A Taste of Okinawa

Writer Véronique Lo; PHOTOGRAPHER: Benjamin Hau | November 5, 2015

“Okinawan cuisine is not Japanese cuisine,” reiterates Hiromi Matsumoto, our local guide, who’s holding up a beautifully drawn sketchbook with pictures of typical ingredients used in traditional Okinawan dishes. There are various kinds of vegetables, fruit, meat and even sea salt, but neither sushi nor ramen makes the list.

Formerly an independent state known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa (‘rope in the open sea’) has historically been an important cultural and trading hub between Japan, China and Southeast Asia due to its unique geographical location. Today, the Okinawa Prefecture, which consists of 160 islands, has transformed into a popular destination for Japanese and Asian tourists, who flock to the islands for their pristine beaches, world-famous diving sites and warm temperatures throughout the year. The arrival of tourists, as well as modernisation, has gradually changed the local way of living over the decades; but if you look closely enough, traces of its Ryukyuan past can still be found almost everywhere, including in its distinctive cuisine.   

EAT FOR LONGEVITY

Japan is known as ‘The Country of Longevity’, but it is in Okinawa where women have the highest average life expectancy in the country. Some say it’s because the islands are blessed with an abundance of natural, salubrious ingredients such as goya (bitter melon), umi budo (sea grape) and purple sweet potato, which have been eaten by generations of Okinawans since the Ryukyu period. Others say it helps that, instead of rushing through each meal the way city-goers are used to, you’re encouraged to take your time when eating in Okinawa.

Cafe Garamanjyaku, Kin Town    

For Chef Yamashiro from the secluded Cafe Garamanjyaku in Kin Town (Tel: (81) 98 968 8846), going organic, rather than using genetically modified vegetables, is of utmost importance. “We want to imitate the way old people used to eat, so we use unpurified rice or brown rice and fresh vegetables in season. We try to grow some of the ingredients here,” she says, pointing at the garden outside the traditional tatami room we are in.

Here, set meals typically include more than a dozen items, using Okinawan medicinal herbs and wild flowers to detox and nourish. The Taberu Esute Garaman Teishoku Detokkusu set, for example, is designed to “beautify and give your intestine a cleanse”. Depending on the season, different herbs and vegetables are used, but you can expect a feast of scrumptious dishes, including a medicinal soup, in small portions served at your own pace. A personal favourite is muni, a dessert made with sweet potato, Okinawan yam, rice powder and black sugar; but what I find most interesting is the small glass of bitter melon juice. Bitter melon is said to have a wealth of health benefits, such as beautifying the skin, boosting the immune system and lowering dangerous cholesterol levels, so don’t be put off by the word ‘bitter’! The healthy juice has a refreshing sweetness that will leave you wanting another glass.

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Okinawa Daiichi Hotel, Naha

For travellers keen to sample authentic Okinawan delicacies, the Okinawa Daiichi Hotel is a lesser-known gem in Naha, Okinawa’s capital. Matsumoto tells us that a lot of Japanese visitors choose to stay at this boutique hotel just for its delicious breakfast – the only meal of the day served here.

The breakfast menu is fixed and includes a number of small dishes that are served course by course, so reserve enough time if you’re eating here. Featuring a range of local produce and 50 different kinds of medicinal herbs, this huge breakfast is surprisingly small in calories – just 585 calories in total. Every ingredient used is chosen for its health benefits. For instance, Okinawan carrots are rich in beta-carotene, while bitter leaves are especially good for the digestive system. A ‘royal dessert’, a tiny cube of winter melon prepared using a centuries-old technique – by soaking in sugar and boiling for three days – concludes this culinary journey.

Guests from outside the hotel are also welcome to enjoy the breakfast, but reservations must be made a day in advance (Tel: (81) 98 867 3116).

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If you look closely enough, traces of its Ryukyuan past can still be found almost everywhere, including in its distinctive cuisine