Kitchens of longevity: The culinary secrets of age-old Okinawa

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

At the outer zone of Japan’s culinary firmament, Okinawa may be a little off-kilter for the prevailing fooderati, but the growing appeal of its cuisine is that, as many locals insist, “Okinawan food is not Japanese food.”

Such is the health value of its cuisine, that Okinawa has joined a select number of regions in the world, such as the Greek island of Ikaria, Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, and the Ogliastra region of Sardinia, designated as “Blue Zones,” areas where health and longevity have been directly connected to lifestyle and diet.

In its healthiest form, Okinawan cuisine is found in yakuzen, or “medicinal food.” An almost ayurvedic approach to healing, yakuzen seeks to restore the body’s energy levels and rebalance fluids. While the life-sustaining, anti-aging properties of the traditional Okinawan table may be self-evident, I wanted to test the cuisine for myself, so I head in the direction of Itoman, a city in the south of the main island.

By Okinawan standards, the dishes at Makabe Chinaa are commonplace enough, but it’s a good place to experience ingredients that typify the island’s home cooking. The restaurant’s ample kitchen garden hints at the importance of herbs in Okinawan cuisine. The gardens surround a traditional 127-year-old wooden building, originally a residence.

“The house, its coral stone foundations and walls, embody the wisdom of our ancestors and how they lived,” says Masako Kinjo, the owner of the eatery, citing the bucolic airiness of the south-facing structure.

The syncretic nature of Okinawan cuisine is sensed in the restaurant’s extensive menu, which includes an Okinawan tuna and basil crepe called hirayāchii, sunshii, a dish made with braised pork, sea tangle and an Okinawan-style pilaf, known as jūshii. As a side dish, the restaurant serves a local seaweed, umi-budō, or “sea grapes.” An eating experience in itself, the green tendrils and briny, semi-transparent beads make a satisfying crunch and pop when eaten, the detonation filling the mouth with the taste of the sea.

For a more pared-down eating experience, even closer to the spirit of traditional Okinawan cuisine, I drive to Ogimi, a village in the north of the island, and a restaurant named Emi no Mise. The eatery is run by Emiko Kinjo, who describes her connection to health food as, “a lifetime exploration of gastronomy.” A former nutritionist, she spent time observing local elders at work in their fields before opening the restaurant. “It wasn’t just about food,” she elaborates, “I was intrigued by their lifestyle.”

This involved the older folk taking time each day to commune with their ancestors, tending chemical-free kitchen gardens, maintaining strong family and community bonds, and belonging to moai, mutual support groups of five friends dedicated to each other for life. Adapting some of these practices, Kinjo adds, “We begin the day with prayers for the well-being of our children and grandchildren.”

I opt for a “long-life” set called Makachi Kumisore, created with seasonal ingredients aimed at bringing the complementary forces of yin and yang into better alignment. The all-purpose set contains, among other things, brown rice with adzuki beans; Yanbaru takenoko-irichii, a sauteed bamboo shoot simmered in bonito broth; papaya chanpurū (stir fry); a miso soup with the purple leaves of an iron-rich herb; and sātā-andagii, a doughnut made from black sugar.

Improbably, one food experience that most typifies yakuzen cuisine is not a lunch or dinner menu, but a breakfast set at a small, family-run establishment, the Okinawa Daiichi Hotel in Naha.

It is a common hotel name for a very uncommon breakfast, the morning set was created over 40 years ago by owner Katsue Watanabe’s mother, who still works in the kitchen. It’s baffling taking in the smorgasbord of light dishes and bowls that are placed on the table, which is why Watanabe is on hand to explain each item in Japanese or English. She begins, though, with an expression in the Okinawan language: kusuinatan. “It means something like ‘this food was good medicine.’ It’s customary to say this at the end of a meal, and this is what I would like guests to feel,” she says.

I reach for a glass of soy milk, light, unsweetened and pure, take a sip of green gōya (bitter gourd) juice, and another of shikuwasa (citrus), the astringent edge of which opens the palate for solids. A sampling of these includes shima ninjin, island carrots rich in beta carotene, nigana, a bitter long-life plant, and other local veggies like tōgan (ash gourd), and handama, an Okinawan herb believed to promote blood circulation. A pot of herbal tea accompanies the petite desserts of pink bread and sesame, yellow turmeric jam, acerola and amagashi, made from wheat, beans and the island’s black sugar. In all, my yakuzen chōshoku (medicinal food breakfast) contains 50 items and weighs in at a very acceptable 585 calories.

The almost supernatural gift of health enjoyed by Okinawan elders can be partly demystified by observing the culinary methods and ingredients used in making dishes. Watching the elders prepare simple, wholesome meals, or observing Watanabe and her mother setting out complex nutritional balances for their power breakfast, feels a little like standing in the kitchens of longevity.