Two nights ago I finally made a visit to the “Okinawan” style Japanese restaurant near my house here in Thailand. This visit co-incided with my newfound interest in ‘Blue-Zone living’, which stemmed from a recent introduction to the ‘Okinawan diet’.
‘Blue-Zone living’ is a term used to describe the lifestyle of long-living populations across the globe in areas dubbed as the ‘Blue Zones’ by researchers of this phenomena. One of the places deemed as part of the ‘Blue Zone’ is none other than in an area in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.
The fact that 10% of the world’s population of centennians live in the Ryuku islands of Okinawa Prefecture, made me really quite interested in whether their eating habit/diet play a role in their elongated lifespan.
I have also been a crazy Japanese foodie eversince arriving back to Thailand, where like in most places where “Thai” are in most street corners, Japanese restaurants here will bombard you everywhere you turn (I am exaggerating a bit. They are only most populated in my area of ‘Thonglor’ or the ‘Japan Zone’ of Bangkok). But the most important factor that has influenced my Japanese addiction is the fact that chefs here are top-class (might not have graduated from Cordon Bleu, but Thais have a gift for cooking, I swear).
With such abundance of Japanese (both the people and the food), there’s no wonder that on my street there would somehow exist a Japanese restaurant specializing in Okinawan cuisine!
The decor and atmosphere of the restaurant was impressively Okinawan, but what about the food?
(Very typical order from my brother).
This wasn’t a part of their ‘Okinawan-style’ food menus, but from my observation (going to Japanese every second day that is), ‘gyutataki’ is a fairly popular Japanese dish (present on the menu in most restaurants): Raw or slightly cooked thin slices of beef served with soury and sometimes spicy sauce, a sort of beef tartare.
I tried a piece of very chewy muscle filament (and truly believed our ancestors did the right thing in inventing the use of fire in cooking), and opted more for the side of the thinly sliced radish. You need a balance in everything (a life of Yin/Yang) including with food. When eating lots of meat, you’re going to need a lot of veggies or salads to counteract with the freeradicals in red meat (especially with beef). My dad has talked to many expert nutritionists, scientists, and all their opinions about beef converges to limiting its intake, because of the levels of toxins in them (certain chemicals released by the cow/bull when about to be slaughtered).
A tip for when eating red meat like beef steak is always couple it with a whole heap of salads, and perhaps wash the entire meal down with a glass of water and a capsule of vitamin C.
Second dish arrived shortly after. This time it was an Okinawan style stir-fry “Goya Chanpuru” – Goya (bitter gourd): bitter gourd, tofu, eggs and thin ‘shabu’ slices of pork. I like how they sauteed the entire thing using very little oil (unlike the Chinese who resolve to add even more oil on top of a dish like steamed vegetables). Instead, they probably used the moderate amount of fat emitted from the pork slices to prevent the dish from becoming too dry and bland. Twas very refreshing: The mild bitterness of bitter gourd worked together well with the sweetness from egg yolks in the eggs, and the lightness of the veggies complimented with the firm texture of tofu.
Bitter gourd were utilized in some of the dishes on their menu. I believe the Okinawan islanders’ love for bittergourd may have played a part in helping them manage diseases (that becomes more susceptible with age) like diabetes. Bitter gourd has a blood-sugar stabilizing property.
In fact, Okinawans are crazy about veggies. When you’re stuck on an island with limited resources, the last thing you would want to do is raise a cow that would soon wipe out all the grass in front of all your neighbours’ lawn, or would obliterate all the plant life that is needed to sustain life.
Plants which are much easier to take care of than animals have no doubt became a staple in the islanders’ diet (this also paralleles with other population groups within the Blue Zone whom are mostly isolated from the outside with limited resources. They are avid gardeners, self-sustainers, who obtain most of their calories from plant foods).
Despite its abundance of veggies, the Okinawan diet is not tailor-made for fat-phobic dieters:
A signature Japanese dish – tempura (a plate of deep fried battered veggies – one of the healthiest diet in the world!?). Of course, it all comes down to portion sizes and moderation.
This was a tempura made from special Okinawan seaweed called Mozuku. Nice and crispy. Using seaweed for deep fried batter makes much lighter veg tempura as compared to using i.e. carrots, sweet potatoes, etc. which resulted in a new and interesting texture.
Next, I ordered a natto dish! (I just had to do it). This time, it was a double dose of slime with some cooked okra mixed in with the already slimy enough fermented soybeans. Natto is another one of those ‘healthy’ staple of the Japanese. Chuck natto into anything and the dish becomes healthy! Afterall, they are trailed with such a bibliography of health benefits like cancer fighting properties.
Personally, I like the burst of slight saltiness tinged with mild sweetness that comes with each bite of the fermented soybeans. I don’t mind the slime much, having eaten more ‘extreme’ things out there i.e. regular intakes of fish eyes.
Grilled salmon (flesh from the belly)
The salmon belly is believed to be the most delicious part of the fish. It is also the fattiest part of the fish; full of the good fats – omega 3 fatty acids (including DHA) which is essential for your body functions, and great support for the brain functions of both old and young people. Other than this, salmon belly also has got a whole lot of collagen. Great for your skin, perfect for the ladies.
One of the main advertising ploy of this restaurant, other than ‘eating healthy’ of course, was ‘beauty’.
This brings me to the other component of Okinawan diet that is a protein – pork. The restaurant advertises its ‘Okinawan’ braised pork dish as being rich in skin-plumping collagen.
We didn’t end up ordering any pork because we’ve just had an also very collagen rich (i.e. very fatty/gelatinous) Chinese-style hog leg (the one that comes with mantou buns… drools) for lunch (that Chinese restaurant by the street served the most delicious Chinese food i.e. not too oily that I have had in Thailand).
Pigs are one of the easiest animals (for meat) to be raised because they are not selectively vegetarian or vegan. Will basically eat whatever you put in their face. Kind of like people. And so I suspect this is why islander people opt for pork and fish for their protein. One does not require a large plant crop to be raised to sustain them, and the other is basically “free food” from the generous sea.
Of course, both are eaten in very moderate amounts because they are hard to find. (Unlike in present day where everything is so available, and ironically in decline as a result; we are simply eating way too much of protein, too much of the bad things i.e. junk, refined carbs, and not enough of the good things i.e. veggies).
Next, dad had to order his favourite: sweet potatoes. This time we ordered a special ‘Korean sweet potato’ which was purple. I’m sure lots of people have tried purple, other than orange sweet potato, but I’ve never had one that is entirely purple (not just on the outside)! I am guessing these potatoes would be very full of colour-indicated phytonutrients.
On another note: a major component in the Okinawan diet other than veggies is sweet potato (most likely to be Japanese rather than Korean sweet potatoes though). According to wikipedia, Okinawans obtain 69% (circa 1959) of their daily calories from the starchy vegetable. This means sweet potatoes were the main component of all their meals each day: Roughly calculated to be something like… sweet potatoes instead of toast or cereal for breakfast, sweet potatoes instead of rice at lunch, and some more sweet potatoes for dinner.
Sounds boring right? But once you’ve had organically grown steamed ‘Asian’ sweet potatoes, you will be hooked. I am currently addicted to those delicious bundle of starch and fibre (they were so expensive in New Zealand, $6.99/kg hence sweet potatoes used to be a luxury for me) Sweet potatoes are super easy to prepare: just chuck in the steamer on high for 15 minutes tops and you’ve got nice, fluffy potatoes – a healthy, low-calorie source of fibre and carbohydrate to accompany your meal.
To end the meal, we had a spinach salad with bacon bits (typical Okinawa), cherry tomatoes, and topped off with a sweet creamy sauce (I suspect it composed mainly of dairy rather than mayo – good thing it wasn’t too creamy, but quite watered down. I can trust in the Japanese to never go too overboard with dairy *Also could be because dairy is expensive here in Thailand). The salad was also sprinkled with the everpresent component in Japanese dishes like soups or noodles, bonito fish flakes. Delicious seasoning that comes with added protein.
The spinach leaves looked like they could not be eaten raw, but they were actually fine to eat. Mature, spinach leaves are not very safe to eat, because they contain a certain level of oxalic acid which in large amounts can be poisonous to the body. I suspect these spinach leaves were of a larger-leaved variety of salad spinach.
Overall, we didn’t get to try as much an array of Okinawan style foods as we wanted because there were so many other yummy dishes to try. What I have gathered from looking at the menu and from tasting some of the samples is that, Okinawan style cooking does not utilizes much oil i.e. as shown in the appearance of the stir-fry dishes; their foods are quite unrefined and simple i.e. they did not undergo an elaborate process of preparation (nutrients can be lost along the way due to heat treatment and other cooking processes): stir-fried, grilled or pan-fried, and they featured lots of both soy products i.e. tofu, and veggies.
Okinawa uses some vegetables that may not be as customary in the mainstream Japanese cuisine i.e. sea grapes (type of seaweed), bitter gourd, okra, avocado. But these very nutritious foods combined with a unique islander lifestyle is what makes Okinawan living so healthful, even beyond the Japanese diet.
I for one, with my life-long veggie addiction will probably be making a trip down the street sometime again soon to try the ‘typical Okinawan’ (they wrote on the menu) dish of “nacho rice” – rice topped with minced pork, fried egg, slices of avocado and fresh veggies; and definitely more of their selection of delicious salads.