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Naha’s Covered Market

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-07-21

The covered market off Kokusai Street in Naha contains a market within a market. Air conditioned and brightly lit, it has stalls selling all sorts of foodstuffs. Most of the stalls are family businesses that have been there for more than one generation.

Typical is the family running a highly specialized vegetable and sea products stall. Their grandfather began the business 50 years ago. They buy from wholesalers in Okinawa who get their products from very widely scattered locations. The young bamboo they sell, displayed like pale spearheads, comes from Taiwan. The several varieties of seaweed on offer originate in Miyazaki while the kelp, bunched in a big tub, comes from far off Hokkaido. Only the Japanese radish was grown on the island.

Lots of those with concessions at the market offer free samples of their produce, as a way of enticing customers to buy. One vendor presses me to taste three different varieties of her edibles before I move away. One is lakio, a shoot like the bulb of a spring onion, dipped in a hot sauce. Another is a sprig of ocean grapes, an expensive and delicious variety of seaweed, with tiny green bubbles on the stem that pop pleasingly when bitten. The other delicacy is a different type of seaweed, mixed with a salty black paste.

There is a huge variety of fish resting on beds of ice, many varieties of snapper and tuna, coming in all sorts of exotic colors: bright red with blue spots, fluorescent turquoise, yellow stripes and some bizarre shapes. Puffer fish blown up and dried decorate some of the stalls and swim around the tanks of others. There are a lot of live fish, crabs and lobsters in tanks in front of the banks of ice. Vendors aid the selection process by taking them out and showing them to customers before they are weighed and packaged.

If in need of a really fresh fish meal, you can take these live fish and crusteaceans up an escalator to a floor above the market where there is a complex of restaurants that will cook them to order. They are open fronted places with their prices and recipes displayed in Japanese fashion on pennants arrayed on the walls. They also cook meals not bought at the market below and there is a large variety of sashimi and sushi on offer, as well as meat dishes.

Pork enthusiasts are well catered for in the market. A seller named Kazuko has pork cuts of every variety and size, as well as trotters, entrails, stomach lining ready cooked and available for tasting, salty crunchy rind, packed into 300 gram packets costing ¥300. These last make very good snacks to go with beer, awamori and sake, or to put in soup, says Kazuko. There are pork masks or detached pigs’ faces, costing ¥400 and also salted and sliced versions of these ready shrink wrapped.

This stall, like the others, is a family business that has been handed down from one generation to the next, begun 40 years ago. It also has an international dimension. Many Okinawans abroad apparently miss food like pork masks, which they cannot buy in their adopted countries. Here Kazuko’s business steps in and fills the gap by supplying these customers over the internet.

One seafood stall, Susumu, gets most of its stock from Australia. They sell large prawns from between ¥2000 and ¥2700, according to size. Their crabs and shellfish however, come from Okinawa.

Elsewhere in the market are enormous lumps of tuna eggs, on sale at ¥500 for 600 grams. There are mounds of home made noodles, sold by the bucketful. There are Kamaboko or fish dumplings the size of large loaves, yellow, white and bright red.

Once out of the door of the food market and once again in the passages of the covered market, with its clothes and curio and cosmetics vendors, there is another shop selling a commodity more exotic than anything seen so far. It specializes in dried black Irabu snakes, stacked like poles in baskets. These are good for rheumatism and healthy urination says a sign. It also gives recipe instructions. The snakes should be cleaned with a brush, cut into lengths of five or six centimeters then boiled in water with kelp for five or six hours. The bone should then be removed and the fleshed boiled again for two or three hours along with pork, fish, chicken, mushrooms or shellfish.

The covered market in Naha has something for everyone and is an interesting place to while away few hours, whether or not you intend to buy anything.

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