6. The Noodles
Okinawa, the southernmost island chain of Japan – previously known as the self-ruled Ryukyu Kingdom before incorporated into modern Japan – is reportedly where most centenarians live in the world. The secret to the longevity of Okinawan grannies and grandpas seems to be their traditional diet, which consists of a good balance of grains, vegetables, kelps, tofu, seafood, and meat.
However, when tourists visit a traditional Okinawan restaurant, they will probably see more pork dishes than ‘healthy’ seafood dish, more deep-fried or stir-fried food than a light meal. They will also notice that American food culture—fast food chains, steakhouses and ice cream stands—is visible everywhere on the street.
It’s tempting to link the above observation with the global phenomenon of food westernization, but it’s not quite the whole picture. In fact, traditionally, Okinawan have favored pork over seafood due to Chinese influence. And the predominance of deep-fried dishes is only a pragmatic choice to preserve raw food under semi-tropical climate.
I am not denying the healthfulness of Okinawan diet, merely to point out that it’s much richer and diverse than it is imagined by outsiders. Okinawan grandpas and grannies are not supermodels on a strict diet plan; they enjoy superfood such as Goya (bitter melon) as well as deep-fried Okinawan donuts. Their longevity has a compound cause—a good balance of diet, healthful habits and being part of the meaningful social relationship—rather than merely sticking to the low-fat diet.
1. Historical backgrounds
For those of you who are not familiar with Okinawan history, here is a quick update: The Ryukyu Kingdom was formed after the unification of political entities in mainland Okinawa in 1429 (but outlying islands such as Yaeyama islands and Miyako Islands were not integrated until early 16th century).
Seeking recognition of his authority, the Ryukyu king sent ambassadors to pay respect to Chinese emperor and to become a tributary state of China. Ryukyu had since developed a diplomatic and economic relationship with China, sending and receiving a large number of tribute ships and ambassadors annually. Every trip could involve 400-500 ships and more than 4000 personnel. To please her guests, Ryukyu sent chefs to China to learn the cooking and imported livestock such as pigs, goats, and vegetables back home. One of the most important introductions from China is the extremely easy-to-grow imo (sweet potato), which saved thousands from malnutrition and contributed to population growth.
Such tie with China did not end even after the Satsuma Domain (modern-day Kagoshima, Japan) invaded Shuri, the capital of Ryukyu Kingdom in 1609 to profit from its trade with China and other Asian countries. It was an awkward position for Ryukyu, as she had to hide the fact of Japanese control to avoid offending China. However, as a small kingdom surrounded by two super powers, Ryukyu had no other choice but to adapt to this complexity. As the Japanese government decided to abolish Ryukyu kingdom and incorporated it as one of the prefectures of modern Meiji state, the aristocrats were deprived of their privileges. As a result, the food culture of Shuri court was spread to commoners.
During the Pacific war, Okinawa served as the main battlefield of Japan, more than 25% of her civilians died during the war. After the Japanese defeat, Okinawa (including Miyako and Yaeyama islands) was placed under US control until 1972. The ravages of war left deep scars on Okinawa and almost one-fifth of Okinawa mainland were expropriated for military use, many Okinawan whose land was “purchased” for little compensation had to make a living either by relying on the military base or moving to other parts of Japan, some even immigrate to South America to start a new life. To solve post-war food shortage, the US army import foodstuffs such as canned meat.
Even until today, you can still see canned food such as the Okinawan favorite –SPAM on the racks of the supermarket. Restaurant and bar owners also had to accommodate to the diet of American soldiers—hamburgers, fries, shakes, and steaks made their entry to Okinawa. Famous local cuisine such as Taco rice (a combination of Taco fillings, Salsa sauce, and rice) was also born out of such cultural interaction.
2. The Chinese influence
Okinawan cuisine today is a unique combination of Chinese, Japanese, Western and local culinary traditions. Chinese influence is especially evident – the predominance of stir-fried dishes (chanpuru, literally means to mix and fry) and red meat such as pork and goat (yagi). While the red meat was considered ‘filthy’ in Edo Japan and only became popular until about a hundred years ago, Okinawan had introduced pork into their diet for over three centuries. Okinawa’s classic recipes – Rafute (pork belly simmered in soy sauce and awamori), Tebichi (stewed Trotter), Mimiga (thinly sliced pig ears, usually mixed with sesame sauce), Souki-jiru (spare rib soup) and Nakami-jiru (soup with pork intestines) – utilize every part of pig ‘except for the noise they make’. Even lard is carefully kept in pottery pot and used in cooking.
Another surprising fact about traditional Okinawan food culture is its lack of seafood repertoire. Compared with the sophisticated fish dishes in Japanese cuisine, Okinawan tend to deal with seafood by deep-frying them (that explains why you will see a lot of tempura on the Izakaya menu), grinding the fish flesh to make Kamaboko (fish cake) or simply dropping seafood into soup (miso-based or in clear broth of laver). Nowadays you may see a lot of Sashimi (sliced raw fish) on any restaurant menu, but traditionally Okinawan did not favor sashimi as her semi-tropical climate makes food preservation difficult.
Another reason, as a local friend told me, is that fishes brought by the warm currents of Kuroshio usually contain less fat, and are considered less savory. It is only natural that the Okinawan prefer ‘heavier’ cooking method to add flavors to the fish. Whether that is true perhaps depends on one’s preference, for me myself enjoy the milder taste of Okinawan fish as much as oil-loaded fish from a colder region. Apart from deep-frying, housewives in Okinawan also simmer fish with Awamori (distilled liquor made from fermented Thai rice) to make Ma-su-ni.
3. Okinawan regional liquor: Awamori
This popular regional distilled liquor is made from Thai rice, which is fermented with black yeast. It’s usually high in alcohol (30-40%), therefore it is often drunk with water and ice. Awamori stored in pottery vase for more than three years could be labeled as Koshu (aged Awamori). The slow exposure to air allows more rich and complicated flavor to develop, and it softens the stringent taste of alcohol. Awamori is also an indispensable part of Okinawan cooking, especially in the simmered dish such as Rafute (stewed pork belly). Before Meiji era, the Shuli court had the exclusive right of Awamori, which could not be made or traded by commoners. Luckily the secret of Awamori-making gradually spread throughout the island chains, creating a rich variety of awamori brands with distinctive taste and aroma.
4. Okinawan home-cooking
chanpuru basically means stir-frying various ingredients such as vegetables, pork, tofu and gluten wheat in a wok. For instance, the signature dish goya chanpuru means stir-fried bitter melon “Goya”, and Tofu chanpuru means stir-fried tofu (usually with some other ingredient). This word is also used to signify the diversity of Okinawan culture; you’ll hear people describing Okinawa as “Chanpuru-bunka” (a ‘mixed culture’).
Irichi , a moister version of stir-frying, is also a popular home cooking method. Kubu-irichi is made from thinly sliced pork and kelp, stir-fried until bonito soup stock is fully absorbed. Papaya-irichi (Stir-fried papaya) is also common when the green papaya is in the season.
Although less well-known than chanpuru dishes outside Okinawa, Unbushi dish such as Na-be-ra Unbushi (sponge gourd that is first stir-fried and then simmered with miso and bonito stock) is popular at home for its tender taste and nutritious values.
5. Food is the best medicine
Living on an island where the medical resource was scarce, Okinawan hold the belief that “food is the best medicine”, and this idea still runs deep today. Local vegetables and herbs are known for their health benefits and are skillfully incorporated into the everyday diet. Healthy ingredients such as Shima Tofu (Island Tofu) is also used extensively. It’s conventionally made from freshly squeezed soya milk, soaked with sea water and finally pressed hard for hours to be solidified. Compared with standard Tofu sold in mainland Japan, it has a rich and creamy soya-flavor, firm structure and slight saltiness from the sea. You can even get tepid warm tofu that’s just out from the factory at the local market.
We also got to mention the soul of Okinawan cooking – the brown sugar. Sugar-production had been one of the three pillars of the Okinawan economy until recently when imports of cheaper brown rice from overseas dominate the market. The world’s highest quality brown sugar is still produced in Okinawa for domestic use. It’s the hidden flavor behind all most all the stewed delicacies and indispensable ingredient for Okinawan desserts. More recently, they are also used to produce Okinawan rum. Factories based on different islands produced brown sugar with distinctive aromas.
6. Wait…what about the noodles?
The Okinawan counterpart of Ramen is called Okinawa Soba, which is a more recent food phenomenon. The soup of which is usually pork-based or bonito-based (or a mixture of both), and the noodle is usually thicker and chewier than Japanese Ramen. The term Soba may be misleading because it means buckwheat noodle in other parts of Japan; however, in Okinawa, it simply means plain noodle made from wheat. Toppings include thinly sliced Kamaboko (cake made from fish paste) and simmered pork belly slices (Okinawa soba) or simmered spareribs (so-ki soba). The Yaeyama variation, the Yaeyama soba, is said to be lighter in taste (as Yaeyama people prefer bonito-based soup) and the noodles are thick and rounded. You can find bottles of Ko-re-gu-su (Awamori with island chili dipped in it) and Pi-pa-tsu (island pepper) in any noodle place to add extra pungency to your noodle.
7. The secret of longevity
Some features of Okinawan cuisine that don’t seem so healthy as advertised, so how are we going to explain the correlation between their diet and longevity? Take pork, for example, isn’t red meat notorious for its saturated fat? There are two explanations to this: first, back in the days of Ryukyu kingdom, for common people, pork (and other red meat) was considered a luxury, which was consumed only on festivals and special occasions. Even after modernization, when pork had become readily available for households, the portion of red meat eaten by older generation Okinawan (aged 65 years and over) is still less than that of their western counterpart. Second, pork is usually stewed for many hours, during which around 30-40% of the fat fell off, leaving only protein and collagen. As a local friend told me, authentic Rafute will not taste greasy at all, the skin will be soft and elastic, could be easily parted by chopsticks.
On the other hand, pork is consumed with plenty of local vegetables, kelp, and tofu which constitute a balanced diet. For commoners, the main source of carbohydrates does not come from rice, as a large percentage of the rice grown was to be paid as tax to the Shuri court. Imo (or sweet potato in its original form) was their staple foods, sometimes steamed and eaten by itself, or mixed with rice porridge. They also consume foxtail rice, wheat, beans, which provides a nice combination of grains.
However, in recent years, the western influence on the Okinawan diet is also becoming apparent. Due to postwar American military occupation (ended in 1972), Okinawa was one of the earliest places in Japan to have fast food chain. The Younger generation has been enjoying a hybrid of westernized food, Japanese food, and traditional cuisine, the effect of which is also shown in their deteriorating health indexes. On the other hand, after Okinawa’s returned to Japan in 1972, more people (mostly from mainland Japan) began to realize the benefit of Okinawan traditional diet and a national boom for Okinawan culture.
Okinawa is part of Japan but it is not Japan and the food culture of the island of longevity is more than tofu, seaweeds, and fish. From the era of Ryukyu kingdom, Okinawa has been actively engaging in trades with China, enriching its indigenous island food culture. And it kept evolving throughout the modern era, blending the culinary tradition of aristocrats and civilians, receiving influence from mainland Japan and later from the US. Their approach to food may seem straightforward, but the wisdom behind their food passed down from their ancestors should not be overlooked. Simple and hearty, that’s my impression of authentic Okinawan cuisine.