The herb diet of Okinawa’s long-living elders

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Young and middle-aged Okinawans are among the most enthusiastic consumers of junk and processed food in Japan. American fast food and a sugar-rich diet have burdened islanders — who once lived staggeringly long lives — with the highest body-mass index rates in the country. Middle-aged men, in particular, now suffer from inordinately high rates of heart-related diseases and obesity. The longevity of Okinawa’s elders stands in stark contrast to the health issues of younger islanders. However, there is resistance to this trend, and it’s coming from Okinawan chef Kiyoko Yamashiro in a little town called Kin.

Entering Kin you may think you have stumbled on a post-apocalyptic scene of abandonment. This is a nocturnal town: its girlie bars, tattoo parlors, grill rooms and tailor shops are, for the most part, closed during daylight hours, leaving its streets empty, bruised and shabby.

Host to U.S. base Camp Hansen, almost 60 percent of Kin falls under the control of the U.S. military — a huge swath of occupied land, even by Okinawan standards. Aside from the base, Kin is associated with taco rice, a Mexican-Japanese culinary hybrid that was developed here and has become a staple of U.S. servicemen and Japanese tourists. The dish is an unholy mix of taco-flavored ground beef, white rice, shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese, all topped with lashings of piquant salsa and a fried egg.

A little north of the town — across an attractive bridge over the Kin River and tucked into a lane set back from Route 329 — is Yamashiro’s Cafe Garamanjyaku, an organic restaurant that offers healthier fare. She explains that the name of her eatery comes from a Sanskrit word denoting the sensation of good taste on the palate. Troubled by postwar food trends in Okinawa, Yamashiro studied ancient recipe books and the diet of elder Okinawans to find healthier alternatives.

Her menu is based on the traditional yakuzen (herbal medicine) cuisine that prevailed before the war. This style of cooking is based on Chinese dishes that sought to rebalance body fluids, blood and qi by restoring essential functions and energy levels. Recent interest in yakuzen is fueled by a combination of factors: fashion, food awareness and, most importantly, fear of a precipitous grave.

Yamashiro grows many of her vegetables and herbs in a garden near Cafe Garamanjyaku. The restaurant’s special Detox Set consists of whole rice, cereals, a rich miso soup with medicinal herbs, wild flowers, paprika, okra, pumpkin and purple turmeric. This is augmented with small dishes: bowls of Malabar spinach, black carrot pickles, fennel and Okinawan yams prepared with black sugar and rice powder. The abundance of ingredients hints at the intensive preparation time required to serve these dishes.

My lunch set, a smorgasbord of vegetables with restricted meat and fish accents, is served on a getto (shell ginger) leaf. Bulblets of Madeira vine, boiled purslane, red onion and Okinawan burdock add flavor, density and complexity to the meal. An accompanying dish of miso, used as a dip, has been aged with more than 30 types of herbs, vegetables and fruits, resulting in a raft of flavors that are by turns sweet, tart and salty. There is also sweet potato, an Okinawan staple rich in vitamins, calcium, carotenoids and fiber, and at least three types of tubers, including taamu, a mineral-rich Okinawan taro. The meal is topped with one or two thin crescent-shaped slices of goya (bitter melon), a nobly green gourd bulging with vitamin C that is far too commonplace to dominate Garamanjyaku’s specialized menu.

My dish is served with a small morsel of rafute, pork belly glazed in brown sugar, simmered in awamori (Okinawan distilled liquor) and a touch of soy sauce until it reaches a tender consistency. Full of vitamin B, niacin, zinc, riboflavin and iron, pork is seen as a leaner alternative to red meats. Sukugarasu, tiny salted fish served on a small cube of shimadofu, the slightly harder Okinawan variety of tofu, complete the nonvegetarian elements of the course.

Adding salt seems antithetical to a good diet, but in Okinawa the seasoning is valued for its health aspects. Because of a high incidence of typhoons, the land is saturated with salt. You might think a dense saline content would have a withering effect on plants, but the earth here benefits from deposits of Okinawa’s mineral-rich salt.

In accord with traditional Chinese thinking, herbs play an important role in Okinawan medicinal food dishes. In ancient times, Okinawan court chefs were sent to China to develop more advanced uses of herbs, specifically to learn to create complex flavors and promote health.

The pharmacopeia of Okinawan kitchen gardens, and that includes the one attached to Garamanjyaku, is never complete without a patch of Ryukyu yomogi (Okinawan mugwort), fuchiba (felon herb), seronbenkei (air plant), chomeiso (long life plant), and hippazu, an Okinawan pepper that, in its powdered form, adds a fresh scent to food and stimulates the palate.

Yamashiro has combined many of these time-tested ingredients to create contemporary set meals that are considerably richer in diversity than the dishes historically available to Okinawan peasantry, but nonetheless, unique to these islands.

“Okinawan cuisine is not Japanese cuisine,” is a refrain you often hear from locals. Having sampled a representative number of dishes attesting to the difference, you will leave Garamanjyaku with the sense that you have spent time in the good hands not of a mere cook, but a nutritionist attempting to transmit the wisdom of Okinawan’s ancient cuisine.