Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Goya Chanpuru in Okinawa Japan

Mention of the Okinawan archipelago brings a misty-eyed look to many Japanese. These are their vacation islands, more relaxed than the mainland and with their own distinctive culture. The most famous dish of their indigenous cuisine is the stir-fry goya chanpuru, one of the super-healthy dishes credited with helping the Okinawans become some of the longest-lived people in the world.

The Okinawan archipelago lies 435 miles (700 km) south of mainland Japan and is made up of over 100 islands. Until the early 17th century, Okinawa was entirely independent from Japan. A few architectural traces of the Ryukyu kingdom from this pre-feudal era still remain, such as Shuri Castle on the main island of Okinawa Honto, and there are glimpses of its culture on the outlying islands of Taketomi and Iriomote.
Until the 17th century, Okinawa’s culture and cuisine were more influenced by China, with which it had traded for centuries. The Ryukyus were a famously peaceable people – legend has it that they solved differences with guitars rather than swords – which makes it bitterly ironic that these islands were the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
War veterans still make pilgrimages to Okinawa’s main battle sites, but far greater numbers come for the diving, water sports, and wonderful beaches. Aside from its tourist industry, which is largely made up of Japanese along with Americans from the local US air base, Okinawa is a sleepy kind of place, particularly away from its capital, Naha. However, in recent years there has been a growing interest in the longevity of Okinawans born before 1939. The islands are said to have more centenarians per capita than any other part of the world, and the average life span for women is 85 years; it’s 78 for men. Gerontologists have ascribed this to a variety of factors, but one of the main ones is thought to be their diet.

Many of Okinawa’s beautiful beaches have coral reefs and are great places for snorkeling
Chanpuru is the Okinawan for “stir fry” (it literally means “something mixed” and is also used to refer to the islanders’ openness to foreign ideas, as in “chanpuru culture”). The most famous kind is goya chanpuru, made with goya, an indigenous knobby cucumber that has been proven to reduce blood pressure and has even been used to treat AIDs. Though unbearably bitter when eaten raw, goya is transformed when stir-fried with pork, tofu, vegetables, soy sauce, eggs, and sake. Word has caught on among the famously health-obsessed Japanese, and goya’s fast-spreading popularity means goya chanpuru is well on the way to becoming a Japanese culinary staple.

The vast Makishi Market in the center of Naha sells all kinds of foods, including some unique to Okinawa
Best Places to Eat Goya Chanpuru
Emi no Mise (Emi’s Place)
The village of Ogimi in northern Okinawa Honto is famous for its large number of elderly residents, including several centenarians, most of whom have become quite used to the attention of interviewers from international TV channels. The only restaurant in this sleepy town is Emi’s, the so-called “longevity restaurant,” which is famous for its classic Okinawan cuisine. The eponymous Emi skillfully combines many of the ingredients that are thought to contribute to a long life: plenty of seafood, of course, including squid and octopus, plus lots of tofu – either plain and lightly poached, or the fiery red fermented type known as tofuyo (so assertively flavored that you are supposed to nibble at it using a toothpick).
These are accompanied by simply steamed rice, crunchy-tart pickles and, of course, plenty of locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits, including dragon-fruit ice cream made from the fruit that grows outside the restaurant’s front door. Some form of chanpuru is invariably on the menu, usually with the telltale smiling green slices of goya cucumber in the mix. Be warned, though – this is no ordinary diet food.
Emi’s dishes taste terrific and are beautifully presented, but one of the main reasons behind Okinawan longevity is thought to be calorific restriction – in other words, not eating too much. Here, this is tricky indeed.
61 Aza-Oganeku, Ogimi Village; open 10 AM–4 PM Wed–Mon;
Also in Okinawa
The largest collection of restaurants in Okinawa is found in its quiet, low-rise capital, Naha. Many serve goya chanpuru, but by far the best places to eat in town – for atmosphere at least – are the ramshackle restaurants on the first floor of the Makishi Market. As well as various chanpurus, you can make the most of the astounding selection of tropical seafood on sale in the market downstairs: point at what you fancy, and the vendors will send it upstairs to your restaurant to be cooked.
Also in Japan
Okinawan restaurants have begun to crop up in the larger cities of Japan. Tokyo has several, of which some are upmarket, but Okinawan food is somehow better eaten in the more rough-andready surroundings of an izakaya, or Japanese pub, such as Okinawa (+81 3464 2576; moderate) in the entertainment district of Shibuya. Be sure, too, to try the very special, potent Okinawan spirit awamori. It is distilled from rice and often sold with deadly (but dead) poisonous habu snakes coiled up in the bottle.
Longevity Food
Okinawa’s typhoons make rice-growing tricky, but one crop that flourishes in this rain-washed, mineral-rich earth is the Okinawan purple sweet potato. These beni imo, as they are called, are high in flavonoids, which are antioxidants and act as hormone blockers, and they are also rich in carotenoids, vitamin E, fiber, and lycopene, which has been shown to help prevent prostate cancer.
One of these sweet potatoes contains four times the daily vitamin A and half the vitamin C requirements of an adult. Recent research has also indicated that beni imo can help stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.
Okinawans eat them in tempura and add them to cakes, but best of all is Okinawan sweet potato ice cream. Of course, this probably undermines a good deal of the health benefits, but the taste is ample compensation.
Three Days in Okinawa
Okinawa is made up of over 100 islands spread out over a considerable distance, so if you plan on seeing more than just the main island, you will need at least three or four days. However, many Japanese pop down to the main island simply for a long weekend by the beach.
DAY ONE : Spend a day wandering the archipelago’s capital, Naha. Go shopping (and eat) at the enormous Makishi Market and poke among the capital’s shops for Ryukyuan lacquerware and glassware.
DAY TWO : Head to the north of Okinawa Honto to enjoy the beaches or visit the Ocean Expo Park, which has a gigantic aquarium and is home to the Native Okinawan Village, featuring 20 houses from different eras. Then take a diving trip out to some of Japan’s best coral reefs, or chill out at a beachside bar and try local delicacies like goya chanpuru and umibudo (caviar-like seaweed).
DAY THREE : Take a short flight to the southernmost island of Iriomote and go hiking through the jungle in search of the super-rare Iriomote wild cat (fewer than 100 are thought to remain).
Getting to Okinawa Japan
There are regular flights from mainland Japan to Naha’s airport, which also receives some international flights. There are decent ferry and air networks between the islands.
Where to stay in Okinawa Japan
APA Hotel Naha (inexpensive) is a large, business-oriented hotel with reasonably priced rooms.
Okinawa Nahana Hotel (moderate) has large, modern rooms and a spa; it’s also handily within walking distance of the market.
Busena Terrace (expensive) is Okinawa’s most lavish resort hotel, complete with underwater viewing tower.

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