Karakuchi (辛口) is one of the more bizarre terms in the Japanese culinary lexicon.

The characters literally mean "pungent" and "mouth", so the first meaning isn't too tough to puzzle out: karakuchi is how the Japanese refer to spicy hot food, like Japanese curry rice or kimchi. This can even be modified, so that chûkara (中辛) is middling hot and chôkara (超辛) is super spicy.

The older connotation of karakuchi, however, means not spicy but simply salty; the chili pepper is, after all, still a very new ingredient in Japanese cuisine. But this usage is a little obsolete and is now usually spelled out in full as shiokarai (塩辛い), "salt-hot"); this is how that infamous dish of pickled squid guts, shiokara, got its name.

Hopping yet further on the association trail, things that are salted tend to be dry, and that's why in the context of the world of sake karakuchi means neither spicy nor salty, but simply not sweet. For the technically minded among the audience, dryness in sake is measured with nihonshudo (specific gravity) and rated so that +2 is yaya karakuchi (somewhat dry) and +6 and above is karakuchi (dry).

And so, when the Meiji era started and exotic drinks like wine and beer were brought in from the West, this same label was applied to them as well. Now, sweet and dry white wine are easy enough to understand, but I'll admit the concept of karakuchi beer had me puzzled for a while. But evidently the Japanese had just applied the specific gravity idea to beer as well -- a heavy dark stout like Guinness is thick, sweet and very anti-karakuchi, whereas the light lagers preferred by the Japanese are low-density and hence karakuchi. This also explains why so many of them are named things like Asahi Super Dry.

And finally, a friendly warning to you kanji students out there: try not to get 「辛」, the kara bit of karakuchi which can also be read tsurai to mean things like painful and heart-breaking, mixed up with 「幸」(sachi, saiwai, shiawase), which means happiness, luck or blessing. Look carefully at the top bit: for karai it's a single vertical stroke |, while for saiwai it's a cross 十. (Better yet: karai is to stand 立 on a ten 十, while saiwai is some ground 土 on a yen ¥.) It took me at least three years to stop writing about that super-happy curry I ate yesterday or wishing people painful, heart-breaking marriages...

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