Dining on Japan’s Okinawa Islands is an adventure at every turn. East meets West to create an eclectic regional cuisine that surprises and excites.
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21 Apr 2014 - 10:18 PM  UPDATED 8 Jun 2014 - 4:08 PM

Imagine a restaurant serving a fusion of island foods with Japanese, Chinese, South-East Asian and American cuisines. Now what if I told you that some of the dishes were inspired by US army rations? And what if the specialist ingredients were pigs’ feet, bright purple potatoes, seaweed, canned Spam, and a vegetable famed for being intensely bitter? You’d likely be out the door before a menu even hit the table.

Taking a narrow view, Okinawa’s credentials as a cuisine destination might seem a little dubious. But if you check your food prejudices at the door, the fact remains Okinawa (a chain of Japanese islands, the largest of which is Okinawa Island) has one of the most exciting and vibrant regional cuisines in Japan today, and indeed the world.

I’ve been coming to Okinawa regularly for more than a decade now – most recently to shoot my new SBS ONE series, Destination Flavour Japan – and every time I come back, there is something new to eat, explore and experience.

Although some aspects of Okinawan cuisine may be shocking, it boasts an impressive range of food adventures. There’s awamori, arguably the oldest distilled beverage produced in the world today, a culture of smallholding where organic farming has persisted for generations, and dishes as exciting as any you’ll find. There are exquisite heirloom fruits and vegetables unique to the islands, free-range local Agu pork and Ishigaki beef of exceptional quality, and the island’s ‘black’ sugar is one of my favourite ingredients.

Okinawan food has been in a constant state of flux for centuries, and it’s still changing at an impressive rate. These days, the local foods share the stage with American-style burgers, drive-throughs and ice-cream parlours – relics from the US occupation that followed World War II. But this is not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve had some of the best burgers of my life in Okinawa, and the signature sugar cane ice-cream from the local Blue Seal chain is magnificent.

That centuries of history can sit so comfortably together with modern influences is testament to Okinawa’s culinary maturity. It’s ‘original cool’, a bit like seeing your grandma wearing sunglasses.

‘Fusion’ gets a bad rap in contemporary food discourse, and often justifiably so. A lot of fusion cuisine is populated by a depressing bastardisation of dishes where disparate elements are forced together without direction or reason, and where flavours and textures jangle uncomfortably with each other like sharp keys in a pocket.

But although the clash of cultures can produce unfortunate results in the wrong hands, there can be no doubt that when cuisines come together in the right way, extraordinary food experiences can be created. Dishes across Asia, such as ramen, Hainanese chicken rice, banh mi, and even tempura are all the results of fusion that have stood the test of time. They’re still around today, not because they’re creative or necessarily very clever, but because they just taste great.

In Okinawa, that’s the way they've been doing it for centuries.

At the start of recorded history, the islands of Okinawa existed as the autonomous Ryukyu Kingdom, a prosperous trading hub for ships from all around Asia. It had tributary relationships with China and Japan since the 15th century, and was officially annexed by Japan in 1879. After World War II, Okinawa was under US administration for 27 years before being returned to Japan in 1972. This long geopolitical history is clearly reflected in Okinawan food today.

Spend an evening at an Okinawan izakaya (a casual restaurant) and, along with the raucous atmosphere, lively music from the sanshin (similar to a banjo) and free-flowing Orion beer, you can expect a history lesson right at the end of your chopsticks.

Okinawa’s most iconic dish, goya champuru, is a simple stir-fry of goya (also known as bitter gourd), tofu, eggs and – believe it or not – Spam. Spam came to Okinawa as part of a wave of American influences after the Second World War, but the islanders took to it as their own. Whether in goya champuru, fried in slabs with eggs (for dinner, no less) or even as a topping for sushi, Spam can be found in one form or another in almost every restaurant, cafe and convenience store across Okinawa.

The Spam may seem like an odd addition to those new to Okinawan food, but its inclusion makes goya champuru quintessentially Okinawan. Native island bitter gourd meets Chinese technique, Japanese tofu and bonito and American Spam. Even the name of the dish itself is significant, echoing Okinawa’s trade relationship with Java that goes back more than 1000 years (the word champuru is a modification of campur, Javanese for ‘mix’). Goya champuru can always be made with slices of pork, but food snobs who turn up their noses at the idea of eating Spam will miss the true taste of Okinawa, and a truly delicious dish to boot.

Another of my favourite Okinawan dishes is rafute – pork belly simmered until meltingly tender in a mix of soy, awamori and kokuto. Kokuto is Okinawa’s intriguing ‘black’ sugar, which adds a complex sweetness that sets rafute well apart from its sugary cousins, such as China’s dong po or Japan’s kakuni (both braised pork belly dishes).

The real magic of the Okinawan izakaya experience is as much in the texture of the dishes as it is in the flavour. Gelatinous rafute contrasts against crispy and bitter chips of goya, creamy peanut tofu, crunchy mimiga (slices of pig ear cartilage) and umi budo, or sea grapes, a caviar-like seaweed with sacs that burst in your mouth as you eat them. There are also crisp croquettes that hold a velvety smooth centre of bright purple island potatoes, refreshingly sharp pickles made from shoots of island onions, and chewy Okinawan wheat noodles fried with vegetables and dressed with koregusu, a spicy condiment of awamori liquor infused with fiery red chilies.

For the sweet-toothed, things are just as interesting. Eaten as they are, lumps of kokuto are a popular snack with rich caramel and molasses flavours, but I like the sugar best when it’s combined into sweets like sata andagi – dense, deep-fried doughnut balls that are crisp on the outside and moist and chewy in the centre. At one izakaya, I tried beni imo mochi, a steamed sticky rice dumpling made from the island’s vibrant purple potatoes and wrapped in shell ginger leaves. The leaves impart the mochi with an enticing herbal and medicinal aroma.

Izakayas tend to serve the glamour dishes of Okinawan cuisine, and although these foods are Okinawan through and through, home cooking in Okinawan families is often a little different.

On my most recent trip to Okinawa, I visited Izena island, a two-hour drive and one-hour ferry from Okinawa’s capital of Naha. Despite its relative proximity to Naha, it’s just difficult enough to get to in order to keep it off the main tourist trail. With no big resorts and no airport, this place embodies the traditional Okinawan way of life.

The local population on Izena farm small plots of land, fish and gather seaweed and other seafood at low tide, and they’ve been doing it for a long time; the average age on the island is in the high 60s.

The advanced age of the people on Izena is not just a function of a reduced number of young people – in fact, Izena very recently had the highest birth rate in all of Japan – it’s also because the oldies just tend to stick around for a lot longer. Okinawans have historically been the longest-lived people on the planet.

On Izena, I had a chance to sit with some of the locals, to cook some food and find out a bit of what Okinawan life is actually all about. I say ‘sit’, but the reality of island life is that there really isn’t very much sitting done.

Fumiko Higa is a very young 83, and when I met her she was up tending her garden as she does every morning. She farms a range of organic vegetables, including Okinawan goya. We harvested a few vegetables for dinner and, at low tide, she took me foraging, scrambling over the rocks and corals at a pace that I must confess left me a little breathless. We gathered aosa, a light-green sea lettuce, and homi, a type of small soft-shelled mollusc similar to a sea slug, which is only eaten on Izena.

Every evening at 6pm Fumiko heads off for her daily gateball game. Gateball is a sport quite similar to croquet, and the locals are completely mad for it in Okinawa. For a tiny island, Izena boasts six separate gateball clubs, and the teams play every night of the year if the weather permits. Once a month is the intra-island tournament, and it’s as competitive as it comes. The sight of six teams of octogenarians battling tooth and nail for sporting supremacy is definitely not to be missed.

Even after gateball the dinner table is an active affair. Fumiko and I cooked goya champuru from her organic goya (yes, with Spam, too), fried the homi with garlic chives and miso, and made a simple clear soup from the sea lettuce. Almost as soon as the first cup of awamori was poured, dinner erupted with the sanshin playing and spontaneous singing and dancing. In Okinawa, age is no barrier to a good party.

Increasingly, tourism operators in Okinawa have learned that, rather than glitzy resorts of the kind you might find in any tropical location anywhere in the world, Okinawa’s true charm is its unique character. The glitz is still there, but these days it’s offering visitors a version of the relaxed but active lifestyle locals like Fumiko live every day.

The stunning Hoshinoya resort on Taketomi island has all the modern conveniences you might expect, apart from TVs. And its individual villas mimic the open-plan architecture common on the smaller Okinawan islands. The food is simple and local – grilled fish, steamed organic vegetables, island pork, and light seaweed soups, such as the aosa soup Fumiko and I had made on Izena. Living this simply doesn’t come cheap, but it’s one of the most relaxing breaks I’ve ever been on. Business is good, but it’s not just the tourists that are drawn to island life. 

The allure of a less complicated lifestyle in the sun is driving a gourmet renaissance on Okinawa. An increasing number of restaurateurs, baristas and cooks from the mainland are starting to call Naha home, attracted by the low cost of living and island lifestyle. And this trend is feeding a burgeoning cafe scene. There’s even a bakery that delivers freshly baked, crusty French-style loaves along the beach by donkey every morning (or, at least it did, until the donkey was retired due to old age).

Many of these new Okinawan cafes serve Okinawan classics, such as soki soba or taco rice. The former is a delicious dish of noodles with braised pork ribs, and the latter is just as the name sounds – mince cooked with taco seasoning and served with shredded lettuce, tomato and American cheese over rice. It was originally devised as a way to make use of surplus taco seasoning that came from the many US military bases on Okinawa but, as with Spam, it’s proven to be a runaway hit with the locals.

Decades-old establishments, such as the popular King Tacos in Kin-cho, serve a conventional (and truly delicious) version of this local delicacy, but many of the new kids in town are adding their own twists. I’ve seen versions of taco rice served as gratins with béchamel and French cheeses, some with pulled brisket in place of mince, and even tricked-up versions using dried shrimp, roasted seaweed and ancient grains.

However, innovation and creativity is not just left to the new blood in town. Over at the Miyazato Shuzo distillery, Toru Miyazato is an Okinawan local doing amazing things with the local hooch: awamori. As a distilled beverage awamori is ancient, and its written history even predates that of whisky.

Owing more to Okinawa’s South-East Asian ties than to Japan, awamori is traditionally made from indica rice from Thailand inoculated with Okinawa’s indigenous black koji mold. Awamori’s single-pot distillation provides a wide and volatile range of flavours for a skilled distiller like Toru to play with – and the stuff he’s coming up with would put Willy Wonka to shame.

When I visited the distillery, I had the chance to try one of Toru’s unreleased experiments – a fiercely powerful example that changes as you sip it. The first sip of a small glass of this as-yet unnamed tincture starts off fiery, radishy and vegetal, the second has warmed just slightly and breathed in the Okinawan air, producing a warm note reminiscent of toasted bread. The third and final sip has warmed me further and has the unmistakable aroma of chocolate.

Change is always a controversial topic when it comes to food. The way we eat is unbreakably linked to our culture, and we tend to like our cultures to stay just the way they are. Some even say that the changes happening in Okinawa, in particular the American influence of the past few decades, are somehow spoiling Okinawa’s food culture. But, for me, it’s all just another chapter in the story of one of the world’s most intriguing cuisines, and one that’s becoming more and more fascinating with every day.

 

The hit list

Naha
Eat
Person of Uchina
2F 3-2-63 Kadena Building, Makishi, Naha-shi, Okinawa-ken, +81 98 861 3759.

Gordie’s
100–530 Sunabe, Chatan-cho, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa-ken, +81 98 926 0234.

King Tacos
4244-4 Kin, Kunigami-son, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa-ken,+81 90 1947 1684.

 

Visit
Makishi Public Market
2-10-1 Matsuo, Naha-shi, Okinawa-ken, +81 98 867 6560.

Churaumi Aquarium
424 Ishikawa, Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa-ken, +81 98 48 3748.

 

Taketomi

Stay
Hoshinoya
372 Taketomi, Taketomi-cho, Yaeyama-gun, Okinawa-ken, +81 50 3786 0066.

 

Eat
Takenoko
101-1 Taketomi, Taketomi-machi, Yaeyama-gun, Okinawa-ken, +81 98 85 2251.

 

Photographer Tom Donald 

 

As seen in Feast magazine, November 2013, Issue 26. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.