Okinawan food is — for me at least — the food of summer. When the days are short and chill, I have little interest in the flavors of Japan’s southwestern isles. But when the heat and humidity build like a thunderhead, that is the time the cravings arise.
Knobbly jade-green gourds of piercing bitterness; juicy, rich cubes of fatty pork belly; fermented tofu, tangily redolent of blue cheese; crunchy seaweed clusters shaped like miniature bunches of grapes. These are tastes and textures that beckon me like an exotic overseas holiday.
There’s only one drawback. Most Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo are about as basic as a backpacking beach trip. They are tasty, colorful and fun, and above all affordable. But they can leave you feeling like you’re dining with sand between your toes.
In place of izakaya tavern ambience, sometimes I’m in the mood for something more sophisticated, for a business lunch perhaps, or a quiet evening à deux. That’s the way they do it at Akasaka Tantei.
There is nowhere else like it in the city. The inspiration is unmistakably Okinawan, as are the ingredients — but they are prepared and presented with the understated elegance of Kyoto and its elaborate kaiseki multicourse cuisine. It’s an intriguing cross-cultural melding, and one that by and large works wonderfully.
Intrigued but not convinced? Set aside a leisurely hour or more at midday and order the Tantei Gozen (¥4,500) “small kaiseki” lunch. More compact set meals (from ¥1,800) are also available for those with office schedules, but the extra outlay in time and budget gives a far better introduction to the way a kaiseki meal unfolds.
Once you are installed in your private room — all decorated with wood and coarse mud walls in rustic Okinawan style — the meal opens with a flourish. The first course will be a large black lacquered box in which a dozen or more appetizers are attractively arranged. These colorful tidbits from both sea and land are prepared in contrasting styles, some raw, others grilled, yet others deep-fried or simmered.
As always, the exact composition will change with the season, but one dish that features year-round is jimami-dōfu (peanut “tofu”). The small white sphere has the smooth texture of goma-dōfu, a standard appetizer in traditional Kyoto cuisine, but instead of sesame it has the unmistakable under-taste of creamed peanuts. This is one of the classic dishes of Okinawa, with a simple refreshing refinement.
You will also find a saucer of shima-mozuku, a delicate seaweed that grows profusely around the islands and is invariably served with a rice-vinegar dressing. There will also be small cuts of pork and grilled fish, and a cube of dashimaki tamago omelet, lightly sweetened with cane sugar.
And without fail, you can expect to find morsels of tempura, crunchy rakkyō shallots and slices of gōya, the dark-green gourd that more than lives up to its standard English translation as “bitter melon.” These are all quintessential Okinawan dishes, but rarely are they prepared with this level of delicacy.
Once you have nibbled your way through this opening course, the lacquered box will be replaced by a bowl of clear soup. The fragrant dashi stock, prepared with plenty of prime konbu seaweed just as it would be in Kyoto, may hold fronds of shredded vegetables, such as daikon, runner beans and kabocha squash, evoking a submarine seascape in miniature.
In any other setting, a kaiseki meal featuring pork would be remarkable. Not in Okinawa, where — as the folk saying has it — every part of the pig is eaten except the oink. Ears and trotters are essential parts of the islanders’ traditional snout-to-curly-tail diet. But the main dish at Tantei is a more deluxe cut altogether.
There are few tastier preparations for pork belly than rafutī. The cubes of meat are slowly simmered until they are meltingly soft, while the fat is carefully skimmed off during the cooking process, resulting in cuts that are firm, rich, satisfying and not greasy on the palate.
Don’t be surprised if you find more of that gōya cooked in with your rice — the green gourd has a reputation for being especially good for you in the heat of summer — while the miso soup contains clouds of homemade tofu curds made in island style.
The meal closes with a more accessible flourish: a slice of cheesecake. Yet this too has a local accent. The layer of crumbled chinsuko cookies (a local shortbread) is topped with pureed ta-imo, a yam that is an island staple. It’s another cross-cultural touch, but prepared with finesse and a doff of the hat to tradition.
This is all a far cry from Okinawan home cooking, and the kind of honest straightforward izakaya street food I love to nibble on with shots of awamori, the high-octane island hooch. I like to think of it as kaiseki with island attitude — and just right for the heat of midsummer.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.