At the mention of Okinawa (沖縄), the sun, sandy beaches, the beautiful underwater world, warm weather, and a relaxed atmosphere usually come to mind. But did you know that Okinawa is famous for the longevity of its elderly people? It’s been said that the relatively stress-free lifestyle there and the people’s diet consisting of various healthy ingredients are key factors contributing to this trend.
Join me to find out more about 7 amazing foods from Japan’s southernmost prefecture which are reputed to be both healthy and very delicious!
Salt is an integral part of our diet as it plays the role of an electrolyte and osmotic solute in the human body. Besides being used for seasoning, it is also a key ingredient in food preservation processes such as salting which has been in use for a long time. However, excessive salt consumption is said to increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension. As such, the salt is like a double-edged sword because you can’t do without it, yet it is difficult to control your salt intake especially if you eat out frequently.
Fret not, Okinawa has a solution to this dilemma! In Uruma City (うるま市), there is an island called Miyagijima (宮城島) which is said to be one of the most beautiful ones within the prefecture. Here, there is a sea salt named Nuchimaasu which is made entirely from the sea water around the island that is on the Pacific Ocean side. Compared to other types of edible salts, Nuchimaasu has a sodium content which is about 25 percent lower than regular salt and contains 21 types of minerals which are beneficial to the human body. Because of this, Nuchimaasu was certified by the Guinness Book of Records in May 2003.
According to Takayasu Masakatsu, the president of Nuchi-una (ぬちうなー) which produces the Nuchimaasu, the development of this healthy sea salt was inspired by something unrelated to food consumption. At that time, it was the trend in Okinawa to cultivate orchids but things were not going well as the roots were prone to rotting due to the hot and wet weather. Takayasu who learned physics at the University of Ryukyus (琉球大学), invented a device to improve the growing process of orchids. He even quit his job at Japan Transocean Air (JTA) to concentrate on this field.
However, when the orchids were grown in the greenhouse during summer, it was so warm that he had to invent another device to spray fine water droplets onto the orchids so as to cool them down without causing the roots to rot. One day, Takayasu came across a news article about the relaxing of rules governing the production of salt which gave him the inspiration to produce sea salt left behind by evaporated sea water with a similar concept like his second invention. After more than 100 attempts, he finally came up with the Nuchimaasu which is a snowy white powdery salt. This success story is also mentioned in the ethics textbook for primary 3 students in Okinawa.
If you are interested in learning more about Nuchimaasu’s production process, you can visit the factory on the island for free which is accessible via a 1.5 hour to 2-hour drive along the Kaichuu Douro (海中道路) from Naha Airport. The guided tour takes place every 20 minutes and lasts for 10 minutes. If you are in a group of 10 or more, you will need to make prior reservations through here (Japanese only).
After the tour, head to their cafe Takahanari which is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm every day where you can taste a variety of food and drinks made from Nuchimaasu as pictured above.
Last but not least, swing by the Nuchimaasu Shop on the second floor of the building where you will find about 100 types of products made from sea salt including Nuchimaasu itself, soap, facial cleansing products, snacks, toothpaste, sports mineral drinks, vinegar dressing sauce, soy sauce, amulets, and even CDs! If you are not able to visit the island personally, you can buy their products online through this website (Japanese only).
Traditionally, the Okinawans ate a lot of vegetables and herbs which are rich in vitamins and minerals that are collectively known as “shimayasai” i.e. island vegetables.
There are three requirements (Japanese only) to determine what is considered a shimayasai. First of all, it must be something which had been eaten by the locals before World War II. Secondly, the vegetable should be used in traditional Okinawan cuisine. Last but not least, the vegetable must be suitable to be grown on Okinawa’s soil and in its climate. Besides goya (ゴーヤー) i.e. bitter gourd and shibui (シブイ) i.e. winter gourd which is harvested throughout the whole year, the shimakabocha (島カボチャ) i.e. island pumpkin, yasai papaya (野菜パパイヤ) i.e. vegetable papaya, and shimarakkyou (島らっきょう) i.e. island scallion are some of the vegetables classified as shimayasai (Japanese only).
However, with the Americanization of the Okinawans’ diet, the intake of such local greens has significantly gone down compared to the past. Concurrently, production volumes of shimayasai are also affected due to the decrease in Okinawa’s farming population and the increase in abandoned farmland as a result of manpower.
With increasing awareness of the shimayasai’s nutritional benefits and in a bid to make these greens popular again among the Okinawans, there have been efforts to boost the production volume and quality. For instance, there is an agricultural research center (Japanese only) at Itoman City (糸満市) which is actively involved in the improvement of the shimayasai’s quality and output number so that more vegetables can be consumed domestically and shipped to mainland Japan.
There is a cafe named Re:HeLLOW BEACH located on Ishigakijima (石垣島) which features various dishes made from shimayasai. As this cafe is open from 11:30 am to 12:00 am, the items offered may differ depending on the time of your visit. If you arrive in Ishigaki by air, the cafe is a 20-minute drive away, while if you are heading from the ferry terminal, the car ride should take you no more than 5 minutes.
— 食いしん坊クマさん (@99_sakura_99) 2017年3月21日
The shimadoufu i.e. island tofu is native to Okinawa and is made in a different way as compared to its counterpart in mainland Japan. In the past, dried soybeans were cut in half using stone mills or machinery before the skin was removed using sieves. These pre-preparation steps allowed the water content in the soybeans to be retained before they were soaked in water for three to four hours and ground to form the kure (呉). After removing the residue called okara (おから) through squeezing from a cloth, the soy milk was then boiled for an hour during which bubbles were removed. Sea water or bittern was then added as a coagulant to form the tofu. It is said that this method is easier to separate the soy milk from the okara, requires less energy, and removes inflavonoid and saponin which causes an unpleasant taste in tofu.
The shimadoufu is usually sold in hot form but in recent years, the chilled and vacuum-packed versions are also becoming common in Okinawa due to its ease of storage and for having a longer shelf life. In Japan, due to the food hygiene laws, tofu is usually placed in water before it is sold but the shimadoufu in Okinawa is the sole exception to this rule since they are sold warm and not placed in water. Without the water, the shimadoufu is said to have a stronger taste. It is especially rich in nutrients such as protein, calcium, sodium, vitamins B1 and B2, and is a popular food among the Okinawans who use it for their local dishes such as chanpuruu (チャンプルー) i.e. stir-fried tofu with vegetable and meat, and sukugarasu tofu (スクガラス豆腐) i.e. mottled spinefoot pickled in salt and served with tofu.
If you are keen to try out shimadoufu, you can head to this place called beans cafe which is located in Naha City. This restaurant features a variety of Italian dishes using shimadoufu made by the owners every day. To get here, you can take the Yui Rail and alight at Gibo Station (儀保駅) or Shuri Station (首里駅) before walking for another 7 or 8 minutes, respectively. Note that the restaurant is closed on Thursdays and opening hours are from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Why not consider swinging by here after a tour at the nearby Shuri Castle?
Have you heard of Oogimi Village located in northern Okinawa which has the reputation of being a symbol of longevity? This place is also home to the Saemidori (さえみどり) green tea which is the earliest to be harvested each year in Japan i.e. in April.
Although Okinawa does not give the impression that it is a well-known tea producer in Japan, the Saemidori from Oogimi has actually been grown here for the last 30 years or so. Within Okinawa, the more common variety of tea in circulation is the Yutakamidori (ゆたかみどり), but the villagers at Oogimi chose to grow the Saemidori which is more difficult to cultivate but has a very mild bitterness and a nice color.
One of the key features in their growing methods is the abstinence of using pesticides on the tea trees so they choose natural ingredients such as their locally-available shima-ninniku (島ニンニク) i.e. island garlic and tougarashi (トウガラシ) i.e. Japanese peppers to keep the pests at bay.
Due to a limited production volume, the tea from Oogimi is entirely consumed just within Okinawa so you cannot buy this elsewhere in Japan. As the tea is usually sold out by June, if you want to try it, you will have to visit the Okinawa CO-OP stores or the roadside rest station at Oogimi (道の駅おおぎみ) during the harvesting season in spring.
Okinawa CO-OP Website *Japanese only
The shiikuwaasaa i.e. citrus depressa is a type of citrus fruit native to Okinawa where the name comes from the Okinawan dialect that means something which sourness (shii) is added to (kuwasu). This fruit is often used in Okinawa as a replacement for lemon in drinks and food, added to shoyu or soy sauce for extra flavor, and made into snacks and alcohol.
Due to the media attention on the shiikuwaasaa for its high nutritional value and its supposed effectiveness in boosting metabolism, preventing dementia, hypertension, hyperglycemia, and hardening of the arteries, it has become extremely popular and can also be found outside of Okinawa in the form of products such as health foods, soft drinks, and canned shochu highball.
If you happen to be in the city of Tomiguksu (豊見城市) which is in southern Okinawa, you may wish to visit YONAR’S which is a shop selling local produce. Here, not only can you get various products made from the shiikuwaasaa, you can also get a free flow of the fruit’s juice right from the tap! To get here, you will have to drive or get a taxi and head towards the Chura Sun Beach (美SUNビーチ) before looking for Outlet Mall Ashibinaa (アウトレットモールあしびなー) which is located beside YONAR’S.
The umibudou i.e. sea grapes is a form of seaweed typically found in the waters of Okinawa and Kagoshima and may sometimes be called “green caviar” due to its appearance. It grows up to two to five meters and is also cultivated for ornamental purposes in fish tanks.
As the umibudou would shrink if it is stored in the fridge, it is kept at room temperature for up to three to four days. Currently, the umibudou is grown in farms in Okinawa Prefecture and in the Amami region of Kagoshima Prefecture, thus enabling it to be available nationwide. Note, however, that there are two types of umibudou where one comes with the stem and the other doesn’t. Due to the effort put into removing the stems, the latter version would be more expensive.
Usually, the umibudou is eaten raw or soaked in sauces such as soy sauce and sanbaizu (三杯酢) which contains vinegar, soy sauce, and mirin, or is eaten with sashimi. In Okinawa, there is an umibudou-don which is eaten with sanbaizu, while the umibudou soba uses the unseasoned version. As it is rich in calcium, fibers, and vitamins, it is said that the umibudou is useful for stress relief and constipation.
If you would like to try the umibudou, you can go to Onna Village (恩納村) to visit Okinawa Katei Ryouri Ganso Umibudou (沖縄家庭料理 元祖 海ぶどう). Other than its traditional Okinawan cuisine, one of its signature dishes is the umibudou-don which is topped off with sea urchin, salmon roe, and grated yam at the price of 1,300 yen. To get to this restaurant, get off at the Yaga Interchange on the Okinawa Expressway and drive for another 5 minutes. The restaurant is open every day from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm.
In Okinawa, the no. 1 crop grown is sugarcane (Japanese only) which takes up half of the farming land within the prefecture and as much as 70 percent of farmers grow this. Due to the abundance of sugarcane, it has contributed to the production of kokutou i.e. brown sugar which is made from boiling unrefined sugarcane juice.
Other than being a healthier option compared to refined white sugar, the brown sugar from Okinawa also boasts an elegant sweetness and contains high levels of calcium, iron, and vitamin B. It is also said that brown sugar helps to improve your intestines’ condition, boosts your liver function, and improves your condition if you have atopic dermatitis. Last but not least, the kokutou is also said to be effective for dieting as it curbs your urge to snack when you are feeling peckish.
In Yomitan Village (読谷村), you can visit Okinawa Kokuto (沖縄黒糖) where you can take part in the free factory tour (Japanese only) taking place between 8:30 am and 5:30 pm. You can also experience making brown sugar (Japanese only) which lasts for 2 hours per session and costs 850 yen or 1,700 yen depending on the mold you use. At the end of your visit, you can head to the shopping corner to buy some brown sugar products and sample some local produce such as the sataandagi (サーターアンダギー) which is the Okinawan version of a doughnut. Yomitan is a 50-minute drive from Naha Airport and the factory can be identified by two huge figures of a cow and a pig at its entrance.
Having read so much about these healthy foods in Okinawa, do check them out during your trip and enjoy their goodness!