Kate Crockett describes her foodie adventures in Okinawa.Where the mainland Japanese have fish and rice as their staple diet, Okinawans have traditionally always had pork and sweet potatoes. On these laid-back islands, culinary influences from the Japanese mainland meld with Chinese cooking techniques imported over centuries of trade, and new international influences that together create a vibrant culinary culture known as champuru, which means mixing all sorts of influences together.
The place to get acquainted with the myriad ingredients and dishes in Okinawan cuisine is at the Makishi Public Market in Naha City. Spend a morning wandering around the ground floor sample everything from pigs’ ears in soy to fresh ‘sea grapes’, strings of kelp pearls dipped in citrus and soy that pop in your mouth like caviar. If you’re still hungry, buy some fresh sea urchin or a mangrove crab and have it cooked for you in one of the restaurants upstairs.
Here a fair few people will be tucking into Okinawa’s tasty signature stir-fry of tofu and eggs that is also known as champuru. It is ubiquitous throughout the islands and there are various ‘flavours’: goya champuru is made with bitter gourd; fu champuru is made with wheat gluten; and there is even Spam champuru, made with (yes, you guessed it), Spam luncheon meat, which appeared on the Okinawan menu after World War Two.
By far one of the best places to try champuru is at Emi no Mise (www.eminomise.com) restaurant in Ogimi Village in the north of Okinawa. Not only does the proprietor Emiko Kinjo make a delicious hearty goya champuru, but her small rustic restaurant is famous for its ‘Longevity Menu’ of dishes made from local ingredients – most of which are grown in the village. This is the place to eat if you want to live a long and healthy life: Ogimi Village is home to the most centenarians in the world.
Healthy foods abound in Okinawa: try shikuwasa citrus juice, packed with vitamin C; sample a bowl of traditional squid-ink soup – with a viscous black broth filled with nutrients; or try a block of Okinawan tofu, which has three times the protein found in mainland tofu. Look out too for delicious breads and pastries from Yaedake Bakery (www.yaedake.com) – all made with wholewheat flour, and free from eggs, dairy and preservatives.
Make sure you spend at least one evening in a neighbourhood izakaya bar, such as Urizun (www.urizn.gr.jp) in Naha. Izakayas are restaurant-bars were locals come to relax over a glass of Okinawan rice wine spirit called awamori, and a few nibbles. Don’t leave without trying the traditional accompaniments such as island shallots pickled in salt, and tofuyo – tofu fermented in awamori, which has a strong taste and is sometimes called ‘Okinawan Camembert’.
Before you depart, stop off for some traditional Okinawan culinary omiyage (souvenirs). For the adventurous, a bottle of awamori with an island snake in the bottom; for the sweet-toothed, a box of Okinawan island ‘black’ sugar cubes; and for the health-conscious a box of beautiful Okinawan sweet potato tarts from Okashi no Porushe (www.okashigoten.go.jp). These little pastry boats are piped full of delicious purple sweet potato paste – the sweetness and the vibrant purple colour are all natural and the tarts are made entirely with ingredients from the island. A perfectly Okinawan gift.