: Classifieds : MyJU :
Stories: Gourmet
Browse Gourmet Stories: « Previous Story | Next Story »

A taste of America spices up Okinawan cuisine

By: Helen Betts

Date Posted: 2002-01-31

So you’ve been on Okinawa for a while; you’ve gotten out and sampled the island’s delicious cuisine; you think you know the dishes available here pretty well. Or do you? Here’s a quick quiz to test your knowledge: What delicacy is eaten island-wide; is served up in a myriad of creative combinations; is not only tastily but healthily prepared; is found in expensive gift packs at New Year’s as well as at every obento shop; has a proud tradition spanning almost 60 years on island; is viewed as economical and convenient as well as a comfort food; and serves to strengthen Okinawa’s uniqueness from the rest of Japan? Give up? It’s SPAM, that good old American staple that most of us were introduced to in our childhood.

Known simply as “pouku” (pork), SPAM was first brought to Okinawa at the end of World War II by the U.S. military forces administering the islands. With the countryside in a shambles and no means of producing or preserving food, the U.S. military distributed canned goods, including pork, powdered eggs and milk, to the islanders, helping them survive the dire shortages ravaging the islands. The inhabitants also obtained canned food that was periodically discarded by the bases, and those lucky enough to secure employment with the military sometimes opted to take food in lieu of cash as compensation. The long shelf life of the canned meat in particular suited the hot subtropical climate here, and even after the immediate effects of the war had subsided, canned food continued to be served on Okinawan tables, with an entire generation being raised on it.

These postwar years gave rise to a “canned food culture” that still survives today on Okinawa, and pouku remains one of its most important and visible components. Go to any supermarket or small grocery store on island, and you will see shelf upon shelf solidly stocked with the familiar blue tins bearing the name “SPAM,” along with competitors such as Tulip brand and a plethora of other canned items including Campbell’s Soup, corned beef hash, beef stew and various vegetables.

In fact, pouku has become such an integral part of Okinawan cuisine, islanders can’t seem to exist without it. When the youngsters of today go to mainland Japan for university study, much to their dismay they discover that pouku is nowhere to be found other than at specialty import markets, and then only in pitifully small quantities and at exorbitant prices beyond the limits of a student’s budget. Parents left behind at home are frequently requested to send “care packages,” cartons stuffed with tins of their children’s beloved pouku. In days gone by, just after the war, some youngsters sent to the mainland were even known to have sold their precious caches of pouku, as food and money were scarce even up north, and the peculiar Okinawan delicacy fetched high prices.

Pouku is available everywhere on Okinawa, from the humblest obento stand to the most fashionable restaurants to the kitchens in a majority of homes. However, whereas Americans tend to view SPAM as a staple served as fried slices that can replace fresh meat for dinner, Okinawans regard it as a food enhancer enabling almost endless variations on the canned meat that can be eaten at any time day or night. You’ll find pouku tamago, a “sandwich” of seaweed, rice, scrambled eggs and pouku, for breakfast; pouku onigiri (rice balls) and pouku sandwiches for lunch; pouku with papaya or tougan (a type of gourd) as snacks; and pouku champuru (a mixture of ingredients including goya, carrots and tofu), pouku curry rice, pouku tempura, pouku and rice, miso soup with pouku, and chahan (fried rice) with pouku for dinner, to name just a few. The possibilities are endless, limited only by the creativity of the chef.

But pouku is not only reserved for personal consumption; check out any of the larger department stores in June or at New Year’s, and you’ll find stacks of pouku gift packs ready to be sent on your behalf to business associates, friends and family. Running between ¥2,000-¥3,000 each, the beautifully packaged presents are a nice way to let the recipients know that you are thinking of them over the holidays. These gift packs are anything but just a box full of SPAM; the tins are normally accompanied by other representatives of Okinawa’s canned food culture such as stew, hash or sausages for a bit of variety. Add to that the fact that pouku now comes in “gourmet” flavors, such as smoked, turkey, lite, pre-spiced, pre-cooked and low sodium, and you have no reason not to send the very best.

Pouku has not only become a part of Okinawans’ everyday food, it has become a tradition handed down from generation to generation. But not only have the Okinawans adopted a food that some Americans in their later years hesitate to consume in large quantities due to its considerable fat and sodium content; they have adapted it to their own cuisine, considered to be one of the healthiest in the world. Rather than serve pouku sliced and fried as the main course in a meal, the Okinawans use only small portions of it in any one dish, employing it instead to merely flavor and enhance the food. Thus has SPAM become an integral part of a diet believed to be a major factor in the long lifespan Okinawans are famous for.

Pouku is popular because it’s a comforting “mother’s food,” because it’s economical and easy to stretch, because Okinawans like things American, because they appreciate the taste of canned food, because it’s easy to store and can withstand the hot, humid weather on the island – for any number of reasons. But one intangible aspect of pouku stands out above the rest: Okinawans are justifiably proud of the heritage and distinctive history, language, dance, music, clothing and lifestyle that set them apart from the rest of Japan. Pouku, largely unknown and unavailable on the mainland and an important part of the island’s canned food culture, adds to this uniqueness that makes one proud of being Uchinanchu.

Browse Gourmet Stories: « Previous Story | Next Story »

weather currency health and beauty restaurants Yellowpages JU Blog

JU FacebookOkistyleOkistyle

Go to advertising PDF?||?|o?L?qAE?|?}?OA?N?ga`OkiStyle?A??q?qM?oeu^?I`??N?gX?<eth>?<ETH>?ni^?IWanted!!Golden Kings ScheduleOkiNightSeeker