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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Japan: Fun in Tokyo & Kyoto

by | Apr 30, 2012
Sardines on a stick in Kyoto

Sardines on a stick in Kyoto

I spent the first two weeks of April traveling through Japan eating some pretty amazing things, and wanted to share some of the highlights with you here.

We started in Tokyo for the cherry blossom festival, then took the train to Kyoto for a few days, then back to Tokyo two nights before flying to the island of Okinawa. This post will focus on the food and events on mainland Japan, and I’ll save Okinawa for another post.

Sadly we were not allowed to take many photographs at any of the sushi restaurants we visited, since photography was prohibited at most of them. Though we did manage to sneak in a few.

Enjoy!

Sumo lunch

Otoro at Sawada

Dreams of Sushi

Panda Toast

Sencha

Fish Stick

Starter

Kevin and Geisha (technically Maiko)
Dessert Tomato and Geisha (technically Geiko)

Eel with Nori

Godzilla Attack

Koi

Tofu and Green Onion

Yaki

Lobster Teppanyaki

Temple Garden in Kyoto

Kyoto at Night

Under a Cherry Tree

Thanks to my travel partners Kevin Rose, Tim Ferriss and his lady friend Natasha for a trip of a lifetime.

Tags: ,

Farmers Market Update: Osaka, Japan

by | Mar 27, 2011
Osaka Market Customer Line

Osaka Market Customer Line

Huge thanks again to Joan Bailey for sharing another Japanese farmers market with us, this time from Osaka. (The first was Tokyo). I absolutely love Joan’s narrative descriptions of the Japanese markets and all the unique offerings, it makes me hunger to do more traveling.

I also asked Joan for a brief update on the situation in Tokyo, where she lives. You can read more about the what is happening there at the bottom of her post.

Joan lives, farms and gardens in Tokyo. Follow her from seed to harvest to market at Popcorn Homestead and Everyday Gardens as well as Twitter.

Farmers Market Update: Odona Farmer’s Market in Osaka

by Joan Bailey

Our final fling in Osaka before returning to Tokyo was a trip to the Odona Farmer’s Market. I’d missed it on a visit to the city in early January, and since we’d self-evacuated there after the March 11th earthquake it seemed as good a time as any to do a bit of exploring. (Nothing like a farmer’s market to scare off the aftershock-radiation blues, I say.)

Japan’s third largest city, Osaka lies about 320 miles south of Tokyo. A charming city with slightly rougher edges than its sleek northern cousin (think Chicago versus New York), it offers the market-goer a veritable cornucopia of shopping locations year-round.

While not the largest in the city, the Odona Market was certainly one of the busiest I’ve seen in Osaka so far. Named for the posh department store whose front sidewalk it fills, market vendors benefit from being on a direct path to Yodoyabashi Station in a major business-shopping-touristy area. Even as we arrived shortly after the market opened a number of serious shoppers were already on the scene and one stall had already sold out of their supply of dried beans.

Seafood Stall

Seafood Stall

Bundled up against a brisk March wind that whipped along the high-rise lined street, shoppers and vendors alike surveyed a scene of fantastic winter bounty. Citrus, a wide assortment of winter greens and vegetables mingled with some early spring favorites like nanohana (a signature spring green) and strawberries, heaps of onions, beautiful brown eggs, white and brown rice, homemade mochi, miso, tsukemono (pickles), cakes, jam, tea, assorted mushrooms, and even bubbling styrofoam crates of fresh (a.k.a. living) seafood were on offer.

Throwing myself into the fray of bicycling housewives, cane-toting grandmothers bent at the waist, black-suited office workers, and young mothers towing uniformed school children, I started shopping.

Narakiyorisa Farmers

Narakiyorisa Farmers

Starting at the end farthest from the station, I first visited Narakiyorisa Farms from nearby Minami Awajishi. Like most vendors this afternoon, three people worked the stall. Two stood behind to answer questions and handle sales while a third stood out front welcoming customers, answering questions, and monitoring restocking needs. While their onions, broccoli, and nanohana tempted, it was the big bag of homemade mochi that had me sidling up for a closer look.

Mochi

Mochi

Mochi, made from pounded rice, can be eaten savory or sweet, grilled or plunked in a bowl of hot miso. Really, the possibilities are endless, and while the texture puts some folks off (a bit gooey and chewy) it is one of my favorite things ever. The varieties are nearly endless, as are the regional variations in flavor, shape and style, and I never pass up an opportunity to purchase it at market. In hindsight, I wish I’d also grabbed some of their dried onion soup. Made with their own onions and a selection of herbs and spices, it did sound like a perfect treat for a chilly spring evening. Instead, I snapped up a bag of their pickled daikon for our journey home. I know what I’ll buy next time!

Just down the line from Narakiyorisa I stopped at a table overflowing with vegetable goodness. Sourced from a number of area farms I was greeted by tight round heads of red cabbage, brilliant white daikon, celery stalks, and bright early strawberries; however, it was Kaizukashi Sobura’s shiitake mushrooms that stole the show. Raised on the outskirts of the city, my mouth watered at the site of those fat little fellows. Before I knew it they were in my bag as the perfect souvenir – light as well as tasty – to carry home.

Strawberries

Strawberries

Since Osaka hosts a number of markets (at least five that I know of) spread throughout the week at varying locations, it’s perhaps no surprise that I ran into two growers I met during my January roamings. Numa-san and her bottles of homemade yuzu, tomato, and orange juices were easy to spot. Last time I had purchased Shishiyuzu (a softball sized yuzu) for marmalade, and this time I gave serious thought to the large bags of yuzu seeds for sale. Showing me the sample jar of them soaking in alcohol (the rubbing, not drinking variety), she recommended the mixture as a refreshing and cleansing spray for face or hands. (A single yuzu holds a huge number of seeds, so discovering a use for all of them would take some of the tedium out of the marmalade process.) I opted instead for her homemade daifuku mochi. After tasting a sample of her komugi (mugwort) mochi with perfectly sweetened anko (sweet adzuki bean paste) centers, I was helpless.

Yuzu Seeds

Yuzu Seeds

Koroku and Nakama Farms split their time between a Saturday market on one of the river walks and the Odona Market. Located in Izumi and Nara (one of Japan’s ancient capital cities and home to some of the most spectacular architecture in the country) respectively, the real attraction of their stall are their heirloom vegetables. (Heirlooms can be hard to find in Japan, even at farmer’s markets. Like the US, most people only know one kind of tomato, soy bean, or squash, despite a long and deep tradition of regional varieties.)

Two kinds of renkon (lotus root), some of the first sansai (mountain vegetables) I’d seen this year, joined a mix of greens. Sensuji, a hardier looking version of mizuna that resembles kale a bit in texture and taste, and Yamatomanna, an older and mixed version of nanohana (rape), had me striking up a conversation in my bad Japanese in short order. Both can be quickly steamed and tossed with soy sauce and sugar like shingiku or thrown in traditional winter dishes like nabe (a dream of a boiled dinner) for a bit of green crunch in a season when it is most desired.

Remembering that we were traveling that evening, I chose instead a bag of hasaku or, as the farmer called them, Japanese grapefruit. Sour with a spark of sweetness, they nearly glowed in their newspaper lined crate at the front of the stall, and they looked like a cheerful gift to bring back to somewhat stressful Tokyo.* It would travel well, and the season for citrus will begin to come to a close shortly. It seemed only prudent to make the most of the opportunity.

Sakezuke

Sakezuke

As the sun began setting and lights flickered on at the stalls, I stopped at Yamato-Shokuhin’s stall to sample their sakezuke. Pieces of eggplant, cucumber, ginger, and daikon are set in sake lees (the dregs of the sake making process) for a period of time, which preserves and flavor them. It’s a fermentation/pickling process similar to what we do with sauerkraut or even quick refrigerator pickles. Usually served in tiny bowls amongst a myriad of other tiny bowls full of delightful and surprising flavors, sakezuke is just one part of a pickle tradition that varies from region to region, town to town. This little flavor of Osaka would come to Tokyo, but this time just for us.

What I bought:

  • Daifuku Mochi from Numa-san
  • Hasaku from Kiroku Farm
  • Regular mochi and pickled daikon from Narakiyoisa Farm
  • Shiitake mushrooms from Kaizukashi Sobura
  • Ginger and cucumber sakezuke from Yamato-Shokuhin

We’ve since returned to a calmer Tokyo. The aftershocks are gradually lessening, although up north in the Tohoku region where the damage is worst, they continue. Our concerns about radiation and earthquakes, while valid, seem tiny in comparison to what is happening there. Supplies to the evacuation shelters continue to be a challenge, although organizations like Second Harvest work to meet it and care for survivors. And while there are also valid worries about radiation contaminated vegetables from Ibaraki, Fukushima, and Chiba prefectures, it perhaps pays more to worry about the farmers themselves. The majority of them are small growers who willingly destroyed valuable spring crops to protect themselves and those they feed. Now, more than ever, it pays – for the farmer as well as the consumer – to buy vegetables from local growers at small stands or at farmer’s markets.

Tags: , , , , ,

Farmers Market Update: Tokyo

by | Oct 24, 2010
Shisikaikai

Shisikaikai

I’ve always wanted to go to Tokyo, and this seals the deal. Huge thanks to Joan for giving us a glimpse of the local food movement direct from Japan.

Joan Lambert Bailey lives, farms, and gardens in Tokyo. Follow her from seed to harvest to market at Popcorn Homestead and Everyday Gardens, as well as greenz.

Follow Joan on Twitter @JoanLBailey

Farmers Market Update: Tokyo

by Joan Lambert Bailey

First thoughts of Tokyo usually do not include farmer’s markets. Yet, this megalopolis balances its abundance of concrete, neon, and skyscrapers with a healthy dose of green spaces large and small that in the last few years have begun to include a handful of western-style farmers markets. A burgeoning local food movement fueled by food safety concerns as well as a cultural penchant for local, seasonal foods draw growers, producers, and eaters together in ever-increasing numbers to mix and mingle over tables brimming with seasonal fare.

Fruit Stall

Fruit Stall

Ryohei Watanabe Farm

Ryohei Watanabe Farm

Heading down to the weekly United Nations University Farmers Market is to enter one of the city’s larger hives of fresh, local foods. An easy (albeit slightly uphill) walk from hopping Shibuya, the market attracts growers and producers from literally all over the country. (“Local” here often means not only the city or region the market is located in, but Japan itself.) On our most recent trip we met vendors from the northernmost island of Hokkaido, as far south as the island of Kyushu, mountainous Nagano, and the Izu-Hanto Peninsula. Many also come from as close as Chiba, a fantastically beautiful growing area just southwest of Tokyo, as famous for its rice and vegetables as it is for it’s surfing.

Edamame

Edamame

Kaki

Kaki

The day we went a spell of cool rainy weather had just broken and bursts of sunshine seemed to sprout shoppers in every corner of the market. Lined up two deep at nearly each of the more than seventy stalls arrayed under white awnings in front of the university, the atmosphere buzzed with good food shopping. Vendors offered up a mix of the last of the summer – eggplants, okra, nashi (Japanese pear) and edamame – alongside the first tastes of fall and winter – kaki (persimmon), chestnuts, apples, sweet potatoes and early winter greens. The first of this year’s rice harvest as well as new miso, honey, jam, green yuzu, grapes, and satoimo (taro) helped fill out the days selection, too. It’s easy to find enough ingredients for a week’s worth of meals. (I confess that I usually overdo because I can’t resist a good-looking vegetable!)

Baskets

Baskets

Satoimo

Satoimo

On our first turn about to see what was on offer I stopped to visit Ryohei Watanabe of Farm Campus, a new CSA where members purchase a cross-section of rows of assorted seasonal vegetables with the option to work the fields themselves. Along with brochures about his CSA, Ryohei offered up moroheya – a tasty and nutritious leafy green, lovely winter squash in all sizes, Chinese greens, okra, green peppers, and eggplant. He’s toying with the idea of planting late season sweet corn, an experiment I’m anxious to hear (and taste) the results of when the time comes. Meanwhile, I couldn’t resist the squash, and so a medium Yukigesyo was the first purchase to land in my bag.

Down the lane a bit, just past a beautiful display of blue, red, and yellow potatoes from Hokkaido, I ran into KOGA Ecological Club. A student group from Kokugakuin University, KOGA members work with aging farmers in a shiraku (hamlet) in Chiba. Learning farming from preparing fields for harvest to selling the harvest at market, they offered chestnuts, samples of newly harvested boiled peanuts, as well as kodaimai, an heirloom rice distinctive for its easy growing as well as its red coloring, and togarashi (Japanese hot peppers). Clearly enjoying themselves, this table drew in a bevy of customers for their infectious enthusiasm as much as their tasty wares. Caught up in it myself, I added chestnuts, kodaimai, and togarashi to our upcoming menu.

Kodaimai

Kodaimai

Swinging around to the other side of the market past stalls selling rock salt, mushroom spore filled logs for home growing, and fresh bread, I stopped to sample the steamed buns filled with sweet potato from Shikisaisai in Fukushima. An all organic farm run by a young couple, they alone could have filled our larder for the week. Reasonably priced bags of newly harvested brown rice and big shapely sweet potatoes dug just the day before joined the usual combination of later summer and early winter vegetables. This first taste of the year’s limited sweet potato harvest (high heat paired with drought conditions are making for a very limited supply of this signature fall crop) made it inevitable that two of them would get added to our menu for steaming with that evening’s rice.

Just next to Shikisaisai, the Sunny Products booth offered up a myriad of vegetables along with some tasty looking eringi, one of the many seasonal mushrooms swinging into their peak just now and considerably cheaper than the famous matsutake. Like a handful of other vendors at this particular market, Sunny Products is a distributor rather than a grower. Carefully labeled items let customers know the name of the farm and its location, and staff are able to discuss a particular grower as well as share recipes. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the eringi journeyed home to our table, too.

Circling back around, I ventured over to a particularly nice looking display of kaki (persimmon) near Farm Campus’ stall. Perhaps the fruit of the season in Japan, kaki trees can be found in urban and suburban areas as well as outlying areas heavy with fruit. This booth served up three varieties from Aichi and Fukuoka Prefectures – long and chubby, round and fat, and square and stout – with slightly differing levels of sweetness. Tasty fresh, dried, or even soaked in sake for extended periods of time, the kaki never disappoints. I came away with one of each to compare for myself and for a colorful dessert option.

Read more about How to pick a persimmon

What we bought:

  • Yukigesyo Winter Squash
  • Chestnuts
  • Kodaimai Heirloom Rice
  • Togarashi
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Eringi Mushrooms
  • Kaki

Tips and Insights

  • The UN University Market runs every weekend on both Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Most vendors come both days, but not all. It’s worth the effort to try and come both days or switch back and forth from week to week.
  • Every third Friday of the month a Night Market is held. Food vendors, live music, and farmers make for a unique evening out in the city. Even on the chilliest of evenings it’s not to be missed!
  • Not all vendors, of course, speak English, but smiles, a general show of interest and a sincere “Arigato!” (thank you) at the end all go a long way for a positive food shopping experience.
  • Not all vendors are organic or necessarily farmers. Some are distributors, like Sunny Products, and others are Tokyo relatives of the growers. Asking where the food comes from and how it got to Tokyo is fine, and the majority of vendors will have brochures or business cards with a website listed, too.
  • Bring an extra shopping bag as well as a small notebook. If you’re like me, you end up buying more than you thought, and it’s easier to remember the name of a new fruit or vegetable if you can jot it down. Plus, a recipe often follows, and you’ll get so many good ones you should be prepared.
  • Plenty of interesting food carts are on hand, too, selling everything from coffee and pastries to full meals – vegetarian, organic, and meaty – with accompanying tables and chairs.
  • A few craft vendors are also present selling beautiful handmade goods that make excellent gifts for anyone (including yourself!) on your list.
Tags: , , , ,