The Japanese island of Okinawa has developed a vibrant food culture that nourishes one of the longest-lived populations in the world. Michael Raffael meets some of the people who strive to keep tradition alive
Twin shisa lion-dogs guard the portal of Okinawa’s Shuri Castle. The male, jaws agape, allows good fortune to enter. His partner, mouth shut, stops it from leaving. The emblems recur across the island, on walls, rooftops, shop fronts and outside hotels. These statues – often ferocious, sometimes comical or tongue-incheek – capture the Japanese island’s ambivalent approach to foreign influences. It accepts everything from Chinese black pigs to Spam, then does something quite unexpected with them.
Drifting in the wake of its big sisters Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu, the island trails like a crumpled ribbon south towards Taiwan. From the capital, Naha, Tokyo is just over two hours away by plane; Taipei, 90 minutes. In feudal times it was an independent country with its own way of life and at least four languages. The Ryukyu Kingdom, founded in 1422, later became the vassal state of the Japanese Satsuma clan, but continued until the mid-19th century, when the Meiji government annexed it. After the devastation of the Second World War, the island spent two decades under American administration before the US handed it back to Japan.
Shisas didn’t protect them from the outside world, but Okinawans have set about reinventing an identity for themselves. Crowds flock to the Uruma bullrings, where bulls lock horns sumo-style and muscle each other around until one breaks and runs. Tourists at the coastal resort of Onna clap hands to folk songs accompanied by sanshin, a three-stringed instrument covered in habu viper skin. Bingata textiles, similar to batik, echo the patterns of the royal court. In the capital’s Tsuboya Pottery Street, founded by a Ryukyu king’s decree in 1682, ceramics range from the garish to the exquisite.
Okinawa is both an island and a flotilla of smaller islands, some linked to it by bowed bridges. Others, cut adrift, disappear over the horizon. Around Naha, it’s a higgledy-piggledy jumble of anarchic concrete construction, hugging the monorail line that acts as the city’s spine, or spreading into the folds of narrow rift valleys.
Beyond, it’s a blanket of sub-tropical jungle, punctuated by villages growing sugar, beni-imo (purple sweet potatoes) and rice. Together with seafood, fruit and herbs, these form the basis of the ‘Okinawan diet’. Is it a fashionable food fad or a genuine prescription for longevity? A bit of both, it seems. At Ogimi village, dietician and café owner Emiko Kinjo says that proportionately more people live into their nineties and beyond here than anywhere else in Japan: ‘They plant their own vegetables, harvest, cook and eat them. It’s a virtuous cycle. If you grow your food, it gives you energy.’
The formula, she concedes, is little different from what it was in the past, when peasants were lucky to reach middle age. What has changed is that there’s some animal protein, the regime is better balanced and there’s access to modern medicine. Her 99-year-old, four-foot-nothing friend Taira-san comes by on her tricycle after spending the morning tending her smallholding. She makes a telling point: a few months ago she buried her son. Eating processed food damages health. Children are living less long than their parents.
Kiyoko Yamashiro is a direct descendant of Ryukyu royals. In Kin-cho at Café Garamanjyaku (‘café’ is used as a catch-all word for eating house) she recreates dishes from the kitchens of Shuri Castle. ‘Food,’ she says, ‘was medicinal. Every ingredient the king ate had a meaning, but we’re being Americanised and in danger of losing the good things we have. I want to correct it.’
Nuchigusui, the dish she serves on a ginger leaf in a lacquer bowl, translates as ‘medicine of life’. It’s an intricate synthesis of tastes and textures: plants such a mugwort (a type of Artemisia), Madeira-vine bulbils, fried taro, pumpkin, mozuku seaweed (more of this later), a cube of braised pork, carrots from ‘Carrot Island’, sweet potato, purple spinach, bitter gourd, scallion and tofu; each seasoned separately to bring out its taste. According to Kiyoko, men prepared food for the ruling class but women are better cooks: ‘Your mother is your doctor. Those I cook for are like my children.’
Unrefined cane sugar, sea salt from Nuchiuna (mineral rich with just a hint of sweetness) and miso paste give Okinawan food its characteristic goût du terroir. Architect Arinori Tamanaha’s family has been fermenting the last of these since the reign of Ryukyu King Sho Tai, 170 years ago. His warehouse in
the Shuri district is on a street leading to the castle, along which, in times past, those seeking an audience with the monarch would walk barefoot. Wooden boxes in which Arinori keeps the yellow koji mould used as a starter to ripen rice, barley or soya bean for miso are identical to those that his forebears used. The cedar casks where they ferment before being minced into a paste are as old as the island’s longest-lived inhabitants.
His nephew runs an all-day restaurant in the centre of town. The English ‘manu’ lists assorted specials including ‘Japanese taste ratatouille with bucket’ and a thin-crust miso pizza packed with serious umami flavour. It also offers a taster platter of three rice and two barley misos – up to a year old – with a range of crudités.
Okinawa is about 100km long from top to tail, and less than 10km wide across most of its length. The sea frames the coast with washes of intense colour. At low tide, crushed coral sand lies beneath a varnish of clear water. Further out, it changes to intense aquamarine, then eau de Nil and finally inky blue. Aka, in the Kerama islands (a short ferry ride off the coast) boasts one of the world’s top ten beaches. Scuba divers flipper their way over reefs in search of turtles, boxfish, damselfish and manta rays.
When Makishi Market opens in the morning, fishmongers display the catch – which typically includes red grouper, cobalt parrot fish, octopus, lobster, crab and conches – on their slabs. To order, they fillet, slice and arrange them for sashimi in bamboo boat-shaped dishes, to be eaten at one of the stalls in the upstairs food court. For breakfast, the cook at Chura-Hana splits slender gurukun fusilier fish down both sides of the backbone, dusts them in flour and fries them so crisp that they snap. ‘Eat them from head to tail,’ she advises, ‘because you won’t bite against the bones.’
Meanwhile her neighbour fries the local doughnuts called sata andagi. Depending on how one interprets it, these golden balls made with egg yolks symbolise virility or fertility. She tells us the recipe originated in China. It’s a refrain you’ll hear again and again from Okinawans, whether true or not. Tofuyo (stinky tofu coated in red koji – a type of yeast – and awamori, the local rice alcohol): Chinese; agu black pigs: Chinese; shima rakkyo: Chinese onions; shikuwasa (a kind of citrus fruit): Chinese; purple sweet potatoes: Chinese; Okinawan wheat soba noodles: Chinese.
The islanders have something of a love affair with pork. In the markets, boned pig heads smoked in cherry wood stare out from deli counters. Satomi Izena is head chef of a traditional noodle restaurant, Shimujo. She makes a pork broth to mix with the dashi in which she serves the soba. By adding gelatinous braised pork cartilage the soup becomes soki soba.
‘For breakfast, the cook at Chura-Hana splits slender gurukun fusilier fish down both sides of the backbone, dusts them in flour and fries them so crisp that they snap.’
Over in Naha’s business quarter, the restaurant Nagadoya Omoromachi specialises in shabu-shabu. The name of the dish reflects the sound made by wafting sliced meat or vegetables through simmering water. The waiter presents a plate of carpacciothin agu pork, belly and loin at the table with a bowl of mushrooms and vegetables. Diners then poach these a few pieces at a time.
Before each mouthful, they dip slivers of meat in a ponzu (sauce) of soy and squeezed shikuwasa juice. Emiko describes this fruit, the size of a small clementine, as her favourite superfood. Imported from China 300 years ago, it was first used by Ogimi villagers for preparing cloth woven from banana ‘tree’ bark. Self-seeded, it now grows wild across Okinawa as well as being cultivated. It’s harvested at three different stages of ripeness: in August the green under-ripe fruit is picked for its acidity; from October to December it produces a sour juice; into the new year, once the peel has turned orange, it’s sweet enough to eat as a fruit.
Urizun, in the bar district Sakae-Machi, is a kind of gastropub, Okinawa-style. It’s a Naha institution, serving awamori from all of Okinawa’s 50-odd distillers. The spirit all but died out at the end of the war, the US bombardment of Shuri having flattened the district where the traditional distillers worked. But while the factories were destroyed, the black koji mould essential to fermentation survived.
Awamori, made from Thai rice, isn’t brewed like sake. And like good wine, it improves over time. Families often buy a bottle or crock to celebrate a new birth and store it in caves until the child reaches adulthood. Up to three years old, it’s a raw spirit. It varies
from 30-60% ABV. Beyond that it’s known as kusu. As it ages the raw ‘grappa’ attack fades and it becomes mellow. Pubs such as Urizun sell it in jugs with spouts called karakara; they contain a small ceramic bead that rattles when the contents have emptied.
Urizun’s tapas-style menu comprises delicious little plates to eat while drinking: pork escalope coated in black sesame seeds; sashimi of parrot fish; jimami, a peanut tofu of remarkable softness; goya (bitter gourd) with pig’s ear, and mozuku (spaghetti seaweed).
Farmed or foraged, mozuku is Okinawa’s main cash crop. Cultivated, it grows on mats pegged to the seabed. Farmers work in teams to harvest it: a diver runs a suction tube over them for his partner to hoover them up; a third member of the crew washes and stacks the crop in crates. Off the boat, still coated in brine, it has both crunch and a subtle iodine flavour. Cooks tend to coat it in a mild rice vinegar that turns it into a kind of pickle.
Champaru is the name of an Okinawan tofu-and-egg stir-fry that’s almost a national dish. It literally means ‘mixing influences’, and one could hardly find a better way to describe the island’s food and cooking. It ranges from provincial (in the best possible sense) to refined. More Japanese than Chinese? Of course it is. But it’s not above giving other nations a look-in. Taco rice – a fusion dish not to be confused with Tex-Mex – gives more than a nod to Uncle Sam.
Older Okinawans have a taste for mature goat sashimi. Now civil engineer-turned-farmer Masahide Shinjo sells goat’s yoghurt balls – very popular with children, he says. And English-born John Davis recently started making goat’s cheese here. His Ozato White, with pesto rippling through it like Sage Derby, is an inspired invention, as is his mini-truckle of hard cheese washed in awamori.
In Naha’s shopping hub, Kokusai Street, you’ll see numerous places selling bright purple yam ice cream. It’s the first thing trippers snap to share on social media. Yes, the Okinawan sweet potato is packed full of nutrients. Yes, it looks and tastes good. No, it won’t cure cancer or prevent wrinkles. There is, though, one local proverb that might help: ‘Hara hachi bu’: eat till you are 80 per cent full. Now, that’s pure epicurean wisdom and, yes, it comes from China.
This page, left: fish stalls at Makishi Market. Opposite, clockwise from top left: live seafood at Makishi; jetty at Onna; pick your fish for cooking at Makishi; cruise the Kerama Islands; coast of Aka Island; harvesting mozuku seaweed; bridge to Aka; mozuku beds; fried fish at ChuraHana in Makishi
Clockwise from top: Aka’s Nishihama Beach; shikuwasa fruit; familial Café Soy Labo; Kafu Banta; dining at Café Garamanjyaku; traditional footwear; detail at Café Soy Labo; Hamahiga Bridge; breakfast at Okinawa Daiichi
This page, clockwise from left: Makishi Market; shima rakkyo onions; sample sata andagi doughnuts at the market; Kokusai-dori Street, Naha. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Naha; traditional hats in Ogimi village; old meets new in Naha; sashimi, Makishi Market; a viper snake pickled in awamori at Mizuho Shuzo factory, Naha; anti-litter sign; pork stall; boned pig’s head at Makishi; welcome to Chura-Hana
This page, clockwise from top left: eating out at miso specialist Misomeshiya Marutam; order up; tofu made by Ikeda Shokuhin; Emiko Kinjo with her friend Taira-san, aged 99; Bistro Yamashirogyu specialises in beef; vintage style at Urizun. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: exterior of Misomeshiya Marutama; veggie plates at Soy Labo; shabu-shabu at Nagadoya Omoromachi; find your very own shisa on Pottery Street; piscine delicacy at Emi-no-Mise; tucking in at Urizun; café lantern; tapas-style plates at Urizun; your host for the evening; Naha at dusk
This page, clockwise from left: a feast for the eyes at Café Garamanjyaku; al fresco dining at Shimujo; healthy, delicious fare at Emi-no-Mise. Opposite page, clockwise from top left: pork belly at Shimujo; table essentials; Mizuho Shuzo awamori; Arinori Tamanaha’s miso; teapots from Pottery Street; the perfect souvenir; umi budo (sea grapes); purple sweet potato; goat sashimi is popular; Masahide Shinjo sells goat’s yoghurt balls; style and comfort at the Hyatt Regency; Shimujo’s quaint exterior; awamori bottle; tofuyo (stinky tofu); Shimujo’s Satomi Izena; Hyatt Regency