Japan: Eating in Okinawa

by | May 2, 2012

Octopus and Umi Budo

As promised, here’s some photos from the Okinawa leg of my Japan trip. As you’ll see, Okinawa (and its food in particular) deserves special attention.

Okinawa is a small island off the Southern end of Japan. Though most Americans who visit Okinawa do so because of the large US military base there, we were interested because Okinawa is home to the longest lived people on the planet. The island of Okinawa, particularly a small village called Ogimi, has more people over the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world.

Okinawa

While there is certainly a genetic component to why these people live so long, we were curious about the dietary and lifestyle factors that might influence their longevity. We went out of our way looking for foods and beverages that are unique to Okinawa, and did our best to eat in as many traditional style restaurants as possible.

Fermented Turmeric Tea

One of the first things we noticed is that outside of downtown Okinawa (Naha), restaurants are shockingly difficult to find. This is because Okinawan’s prepare most of their food at home. In Ogimi, which was very underdeveloped and poor by normal 21st century standards, every home had a garden in the yard which seemed to be a chief source of food (along with sea vegetables and creatures). Interestingly, the most bustling part of the village was a central market dedicated to selling flowers. We found many of the happy citizens there, choosing bouquets from the fields of purple irises and yellow butterflies. They might not have a lot of money, but this place truly looked like paradise on earth.

Field of Irises

As you might expect we saw a fair amount of older people in Ogimi and around all of Okinawa (our cab driver we hired all day was in his high 70s). Though at first we assumed this was because there are more older individuals, we came to suspect that the real reason we were seeing them more often is because they appear far more active and engaged than older people in the US. Even people with crippling osteoporosis could be found browsing the local markets, undeterred by their disposition. Apparently they do not have a word for retirement.

Me and Ayaka Yamamoto

From a dietary perspective, there were several notable differences between Okinawa and mainland Japan. The first was vegetables. It wasn’t easy finding much green matter in Tokyo or Kyoto, but vegetables were plentiful in all Okinawan dishes.

Lunch in Naha

While lots of vegetables are served, the primary staples were goya (aka bittermelon), carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, daikon, rabe (a relative of broccoli), squash and a purple sweet potato known as ube.

Ube, Goya, Kabocha, Onion

Goya is the most common, and though its bitter aftertaste was a bit overwhelming at first, we quickly acclimated and learned to love the unusual vegetable.

Goya with Bonito Flakes

Another notable difference was the abundance of seaweed and seafood. I lost track of how many new sea veggies I tried, but all were awesome and probably filled with nutrients I’m not normally exposed to. We also ate a lot of shrimp, lobster, abalone and assorted fish.

Tropical Fish

The only other common animal products were pork and eggs.

Pig Face

There was also lots of tofu. (And yes, this tasted as gross as it looks.)

Fish on Tofu

My favorite new seaweed by far was umi budo (“sea grapes”). They tasted exactly like caviar, only vegetarian, and cooler looking. I wish so bad I could find these in San Francisco. I bet the chefs do as well.

Umi Budo

The best food experience we had on the island was at the restaurant of Ayaka Yamamoto (pictured with me above). Her restaurant was recommended to us by young Jiro, from the famed Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary (again, huge thanks to Tim Ferriss for translating and making this connection possible).

Well, at least I appreciated it.

She serves traditional Okinawan food and has a book on her philosophy of cooking with love.

Tempura Ube, Goya and Pork

Forget what this was, but it was tasty.

Miso Pork Belly (OMG yum)

Rice was notably lacking in the Okinawan diet. Though we had a few spoonfuls in the most traditional meal we ate at Yamamoto’s, it was a very small amount and the rice was brown instead of the usual white rice found in mainland Japan.

Brown Rice in Dashi

Okinawans rely more on the ube sweet potato for starch. “Soba” noodles (they didn’t look like buckwheat) are also common.

Okinawan Soba

Their diet wasn’t exactly sugar-free though. Okinawans are very proud of their brown sugar, which we all admitted was phenomenal.

Brown Sugar Tapioca

Many things have been suggested as the secret to Okinawan longevity: seafood, seaweed, bittermelon, fermented tofu, lack of rice, fermented turmeric tea (a common beverage), special Okinawan sea salts, brown sugar, awamori (their favorite liquor), and others. While they all likely contribute, all of us noticed that every aspect of the Okinawan lifestyle is healthier than anything we’d ever seen. Turns out that happy, active people who eat lots of home-cooked seafood and vegetables have a tendency to live a long time.

They also have giant lobsters.

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43 Responses to “Japan: Eating in Okinawa”

  1. Buddy says:

    I grew up in Oki and haven’t been back in over 20 years. Your article makes me miss it! I recall a lot of the dishes I use to eat there. I need to find an Okinawan cook book. Great article!

  2. cloudio says:

    Good article about Okinawa food.
    You can add “Hara hachi bu” (eat until you 80% full only) and scratch Awamori from the secrets of their longevity: in fact women live longer in Okinawa because they dont usually drink.
    I am not saying alchool is always bad, because in Sardinia, the second place in the world with highest number of centenarianas Cannonau wine, very rich in antioxidant is really drank by everyone a lot

  3. Iris says:

    Great post! Okinawa just jumped up several spots on my travel list. It looks gorgeous and the food sounds awesommmme

  4. Ali says:

    Mm. My mouth is watering! Your trip looks delicious.

    Also, thank you for the meticulous subtitle “Pig Face” – made me chuckle.

  5. Dee says:

    Sea vegetables = interesting

    Goya/ bittermelon= eeew yuck!, ow did they prepare it to be palatable?

    • Darya Pino says:

      It was totally palatable and I was shocked. Not completely lacking bitterness, but nothing like I’ve been able to pull off at home. I’m totally going to ask my Okinawan chef friend how they do it.

      • ET says:

        If you slice the goya and then soak it in water for a bit, it cuts the bitterness.

      • Chris says:

        There are a number of tricks that reduce the bitterness of goya, but that’s for the tourist palate. If you order a goya dish at a local restaurant, the chef probably isn’t going to do anything like that. People enjoy the bitterness.

  6. Jon says:

    Okinawa is one of the great underrated travel destinations and, by the looks of it, a great underrated foodie one as well. I agree it can be pretty hard to find restaurants outside downtown Naha though; We’ve driven many tired miles in fruitless searches. Always found something good at the end though.

  7. Chris Kelley says:

    Great article and great food. The pic you labeled Okinawa soba is something else. Okinawa soba looks alot different and is my son’s absolute favorite dish. Got tons of pics of him eating it on my facebook page. The food here really is great and the people are extremely laid back.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Whoa, really? We had it in at least 2-3 different spots and it always looked like these thin white noodles. Is the soba you find purple/gray like it is in the rest of Japan?

      • Chris says:

        The picture shows Somen Chanpuru, not Okinawa Soba.

      • CC says:

        Soba is sometimes used as a generic term for noodles.

      • Chris Kelley says:

        The noodles in your pic are too thin. Okinawa Soba noodles thickness is between what you have in your pic and Udon noodles and are off white in color. Each place has it’s own spin on the Okinawa Soba recipe, but the traditional Okinawa Soba has the broth, noodles, ribs(soki), a slice of fish cake, and a bit of ginger. My family and I eat it regularly and like to try different Soba restaurants on the island. If you are ever back on island I’ll be more than happy to list some places for you to try.

  8. Joe says:

    Looking at those delectable food pics, and I’m thinking I must have been Japanese in my last life.

    The food is so balanced, natural and fresh; however, I’ve become squeamish about raw fish — though I love the taste, I worry about the overfishing, and mercury and parasites in the fish.

    Good to see ole, Tim Ferriss, a fella I’ve been paying attention to for some time.

  9. Tim Ferriss says:

    Hi y’all,

    Okinawa was amazing. The goya wasn’t too bitter, the pork and pork belly (very, very plentiful) was delicious, and the turmeric tea was ubiquitous.

    Can’t wait to go back. Seriously, check out “umi budo,” which literally means “ocean grape.”

    Ja ne,

    Tim Ferriss

  10. paul says:

    where can we find ayaka yamamoto’s restaurant??

  11. jbug says:

    wow. all looks so healthy and fermented turmeric tea sounds especially healthy. no wonder they live so long! thank you for sharing your experience!

  12. Wil C says:

    Umi Budo. Cannot wait to try it. Thanks so much for taking the time to snap the pics and post.

  13. Matthew says:

    Hahaha, the pig head with the sunglasses looks so funny! Great pics Darya.
    The Iris flowers look fantastic (love this purple) and so do you with the lady below.

  14. Sidney says:

    I have been to Tokyo and Kyoto but never have a chance to go to Okinawa. How is the cost of living in Okinawa?

  15. Dom says:

    Great post…I always hear vague things about the Okinawan diet, but hardly anyone actually gives the names of the actual vegetables used. It’s kind of interesting that some parts of the Philippines use bitter melon, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, Kabocha squash, and ube in their cooking. From what I know, I think it tends to be more in the countryside (like in Pangasinan) where they eat less meat and more vegetables.

  16. Susan V says:

    Just in case you don’t see the post on your Facebook page:

    This place in SFO has Umi Budo on a seaweed salad as part of the third course: http://www.ozumosanfrancisco.com/private-and-group-dining/menus/dinner/

    Just figured you might get a craving, and other SFO foodies may want to try it!

  17. Camila says:

    I finally found a recipe for tumeric tea that sounds amazing. It’s not fermented though. I can’t find anywhere online that teaches you how to ferment the tea. Daria, this would be a super post if you decided to tackle it. In the mean time, I’ll be rocking this in the am: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/creamy-turmeric-tea/#axzz1uCxqTrgs

    PS – I’m sure it’s not hard to ferment the tea, you probably just boil the root and let it sit in water for a few days. Don’t know why I can’t find instructions anywhere…

    • Darya Pino says:

      I’m actually looking through the scientific literature for a method and might have found something. If it’s worthwhile I’ll post it.

      • Camila says:

        Oh wow! Thank you so much Darya (I didn’t want to experiment too much and accidentally poison myself).

      • Ryan Peters says:

        There are a number of ways to incorporate turmeric into your diet, and some of the more interesting are through fermenting. I have found some evidence that fermentation positively effects the already present benefits of turmeric. You can see the studies I link to on my just born baby blog

        [link removed]

        Basically, in your stomach curcumin(a beneficial component of turmeric) is transformed into simpler products that we can call metabolites. It is the metabolites that can be absorbed by our bodies most efficiently. These metabolites are very beneficial, by the way. It is through digestion in the gut by microbes and enzymes that metabolites come to be. Fermenting is like a pre-digestion that, I believe, enhances curcumin and turmeric by making the minerals and curcumin more bio-available.

  18. Camila says:

    Sorry that I didn’t spell your name correctly. Doh!

  19. George Slim says:

    I’m a fan of eating edible sea vegetables (wakame, kombu, sea lettuce, nori, and dulse

  20. Eric Gower says:

    Darya, bummed you didn’t ask me about Okinawa before leaving! I spent a lot of time there. Best diving in the world is probably in Zamami.

    Cooking goya to minimize bitterness: the most common trick is to slice it however you need to for the dish, and then to blanch/parboil it. This removes at least 80 percent of the bitterness….

    Did you drink any matcha while there?

    Great photos, great story!

  21. Jill says:

    The miso pork belly looks (and sounds) amazing (is it similar to taste to bacon ? The sea grapes look interesting and would love to be able to find them ! Great post !

  22. cloudio says:

    I guess you guys missed in Okinawa the ultimate sushi experience with Kumamoto san :)
    http://www.vagabondjourney.com/travelogue/the-ultimate-sushi-experience/

  23. REA says:

    I enjoy reading your journey through Japan. It felt like I was on the trip too. I love the pictures of the bright color foods. Japan is a country that eats healthy. Ashame how America does not follow their lead on eating healthy. I’m a believer in the alternative routes. Keep pushing the message because I sure will be doing so as well. Thanks for the journey to one of the countries on my bucket list.

    [link removed]

  24. REA says:

    I enjoy reading your journey through Japan. I love the pictures of the colorful foods you’ve experienced in eating. The Japanese does eat healthy. Ashame America doesn’t push more on healthy eating and alternative routes. Keep pushing the knowledge. I know I sure will be pushing the alternative routes as well. Thanks for the journey to one of the countries on my bucket list.

    http://livingitupalternatively.blogspot.com/

  25. Carl says:

    Hi i went there soley based on this article…it was good to experience this last authentic type of okinawan food but i have to say i didnt enjoy the food. I thought it was lacking in taste and the fermented tofu in alot of the dishes is quite strong and not favoured by all. It was very expensive too. I just want to make it aware as i was super excited at first based on reading this blog. Its not for everyone.

  26. Carl says:

    Oh btw i was talking about ayaka yamamoto restaurant which has now changed name as i assume she is retired. Same address new shop name ryu-ne.
    I went to many other restaurants too and the food was brilliant – soba, the veggies, beef tepanyaki and pork dishes…never in my life have i eaten so much pork!!

  27. Carl says:

    Hi Darya, dont get me wrong i think the chef (i think the chef used to train under Ayaka Yamomoto) put great effort in the preparation and ingredients were v fresh…but just think think this type of cuisine is not for all. Lots of tofu n chunks of pork. But i tried all your other food recommendations which were indeed yummy!! Loved the sea grapes, bitter melon, soba… Heres a few places my local okinawan friend took us to: Hamaya in naha – was great authentic place. Great simple recipe. I have to say the pork didnt look too appealing in the pic menu but it was super delicious – braised pork, noodles and broth YUM! He-Ki on international street was delicious – tepanyaki beef – this is a more upscale joint. Delicious quality beef!! I wld def go back to Okinawa! Recommend summer!

  28. Henry says:

    Umi budo is from 2 Caulerpa species – C. lentillifolia and C. racemosa which are usually pests in any salt water aquarium in the USA. (They are used to scrub nitorgen from the tanks but need to be removed periodically). I normally toss a bucket out into my compost every 2 months. Find a friend with salt water tank and you can have as much as you like.

    In the Philipines they are served in a onion/tomatoe/vinegar/fish sauce salad, the Chinese will fry it with pork fat, and in Okinawa it is eaten on noodles, rice, sashimi or just by itself with vinegar. I have read a report of Umi budo ice cream from Okinawa…

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