Friday 29 April 2022

Getting Away from it all: 5 Days in the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa (Part 2: Identity and Food)

In the last post, I detailed my spring trip to the Yaeyama Islands. This time I'm going to focus on the delicious edibles found in Okinawa; food posts also seem to be the most popular so I'm hoping for a few more comments this time! Previously, I hinted at the unique culture found in Okinawa but didn't really explain the historical background. Very briefly, Okinawa was an an independent kingdom before it was invaded by the Satsuma clan in 1609 and finally annexed by the Meiji State in 1879. Perhaps the nearest analogy in UK terms is Wales, a region with a separate language and culture which was annexed in 1536. Both Wales and Okinawa suffered from discrimination and assimilationist policies of the central government: Okinawans - also known as Ryūkyū or Uchinanchū - just like the Welsh, have a complex relationship with the "mainland" (hondo=本土 in Japanese) and the ethnically different Yamato people. 

Source: Welsh data from BBC Cymru Wales annual St David's Day poll 2019 (here) and Okinawan data from research by Shunsuke Tanabe 2021 (PDF here)

As the poll data above shows, while the majority of Okinawans (and Welsh) feel both Okinawan and Japanese (Welsh and British), significant numbers feel Okinawan not Japanese (Welsh not British) or more Okinawan than Japanese (more Welsh than British). A few feel just Japanese (or British). The fact that Okinawa suffered disproportionately during World War II further complicates the relationship, as did the ensuing 27 years of U.S. "occupation" (1945-1972); in fact, next month (May) marks the 50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan (though even today around 75% of US bases in Japan are in Okinawa, taking up almost 18% of the main island).

Okinawa Fair at the local 7-11 promoting goods containing Okinawan brown sugar (kokutō)
Like Wales, Okinawa has many unique foods which make travelling there a delight. Two of the most common staples are goya champurū and Okinawan soba noodles. Champurū shares the same linguistic roots as the common Japanese word champon, which means to mix different things - usually food, especially noodles (as in the famous Nagasaki dish), but also drink, as in drinking a variety of different alcoholic drinks in one night! It is no surprise then that goya champurū is a stir fry of goya ("bitter melon", a super-healthy bumpy green cucumber-like vegetable), pork, tofu, and eggs. Okinawan soba noodles on the other hand consists of thick white noodles made from wheat flour (as opposed to the usual buckwheat) and is typically served with slices of pork on top. Indeed, pork is ubiquitous in Okinawa, and as well as the delicious melt-in-your-mouth fatty pork belly (rafutē) marinated in the local awamori sake, you will also find pig's feet, ears (mimigā), and even faces on many menus - Okinawans say that every part of the pig can be eaten except for its trotters and oink!

For those with a sweet tooth, Okinawa won't disappoint either. Here, I'm going to introduce three classics (from left right in the picture): Sātāandagī (サーターアンダギー) doughnuts, Chinsukō biscuits, and Blue Seal ice-cream. First, Sātāandagī - Sātā means sugar and andagī means deep-fried in the local lingo - are basically deep-fried dough balls with a crispy outside and fluffy inside which, despite their simplicity, enjoy a cult following. Second, Chinsukō are shortbread-like biscuits with a long history which are hugely popular souvenirs. In contrast, our final sweet treat, Blue Seal ice-cream, has a much shorter history, being a post-war US military invention created to give American soldiers in Okinawa a taste of home. Restricted to bases only until 1963, they are now available everywhere; you can enjoy some  unique local flavours such as the number one seller Okinawan salt-cookies (in other words Chinsukō!), beni-imo (purple sweet potato), and shīquasā ( = flat lemon) sherbet. I also seem to remember hearing about a goya flavour at some point, but it's not listed on the company homepage - too bitter?!?

All in all, the Okinawan diet, low in sugar and high in grains, fish, and seafood, is thought to be the main reason for the islander's longevity - Okinawa ties with Sardinia as the region with the highest ratio of centenarians in the world! But while the purple sweet potatoes, goya, and tofu/soy are without doubt the key to their long life, today the move towards fattier foods has seen life expectancy plummet. One of the worst offenders is Spam, introduced by the US navy and now an integral part of the local cuisine (popular in onigiri rice balls and sometimes even replacing pork in the famous goya champurū described above). Maybe it's time for a Japanese version of the famous Monty Python sketch, though, unlike the British public, Okinawans show no signs of becoming tired with the canned pork concoction! Share your thoughts on spam and regional foods/identity in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

Love spam! But nothing can beat a good サーターアンダギー, especially the freshly made ones you can get at a 屋台. I can’t eat goya just as it is because it’s too bitter, but I do like the texture of it when it’s in ゴーヤチャンプル. This made me want to go to Okinawa again ;(

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, spam is pretty irrestible, but probably better not to know what's in it! Interesting you mentioned outside food stalls (yatai=屋台)- food always tastes better at these. I remember eating tonkotsu ramen at the food stalls in Hakata (Kyushu) after a night out - amazing! Anyway, hope you manage to get back Okinawa sometime soon - it really does demand a second visit.