Okinawa Exile #2: Get to Work, Girl / 沖縄#2:働きは人の動き

Has it really been a week? It's been more than a week since I arrived in Okinawa and since The Earthquake, which has undergone a degree of mythification already in under ten days.

I've spent afternoons staring at my materials, trying to get my head and heart back into my academic work. I'm so absentminded though... I even forget sometimes about eating. I though that was not possible.

Today I got calls from some friends in Tokyo. The news must be full of stories about foreigners fleeing. One friend was so calm that she made me feel ashamed that I didn't return to Tokyo already. Another made me promise that I wouldn't let anyone keep me from returning to Tokyo in April. I told her I have every intention of returning: I still have food in the fridge! A third sounded so exhausted and troubled. She just gave birth to her first child two weeks ago and between this new life in her care and the constant aftershocks, she has little time to process the news she hears.

"Is it true?" She asked me, "Is it true that the Japanese government is lying and all the foreigners are leaving Tokyo?" I didn't know what to say -- mostly because I don't know what is true, and suspect the truth lies somewhere between the ultra-calm Japanese news and the hysterical American broadcasts -- but I told her she might rest easier if she can relocate to the West for a little while.

As I talked with her, I was walking in a park in Naha that smelled warm and sweet. Okinawa is closer to Taiwan (the relocation destination for many US nationals opting to be evacuated by the embassy) than to Tokyo. Life goes on here, as it does in most places around Japan. The actual danger is local, but the fear and anxiety affects many more...

Other good news, today, though. Christopher in Miyagi was able to get some beer yesterday. I wish I could send him some; I worry about him getting enough Vitamin B. There is no lack of that in Naha, and certainly the awamori -- the local liquor distilled from rice -- continues to flow. The famed Okinawan hospitality is most likely one part exotic fantasy... but it's also one part awamori.

I had the enormous fortune to enjoy Okinawan hospitality the other evening. In my last post, I mentioned the great affection I've begun to develop for my local market during the day. I decided that I wanted to see it by night, and I enjoyed the warm and drunken company of (not to mention the chilled and drunk-making awamori from the bottles of) the local color. This included a woman who insisted that I come in to her greasy... chopstick?.. diner in the market and learn how to cook Okinawan food.

Here she is (in red) as part of a group called the "Rapping Grannies," who perform at events around Naha.

So I showed up the next morning, even with the lingering awamori still a little angry behind my eyes.

These ladies -- blurry because they are constantly in motion -- put me in an apron and behind the counter. I washed dishes, prepped veggies, and watched them work their magic.

After a long morning of work, I felt quite proud of myself. One of my friends asked if maybe I've lost focus... after all, a week ago I was writing my Ivy League PhD, and now I'm washing dishes at the local buffet just to get my lunch. Priorities shift, you know?

Their version of the juicy (pronounced "joo-shii") included yomogi, which I'd only had in sweets before. After my shift, I prowled the market to find this fragrant green.

Yomogi translates to "mugwort," which is a pretty witchy term for a vegetable. And, suitably, my witchy leafy green woman at the market had it on sale.

It is so fragrant, and kind of woodsy. It does feel witchy and medicinal. In a wonderfully savory way.

I also saw some starchy roots that interested me. Taaimo:
Sayaka told me that many prewar texts on Okinawa mention these humble roots, which are "potatoes" that can grow in rice fields, and were a fall-back food for Okinawans facing starvation.

I decided to cut and fry the taaimo, and make a boro boro juicy -- a kind of congee, or rice gruel -- with the yomogi.

It's funny: rice gruel sounds disgusting, but the Japanese term for congee -- okayu -- sounds comforting. Like a nourishing bowl of chicken soup.

I visited my fish monger, and got some fish to pan fry.

Got home and soaked the taaimo in salt water:

I pan-friend these puppies:

I pan-fried the fish with garlic, soy sauce, and (hair of the dog!) awamori:
And made the juicy with fish stock, rice, yomogi, miso and a little sugar:

It was St. Patrick's Day, so I had to add some green:
We had an Irishman with us, so the faux potatoes were perhaps more resented than celebrated, but being able to eat fresh, warm food with friends was a celebration in itself. It didn't hurt, of course, that we also had a bottle of spumante for Sayaka's birthday. We popped it open, and set about attacking our Okinawan soul food.

I so humbly partake in this meal: Itadakimasu.

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