Now eat! Okinawan cuisine gets a makeover

Now eat! Okinawan cuisine gets a makeover

How a unique island culture is taking its own version of "local" a step further

When it comes to food movements, the word “local” is a rarity in Okinawa.

That's because restaurants in Japan's southernmost prefecture have been doing the local thing long before it was trending.

Or even just trendy.

World-renowned for promoting health and longevity, traditional Okinawan cuisine uses primarily local ingredients.

What's more, it's easy to find.  

Restaurants across this multiple-island prefecture dish out fresh, delicious fare ranging from braised pork rafute and custardy shima tofu, to stir-fried champaru and black sugar donuts -- recipes based on longstanding traditions dedicated to fresh ingredients. 

More: Okinawan cuisine: The Japanese food you don't know

According to Kaori Yoshida, editor of Japanese-language website Calend-okinawa.com, the last five years have been particularly exciting on the Okinawa food scene.

“We started the website in 2009 not just to share our favorite places to eat, but to encourage people to grow and spread their ideas,” she says.

Since then, Yoshida says, a stream of new shop owners and chefs have arrived and infused passion, creativity and personal interpretations of island living into an already vibrant eating culture.

Suien

Meet the bakers: Soichi and Kaoru Morishita. Soichi and Kaoru Morishita opened the doors to Suien three years ago.

On most days, the bakery sells out of its assortment of naturally leavened breads.

Cinnamon rolls, savory cheese boules, steamed black sugar buns and sweet rye loaves are baked in a handmade brick oven, and displayed in the couple’s beautifully decorated café.

“We wanted to create a space where people could come to relax and enjoy a natural setting with good food sourced from our area,” says Kaoru.  

Suien literally means "water circle."

Following their namesake, the owners aim to impart the best of their community, flowing from grower to chef to guest.

Lunch plate sets rotate weekly, sometimes daily, depending on what’s seasonal and available.

Thick slices of house bread are combined with soup and an assortment of delicious vegetables, all served on Okinawa-crafted pottery.

Suien, 367 Zakimi, Yomitan, Nakagami, Okinawa; +81 098 958 3239; open Sunday-Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.

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Cafe and Zakka Lamp

You won't find another cafe owner in Okinawa who loves Morocco as much as Aya Nishida.

“Honestly, I just wanted everyone to eat couscous,” says Aya Nishida of her motivation for opening Café and Zakka Lamp.

Originally from Kobe, Aya moved to Okinawa 10 years ago with a desire to share her love of all things Moroccan.

Traveling there at least once a year, Aya supplies her zakka (a savvy shop of “many things") with original items from Moroccan artists and open markets.

The front of her shop is filled with colorful antiques, trinkets, housewares and jewelry, good for browsing while waiting on lunch or dinner.

Aya’s favorite dish is lemon-cream chicken couscous, served with fresh salad and house pickles.

It pairs well with a refreshing ginger ale, mixed with her original ginger-spice syrup.

Aya recommends finishing meals with a spicy chai and warm scone set with whipped butter and honey.

“Everything we serve is made from scratch,” she says. 

Café and Zakka Lamp, 2-3-25 Matsuo, Naha City, Okinawa; +81 098 863 2491; open Tuesday-Sunday, noon-7 p.m.

Gallivant Café

If you want to eat at Miki Kawamoto's Gallivant Café, the window of opportunity is short. It's open on Saturdays only.

Gallivant Café feels more like a homecoming party than a shop.

Owner Miki Kawamoto opens her bakery only once a week, making sandwiches with fresh ingredients from Ginoza-area farms.

There's a wide selection of sweet and savory breads, served with an assortment of handmade jams, spreads and preserves.

Other days Miki teaches bread making, taking her students through a full course of mixing, kneading, rising, baking and eating.

Friends Kimie Fukui, Emiko Suzuki and Hiroho Tokudome joined her class on a recent Friday afternoon.

“It’s great instruction,” says Emiko, as Miki explains the finer details of her raisin enzyme starter.

“The best part is lunch,” says Kimie. Students eat their own creations, along with a full meal including salad, loaded pan focaccia, soup and dessert.

Afterward, Miki escorts students to Shiradou Farm, where they meet the farmer who grows the baby leaf greens that fills Gallivant's salad bowls.

Gallivant, 35 Matsuda, Ginoza, Kunigami District, Okinawa; +81 080 2695 0276; open from 9 a.m., Saturday only; bread class by reservation

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JiJi Café

Funkiest restaurant in Kitanakagusuku.

Robin Aoki opened JiJi Café in Kitanakagusuku in a closed market building in 2008.

Most nights it's packed.

A professional musician, Aoki is the force behind the funky décor and food.

Dried flowers, plants and antique frames hang from the ceiling.

Abstract paintings cover the walls.

A Kitanakagusuku native, Aoki wanted to exert a positive and unique influence his village.

“There was nothing here when we first began planning for the shop,” says Robin. “Maybe just a cleaner and lots of old houses.” 

Over the years, JiJi has become a mainstay of the community.

Dishes include Okinawa vegetables fondued in white cheese, creamy omelette rice with edamame sauce, and tandoori chicken cutlet with spicy blue cheese dressing.

JiJi Café, 1422-3 Shimabuku, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami District, Okinawa; +81 098 987 7515; open daily except Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (last order)

More: Okinawa: Which island is for you? 

Portriver

Tetsuya and Miki Mugishima set up shop in a former "foreigner house."

Tetsuya and Miki Mugishima have taken remnants of historic Okinawa and turned them into a space of their own.

Originally from Tokyo, the couple moved to Okinawa for a change of pace, deciding to establish a home and store in former American military housing space.

Gaijin Jutaku, or “foreigner houses," are spread throughout the island -- square concrete bungalows built after WWII to house a rapidly growing American military population.

“We like the wide spaces,” Tetsuya says, pointing out that the large rooms contrast with the small spaces many Japanese call home.

“It’s perfect for setting up shop without having to leave the family."

“We basically stock the things we enjoy,” says Miki.

Portriver assumes the role of general store in its small bungalow community of Minatogawa, while offering delicious sandwiches with bread from the bakery down the street and aromatic coffee from the roaster around the corner. 

Portriver Market, 2-15-8 Minatogawa #30, Urasoe, Okinawa; +81 098 911 8931; open daily except Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. 

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