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Jun 14, 2013 12:55 PM

Authentic Okinawan Cuisine in Manhattan

Reading the article in today's NYT concerning increasing unofficial proclamations within China coming from those who view Okinawa as being part of China, historically, I realize that I have no idea what food of Okinawa is like.

Are there any restaurants in Manhattan that claim to be authentic Okinawan?

Is the cuisine of indigenous Okinawa gone, due to Japanification?

Has the food or cuisine lived on only in remote areas, never making it to commercial manifestations?

My landlord in college undergrad was Okinawan, and seems she prepared and ate what is considered Japanese cuisine.

Indigenous rights issues or trends may actually be stirred by this ever growing uproar in China, over claims to Okinawa. If so that may be bad for China, US Military, and Japan. Thus said, it would be great for the people of Okinawa, and perhaps the cuisine.

Food is all about identity, to some extent.

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  1. There was an Okinawan restaurant called Suibi but it closed down a few years ago. I had never dined there myself.

    There is a distinct Okinawan culture and cuisine. There are Okinawan restaurants of course all over Japan. And every few years there's an "Okinawa boom" it seems in Tokyo.

    Anyway, if you want Okinawan fare here in NYC, you really have to pick through menus as there are occasionally some Okinawan dishes or inspired dishes- maybe like goya champuru, umi budo, tofuyo, etc...Buta kakuni, which is widely available, is pretty much the same as Okinawan rafute. The girls at Uminoie or maybe the guy at Rockmeisha might be able to provide more dishes- although neither of those places are Okinawan.

    You can drink Okinawan though as awamori, Okinawan shochu, is not too hard to find....Momofuku Noodle Bar used to serve bottles of Orion beer...for $8. Lol.....

    10 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      That is some good information.

      Thank you.

      There is a book by a Chinese about world food, an excellent book for those who read Chinese. It is by Cai Lan called A Dairy of World Food (世界名饌錄 作者:蔡瀾 ).

      This book goes into some interesting food for each county, basically giving a summary of what is considered a few dishes that are nation...regional.

      Okinawan does not feature here. The regions are defined by nationalistically.

      1. re: jonkyo

        Cai Lan or Chua Lam as he is more known 蔡瀾, is Singaporean Chinese who was a TV producer in the heyday but has become a very well traveled writer of Chinese food culture who is now based mostly in Hong Kong, and also speaks fluent Japanese, who was also a guest judge on the Japanese Iron Chef TV show in the past.

        He has multiple TV shows where he travels to different parts of the world to find quality ingredients and good food, and has done his share of parts of Japan, but I have not seen anything from him on Okinawa yet.

        There are Okinawa themed izakayas in both Hong Kong and Taipei that offer the classics such as the already mentioned goya champuru, rafute, tonsoku yaki (grilled pig foot with doubanjiang chili sauce on the side, quite excellent), or a variant of tonsoku that is braised in oden dashi broth (that I had at Rakuen in Hong Kong earlier this January).

        Surprised there isn't one like it in NY. I think there is one somewhere around Orange County (more like a restaurant than an izakaya), California but it doesn't seem to be that great from what I've read.

        I think I overpaid on the Orion beer at Rakuen, it was more than US$8... :-o

        1. re: K K

          I've been to an Okinawan place in OC a few years ago and commented on this thread .....I think the most classic, well-known Okinawan dish in Japan is Okinawa soba, which is actually a type of ramen with light clear soup and springy thick wheat noodles. I like it with soki, which is a boneless rib with lots of cartilage. This is good with a few pumps of the koregusu. People also pile on beni shoga. It's not a super rich dish but it's good.

          1. re: Silverjay

            Okinawa soba...had this at a charming little joint on Kurumaebashidori in Koiwa. The wife and I really liked it, but it was too long ago for me to remember exactly why or what was unique about it. Staff and supposedly cooks were also Okinawan. Going back this August so I'll be curious to see how they're doing.

          2. re: K K

            yah there is that one you mentioned K K, its not all that far from where I'm from in OC. I actually went to one in fountain valley with my grandma before it closed (this was a while ago), it was weird bc they actually spoke okinawan in the place...sort of surprised my grandma and me (i'm half japanese) since i've never actually heard the language, the food was very different than most japanese food (I know very little about their food)

            re: chua lam - if you happen to be in HK, those chua lam noodles at hung's were pretty damn good

        2. re: Silverjay

          Silverjay: You're on the right track with the guy from Rockmeisha he is from Kyushu, I forgot where exactly , maybe Miyazaki.
          Also, the executive chef at Brushstroke Mr. Yamata, knows okinawan cooking and makes an awesome tofuyo.
          Wow the Okinawan food you've tried sounds really interesting,wild boar sashimi especially.

          1. re: foodwhisperer

            Kondo-san at Rockmeisha is from Hakata, Fukuoka...I've attached a photo of the inoshishi. It really was lousy. I didn't finish it. I've had regular pork sashimi in Tokyo that was good though so I'm not dismissing the genre altogether...You can probably buy jarred tofuyo at Mitsuwa and maybe Sunrise as well. I've seen Okinawan donuts at those places before. Okinawan donuts are heavy fried little things often made with Okinawan "black" sugar....The next time I'm at one of those marts I'll try to take stock of what Okinawan stuff they have and post here.

            1. re: Silverjay

              Okinawan doughnuts are great. They are called saataa andaagii, and, well at least in Okinawa products stores in Japan, you can buy a mix for them. Perchance there's a store that sells them in the NY area too.

              Bitter gourd (gooyaa) is another popular food in Okinawa.

              Although I haven't been to that part of Japan yet, whenever I see an Okinawa prefectural store in Tokyo/Osaka, it's a nice little diversion.


          2. re: Silverjay

            i love orion beer, i drink it all the time at ten bells in LES...seriously its like one of my fav beers

            1. re: Lau

              I found this beer in the large bottle at Umi No Ie, on 3rd.

              It goes very well as an accompaniment with the pork belly they have.

              It is just with tall bottles of beer, I am used to also eating pig feet and pig ears, as well as thick seaweed, and maybe some 豆乾 (dougan).

          3. Okinawa is part of Japan. It consists of the Ryuku Islands which start by Kyushu. However, it is an interesting question you bring up. My initial thoughts were Okinawan is mostly Japanese food. But after researching they incorporate Chinese
            and even Thai and they are famous now for taco rice.. An interesting quote describingt Okinawan food is "every meal starts with pig and ends with pig"
            I have had Tofuyo in a few Japanese restaurants. This is a true Okinawan fermented tofu that reminds me somewhat of shiokara in its strong taste. I've had it at Brushstroke, and at Kajitsu.
            this Wikpedia page on okinawan food is informative.

            16 Replies
            1. re: foodwhisperer

              Another Okinawan food you can also find around town occasionally is mimiga, which is pig's ear. It's usually a drinking snack and seems to be having a moment among the offal-loving crowd.

              I've been to three different Okinawan islands. Food is good, though not mind-blowing. They tend to makes things a bit sweeter and sometimes spicier. Even with sashimi, they have a sweet version of a type of shoyu... Lots of distinct dishes. Interesting fruits as well....Craziest thing I ate was inoshishi (wild boar) sashimi. Wow, it sucked....Okinawans have a unique condiment called koregusu, which is awamori infused with little hot peppers. It's good in light soups!..Might be able to find it at the marts in town.

              1. re: Silverjay

                Mitsuwa has koregusu occasionally

                1. re: Silverjay

                  Pig ear for Okinawa food gives it a closer relationship to China, purely geographic that is.

                  I have never known any Japanese in Taiwan or China that tremendously like pig ears.

                  I take pig ears with drink (beer) much, in and out of America. I am thankful to the Mexicans and Dominicans (and the Chinese) for the presence of such here.

                  I gather their spice in condiment and food may be a defining feature away from the Colonial Rulers.

                  Boar Tartar would be good, for my taste.

                  1. re: jonkyo

                    It's boar sashimi, semi-frozen. It's not prepared like tartare.

                    1. re: Silverjay

                      I have had this style presented at a Japanese venue here, but the meat was beef (from cow cattle). Semi frozen but raw.

                        1. re: jonkyo

                          Ishigaki Island, where I had the inoshishi, is actually most well-known for the beef the cow the cattle the bovine. So excellent. See attached sushi and sashimi shots....All things considered though, not sure this stuff is really what one would consider as "Okinawan cuisine". More like representative as what is available these days...

                      1. re: jonkyo

                        The pig ears I've eaten in Chinatown were pickled and crunchy and cut into strips. Funny how all the pigs hanging in windows in Chinatown never have the ears on them,
                        The Mexican pig ears I've had were fried and very collagen filled. Reminded me of the Pig foot at Rockmeisha.
                        Filipinos eat all parts of the pig, the ears are special.

                        1. re: foodwhisperer

                          I am not too fond of pig ears in Chinatown due to the vinegaring.

                          I love them in certain Mainland places, and in the south of Taiwan the fit they bill for me.

                          In NYC I gravitate more towards the Latin or Mexican pig ear preparation. Sometimes a bit excessive with fat and grease, which is balanced with copious quantities of beer, preferably Prensidente. Excess is quelled through excess.

                          This brings me to a much too real point, that needs to be stated. In no way disrespectful to any. It is an observed and experienced reality.

                          Chinatown is so unlike China. It shuts down at 8 pm.

                          My evening snacking and drinking is only accommodated through quesi-exclusive (you'll be one of a minority of non-nationals-ethnics specific to region/nation; or you will be the only one(s))

                          Venues run by and catering to the following expat communities function nicely in carrying forth the behaviors and practices found in night activity, in the respected countries:

                          Korea; Japanese; Mexican; Dominican; and Central American, others may apply (please add).

                          This has to due not so much with assimilation. It has to do with some anomaly that occurs in migrant Chinese people, that creates such a disparity between the community in China and the one here. one might be able to come up with some hypotheses as to why.

                          1. re: jonkyo

                            "This has to due not so much with assimilation. It has to do with some anomaly that occurs in migrant Chinese people, that creates such a disparity between the community in China and the one here. one might be able to come up with some hypotheses as to why."

                            Well, poverty is probably a leading culprit. Many who tend to land in Chinatowns are closer to economic refugees than traditional immigrants. Chinatown (in NY) has historically been one of the poorest sections of NYC.

                            1. re: E Eto

                              This (poverty low income) had crossed my mind as being one culprit. Another actually may be what I denounced as being a cause, assimilation.

                              I remember meeting a man and wife in Taipei who had returned some years prior to Taiwan from a stay in NY State's capital, Albany, as the man had been doing a masters degree.

                              I discovered that the returned to Taiwan, less Taiwanese, in certain manifestations such as food preparations.

                              But this may be more than assimilation. It is like the self hating Jew.

                              They returned after some years to their homeland and refused to cook Chinese style, for it "smells up the house....smells up clothing....".

                              I gathered that they latched on to American suburban lifestyle as they sought to distinguish themselves from their homeland islanders, thinking themselves as moving on to a more teleological end of 'development'.

                              Does that make scene?

                              In essence, finding fault in your native national behaviors through acquiring very homogenized standards of the American middle class ways. Suburban ways.

                              It is not development, it is just discarding and acquiring, in a manner that may have much to do with identity consciousness and above all racism and ethnocentrism, from Americans that becomes internalized for in this case, a Han Chinese from Taiwan. Resolving the negative feelings this internalization causes, on simply thinks and acts like a person from or Scotia.

                              And of course, what you state is another cause.

                              I met a Fujian woman at Pianos Low East Side one night and we were talking. She was second generation, and began to think 'stated so' that she is an American, and wanted to distance her self , she overtly stated, from Fujian identifying manners or the like. She was making a conscious effort to distance herself from her roots, and was not at all interested in continuing her Chinese that she learn a bit from her mom and dad.

                              That is interesting. I meet others that are not like that, fujianese that is.

                              Many Dominicans I meet think and overtly state that the feel and see themselves as Dominicans first, and Americans second, or just living in America.

                              I think food conversations with the fujina woman in pianos would have been interesting

                    2. re: foodwhisperer

                      There is migration of ideas for cuisine of course.

                      Taco tofu rice sounds interesting.

                      Mexicans who worked in Taiwan I knew dislike all Taiwanese and chinese food, eating mostly at Pizza Hut.

                      1. re: foodwhisperer

                        I like this:

                        "every meal starts with pig and ends with pig"

                        1. re: foodwhisperer

                          It is interesting what you say about Okinawa being part of Japan. That is fact only in regards to the modern nation state.

                          Trying to situate Okinawa culturally and ethnically, I would say that their physical structure sets them apart, of course.

                          Moreover they may share more with the island natives of the Pacific.

                          One good read on regional ethnicity is by James Scott political scientist. It is called The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

                          It brings one closer to looking at 'place' more as regional histories, rather than sometimes ahistorical nations.

                          I will be investigating their foods, okinawan's that is.


                          1. re: jonkyo

                            Ryukyu Islands played an interesting role in regional mid-millennial trading history. A legacy of that around these days is awamori liquor, which was and even still today, made from rice imported from Thailand. Any of the Japanese restaurants in town with a decent shochu selection will have some awamori. Can't remember if it is available at Astor or even Mitsuwa though. Probably.

                            edit: It is definitely for sale here. Just remember I have several bottles of it I bought for an event last year.

                            1. re: Silverjay

                              Not Manhattan but was at Mitsuwa across the river the other day and they do indeed have multiple brands of awamori for sale...Also, pre-packaged Okinawa soba.

                        2. Ok, I just have to ask ... is there Americanized Okinawan food in Manhattan?

                          1. Unfortunately, New York does not have an Okinawan restaurant currently, unlike Hong Kong, for example, where several Okinawan restaurants or izakayas exist.

                            Once a year, however, Mitsuwa Market has Okinawa promotion and you can buy Okinawan specialties such as Shikuwasa (シークワーサー, citrus) Juice, Koregusu (コーレーグース, Island red chili pepper), Umi Budou (海ぶどう, sea grapes), Asa (アーサ, Okinawan seaweed), Tannafakuru (タンナファクルー, Okinawan confectionary made from black sugar, wheat flour, and egg), and Sataandagi (サーターアンダーギー, Okinawan donuts).


                            3 Replies
                            1. re: kosmose7

                              Shikuwasa juice is awesome! Like a cross between yuzu and mikan (tangerine).

                              1. re: Silverjay

                                Yes, it is awesome isn't it? I also love Shikuwasa 'sour'!

                                1. re: Silverjay

                                  I drink a lot of Calamansi juice, i wonder how that compares

                              2. Going in the opposite direction, anyone know of Ainu cuisine?

                                They are a bit less celebrated ethnic group among Japanese.

                                Have you met an Ainu in NY.

                                It seems they have fallen in the same way as the original Islanders in Taiwan, their cultural and ethnic ways falling victim to commodification, perhaps.

                                In Taiwan much of the original Islander's traditional manifestation is simply reinvented, for commercial purposes, the original falling out with resettlement due to assimilation, neo-location and other modernity.

                                During Japan occupation, their was actual serious academic work in studying the traditions of the Taiwan aboriginals. During KMT things changed, as far as one can tell from looking at the current situation.

                                Any expressions of Ainu cuisine in perhaps a venue owned by someone coming from Hokkaido, in NYC.

                                The Chinese simply make a sound translation using characters, resulting in 愛奴 (ai nu).

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: jonkyo

                                  As far as I know there's only one Ainu restaurant in Tokyo, so I wouldn't hold your breath that one will open up in NYC. The only dish I've seen attributed to the Ainu that has made it's way into Japanese cuisine is semi-frozen salmon sashimi. And that's been at small places and served as a snack. There might be others. Especially herring or konbu related dishes as those two items were big trading items between Ainu and Japanese. As far as I read, Ainu were primarily hunter/gatherers.

                                  Hokkaido was basically annexed by the Japanese and most people you meet today from there, trace back to family that emigrated in the Meiji Era from other parts of Japan. Hokkaido itself barely has a culinary tradition...The owner/ chef of Tsukushi is from Hokkaido I believe. You could try asking him.

                                  1. re: Silverjay

                                    I just re-read a chapter in one of my books on Ainu food culture and yeah, not much in the way of cuisine. They were kind of a primitive culture. Hunter, gatherer, fisher. Mostly ate salmon and a lot of wild game (dear, bear, seal, etc.) Besides the semi-frozen salmon, a type of soup is described, but it is based on wild game...And the herring was sold to be used as fertilizer in the south.

                                    1. re: Silverjay

                                      That would be expected, similar to the islanders in the Pacific, decodes ago, or on Taiwan, the cuisine that is. Ordering a steak (from a boar) and eating it with ones hands, would do the trick, for Ainu cuisine.

                                      That is some excellent information about this group of people, who have been lost to forced settlement, (if like other nomads; forest occupiers found on other continents).

                                      With you depth of experience with cuisine from regions in and around Japan, have you ever come across Dolphin meat. The photos on live make it look so delicious.

                                      I actually ate dolphin though the catching and preparation of the dolphin meat, all practices hidden from the masses and authorities, were geographically to the south west of Japan, in one of Japan's former colonies.

                                      This meat may have been better prepared, and brought to the table raw. I was not impressed with its cooked rendition. I suppose that was more peasant style.

                                      1. re: jonkyo

                                        Although I am not Silverjay but if I may comment on that...
                                        Dolphin meat typically has strong smell and does not taste very good, as compared to, say, mink whale meat, although it's illegal in the U.S.

                                        1. re: kosmose7

                                          Nice photo. I had a Filipino friend who said he used to eat dolphin meat in the Phillipines, he called it "sea pig".

                                          1. re: foodwhisperer

                                            Never thought of it that way, but the chinese characters for dolphin are 海豚. The first character means "ocean", but I'm not sure if the second character has a specific meaning. In Japanese kanji however, the second character means pig. So I guess sea pig makes sense.

                                            1. re: fooder

                                              The kanji can be written the same in Japanese apparently. I've never eaten dolphin nor seen it in my travels but I know it's available in some places. Perhaps when written as food it is written as 海豚 and done as some sort of roundabout way of promoting it. Usually the animal is written as イルカ (iruka).....Have eaten whale many, many, many times...Interestingly, as a roundabout way of promoting wild boar back in the day, they used to call it 山鯨, which translates as "mountain whale"...Along the same lines, horse meat is often called 桜肉 which translates as "cherry blossom meat".

                                              1. re: Silverjay

                                                Another interesting tidbit. While dolphin is known as "ocean pig", fugu is known as "river pig" (河豚).