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TASTE OF TRAVEL: OKINAWA

Not Quite Japanese : The Cuisine of These Islands Is Bold, Earthy and in Some Ways Closer to China than Japan

March 20, 1994|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based free-lance writer and textile historian who specializes in Okinawa.

NAHA, Okinawa — Picking my way over the bumpy dirt road behind the Sakae market, the melancholy strains of a shamisen, barely audible above the hubbub of voices, greet me as I duck under the curtain and slide open the door of the bar/restaurant Urizun.

The regulars at the bar scoot over to make room for me on my first night back in Naha. Our host and friend, Tsuchiya Saneyuki, welcomes me back and introduces me to a few people I haven't met before. He places in front of me a small, heavy cup of dark brown earthenware from a local kiln, its unglazed surface glossed here and there with melted ash.

The clear, strong, brisk flavor of the colorless liquid within has none of the sweetness of sake . It perfectly complements the briny, slightly bitter taste of ajike no wata, the innards of a large bivalve, simply dressed with vinegar. Distilled from fragrant Thai rice, awamori is closer to the shochu distilled liquor of Japan's Kyushu island. These bold flavors embody the essence of Okinawa.

That there is indeed an Okinawan cuisine, different from that of Japan, is plain to anyone who has spent any time in those wind-swept islands of blazing colors and clear light. Pork in all its permutations and the conspicuous absence of fish from the formal meal; an emphasis on fresh vegetables, often enriched with pork; accents of garlic and the peppery spice piipaachi, and the copious use of konbu seaweed arouse the palate with flavors alien to the narrow range of Japanese food. Like the cuisines of southern China, salt rather than soy sauce brings out the essence.

Before Japan forcibly annexed it in 1879, Okinawa was an independent kingdom, known to the Japanese as Ryukyu. If anything, the influence of the south Chinese province of Fujian, where Okinawan government emissaries landed in the heyday of Ryukyu trade, dominates that of Japan. The tea served with local sweets is usually jasmine, brought to Okinawa from Fujian after annexation. In 1972, Okinawa once again became a prefecture of Japan, as it was from the late 19th Century until the final stage of World War II.

The Ryukyus also possess a distinctive culture strong enough to have survived submission to China and subjugation by Japan, the annual devastation of typhoons, and the near-total destruction of their material culture by both American and Japanese armed forces during World War II (in which one-third of the civilian population died) followed by almost three decades of American military occupation. The latter left an unfortunate heritage of a persistent penchant for Spam and Coca-Cola.

But food is one aspect of the local culture that survived the past century more nearly intact than many of the arts, since it is created anew many times a day with simple techniques and readily available, inexpensive ingredients. Okinawan cuisine, reflecting at the same time the people who make and enjoy it and the land that produces it, seems an indestructible part of Okinawan identity.

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The sprawling public market in the middle of downtown Naha is not only the belly but the heart of the city. The main entrance, at the conjunction of the main drag, Kokusai-dori, and Heiwa-dori, leads down a gentle slope into an arcaded warren of lanes lined with stalls, almost all of them manned by women. Many of these are the same women--some now in their seventies and eighties--who brought their own produce here in the years following the war, to sell and to buy on the black market to feed their families. The market has grown up around them.

Shopping in the early morning is not an Okinawan custom, and it isn't until late morning that the market really bustles with women shopping and selling.

Piles of glowing green vegetables, some familiar, some strange, seem to burst from the narrow stalls-- hechima (in Okinawan, naberaa, the same as the familiar luffah), a green gourd heavy with water; goya, a bitter gourd covered with warts; green papayas; smooth round winter melons, and a wealth of leafy greens--including nigana, a bitter green resembling dandelion greens, and fuchiba, known in mainland Japan as yomogi (in English as mugwort), where it's mainly used to flavor sweets.

Others have clearly defined medicinal functions, like the glossy deep purple leaves of handama , with a deliciously nutty flavor, good for cleaning out your system. Concealed beneath their scruffy skins, the violet-tinged potato (called ta-umu , "wet-field potato," in Okinawa) and the crimson-skinned murasaki-umu have been credited with saving the people of these islands from starvation. Imported from China at the beginning of the 17th Century, they supplanted millet and other grains as the staple food of the common people. Only the aristocracy and samurai classes ate rice. It wasn't until after World War II that most people in Okinawa began to eat rice regularly.

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