NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Even judges from the Guinness World Records, insulated against surprises after years of investigating culinary curiosities, experienced a double take when, arriving in the town of Kin on November 14, 2010, they were confronted with a 746-kilogram tray of taco rice.
More than 2,100 volunteers had participated in preparing what would subsequently be listed as the world’s largest version of the fusion dish, a relative newcomer to the Okinawan table. Immensely popular with tourists, U.S. servicemen and locals, the concoction consists of ground beef, crushed tacos, shredded lettuce, tomato, melted processed cheese and a piquant sauce. Plopped down on a bed of white rice, the unholy mix is then topped off with a fried egg.
Travel around the islands of Okinawa and you will find considerably more culinary refinement than taco rice would suggest.
Little-known even among Okinawans, sampling kyūtei ryōri (court cuisine) of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1372-1879) is a little like climbing a plateau to an entirely different elevation. Created as a hospitality food to welcome Chinese dignitaries, whose visits typically lasted for between three to five months and involved as many as 300 envoys, the resulting dishes combine Chinese and Okinawan food preferences with the presentational beauty of Japanese kaiseki ryōri (multicourse haute cuisine). Even today, restaurants that serve kyūtei ryōri still exist, but at a cost that reflects its time-consuming preparation and staggering number of dishes.
With thrift, rather than quality, initially in mind, I spend my first days in Naha avoiding the city’s handful of genuine court cuisine restaurants in favor of eateries claiming to offer the taste of kyūtei ryōri without the sting that comes with the bill at more authentic establishments.
At Suitenrou, a restaurant in Kokusai-dori, Naha’s main tourist drag, I sample the Shurei lunch set (¥1,500), which includes pig knuckles slathered in sesame salad sauce, chunks of flavonoid-high purple sweet potato, cubes of braised pork belly, raw rings of bitter melon, and a bowl of fūchibā jūshī, a mugwort-infused rice gruel. A perfectly good eatery, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for. Neither is Ashibiuna (lunch set ¥1,500 before drinks), a restaurant in the Shuri Castle area, though the setting, with low tables, set around a traditional Okinawan garden, is stunning.
I finally find properly authentic kyūtei ryōri at Ryukyu Cuisine Mie (dinner courses from ¥9,000), a restaurant that has existed in the Kumoji district of Naha since 1958 and pays exacting homage to the period when Okinawa was an independent, sovereign nation, with its own royal family.
Only one street back from busy Route 58, Mie provides private rooms and a personal waitress, who appears in a light bingata-dyed kimono, its subdued colors and simplicity of design conforming to the costumes worn by court women of modest rank. The waitress announces her presence before opening the sliding door, kneeling, bowing and then entering the sparsely decorated tatami dining chamber. Dishes are served one by one, their ingredients and provenance thoroughly explained.
The initial presentation is formal, but the veneer is soon replaced with a chatty, relaxed manner designed to put guests at ease. Okinawan court cuisine may bear a passing resemblance to mainland Japanese kaiseki, but the inclusion in this 13-course meal of simmered pig’s innards and tripe in a clear soup, all very agreeable to the Chinese palette, sets it apart from its putative Japanese counterpart, with its more squeamish refinement.
The centerpiece of the serving sets is a hexagonal lacquerware tray known as a tsundābun, which has six ziggurat-shaped compartments surrounding a central chamber. I also order a flask of kusu Kumejima, a 5-year-old, aged awamori, Okinawa’s trademark liquor, a strong distillation made from Thai rice to accompany the meal. This would normally be served in colorful glass containers, but comes, in this instance, in a goblet made in the glazed joyachi ceramic style developed in the early 17th century, a drinking vessel closer to the original serving items used for formal court dining events.
Two hours later, I have sampled, among other delicacies, pōpō (stir-fried pork wrapped in transparent-thin flour skins); burdock root stuffed with mushrooms; and hand-mashed purple sweet potato, salted, then deep-fried. Then, there are morsels of fusilier fish paste blended with egg; the exquisite minudaru, consisting of thin strips of pork loin marinated in sugar, soy sauce and black sesame paste; and island tofu pickled in red rice malt. Konbu irichi is a celebratory side dish, where strips of seaweed are pan-fried, simmered, then mixed with mushrooms and pork belly. As if that weren’t enough, dessert is a cube of dark brown, agar jelly.
Sitting somewhere in between Suitenrou and Mie, Sui Dunchi, a traditional restaurant in Naha’s old royal district of Shuri, serves a modified, yet authentic, take on court cuisine (from ¥3,500) — though designated on its dinner menu as kaiseki — in an elegant setting, but without the sense of exclusivity and privilege that comes with a private room and dedicated waitress.
Among the delicacies presented on beautiful plates and dishes, you can expect to sample gurukun (double-lined fusilier) fish paste, mixed with an extract of mustard leaves; stir-fried pork in white miso; and cubes of tofu marinated in awamori and benikōji, a red fermenting agent.
The pleasures of the common Okinawan table, even taco rice, are indisputable, but at restaurants like these, with their well-established historical pedigrees, guests can experience dishes created in the spirit of a cherished culinary art.
Advanced booking is required at Mie (098-867-1356, Japanese only). Reservations are also required at Sui Dunchi (098-885-6161, Japanese only) if you would like kyūtei ryōri for lunch.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5