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Nuchigusui yasa! A Second-Gen Uchinanchu Reflects on Okinawan Cuisine

Part 1: It's more pork than you think.

By Nagisa K.Published about a year ago 6 min read
Nuchigusui yasa! A Second-Gen Uchinanchu Reflects on Okinawan Cuisine
Photo by Lewis Yin on Unsplash

A quick search of "Okinawa" here on Vocal revealed to me some, uh… interesting results. Only a couple travel diaries? And people were apparently obsessed with an "Okinawa flat belly tonic" about two years ago?

It’s not like I don’t know. When I was first researching Okinawan cuisine back in fourth grade—a little bit before the world started calling it a “Blue Zone”—my mother taught me that Okinawa was also known as “chouju no shima,” or “island of long life.” In other words, even native Okinawans are aware of their people’s longevity, so the rest of the world’s fascination with Okinawan diet and lifestyle isn’t totally lost on me.

Yet I’m still concerned about what I see as tunnel vision on the Western world’s part. In pursuit of long, healthy lives, people only focus on Okinawa’s plant-based foods, their superfoods and antioxidants, ikigai and community and sunlight and ocean breezes…

But what about the soul food? By picking and choosing only the “best” parts of Okinawan cuisine, we conveniently gloss over a major pillar of Okinawan diet: the pig.

By Kimberly Lake on Unsplash

Probably because pork belly, spare ribs, trotters, and dried pig faces don’t vibe too well with the longevity and superfoods messaging.

But please don’t forget the pork, because in Okinawa, you’ll find it everywhere! Walking down Heiwa-dori in Naha, you’ll find chiragaa—dried pig face!—hanging in the windows at the local butcher’s. SPAM pork, especially with white rice and fluffy tamagoyaki (fried egg), is our soul food, so much that we have onigiri shops abroad specializing in this combination. And historically, we remember the “pigs from the sea,” a post-World War II relief effort that shipped 550 white pigs from Hawaii, across a stormy and mine-ridden Pacific Ocean, to a famine-ravaged Okinawa.

All this to say, to ignore the pig is to ignore a cornerstone of Okinawan culture.

So let’s forget the diet fads and longevity for a moment. We’ll even start with something easy:

Okinawa Soba

Look up anything related to Okinawan food, and Okinawa soba, or any of its variants, will be one of the first dishes you find. Clear, golden soup. Chewy egg noodles. Sharp yet sweet beni-shouga, or red ginger. Pillowy fish cake (which in Okinawa have a little different texture than the pink-and-white half-moons you find on Japanese udon or soba). A handful of green onions.

And of course, the meat. Traditional Okinawa soba uses thinner slices of braised pork belly as the meat topping, whereas sōki soba tops with braised pork spare ribs and tebichi soba uses braised pork trotters. Dash some drops of kōrēgūsū for that extra heated kick.

The half-moon pink-and-white kamaboko are good substitutes though. Thanks Mom!

Usually when we think of pork broth, our minds jump to the creamy tonkotsu broth of many a ramen joint up in Japan. The broth in Okinawa soba, however, uses pork stock along with konbu (kelp) and katsuo (bonito) dashi, with salt, soy sauce, and mirin for a light yet flavorful taste.

Any nutritional benefits beyond the collagen and vitamin B1 in the pork? Probably not. But it’s a noodle dish with the same comforting power as ramen, without the heavy flavor—how could it not be good for the soul?

So let’s talk about another pork dish, one my sister swears is food for her soul:


Braised pork belly. Hawaii knows it as a shoyu pork, Japan, kakuni. So what makes this dish inherently Okinawan?

First, we have to remember some history.

From approximately 1429 until its annexation in 1879, the Okinawa Prefecture was a sovereign nation: the Ryukyu Kingdom. For those 450 years, the kingdom’s political, economic, cultural, and foreign affairs all flourished from the kingdom’s heart at Shuri Castle. Though the royal court did eventually deteriorate, its cuisine—developed as a part of showing hospitality to Chinese and Japanese emissaries—stayed with the people of Okinawa.

Rafutē is one of those royal dishes that Okinawa retained.

Meaning the ingredients are all Okinawan. Rafutē is pork belly, blanched first, then braised in a sweet and savory concoction of soy sauce, Okinawan kokutō, or “black” sugar, and awamori, Okinawa’s iconic distilled spirit.

Side note: awamori, on the rocks, with a splash of lemon juice and sparkling water—now that hits the spot!

The skin stays on the pork belly, and blanching removes scum and other impurities so that only clean pig fat renders into the braising sauce. The result: a gentle balance of pork and collagen—the protein that promotes connective tissue resilience—that melts in your mouth, if it didn’t fall off your chopsticks, anyway.

Blanching pork is a crucial step in much of Okinawan cuisine, as this is how we make sparkling clean, delicious pork stock. We then use this stock as the base for other dishes, like kūbu irichii, a stir-fried and braised kelp dish that I want to talk about in a future piece, as well as other dishes I just don’t have the writing space or time to dedicate.

Take inamuduchi, a mainly celebratory dish that resembles Japanese tonjiru as a substantive miso soup with pork and vegetables. Again combining that signature pork stock with bonito dashi, inamuduchi stews thin pork slices, konnyaku (konjac yam), shiitake mushrooms, fried bean curd, and Okinawa’s unique fishcake, castella kamaboko in a mildly sweet white miso.

Similarly a celebratory dish, we’ve also got juushi: rice and vegetables cooked in pork broth.

There’s also andansū, a sweet and savory shredded pork and miso paste that goes so incredibly well on top of rice with—and this is my personal taste, yes—a drizzle of mayo and a sprinkle of nori strips.

For fans of chitlins (chitterlings), Okinawa has their own take, nakamijiru, literally “innards soup.”

And all that’s without going into the cuisine of the royal court.

Good Grief, That's a Lot of Pork

Which is why I’m begging you all to not forget it! I understand the concerns behind consuming too much pork, but I also deeply believe in the balancing act Okinawan cuisine has achieved. In fact, Okinawan home cooks understand that fat aids in the absorption of nutrients from vegetables, such as pork helping with the absorption of the plentiful vitamin A found in gōyā chanpuru. (Quoth my mother, anyway.)

Meaning a good amount of nutritional consideration goes into a number of the dishes we consider soul food in Okinawa. Given the perennial heat of the subtropical clime, nutrition has always been imperative for sustained health.

That’s why we call good food nuchigusui, or medicine for life. Knowing that pork indeed has its role in Okinawan cuisine, I’d say it’s almost disrespectful to exclude it from the balance it achieves with the rest of Okinawa’s food culture. That balance creates the memorable flavors of the cuisine, of the food that nourishes the soul.

After all, a nourished soul is a healthy soul.

And a healthy soul is the key to a healthy life.


About the Creator

Nagisa K.

Afro-Okinawan, a fledgling writer on the path to publication!

Fiction and fantasy are my forte but I dabble in personal essays as well.

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