Mention Japanese cuisine and people may rave about the sushi and sashimi from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, Kyoto’s kaiseki and the okonomiyaki from Osaka, the nation’s food capital.
Rarely do you hear foodies waxing lyrical about washoku, or Japanese cuisine, from Okinawa.
Even before boarding the red-eye flight from Singapore to Japan’s southernmost prefecture, I have friends expressing surprise that I am headed there for a food trip.
Sure, the subtropical archipelago may be more famous for its unique Ryukyu heritage, pristine beaches and waters so blue, you just want to snorkel and splash in them all day.
But I choose to reserve any epicurean judgment for after the trip. After all, I am never one to diss something until I have tried it.
RED JUICY RIOT
This trip is a short weekend affair that takes me to some of the local farms, where I get a glimpse of how fruit and vegetables are grown and harvested in Okinawa.
I hop on a direct Jetstar flight, which takes me from Singapore to Okinawa in six hours (www.jetstar.com).
To get around the different towns, our group hires a chartered minibus. For my solo leg in Naha, I either walk, take the bus or hop on the monorail (www.yui-rail.co.jp/en).
With me are other journalists from Japan and Singaporean celebrity dessert chef Janice Wong, who is also there for a television special.
One of our first stops is the town of Motobu, home to Acerola Fresh, a farm named after the little red fruit that it grows.
At first glance, acerola looks like any other crimson berry. But popping one in my mouth conjures up a delicious riot of juices – a mix of sour cranberries and sweet cherries.
Mrs Tetsuko Namisato, the 62-year-old matriarch who runs the farm, calls acerola the “king of Vitamin C” because a single cherry packs about five times more ascorbic acid than a lemon.
Native to places such as the Caribbean and Brazil, acerola was first brought to Okinawa in 1958, along with other tropical fruit like papayas, mangoes and lychees.
While most of these took to the soil and flourished, the locals had trouble cultivating acerola.
It was not until 1982 that Mrs Namisato’s late husband, Mr Yasufumi Namisato, armed with a university degree in tropical agriculture, found a way and the couple started Acerola Fresh.
Today, the farm not only grows the fruit, but also supplies a whole range of acerola-flavoured products such as jam, frozen smoothies, vinegar, mustard and beer.
Tending the trees can be tricky, especially in typhoon-prone Okinawa. To ensure they stay rooted, Mrs Namisato and her team of 30 employees prune them into 1m-tall bonsai-looking shrubs. In places such as Vietnam, acerola trees can grow as tall as 3m.
We lunch at Okinawa Shokudo Kitayama, a nearby eatery that serves a wicked Okinawa soba with lip-smacking dried bonito broth. Topped with sweet and savoury pork ribs with meat that slides off the bone, I am already beginning to doubt the naysayers.
Between loud slurps of approval (which, thankfully, are not considered rude in Japan), I ask Mrs Namisato if she ever expected to own a farm.
Not quite, she confesses. Things could have turned out very differently for her, considering she was an English literature student when she met Mr Namisato in university.
But it was his determination to explore new agriculture in Okinawa that inspired her to join him.
After he died 10 years ago, the widow was tempted to throw in the towel.
“I wanted to quit, but my staff wanted to keep going,” she says with a gentle sigh. “They wanted to keep his dream alive, so that gave me the strength to go on.”
SALTY BUT SWEET
Later that day, we swing by Higashi village, where Canaan Farm president and owner Keiji Yoda showers his pineapples with love and plenty of saltwater .
“The magnesium in the saltwater enhances the ability of pineapple to photosynthesise and produce more sugar,” says Mr Yoda, 46, who has employed this agricultural method for almost 10 years.
His produce has since earned the moniker “shio pine” or “salt pineapple”.
His inspiration? Okinawa’s typhoons.
“After a typhoon, seawater would come onto land and pineapples would become smaller, but very tasty,” he says, slicing up a few of his pineapples for our entourage to try. “Everyone knew that, but no one thought of taking saltwater to spray the crops.”
True enough, even for a pineapple-phile like me, these are some of the sweetest I have tasted.
Chef Wong gushes about the Peach Pineapple, which bears a peachy aroma and is so soft, even the core can be eaten.
I fall in love with the Gold Barrel and its rich, saccharine flesh, as well as the white Cream Pineapple that looks deceptively bland, but tastes delightfully sweet.
According to Mr Yoda, farmers in Okinawa started growing pineapples 80 to 90 years ago.
The pineapple cannery business was huge, but faced stiff competition from Taiwan and the Philippines, which remains one of the fruit’s top exporters.
These days, locals cultivate their own varieties to be eaten fresh, which Mr Yoda insists is the best way to enjoy the fruit.
“It’s almost like asking fishermen how to cook fish. They’d say the best way is eating it as sashimi. We say the same for pineapples.”
Before we part, I ask Mr Yoda, who has a degree in linguistics, what he loves about his livelihood.
“There are no losers in farming,” he replies. “You can be old, young, disabled – anyone can do it.”
At a shikuwasa farm in Motobu, I start drinking what I wholeheartedly believe is shikuwasa juice.
The label is entirely in Japanese, but bears a picture of the calamansi-like fruit native to Okinawa. So, despite the debilitating sourness, my thirsty self downs half a bottle.
Kindly but belatedly, my Japanese companions point out that I have been imbibing not juice, but 100% concentrate that should be diluted.
I take comfort in knowing that shikuwasa is high in nobiletin, a compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
More discoveries humble me along the way, like how igusa (or beegu), the water rush that is used to make tatami mats, can also be enjoyed as a cookie, cheesecake and even ramen noodles.
Or how what looks like grass jelly in an izakaya is really mozuku, a low-calorie seaweed that can be noshed as noodles or fried into a mean tempura.
FROM FARM TO TABLE
For the trip’s finale, chef Wong works her magic with local ingredients, whipping up insanely creative and delectable desserts.
Thanks to her, we are treated to the likes of acerola ice cream, pineapple dragon fruit ice cake and chocolate shikuwasa chewing gum.
Even for a well-travelled chef like her, the quality of Okinawa’s food stands out.
“What’s special is that they are delicious, but also healthy and that makes you feel good,” Wong says.
By now, my friends’ pessimism about Okinawan washoku is a laughable memory. Farm visits aside, biting into local staples like goya, sea grapes, beni imo and jimami tofu tells me just how fresh – and refreshing – everything here tastes.
As city dwellers, Singaporeans seldom wonder about the provenance of their food beyond the grocery market, yet this trip has taught me to do just that – the proverbial food for thought, if you must.
Even in the capital city of Naha, the pride that Okinawans have in their produce is palpable.
At every other corner is a stall selling acerola smoothies or a supermarket that stocks pineapples grown in the neighbouring towns. All of the bars I go to stock shikuwasa as highball mixers.
It reminds me of the sedulous farmers like Mrs Namisato and Mr Yoda, who do what they do so people like us can savour the fruit of their labour.
The late chef Anthony Bourdain once said that “food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable”.
I couldn’t agree more.
It is not just the food, but also the warmth of the Okinawans, their love for their land and their marvellous company that win me over.
• The writer was hosted by the Okinawa Prefectural Government’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Distribution and Processing Promotion Division. Go to kuwachii-okinawa.com/top-chef
FOOD HARKING BACK TO RYUKYU ERA
Foodies are spoilt for choice in Okinawa, which used to be part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.
For authentic fare harking back to the Ryukyu era, head to Kana (irabu-kana.com, 6,000 yen, or S$77, for 12 courses), a reservation-only diner that offers dishes from irabu jiru (sea snake broth that takes a week to prepare) and jimami tofu (sweet tofu made from peanuts) to tofuyo (fermented tofu that tastes like cheese) and the most heavenly white miso soup.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO ON THE MAIN ISLAND
While Okinawa has many islands, it is worth setting aside a few days for the main island.
Get your shopping fix in the bustling Kokusai Street – Naha’s answer to Orchard Road – or head up north to Cape Manzamo for spectacular views of the ocean and the famous elephant rock formation.
Those craving cultural immersion can head to the Ryukyu Glass Village in Itoman City (ryukyu-glass.co.jp/en), where you can participate in the century-old tradition of glass blowing and make your own glass cup (from 1,836 yen before tax).
SAVOUR FUSION GOODNESS
For a taste of island ingredients with a fusion twist, head to Restaurant B.B.R. (r.gnavi.co.jp/ f255900). Highlights include a sinfully scrumptious risotto (above) made with juicy sponge gourd, parmesan cheese, onions, potatoes and crunchy croutons, as well as the mibai fish, which comes ensconced on a bed of mozuku, goya, kidney bean stalk and topped with sea grapes, lemon juice and beetroot juice.
Dessert lovers should not miss the hibiscus and acerola jellies, silky chocolate ganache with brown sugar and beegu chiffon cake that gives Singapore’s pandan cake a run for its money. An eight-course lunch costs 2,214 yen and an eight-course dinner 3,120 yen, before tax.
PICK FRUIT, EAT FRUIT
Some of the farms in this article are open to visitors. Acerola Fresh (acerola-fresh.jp) offers fruit-picking experiences by reservation (2,000 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children, free for kids younger than six years old). Its cafe, open from 9am to 5pm every day (except New Year’s Day), offers quenching acerola frozen smoothies for 500 yen.
Fun food facts
• Once upon a time, Okinawans washed their clothes and marinated their sushi with shikuwasa. These days, the citrus fruit is often mixed into a highball with shochu or awamori, a local spirit distilled from rice.
• Every pineapple is a cluster of berries that have fused together to make a single fruit. Other “multiple fruit” or “collective fruit” include mulberries, figs and jackfruit.
• Also referred to as a Barbados cherry, the acerola has three triangular seeds. Younger cherries are lighter in colour, but contain more Vitamin C than their ripe counterparts.
• Most of Japan’s mozuku comes from Okinawa. The edible seaweed is high in fibre, which aids digestion, and contains fucoidan, a compound said to boost one’s immune system.
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