Saikan no Sanyu Jan02


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Saikan no Sanyu

A Taste of Culture 

by Elizabeth Andoh

December, 2015 Newsletter:

Three Friends of Winter



© Copyright, 2015.  All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh.

Dear friends, colleagues and those who have expressed an interest in the FOOD & CULTURE of Japan:


Saikan no Sanyū

Three Friends of Winter





Evergreen pine connotes unwavering strength, bamboo suggests both power and flexibility, while plum blossoms, unfurling on snow-laden branches, imply hardiness. Combined, shō (pine) chiku (bamboo) bai (plum) are known as saikan no sanyū or the “Three Friends of Winter.”  In Japan, they have come to symbolize the New Year holiday season.


Those who imbibe in saké, may recognize shō chiku baias Takara brewery’s best-selling label in America. It is indeed that, but… Other readers of this newsletter who are into gaming and anime may associate shō chiku bai with the name of an i-Pod application for pachinko. Shō chiku bai is that, too, but…


Those who frequent Japanese restaurants will be familiar with shō chiku bai as a pricing guide: pine (shō, or its alternate reading matsu) is always the top-of-the-line special, bamboo (chiku, or its alternate reading také) the mid-range, and plum (bai, or its alternate reading umé) the least costly menu item.


No doubt calling the cheapest dinner “plum blossom” sounds nicer than the descriptive nami (ordinary), though just how, and when, this practice of euphemistic naming began for menus is not entirely clear.


Why is pine ranked at top, and plum at the bottom? Again, there is no definitive explanation, though the linguistic ease of pronouncing shō chiku bai may be a contributing factor. That, and historic precedence likely plays a part in the pecking order: pine has appeared as an auspicious motif in many Japanese works of art and literature since the Heian period (794 to 1185 AD), bamboo since the Muromachi (1392-1568 AD) and plum, the relative newcomer, since the Edo period (1603 to 1868 AD).


To help you bring a multi-cultural, seasonal sensibility to your table, visit my KITCHEN CULTURE page where I provide instructions for making edible decorations, one each for our three friends. ENJOY!!!


At KANSHAcooking you'll findinstructions for making Japan's ubiquitous New Year's soup:






At KIBOcooking you'll find instructions for making:









Additional Articles by Elizabeth Andoh

Autumnal Table
A Fish called Sanma

Elizabeth Andoh lectures internationally on Japanese food and culture and directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program based in Tokyo, Japan.