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Okinawa: Japan's exotic southern islands

October 31, 2016

The food of Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, is distinctly different from that in other parts of the country. This is not really surprising, given the climate, geography and history of these subtropical islands. The air is warm and humid, the vegetation is lush, and you are never far from the azure waters and coral reefs of the surrounding ocean.

Closer to the Asian mainland than to the Japanese heartland, the Okinawa islands used to be an independent kingdom known as the Ryukyus, which flourished thanks to their position on the trade routes linking Japan with China, the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia. Inevitably, it was colored by influences from outside, such as in its architecture, and the bright colors of the traditional clothing. But nowhere are they more evident than in the food markets, restaurants and people's dining tables.

Okinawa's “belly”

To understand the food culture of Okinawa, no visit is complete without looking around Makishi Market in downtown Naha, the prefectural capital.
Inside this bustling warren of covered alleys, the full array of local food products are on display. Along with the sun-dried sea slugs, dusty medicinal herbs and jars of clear liquor containing venomous snakes, there you find fruit and vegetables that you seldom see elsewhere in Japan, such as dragon fruit, turmeric, sponge gourds and loofahs.

Seafood vendors offer a wide variety of fish, many so colorful that they would be displayed in aquariums in other parts of the country. There are also stacks of seaweed, including the variety known as umi-budo (literally "sea grapes"). A favorite snack at Okinawan restaurants and sushi counters in Tokyo and beyond, they take their name from their unusual appearance, resembling delicate strands of miniature jade-green grapes.

In the produce section, sugar cane will be stacked up alongside mangoes, bananas, papayas and pineapples. There will be mounds of yams and sweet potatoes, which have long been eaten as a staple food on the islands, as there is little land for rice growing. Among the most unusual are the red beni-imo and vivid purple murasaki-imo varieties, both of which are considered particularly healthful. Look out too for the small native limes, known as shikuwasa, which are used not only in cooking but to add their tart citrus tang to soft drinks and cocktails.

Nose-to-tail and ear-to-trotter cooking

There is also a section devoted to butchers' stalls. Although meat eating was considered taboo in the rest of Japan until the late 19th century and rarely features in traditional cuisine, pork -- and to a lesser extent goat -- has long played a key role in the Okinawan diet. Many households used to rear their own pigs, the same kind of pot-bellied black swine found throughout eastern Asia. Because their meat was such an essential source of nutrition, the frugal islanders developed ways of using the whole animal, without wasting any of it, from the ears down to the trotters. “Every part of the pig is eaten except the oink,” as the local expression goes.

The supreme specialty is rafute, cubes of glazed pork belly that have been simmered in a dashi stock until they become meltingly soft. Because much of the fat is skimmed off and discarded during the cooking process, the meat is rich and satisfying but still light on the palate. Other less glamorous preparations include mimiga, slivers of soft-cooked pig's ear served in a vinegar and sesame seed sauce; and ashi tebichi, a stew made from trotters and seasonal vegetables, which are cooked down slowly for a day or more.

Outside influences

China's influence on the diet extends well beyond eating meat. It is also evident in ubiquitous noodles. Known as Okinawa soba, they are made from wheat (not buckwheat) and served in a hot, savory broth prepared from pork, kombu seaweed and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Toppings include slices of kamaboko (fish cake) and a substantial serving of meat, as well as garnishes of chopped negi (scallion) and slivers of beni shoga (bright red pickled ginger). A popular version of this known is soki soba, using boneless pork rib in place of the fattier belly meat.

Okinawa also has its own style of tofu, which is much denser and firmer than the way it is made in the Japanese mainland. Known as shima-dofu ("island tofu"), it is the key ingredient in chanpuru, one of the most representative dishes of these islands. The tofu is stir-fried with egg, morsels of pork or luncheon meat, bean sprouts and a variety of vegetables.

The classic form of chanpuru is made with goya (bitter melon). This long, dark-green curcubit has a distinctive knobbly skin and a very sharp flavor. In the hot, humid climate, the refreshingly bitter taste of goya chanpuru is so popular it is often referred to Okinawa's "national” dish. The word chanpuru ("mixed") itself is an import from the Malay language, and is often used to describe Okinawa's hybrid but unique culture.

Delicacies and spices

A typical Okinawan meal is likely to include numerous side dishes. One that is considered a particular delicacy is tofuyo. These small, spicy, pungent cubes of tofu have been fermented with red koji mold and awamori, the potent rice-based liquor of the islands, and are a favorite snack to nibble on while drinking.

Far more benign and easy to enjoy is jimami-dofu, cubes of firm, white, peanut-flavored custard resembling tofu, which are usually dressed with a sweetened soy-based sauce. This was a traditionally starter in the refined cuisine of the Ryukyu court.

Long life culture

Even in Japan, a nation known for its high levels of life expectancy, the people of Okinawa have a strong reputation for being long-lived. This is widely attributed to the traditional food culture of the islands, along with factors such as the unspoiled natural environment, laid-back lifestyle and strong social support networks.

In the past, the typical diet was very frugal. Staple foods such as sweet potatoes contain significant amounts of fiber and low levels of fat, as do vegetables, seaweed, fish, and tofu. Little meat was eaten and when it was cooked, the fat was generally boiled off.

Another key component is the Japanese concept of hara hachibu, the idea that people should eat until their stomachs are 80 percent full, rather than to satiety.

A number of studies have found evidence of a genuine link between the Okinawan diet and longevity, so long may you enjoy exploring this exciting world of flavors!

Text: Robbie Swinnerton

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