Okinawa Exile #4: Going Native / 沖縄#4:ソールフード

So I've fallen in love with the market across the way from my temporary lodgings in Naha, Okinawa. I get my daily provisions there, I take my morning coffee there, I shut down the bars there. Today I was eying a dress made of Okinawa-print cloth, designed for women at least double my age. I wasn't quite sure how my friends would react to me becoming a complete cultural transvestite, and adopting the affectations of a geriatric native of Naha.

But an honest curiosity in local food is always a welcome gesture. As I bought supplies from a small dry goods stall, the woman exclaimed that I was attempting the dishes she grew up with.

My only experience with Okinawan cuisine before I arrived here on this trip was at restaurants in Tokyo, who would play jangly sanshin folk songs and serve copious amounts of the trademark Okinawan vegetable, goya:

Goya, amiable enough in appearance, tastes like a bitter zucchini. Quite bitter. As a friend once described goya: "I think we can all agree that it's controversial." The taste is not to everyone's liking. But some who try to understand the longevity of Okinawans like to celebrate the goya for it's medicinal benefits and great nutrition.

There's been quite a fashion for Okinawa in Japan lately, and I've met a little camp of Japanese from the main archipelago who've removed themselves to the more relaxed pace of the island life. But they remain well aware of their position as outsiders, one noting that many Tokyo inhabitants who have poured southward trying to stand clear of Fukushima are bound to be surprised to be met with as much mistrust and animosity as with friendliness.

There is a long and often unhappy history between the modern Japanese state and Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom, invaded by the early Japanese state, and finally abolished by the modern incarnation of the Japanese nation. The Japanese military were brutally indifferent to loss of civilian life in Okinawa during WWII, and the prefectural government estimates that over 100,000 were killed during the final Battle of Okinawa. After the war, the Japanese government gave over Okinawa to American military occupation until 1972, which forced entire villages off of their land to make room for bases. Some of these people ended up in as far-flung places as Bolivia, which I just learned from a local bar Mama-san. That Bolivian peasants were dislocated because of Okinawan farmers who were dislocated because of U.S. Cold War policy in East Asia is a perfect encapsulation of the complexity and inter-connectivity of the mid-Twentieth Century.

And all the above is just a quick sketch of why the Okinawan people have complex feelings toward their current inclusion, still on the periphery, of the Japanese nation. There is certainly an image of warm, friendliness -- maybe an equivalent of the "Aloha Spirit" -- at work in the tourist areas. There is much much more to know about Okinawa than awamori and goya, if one has the courage to inquire, and if the Okinawans you meet are prepared to talk.

But since it is so complex, and not going to be worked out in a hurry, we may as well start with goya, and eat it in it's most famous incarnation: goya champuru.
このブログで うまく説明もできず、それでソールがまだわからなくても、まずはソールフードで挑戦します。

Champuru is the Okinawan term for a kind of stir-fry. Goya champuru is a hearty pan-fried dish of tofu, eggs, pork, vegetable, and -- of course -- goya.
 ゴーヤ チャンプル:基本的にゴーヤの炒め。

 Cutting goya renders the bright, crisp flesh.

I cut my goya lengthwise first:
And then removed the seeds and spongy middle:
Cut it up:
I had already sauteed some onions, turmeric, carrots, and Okinawan bacon:
To this I added my goya and some unpretentious -- but delicious -- local tofu:
Everybody in the pan!
With eggs:

And mix!
It was done so quickly that I had time to make another champuru I'd seen around: fu champuru.

Fu are rounds of wheat gluten:
To make fu a delicious stir-fry morsel, I first soaked it in water with dashi (fish stock):
Then drained it and soaked it in egg:
I fried the fu, then added the same mixture of carrots, onions, turmeric, tofu, and some greens:
The butcher had given me an extra pig liver (you'll see why next post), so I did a miso-based stir-fry, too:
It is humble fare, but delicious, and very satisfying. Certainly simple, although it sustains a culture that has a very complicated relationship with the past.

I know I've been getting wordy lately, and perhaps been using this more as a platform for me to work out my own feelings and my own thoughts more than I should, and maybe I'm asking for more patience from those who read this than I ought. But one feeling that has yet to abide is my appetite. And the feeling that I am so fortunate to indulge it.

So, with all humility, I eat this food:

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