah-meh)
IkuraSalmon roeeeee’coo’ruhii-ku-ra
Irasshaimase“Welcome to the business/shop/restaurant.”eeeeeee’raw’ shay/shyii-ra-shai-ma-say
Itadakimasu“I receive this food” (polite thing to say prior to eating).eye’tada’key’ ma’suuue???ii-ta-da-ki-mas
“drink your cup dry.”(I think most get it right?)ka-n-pa-i
KaraageJFC (Japanese fried chicken).carriage or ka’
KirinJapanese beer brand.Cuuuure-inki-r’in
Mirinsweet rice winemeeeeer’inmi-ri’n
Mou ippon“one more” (especially beer +onegaishimasu added).???mou-ee-pon (mo-ee-pone)
NakiriA Japanese vegetable knifenawwwww-cure-reeena-ki-ri
Nigiria type of sushi, a bit of seasoned rice, with various toppings.knee’ga’ree or nahh’giddeeeeni-gi-ri
Oishii desu“It’s delicious”oh’eeeee’sheeeoye-shi(she)-des
Okanjo(when asking for the bill with +onegaishimasu added).ohhh’caaan’joe???o’kan-jo
Omakaseleave it up to you (to the chef).(I think most people get it right??)oh-ma-ka-se
(used when asking for things, the polite way).own’a’guy’ she’must’you???own’a’guy-shi(she)-mas’
Onirigirice ballown’naw’gee’reeeeo’ni-gi-ri
PankoJapanese bread crumbspain’kopa-n-ko
Sake (alcohol)rice winesaaaw’keeeeesa(saw)-keh
Sapporoa region in Japan and a Japanese beer brand.saaaw’pour’oh(saw-po’row)
TareBasting sauce or flavoring for stock.tar-raaaaayta-r’eh
Tempuradeep-fried seafood and vegetables.tem’poooruuuuhte’m-pu-ra
(always confused with tonkatsu)
a thick white wheat noodle.oooooh’dawnooh-d’own(doan)
Zukemarinated in soy sauce (typically sashimi).zooook??zoo-keh
Some of these words, I do not know if I ever heard them attempted, but I added them because it is good to know them (also, all too many that I have heard pronounced this way). Thanks Twin Cam for your contribution.

Well, I hope this helps, if you are like me and want to get the pronunciation of ethnic foods right, or if you plan on traveling to Japan or are producing content about Japan via social media, this is for you.

I will never forget the time I was in Appleton, Wisconsin at a Japanese restaurant, and I asked for the hirame (he-ra-may). The waitress responded back “you mean the hi-ram-me?” Yea, that one.

Maybe it was just a fluke (I hope you got that joke).

BTW, the character Beatrix Kiddo’s pronunciation was just ok, which is good enough for the majority of us to get by. Now, if only I could get Vietnamese down, aside from cafe sua da, bun bo Hue, and duh mah.

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