Food & Drink

Miyagi's kitchen: Country banquets, Okinawan-style

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Distinctly Okinawan, Masashi Miyagi is one of those striking characters you have to take a step back from to fully assess.

First there is the long, ashen hair, tied in a ponytail, with a wispy beard to complete the image of a forest recluse or Confucian elder. Then there is his attire: He never wears any form of top, except in the kitchen, where he dons a simple, utilitarian apron to protect himself from flames and spattering oil.

During his shoestring travels as a young man, Miyagi explains, he taught himself to cook by watching locals working in the open street kitchens of Southeast Asia and extensive sampling. Now a superb, improvisational cook himself, he confesses to a dislike for hierarchical systems and prescribed techniques. Accordingly, his dinner menus are decided on a whim and by the seasonal availability of ingredients.

Dig in: A feast of Okinawan food prepared by Masashi Miyagi is set out, family-style, for guests at Minshuku Miyagi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Dig in: A feast of Okinawan food prepared by Masashi Miyagi is set out, family-style, for guests at Minshuku Miyagi. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

On this trip to Minshuku Miyagi, in the northern Oku region of Okinawa’s main island, I resolve to pay more attention not just to the sybaritic pleasures of eating here, but to the owner’s dinner preparations, which are characteristically singular. Miyagi, who opened the minshuku (guesthouse) 20 years ago, says, “I didn’t open this place to make money, but to be independent.”

All the food is locally sourced, which accounts for its supreme freshness. Vegetables come from farms and open markets; neighbors exchange produce. Miyagi’s wife helps out on a local coffee farm up in the hills, and often brings home mountain vegetables and herbs. When it comes to seafood, there is only one supplier, Yasu Miyagi, a local fisherman, who also happens to be Miyagi’s nephew.

This early autumn evening, he prepares a mixed surf-and-turf ensemble. The sashimi, imbricated over a ceramic platter, is aobadai (Westralian jewfish), a local fish, prepared with slices of shīkuwāsā (Okinawan citrus) and wasabi. A second fish, gachun (bigeye scad), is fried with kushinsai (Chinese water spinach). Thai soy sauce, mirin (rice wine), onion, skipjack tuna flakes and olive oil enrich the accompanying sauce.

On the meat side, Miyagi and a hunter friend recently stalked and captured an Okinawan wild boar, a slightly smaller beast than its mainland counterpart; he doesn’t elaborate on who administered the final coup de grace. Miyagi simmers the initially tough meat for a long time until it’s juicy and tender before frying it in olive oil and garlic, insisting the crispy skin is the tastiest part.

As I dig into these not insignificant starters, Miyagi works swiftly to simmer a side dish of tebichi (pig’s trotters) in a sauce of miso, soy sauce and pepper alongside chunks of shima dōfu (island tofu), hechima (sponge gourd), a low-calorie vegetable rich in carotenoids and folate, and okra.

Watching Miyagi’s ministrations in the kitchen — his deft hand, keen eye and sense of how to balance various culinary combinations — the importance of liberally using Okinawan herbs becomes evident. He talks as quickly as he cooks, leaving diners to juggle listening, speaking and, naturally, eating.

Dishes are laid out alfresco, on a table for guests to help themselves, family-style, and an outside refrigerator is stocked with cans of Orion beer. As I sample my first morsels of a meal that is more country banquet than mere dinner, Miyagi brings out a stoneware jar of awamori, Okinawa’s trademark spirit, made from long-grained Thai rice and black kōji mold spore. For the abstinent, there’s a tank of cooled water, drawn from a spring on the grounds.

I always sleep well at Minshuku Miyagi. The air up here in Oku is more wholesome, the nocturnal sounds of insects and movement in the tropical undergrowth beyond the window consoling, a natural narcotic.

But it is also the feast of fresh dishes prepared by an unacknowledged master that speed you to sleep, wondering what culinary marvels will be conjured up the next day.

¥6,000 for room, breakfast and dinner