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Okinawa cuisine is worth every bite

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-01-12

The new year is here, and high on that list of resolutions was one to “try some of Okinawa’s native dishes.”

Right up front, set yourself at ease. It isn’t going to be a traumatic experience where you’ll have to eat beetles or lizards or monkey brains.

Okinawan food is downright delicious.

Okinawa’s reputation for having the longest life spans of any people in Japan is attributed to many things, including the temperate climate here in the southernmost prefecture. More to the center, though, are the combination of Okinawan mindset and diet. An almost stoic acceptance of what life brings, blended with a belief that food is ‘kusiumun’, medicine, leads to the belief that food is ‘nuchigusui’, healthy for life.

Okinawan food is not Japanese food. Aside from embracing rice as a staple, local food is totally different. The Ryukyu Kingdom, the forbearer to Okinawa the Japanese prefecture, picked up much of its culinary styles and techniques from China, as well as other Asian trading nations that included Thailand and Korea.

Pork is the cornerstone in Okinawa cuisine, much as beef is with Americans. It’s been around since the Chinese introduced it in the 14th century, and Okinawans use every single part of the animal in their cooking. Pork’s abundance of vitamin B1, which purges the body of proteins and cholesterol, is attributed to the long life syndrome achieved by Okinawans.

The pork is slow cooked to achieve tenderness and to eliminate fat. Two dishes easily accepted by the western palate are rafute, pork marinated and then cooked in a brown sugar and soy sauce, and soki, a spare ribs dish cooked with soba noodles with seaweed and soup. A couple other pork dishes loved by Okinawans, but which will take the proverbial leap of faith to try, are tebichi and mimiga. Mimiga is pig’s ear, sliced into slender strips and eaten as a snack or a salad. The true delicacy is tebichi, a unique dish with pigs feet being boiled for a long, long time, then slow cooked over a low heat. They’re actually quite good, and very tender.

Vegetables are a staple in Okinawa cooking. There are some which are not part of western cooking styles, such as mugwort, a medicinal herb, and goya, a bitter melon. Goya is chock filled with vitamin C, and is terribly bitter when eaten raw. You’ll find it cooked and served here with scrambled eggs or tuna, giving it a more refined taste.

Sauteed dishes often integrate goya, as well as tofu an noodles. Champuru is the name for a tofu stir-fried with vegetables. Add somen, a noodle, and somen champuru is a popular dish that includes leeks as well. Noodles are a mainstay of local cooking, served with everything from sanmai-niku, the port we’ve been talking about, with noodles both on the plate and in a soup.

Okinawa noodles are made with wheat flour.

Fish ranks alongside pork as the most popular dishes, with chicken coming in third. Okinawa’s fishing fleets bring a vast variety of fish to islands’ dinner tables. A visit to the Makishi Kousetsu Market, in the Heiwa Dori area of downtown Naha, is an eye opening experience. Be sure to take your camera, because it’s an odds-on bet you’ve never before seen so many different fish, not to mention other foods. There’s even a set of restaurants on the market’s second floor where you can take your fresh purchases for an immediate meal.

There’s more to Okinawa cuisine than the everyday dishes. The royal court of yesteryear is preserved by the Okinawan people, and many of the traditional royal dishes are served today. Some, such as boiled salted pork, suchikaa, sea grapes, tofuyo, a cultured tofu, sukugarasu, tofu with salted fish, and kuubu-irichii, a fried kelp, aren’t too much of a gastronomic leap.

On the other hand…..there are some dishes you’ll have to take on a leap of faith. Nakami soup, made from cow entrails, yagijiru, goat stew, and irabu-jiru, sea snake soup, are a little different for the western palate.

So is inamuduchi, an Okinawa soup made with miso, a bean paste, vegetables and pork entrails. We’d add here that miso is more than okay; it’s the other ingredients that give some cause for thought.

Seaweeds are imported from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and fit well with many local dishes. Different, we’ll concede, but nutritious and tasty too.

The questions then are “what should we try?” and “what should we do if we don’t like it?” The answer to the first is to try everything. The second will come far less often, and a simple discrete movement with a formerlyconcealed handkerchief will make the offending morsel disappear. You’ll be surprised how delicious Okinawan foods are, and will be anxious to go back for more.

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