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Okinawa pays homage to its bitter melon

Date Posted: 2012-05-04

May 8th in Okinawa is celebrated as a day honoring goya (go - five, ya - eight), a well-known and essential ingredient in the Okinawan diet, especially during summer time.

Goya, long a part of Okinawan culture, is a bitter melon, a vegetable that has been attributed to human health and longevity. The vegetable is called 'goya' in Okinawan dialect, while in Japanese it is 'nigauri,' and in English, bitter melon, and that about sums up its taste. It is bitter to the extent that some people find it impossible to eat, and definitely can be called an acquired taste. With its gaudy green appearance and wart-like skin that resembles Gozilla's back, goya might not sit well for many non-Okinawans, including Japanese. Still, it should be experienced at least once.

According to the Okinawa Fruits and Vegetable Growers' Union, Goya accounts for the biggest cash crop in the prefecture. No less than 89.5 tons of this bitter vegetable was sold in the prefecture last year, and although the value of the crop was down from a year before due to a lower price, the goya still tops the statistics in value.

A mature-size goya contains approximately 120mg of Vitamin C, equal to almost three times the amount in a lemon and 260mg of potassium, four times the amount found in green tea. As apples keep the doctor away in the western world, goya keeps the cold away from Okinawans during summer. Even more remarkable about this green veggie, which usually measures up to 20-30 centimeters in length and 4-6 centimeters in diameter, is that its content is believed to not only lower blood pressure but blood sugar levels as well.

Goya is one of the staples in Okinawan diet. Most people eat this vegetable as a stir-fried dish mixed with egg, tofu, other vegetables, slices of pork meat, and almost anything else. The dish is called 'champuru.' Okinawan people say that they cannot stop eating this vegetable just because of its bitter taste. It may take several times before one learns to like the taste, but it is unforgettable. Mixing it with eggs can soften some of the bitterness.

With a bit of Goya-education under the belt, time to check first-hand what’s shaking with this cucumber-like veggie. Events and special offers dedicated to goya run through the day at all local farmers' markets throughout the island.

Goya Day main event of sorts is held at Ichibankan Mall in Okinawa City. The program starts at exactly at 5:08 p.m. (go-ya) with Kozue Chinen’s live street performance of Okinawan folk songs, followed by flutist Misaki Kuba’s Ottimora and Minato The Orchestra performance at 7 p.m. Goya Youth Association members will perform Eisa at 8 p.m. There will be food booths, and as is proper for a Goya Day event, a limited quantity of Goya Champuru is served on first come first served basis during the event.

The Michi-no-Eki Kyoda Yanbaru Product Center in Nago City opens at 10 a.m. Tuesday with a special sale of vegetables and fruits for ¥58. Try the Goya-Okinawan frozen sweets at the parlor, or try a plate of Goya Shampuru at the food court. In nearby Michi-no-Eki So-re Nakijin Village, goya are on sale, and some dishes using goya will be served.

At the Farmer’s Market Itoman Umanchu, ceremonies and events honoring the goya run from 11 a.m. ~ 4 p.m. on Tuesday. At Onna-no-Eki Kakayukui Market, a special goya section’s been set up, offering products, precooked foods and taste testing. The Chubu Farmer’s Market Champuru space in Okinawa City, in cooperation with Chubu Agriculture and Forestry High School, is offering a sale on goya, goya juice taste testing, and goya cup cakes taste testing.

Across the island, shops that carry Okinawa’s proudest cuisine will be touting the goya, and offering sales on Tuesday. Look for the signs, because some will be keeping the goya promotions running the entire month. In fact some, such as Nago City Goya Park, AEON Haebaru Branch, and PR by Oki-Reci, will be offering specials all the way through August 5th.

Ready to sit down and give goya a try. Various restaurants will be featuring specials. Chanya has Genovese pasta with Goya noodles and goya from Yanbaru. Mitsumaru has Fiber Salad Soba and Udon, while Tedutsumi Gyoza is featuring Vegi-Taco Riced with ten kinds of vegetables including goya and goya with shiqwasa juice. Jef Okinawa outlets have the Goya Hamburger and Nuyaru Hamburger. They’ll be offering 50% discounts on May 8th between noon and 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. ~ 8 p.m.

Mino-ya will be offering Goya Champuru, Goya sets and Goya tempura. Nakijin-no-Eki So-re will feature Goya boiled in soy, Goya boiled in miso, Goya sets, and sales on uncooked goya. Soup on has Okinawan Goya in a healthy curry soup. Soup on will carry the curry soup on sale throughout May.

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