Food and Travel (UK) - - Gourmet Traveller - PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER CAS­SIDY

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, 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...

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,...

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, 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;...

This page: a guard at Shuri Cas­tle. Op­po­site page: break­fast at Ok­i­nawa Dai­ichi Ho­tel, Naha

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;...

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