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Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010

Okinawa on a plate

With its Japanese, Chinese and U.S. culinary influences and its healthy island fare, Okinawan food is the perfect complement to an island visit


By KATE CROCKETT
Special to The Japan Times

"Everywhere in this house and its stone walls you can find the wisdom of our ancestors and how they lived," says Masako Kinjo, as she gazes around Makabe Chinaa, a 110-year-old traditional wooden home in Itoman City in the south of Okinawa Island.

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Beauty pageant: Women in gorgeous kimono perform a kase kake Ryukyuan court dance at Shuri Castle in Naha. KATE CROCKETT PHOTOS

It was the wisdom of her ancestors that set the house facing south, as a shelter from northerly winds and to catch the cooling breeze in summer. It was her ancestors who bestowed the roof's deep overhanging eaves to shade residents from the relentless Okinawan sunshine. In the garden, they built a sturdy pigsty, a well and stone walls, which, along with the house, are now prefectural Tangible Cultural Assets.

But it is more miracle than such wisdoms that has seen this beautiful house survive for more than a century. In particular, during World War II, Itoman City was the site of the final, decisive Battle of Okinawa in April, May and June 1945, when just about everything else in the area was razed to the ground.

Makabe Chinaa had a lucky escape: you can still see bullet holes in some of the beams. Then in the immediate postwar period, the house served as a town office and a clinic before becoming what it is today — a much-loved tea shop and restaurant that serves up a large portion of history along with its signature sara soba to visitors heading to the nearby Okinawa Battle Site National Park.

Makabe Chinaa's sara soba draws people back over and over. Created by Kinjo's son-in-law, the dish is based on the champon Chinese-noodle stir-fry from his native Nagasaki: Makabe Chinaa's version replaces the Chinese noodles with Okinawa's unique wheat-flour soba.

As well as being absolutely delicious, the dish is a great example of Okinawa's mixed-up culinary culture that fuses influences from mainland Japan, China (from its trade with China before the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1872 and then renamed) and, more recently, the United States. Nowhere else in Japan will you find Spam stir-fry on a menu alongside pigs' ears in soy, or Tex-Mex mince on rice alongside bowls of trotters in soba noodles.

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Old times: The shoin (study) at Shuri Castle in Naha (above); and the 110-year-old Makabe Chinaa house in Itoman City that miraculously survived the final Battle of Okinawa that raged all around it in spring 1945 and is now a tea shop/restaurant.
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Okinawans describe this food culture as champuru, which means "mixing different influences"; and champuru is also the name of the island's tasty signature stir-fry of eggs, firm Okinawan tofu and Chinese leeks (nira). Champuru's most common variant is goya champuru, made with the addition of that green, knobbly bitter gourd that you either love or hate.

Either way, it's a fact that goya is packed with nutrients, and it is considered one of Okinawa's traditional long-life foods. The island's renowned centenarians eat plenty of it and you can even buy it as a health supplement and dried as tea in the busy shopping arcades off Kokusai Dori in the capital, Naha.

In the heart of those arcades is the Makishi Public Market, Naha's "locals' kitchen," where families who have run stalls there, often for generations, sell a profusion of local produce, from island shallots to umi budo (so-called sea grapes), shikuwasa lemons and gurukun, the island's national fish. Okinawa's other staple fare, pork, is in abundance here too: wander the butchers' stalls to taste pigs' tongue flavored with the local awamori spirit; pigs' ears in soy; collagen-rich pigs'-cheek jerky; or a delicious chunk of rafute — pork belly slow-cooked in awamori until it melts in the mouth. Upstairs on the second floor, you can even have your purchases cooked at one of the canteen-style restaurants.

This area started life as the postwar black market for U.S.-military supplies, and Kokusai Dori was known to locals as Miracle Mile. It remains the capital's thriving commercial center, where stores are filled with all manner of omiyage (souvenirs) — from bottles of awamori with habu snakes lurking in the bottom to shisa lion-dog statues and purple-colored beniimo (sweet-potato tarts) from famed maker Okashi no Porushe, whose Palace of Sweets factory in Yomitan Village, north of Naha, annually confects some 26 million of these boat-shaped goodies.

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Take your pickle: For those with conventional tastes there's plenty of choice at Makishi Public Market in Naha (above); while snakes in awamori spirit are to be had in a souvenir shop on Kokusai Dori.
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Unsurprisingly, Yomitan is the center of sweet-potato cultivation in Okinawa, and is next to Kaneda Town, home to the 17th-century ship's purser who brought the purple sweet potato to Okinawa from Fujian in China. Although it was long the island's staple food, the sweet potato has since the war given way to white rice, and nowadays almost the entire crop is turned into tarts instead.

Not far from the Palace of Sweets is scenic Cape Zampa, where you can climb the lighthouse for sweeping views or dive the coral inlets and caves in the turquoise sea. Or there's the port of Toya with its quayside co-operative snack bar where you can feast on viscous Okinawan squid-ink soup and mozoku seaweed prepared Okinawa-tempura style.

Meanwhile, outside Toya are the ruins of Zakimi Castle, built in the early 15th century and noted for its remarkable stonemasonry and strategic location: you'll see why if you stand atop its walls and take in the commanding views over the East China Sea.

Zakimi is one of Okinawa's nine UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites recognizing the distinctive culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The best-known of these are the tranquil royal villa complex and gardens of Shikina-en and the striking, red reconstruction of the Chinese-style Shuri Castle in Naha. There the Satsunoma reception room where royals once hosted visitors is now a tatami tea room. Here visitors can try sweets from the Ryukyu era, such as kinhen (rolled brown-sugar crepes), fluffy, steamed chirunko cake speckled with peanuts, and chinsuko (shortbread cookies) that are traditionally served with a cup of jasmine tea. Outside in the courtyard, performers in elaborate headgear and colorful kimono shuffle onto a stage to perform traditional kase kake dances of the Ryukyuan court.

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Mouth-waterer: A model of a giant beniimo (sweet-potato tart) stands outside famed maker Okashi no Porushe's Palace of Sweets factory in Yomitan, north of Naha.

West of the castle, you can experience the flavors of a royal court banquet in the serene tatami rooms of Mie, a kyutei restaurant in a historic Naha house. Similar to mainland kaiseki, kyutei dishes — such as smooth, green-mustard fish paste, burdock root filled with pork and shiitake, or pure white steamed cuttlefish intricately carved into the shape of crabs — are served like artworks in a hexagonal lacquerware tray called a tundabun. Sweet-and-sour shikuwasa (hirami lemon) juice, freshly pressed from the tree in the garden, is the perfect accompaniment — followed by a warming glug of awamori.

However, just a few steps beyond the gates of this historic house, the Ryukyu Kingdom instantly recedes as the slick monorail from Kencho-mae Station glides you back through modern Naha to the hub of Kokusai Dori — hopefully with just enough time left before your flight to pick up a box of sweet-potato tarts for the folks back home.

Kate Crockett is a features writer and the Associate Editor of Food and Travel magazine in Britain. Her Web site is at www.katecrockett.co.uk


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