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Friday, Sept. 18, 2009
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Southern comfort Okinawan style
Everybody loves Okinawa. Japan's southernmost prefecture boasts sun-kissed beaches, coral reefs, an easy-going lifestyle and a culture unlike anywhere else in the country. These days, the islands and their distinctive cuisine enjoy a certain hip cachet; this has not always been the case.
No longer regarded merely as an exotic honeymoon destination with a tragic wartime history, there is now a wider appreciation of the vibrant traditions of the former Ryukyu Kingdom. This has been mirrored by the growing popularity of the distinct food and drink and the proliferation of Okinawan restaurants and bars on the mainland.
One of the new wave of casual watering holes in Tokyo is Taketomijima. Named after one of the most beautiful of the prefecture's islands, this basement dining-bar in the backstreets of Ginza manages to marry the simple feel of rural Okinawa with a sense of big-city style. It's a blend that proves most seductive.
Descending from street level, you find yourself in a space decorated to evoke the traditional architecture of the Yaeyama islands, in the far south of Okinawa. Walls are plastered with rough brown mud; tiled roofs jut out above alcoves along the sides; a low stone wall separates the main dining area furnished with tables and chairs from the zashiki area where you sit on cushions on the raised wooden floor.
If that's not enough to put you in the mood, then settle back and take in the scenes of island life that are projected onto the entire length of one wall. There are narrow lanes of crushed white coral running through lush, subtropical greenery; glimpses of the open sea; and fields of waving sugar cane.
Yes, undeniably it veers close to being a theme restaurant. But anyone who has ever traveled through the Yaeyama archipelago — especially to its spiritual heartland, Taketomi itself — is likely to feel themselves transported in a trice. Those who haven't may find a couple of drinks will do the trick.
T here is Orion beer both in bottles and on tap to slake a thirst. But to truly get into the spirit, an order of awamori is imperative. The traditional clear hooch of the islands can range from basic firewater to smooth liquors that might almost be called sophisticated, with alcohol content and prices to match.
There is no distillery on Taketomi Island — there's no industry at all; indeed there are few roads and virtually no cars. But the cellar at Taketomijima, Ginza, holds more than 40 varieties from around the prefecture. Some are smooth and easy-drinking, such as Omoto, from Ishigaki Island; others are best diluted or served with a mixer — try the classic sour, mixed with the tart juice of the shikuwasa citron.
Connoisseurs tend to prefer aged awamori, known in Okinawan dialect as kusu. These are aged for a minimum of 3 years, usually more, and frequently served from the ceramic pots in which they are matured. Our choice from the upper end of the drinks list would be Sangosho, a 10-year-old kusu best drunk straight with some iced water on the side. At ¥1,100 per glass (¥12,600 for the whole bottle) and 40 percent alcohol, this is booze that demands to be appreciated slowly.
Thankfully there is plenty of good food to keep you anchored to your seat. Much of the menu is devoted to appetizers, such as umi-budo, a crunchy seaweed whose appearance is hinted at by its name (literally "sea grapes"); jmami-dofu, cubes of smooth, thick tofu-like custard made from creamed peanuts; and that classic Ryukyu drinking snack, tofuyo, a spicy, fermented tofu whose pungent, lingering flavor and cloying texture are an acquired taste only for the acclimated and the very adventurous.
Taketomijima produces a particularly good version of Okinawa's "national" dish, goya champuru. The half-moon slices of bitter, green goya (bitter melon) are stir-fried with slivers of pork and shima-dofu, firm, island-style tofu that is made in-house.
Alternatively, if goya is too abrasive on the palate, order fu champuru, made with wheat gluten cakes; or somen champuru, with fine wheat noodles.
Other dishes from the standard Okinawan repertoire include hja (goat meat sashimi) and delectable rafut (soft-simmered cubes of pork belly). Vegetarians can find respite with deep-fried goya chips or the croquettes of beni-imo, a strain of sweet potato that grows a spectacular shade of crimson.
Everything is prepared with great competence. This is no surprise, given that Taketomijima is an offshoot of Little Okinawa. This well-established hole-in-the-wall at the Shinbashi end of Ginza was one of the first generation of eateries to present Okinawan cuisine in Tokyo in a cheerful, upbeat way — not as an exotic regional curiosity but the straightforward fare you would find in a typical izakaya tavern in Naha. It's still as casual and popular as ever.
For more information on Little Okinawa call (03) 3572-2930 or visit www.little-okinawa.co.jp/