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The Taste of Summer: About Okinawan Cuisine

It’s time again folks, prepare to have your senses stimulated and your bellies set rumbling as I embark on another sweet sojourn into the world of Japanese food.

Previously, I’ve focused on Japanese food as a general concept. Whether it was cheap foods, healthy foods, foods that were easy to make, or foods of foreign origin, the subject matter of all my previous food related posts could be lumped under the banner heading “Japanese food”.

However, to the connoisseur, as indeed I do some pretentiously consider myself, using a collective term such as “Japanese food” is somewhat disingenuous. Such sweeping generalizations belie just how widespread and diverse a range of foods and drinks Japan has to offer.


Photo: minato on Flickr

With this in mind, today is the first in occasional series of articles I will write in which I will focus on the food culture of specific regions of Japan.

For starters, I thought I would begin with the tourism hotspot that is Okinawa.

Ok, first I should make a confession, I’ve never actually been to Okinawa, but sitting here in my school office where its currently 31 degrees and my boss obstinately refuses to turn on the air conditioning until it goes over 32 degrees, it certainly feels like I’m in the tropical climes of a place like Okinawa. And whilst I don’t actually know much about the island group itself, though I do hope to visit soon, I am certainly no stranger to Okinawan food.

In order to fully appreciate the make-up of modern Okinawan food it’s important to set some historical context. Although Okinawa has officially been a territory of Japan since the early 70s, and was so for an extended period prior to the Post WW2 US occupation too, it was not always so.


Photo: Carol Lin on Flickr

For hundreds of years, under its previous guise of The Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa evolved in quite a different way to the rest of Japan. Throughout the Feudal period and the dynastic rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, mainland Japan remained, with only a few notable exceptions, largely closed off to foreigners.

In contrast, Ryukyu historically enjoyed a great deal of trade and cultural exchange with the likes of China, Korea and what is now Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

With this burgeoning trade came new, exciting and non-indigenous foodstuffs, some of which remain staples of Okinawan cookery to this day. For example, historians believe that the process for distilling the delicious, though extremely powerful, alcoholic beverage Awamori was brought into Okinawa from Thaliand in the 15th century.

The “satsumaimo” (Japanese sweet potato) is thought to have come to Okinawa from China at the beginning of the 17th century. In particular, Okinawa enjoyed a long and historical link with the Fujian Province in China, with chefs from both regions regularly visiting each other to acquire new recipes and ideas.


Photo: Ad Blankestijn on Flickr

As time went on, Okinawa moved closer to the mainland in some of its culinary inspirations.

When the lord of Kagoshima, southern Kyushu, invaded Okinawa to reclaim it for his shogun master, this lead to a number of exchanges taking place between Okinawan cooks and their mainland Japanese counterparts. Not only did this bring Okinawan cuisine closer to its mainland counterpart, but conversely it also fueled and inspired innovations and advances in contemporary Japanese cooking of the day too.

One of the things you’ll immediately notice about Okinawan cuisine is that it tends to have a stronger flavour and more pungent aroma than many conventional Japanese dishes. Whilst regular Japanese food can, at times, seem a bit bland, Okinawan food, with its liberal uses of herbs, spices and condiments, Okinawan food has a taste that very much differentiates it from other kinds of Japanese food. The ingredients the Okinawans use are also an indicator of their evolution as a separate entity from the rest of Japan.

During the dynasty of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted up until the 1860s, Buddhism was widely adopted across Japan. One of the fundamental practices within this particular branch of Buddhism was to refrain from eating meat. This flies in the face of how Okinawans approached their cooking.

An old Okinawan saying states “Okinawan food begins with pig and ends with pig.”

This is a bit of a hyperbolic exaggeration of course, but it is true that even whilst the rest of Japan was abstaining from meat, the Okinawans utilized livestock, especially pigs in a great deal of their indigenous cooking.

Bizarrely enough, despite being surrounded by water, the Okinawan diet was traditionally very low on seafood. One of the reasons for this was perhaps that, given the sub-tropical climate and almost year round temperatures in excess of 30 degrees, preserving seafood in the days before refrigeration was extremely difficult in Okinawa.


Photo: Teik How on Flickr

As such, sashimi (fresh cuts of raw fish) is very uncommon in Okinawa and even today is not traditionally regarded as a main course meal. Instead, fish may be pickled in salt, dried, grilled or gently seared in soy sauce. This techniques all preserved the longevity of the fish to some degree.

Since 1945 and the days of the American occupation, there has been a measureable western influence and a certain degree of westernization amongst contemporary Okinawan cooking. Dishes such as Taco Rice (A Mexican style taco filled with Japanese rice and American style chili beef and cheese) are prime examples of the new and enchanting dishes that can be created when these different cultures converge.


Photo: imissdaisydog on Flickr

The health benefits of Okinawan food are also well known. It is a matter of fact that five times as many Okinawans live to be centenarians as do people on the Japanese mainland, and Japan already ranks as one of the longest lived nations on Earth.

A number of experts in the fields of food sciences and human longevity attribute the low fat, low salt diet, consisting of items such as seaweed and tofu, as one of the main reasons why Okinawans live such long and healthy lives.

Popular Okinawan dishes include Goya Chanpulu (ゴーヤーチャンプルー); A stew made with tofu and goya (bitter melon) and soy sauce; and Hirayachi; An okonomiyaki style pancake dish made from eggs, flour, salt, black pepper and green onions.


Photo: Hideyuki KAMON on Flickr


Photo: Hajime NAKANO on Flickr

Today the Okinawan diaspora has spread far and wide across Japan, with dozens of restaurants in all the major cities.

Be sure to sample some fine Okinawan cuisine for yourself sometime soon.

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