Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Norse Mythology and the Japanese Buffet
Over the last few days, I have been living it up Viking-style. Very orderly and polite Viking style, mind you (rape and pillage were off the menu).

First of all, last Friday, we rounded off the Yamasa term with an 90-minute ‘all you can eat’ lunch amongst teachers and classmates. This was my first dining experience at the busy, noisy バイキング (‘Viking’) chain restaurant in Okazaki.

The following weekend, I had the opportunity to sample a ‘Viking’ breakfast and dinner at excellent hotel restaurants in Toba and Matoya Bay respectively.

On each occasion, to my Japanese hosts, a meal described as ‘Viking’ was self-explanatory. To me, less so. The Japanese already have their own equivalent ( たべほうだい ) for ‘all you can eat’ (‘tabe’ – to eat; ‘houdai’ – as much as you would like ), and the word ‘buffet’ does exist in katakana (ビュッフェ), so just how did this neologism come to pass?

The answer comes courtesy of an answer provided by the New York Times ( http://www.nytimes.com/1995/06/26/news/26iht-vikcon.html, a link to which I found at http://forum.gaijinpot.com/showthread.php?p=657784). The etymological root appears to have grown from the decision of the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, to open a ‘Viking Restaurant’ serving buffet-style lunches and dinners (as well as the linguistic floodgates) in 1958. And the name has since become omnipresent throughout Japan, with its self-service eateries piling in behind the generonym in much the same way that our parents came to refer to vacuum cleaners as ‘hoovers’.

(Nagano Viking.)

No surprise, then, that the swanky Imperial’s restaurant is no longer called Viking.

To the expatriate, it’s mildly tickling that this ill-fitting brand name has since snowballed in the public consciousness. Buffet meals do not figure in anyone's popular image of Vikings (there were certainly none at the Yorvik museum, York, England); ‘smorgasbord’ cuisine only dates from the late 19th century, and nothing I have eaten on these three occasions remotely resembled it. But the connection has been established, so now I understand and recognise the Viking experience. And this evening, as dinnertime approaches, truly I could eat a Norse.

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