Most Americans have heard of Okinawa. There’s been an American military base (14 of them currently) on the main island since the end of World War II. However, Okinawa as part of Japan is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries Okinawa was its own country, a cluster of hundreds of islands off the southern coast of Japan, stretching to within a few kilometers of the island nation of Taiwan. A rich culture with its on language, monarchy, economy, and culture. It was not and even today is not “Japanese”. As a result of this long history of independence Okinawa has its own food & drink traditions. And that’s what we’re really interested in here at Kampai!
Okinawan food traditions have grown up independently of Japanese though there are a few similarities. Being an island nation, seafood is a big part of the diet while land animals were less a part of the diet until the American occupation after World War II. Local vegetables are distinct compared to those found in other parts of the world with particularly interesting greens such as loofah, bitter melon, and sea grapes (a seaweed the looks like a cluster of berries). All of these can be found in other Pacific cuisines but are completely foreign to an American diet.
Since Okinawa is a tropical island nation that didn’t have access to reliable refrigeration for most of its history, their cuisine is often fried or braised. Raw meats or seafood are much less common than in other parts of Japan where sushi is a delicacy.
Okinawan food tends to be richly flavored, such as buta kakuni, the braised pork belly that’s so popular throughout Japan. Meat became much more common with the American military presence, both because the Americans wanted access to meat, and the Okinawan economy improved enough to allow locals to afford meat in their diets. Another influence of the American military has been the introduction of western foods, but with an Okinawan twist. For example, SPAM is a popular meat in Okinawa, prepared in typical island ways.
Some of the more popular dishes on the island include:
- Buta no Kakuni (rafutee in Okinawan) – braised pork belly
- Gooya Champruu – bitter melon stir fried with eggs (pictured)
- Tonsoku (tebichi) – pigs feet
- Okinawan soba – noodle soup with Okinawan seasonings
- Gurukun no Karaage – fried double-lined fusilier (Pacific fish)
- Jiimaamii Dofu – peanut tofu
Despite this seemingly unhealthy diet full of fried foods and heavily salted meat dishes, Okinawans have the longest life expectancy on earth. This is partly because the typical Okinawan meal actually consists of fresh seafood, vegetables, and seaweed. The meats and salty things are treats, but also the dishes that are most popular among tourists.
Discussions of Okinawan alcohol should begin and end with Awamori – the local distilled spirit for which the island is rightly well known. Historical records suggest that Okinawans were famously heavy drinkers, commonly getting their foreign visitors drunk beyond consciousness. Given the hot weather, a nice light lager is an irreplaceable drink. Orion Beer fills that position famously as perhaps the lightest of the Japanese lagers. Their current slogan is “for your happy time”, which pretty much wraps up how Okinawans think of drinking. As a part of life that brings additional pleasure to the experience.
Awamori, the production of which is believed to have begun independent of shochu production on nearby Kyushu Island in Japan, is made using Thai long-grain rice, which is unsuitable for eating (according to Okinawans), but very well suited for alcohol production. Besides this grain difference from shochu (usually produced using sweet potatoes, barley, or Japanese short-grain rice), the distillation process is also simpler. Okinawan black koji, all but lost after intense American bombing during World War II, is mixed into the rice at the beginning of the fermentation process rather than added later as in shochu production. Fermentation lasts for several weeks after which the moromi (rice mash) is distilled using traditional atmospheric distillation techniques. This traditional process results in a richly flavored and aromatic spirit that is commonly compared to Brandy or Tequila, but is sometimes ungenerously referred to as “old sweat socks” for the unusually pungent aromas.
Awamori is often aged in traditional clay pots, which mellows the biting spirit over time even as the alcohol content rises through evaporation. Awamoris aged over 3 years are considered “kusu” or “old” spirits. These Awamori are highly sought after by connoisseurs and particularly old Awamori can sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. These older kusu Aamori are considered very brandy-like, though they’re almost impossible to find in the West. Prior to WWII it was common to have Awamori aged 100 years or longer, but due to the bombing campaign, all of these very old spirits were lost and only relatively young varieties remain. Within a few more years to decades 50 to 100 year old Awamori may once again be available to those willing to pay the premium.
Awamori currently sold in the U.S. may be aged for a time, but does not include the premium 5, 7, 10, 0r 20 year varieties. However, the currently imported Awamori are very nice spirits in their own right. From the unapologetically earthy and herbal Ryukyu Ohcho to the sweet yet pungent Kumesen (not yet reviewed, but soon) to the complexly sweet and rich Zuisen Hakuryu, these spirits provide a variety of examples of Awamori and all are resolutely Okinawan.
Not all Awamori is careful aging and a focus on purity. Perhaps the most iconic image of Okinawan Awamori for many tourists is the sight of habushu, or pit viper spirits. Traditionally, these poisonous snakes renowned for their virility and vitality, were drowned and pickled in Awamori before consumption. More modern habushu is produced using a “cleaned” snake that has been gutted prior to bottling. This modern production reportedly reduces the overwhelmingly vile scent of traditional habushu and makes it much more palatable for tourists. At this point habushu is more of a novelty than a vital part of Okinawan drinking culture, but it’s hard to write a story about Okinawan drinking without mentioning this curious beverage.