After I met my wife, one of the first things I learned from her was how to “say grace” in Japanese. Saying Grace in English has religious connotations, but in Japanese it is a more general expression of appreciation.1 You’re expressing gratitude for the people who prepared the food, for the animal that lost its life (if eating meat) and so on. Before you eat, it’s often correct to put your hands together, bow slightly and say itadakimasu (いただきます). This is just humble form of the verb “to receive”. In English we don’t have humble-forms of verbs, so you could translate as “I humbly receive”, but it sounds like one of those awful Japanese stereotypes from the 1950s.
After eating, you also should say gochisōsama deshita (ごちそうさまでした).2 This is a very polite way of saying “It was a feast.” Again, we don’t say this in English, so if you translate literally it sounds weird because Americans usually just say “that was good/delicious”.
With our daughter, we taught her proper etiquette at a young age. We did this for many reasons. One reason is that she is Japanese and we want her to be familiar with and appreciate Japanese culture. The second reason of course is that we want her to blend in well. The third reason though is that we want to teach her to be humble and appreciate her food. Now she is six years old, and she often forgets, but if I remind her, she puts her hands together and says “gochisōsama deshita”.
But what about Korean? After I started studying Korean, I noticed that Korean has almost identical phrases for eating meals:
- Before eating: 잘 먹겠습니다 chal meoggesseumnida, which means “I will eat well”. 잘 means “good/well” and the second word is polite, volitional form as in “I will do X”.
- After eating: 잘 먹었습니다 chal meogeosseumnida, which means “I ate well”. Again, the second word is the verb “to eat” 먹다 but now in the past, polite form.
As you can see, these phrases are also non-religious and are generally used to express gratitude in a more general sense, but if you eat with Korean or Japanese people, you will hear such phrases often, so it’s a good thing to learn.
I tried finding similar phrases for Chinese and Vietnamese but weren’t able to find them. If any readers know such phrases, please feel free to share (or in your native language).
2 Old episodes of the Japanese comedy show めちゃいけ had a “Buddhist” bodhisattva also named Gochisōsama where “sama” is the honorific suffix for a Buddhist deity. He looked like a “food Bodhisattva” and was played by Okamura-kun. I don’t know if anyone still remembers that sketch (it’s probably 10 years old now). I loved it.