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Okinawans know how to beat the heat

by Makiko Itoh

Now that most of Japan is in the midst of a hot, sweltering summer, it’s a good time to take a look at the traditional cuisine of a part of the country that lives with warm weather throughout the year: Okinawa.

Okinawans are renowned worldwide for their longevity, and while a healthy, easygoing lifestyle may have as much to do with that as anything else, their traditional cuisine may contribute to it too. It features lots of fresh, local land and sea vegetables, tofu and seafood, together with pork (the consumption of which has increased substantially since the end of World War II).

The most famous Okinawan dish is probably gōyā champurū. It’s a humble stir-fry of tofu, egg, pork and an odd-looking vegetable called gōyā in the Okinawan language, nigauri or tsuru reishi in Japanese and bitter gourd or bitter melon in English. Bitter gourd is a subtropical plant that’s grown throughout the subtropical parts of Asia; in Japan, it’s primarily grown in the southern parts of the country including Okinawa. While it’s available year-round these days, like other plants in the cucurbitaceae family, such as cucumbers and squash, its true season is summer to fall.

Bitter gourd looks rather like an offspring of Godzilla with its bright green, bumpy skin, and if you try to eat it without knowing anything, you might think it’s as lethal as the legendary monster. It’s tremendously bitter, and not in a pleasant way at all. You have to marvel at our ancestors who even thought of eating something so acrid in the first place.

However, the purported health benefits of bitter gourd may make getting used to that bitterness worthwhile. Various powers credited to this knobby fruit, some of which are backed up by medical research, include lowering blood glucose levels, slowing the absorption of carbohydrates — and even antiviral, antimalarial and anticancer qualities. All in all these make the bitter gourd sound like a miracle food.

But the main reason why this unpleasant-looking and tasting vine fruit continues to be popular is that after you get used to it it’s rather addictive, much like fresh coriander leaves. I didn’t grow up in Okinawa so it took me a while, but now I almost crave that unique bitter flavor. It has a curiously refreshing quality on a hot day.

Still, that’s only when the bitterness has been reduced during preparation. First of all, remove all of the seeds and woolly pith in the middle, which has a much stronger flavor than the rest of the fruit. Then, slice it up and blanch it in boiling salted water for a couple of minutes. Drain well before using. This may slightly lessen its healthy benefits, but also gets rid of much of that bitter flavor, making it palatable for most people.

Once you’ve become accustomed to the flavor of bitter gourd you can try simply massaging the slices with a little salt, rinsing it off, then soaking it for a while in a bowl of water. From there you can use the bitter gourd in soups, stews, curries and stir-fries as well having a go at making your own gōyā champurū.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

  • Charlie Sommers

    The first time I tried this healthful fruit was at a Chinese neighbors house many years ago. I was told by one of the children present that it was a dish only enjoyed by old people. I was diagnosed with diabetes about ten years ago and since then I have cultivated a taste for this bitter wart covered fruit and yes—-I now actually crave it.

    Eating it as champuru is good but my favorite treatment is to core and slice the fruit, salt it, let it stand for about half an hour, then wash and drain it well and put it in some rice vinegar that has been sweetened with Splenda. It is delicious and gets even better after you keep it for a few days.