An Introduction to Oshibori – The Basics
Oshibori is usually a cloth hospitality towel that is dampened with water, wrung out, and rolled up. It is placed on the dining table on some kind of tray, and is available for customers to wipe their hands before or during the meal. Even if a tray is not used, it will be rolled up and placed next to the chopsticks or plates on the place setting. Guests are expected to use the oshibori to wipe their hands as they settle in and look over the menu or take a moment to pause and relax before proceeding.
These days, many establishments give out oshibori that are made of non-woven cloth or paper, either as standard napkins or rolled or flat in a pre-sealed package. These towels are typically for one-time use and then disposed of. The pre-packaged towels will contain some kind of preservative to prevent the growth of yeast, mold, or bacteria. The agent may likely have a difficult-to-pronounce name but if the business is reputable, the towels they use will contain only a preservative that has been approved as ‘safe’ by an official agency like the the FDA. Here is a list of preservatives often found in moist towelettes. These individually wrapped disposable towels are frequently included with a take-out meals or in meal boxes (bentō)convenience stores.
How Oshibori are Prepared
An oshibori can be moistened with hot water, or placed in a hot cabi towel warmer to slowly steam to a suitable temperature. Restaurants may microwave the towels to get them hot, or pour hot water over them, but usually they use an electric appliance such as a heating cabinet (hot cabi). Alternatively, the towel can be placed damp into a refrigerator to make a cold oshibori suitable for use in summer.
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Derivation of the Word
The word oshibori comes from the Japanese word shiboru (絞る), meaning “to wring”. The o is the honorific prefix. Typically it is written in hiragana (おしぼり) rather than the Chinese-derived kanji (お絞り).
The towels can also be referred to as otefuki; derived from the Japanese te (手) (hand) and fuku (拭く), to wipe. This word, though, more typically refers to a standard handkerchief.
The Origin of Oshibori
The tradition of oshibori in Japan dates back to at least the Edo (江戸時代 Edo jidai) or Tokugawa (徳川時代) Period (1603 – 1868). It has been claimed to originate even further back, to the Muromachi Era (1336 – 1573). Innkeepers would offer travelers a wet cloth as a show of hospitality (and as a way to get the wipe off the ‘travel dust’ before they came inside). Nowadays, these oshibori towels are still offered to customers in bars and restaurants in Japan and in Japanese restaurants worldwide for guests to clean their hands before eating. They are usually offered cold in the summer months and hot in the Winter.
Usage in the West
In Europe and the US, an oshibori towel may known as a Hot Towel, A Moist Towel, a Refreshment Towel, a Towelette, or a Hospitality Towel. In this global era, though, the actual word oshibori is becoming more familiar and acceptable to use in English even outside a Japanese or Asian Restaurant setting, too. Whichever the word, they all refer to the same thing – a ‘Square of Care’ offered to guests to pause and refresh. Towels are now served in a variety of hospitality settings, including hotels, resorts, casinos, spas, service outlets, and other customer care businesses.
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