Here's what I think: Nothing could embody this multicultural, mixed-up medicine of a cuisine better than its soups.

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Soup from Loo-choo, Land of Propriety

Travels to Okinawa, part 2
(e-SoupSong 45: February 1, 2004)

What kind of food do you get when you stick a tiny subtropical island out in the middle of a typhoon zone, people it with astonishingly happy and adaptable folks, and surround it with powerful neighbors (China, Japan) and "visitors" (Portugal, United States) who have a habit of moving in at every opportunity?

You get Okinawan food. And it is like no other cuisine in the world precisely because it is such an unlikely mix of Chinese, Japanese, and other foodways all stirred up with a big typhoon spoon.


Think pig--"every part but the oink"--beloved by the Chinese and imported by them in the 14th century so that Chinese envoys could be properly entertained during their 6-month-long official visits to old "Loo-choo"...but to this day considered 2nd class meat by the Japanese. In fact, Okinawans could and did enjoy every kind of meat and fish they could get their hands on because they never forsook ancestor worship, with its meat-eating customs, to practice vegetarian Buddhism. Special faves: goat and glossy black sea snake meat--both renowned as energy builders and aphrodisiacs.

Think miso, dashi broth, seaweed--all revered by the Japanese and imported by them for their banquets beginning in the 17th century, when they first conquered Okinawa.

Think underground and low-growing plants that could survive typhoons and drought: sweet potatoes (first imported from China in 1605), taro, goya (bitter melon), soy beans for dofu and soy sauce, sugar cane, cycads, and rice (not to mention its derivative, fiery awa mori, a clear rice brandy learned from ancient Thais--and that today can be tapped into sampling cups from ceramic jars at orchid-festooned Naha airport).

Think salt (shima masu), harvested from the sea, as a primary seasoning. I bought some of this precious stuff at Koza market: it comes in opaque white flakes. Put a few on your tongue and feel them melt into a concentrated ocean wave in your mouth. It's used ritually, too--sprinkled on people to ward off evil; carried first into new homes for good luck; bagged up and carried in cars for protection. After the September 2001 terror/anthrax attacks ratcheted up security procedures around the world, guess how happy military police were with people driving into U.S. bases on Okinawa carrying small bags of a white powdery substance?

Think fried sweets (saataa andagi) from 16th century Portuguese explorers...and spam, coffee, and bread from the emergency rations of occupying American forces after the fearful Battle of Okinawa in 1945. A more recent adaptation: When I went to pick up grandbaby Billie Jean from her Montessori school in Chibana over Christmas, I asked Aiko, the school director, if she had a recipe for her favorite Okinawan soup. "Soup?" she said, blankly. "No, not soup--but I've got a great recipe for taco rice."

Champuru is actually the name of Okinawan stir fry, mixing things like dofu, spam, papaya, eggs, and vegetables in one big pot. But it really stands for the whole spirit of the place--an easygoing island people who happily fuse wildly different cultures into pure Loo-choo gold.


Of course, just what you'd expect from an ancient Land of Propriety that cut its teeth on Confucianism. Just as it is in China, food is medicine here. Ishuko dogen--you are what you eat. You don't hear a lot of talk about foods being yin and yang, but you never hear the end of food as medicine, or nuchi gusui. Feeling under the weather? Let's diagnose you and fix you up with kusuimum (medicinal foods) or shinjimum (boiled soup).

Ah, now do you remember? Okinawa: That's where all those sharp witted nonagenarians and centenarians live. That's where longitudinal scientific studies--based on some 600 Okinawans over the age of 100--have demonstrated a relationship between Okinawan food and really astoundingly low rates of chronic illness, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and stroke.

Food here is not about aesthetic or gustatory pleasure. Not about quickness of preparation nor convenience. Not presentation or richness or indulgence. It's all about nuchi gusui.

How do older Okinawans traditionally greet their children and grandchildren? "Are you eating good food?"

What do families traditionally say before eating a meal? "This is kusuimum, eating it is good for you."

And after the meal is done? "Kusuimum!" Meaning "It makes my body feel good. It's like medicine."


Here's what I think: Nothing could embody this multicultural, mixed-up medicine of a cuisine better than its soups.

For example, let's just take a close look at Sokibuni nu Shimun, or Sparerib Soup.

See, it's in a big wide soup bowl so all those plant and animal chunks can swim comfortably in that sea broth: short meaty white spareribs, brown spongy mushrooms, yellow-green seaweed, white radish, and bright green mustard cabbage. Smell it: there's no mistaking the tang of ginger, but who could deconstruct that layered aroma of meat/seaweed/bonito fish/mushroom stock? It's practically unheard of. You're not going to find that outside Okinawa. And how on earth are you going to eat it? You need chopsticks AND a ceramic spoon, and it's still incredibly messy. No drinking this soup Japanese style after delicately eating out the bits. But very Japanese, using dashi broth, using shiitake mushrooms, and using seaweed as a vegetable in the soup. And very Chinese, digging into those spareribs, dumping the bones on the table or side dish. And so, very Okinawan.

Let's not forget to mention its health benefits. Pork (with all the fat boiled out of it) for protein. Mustard cabbage for regularity and a healthy stomach. Seaweed, rich in iron, calcium, and iodine; moderating blood pressure; practically no calories. I tell you, it's a fabulous soup--recipe at the end. And it's just the tip of the soupberg:

Full-blooded traditional soups to be eaten at a meal include:

  • Okinawan soba (flat wheat noodles, belly pork, and awa mori, topped with fish cake and green onion)
  • Ashitibichi (pig's feet soup--very healthy with its collagen, not to mention seaweed and vegetables)
  • Irabu shimun (that glossy black sea snake soup)
  • Inamuduchi (miso soup with fish cakes, pork, mushrooms, potato starch noodles, and peanut butter)
  • Ushi nu jubuni nu shimun (gingered essence of oxtail soup)
  • Nakami (pig innards, served in a clear broth--originally called ooika, part of the elaborate Ukansen banquet served to Chinese Sappo envoys way back when)
And how about specifically medicinal soups? I like the ones cited at, marvelous interviews of elderly women in Ogimi Village who say how to cure what ails you:
  • When I have a cold, I take plantain soup and rock sugar.
  • I can't buy medicine. I drink mugwort soup for colds and fever.
  • For fever, I take soup with pork and Basho stem juice squeezings and a little sake in it as a medicine to increase my energy.
  • For colds and hangovers, ginger and brown sugar and potato gluten dissolved in water is good.
  • For poor nutrition, I took soup with island carrots and pork liver in it.
  • During pregnancy, we ate rice, which we never ate otherwise (back when potatoes were the dietary staple).
  • Carp soup for fever.
  • When children were not getting enough nutrition and we couldn't buy meat, we gave them soup with paddy frog in it. Frog is like chicken. It's delicious.
Come on, give in. You know you're dying to try one of these unusual soups.

THE RECIPE: Sokibuni nu Shimun, or Sparerib Soup (serves 6)

  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms, softened in 1 cup warm water and a pinch of sugar for 15 minutes, then quartered (discarding the stems and reserving the mushroom liquid)
  • 2 strips of dried seaweed, rehydrated in cold water for 5 minutes, then cut into 2-inch pieces (a little dried seaweed goes a long way--you want to end up with about 3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 pound mustard cabbage, trimmed, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute, then strained and rinsed in cold water.
  • 1 and 1/2 pounds meaty pork spareribs, cut into 2-inch pieces, then put into a pot of cold water, heated to a rolling boil, drained, and rinsed
  • 1 whole nodule of fresh, young ginger, crushed but still in one piece for easy removal
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 small daikon radish, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • 2 cups dashi stock (diluting 1 teaspoon of Hon-Dashi granules in 2 cups of boiling water)
  • 3 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons salt
1. It's most efficient to prepare all the ingredients at the start--softening the mushrooms, rehydrating the seaweed, blanching the mustard cabbage, parboiling the ribs--and only then starting the soupmaking.

2. Put the mushrooms, spareribs, and ginger in a large soup pot with the 4 cups of water. Bring to a fast boil, skimming away any foam, then reduce heat to medium and let cook, partially covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Add the seaweed pieces, cubed daikon, dashi stock, and reserved mushroom liquid, bring back to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 15 more minutes, until the pork and daikon are tender.

4. When ready to serve, remove the hunk of ginger, season to taste with soy sauce and salt, and stir in the mustard cabbage. Bring the soup to a boil, then serve out into bowls.

This is kusuimum, eating it is good for you! And please check out the website for more Okinawan soups (but not the ones with snakes or pig intestines).

Best regards,
Pat Solley

p.s. So why "Land of Propriety" anyway? That's what Chinese emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty called it in 1579, a tremendous honor for the island people. And that's what Sho Ei--the last king of a truly independent Loo-choo--in his pleasure immediately had inscribed on the upper gate to his castle at Shuri to stand for all time. British anthropologist Basil Hall Chamberlain described the society this way: "There were no lethal weapons in Luchu, no feudal factions, few if any crimes of violence.... Confucius' ideal was carried out--a government purely civil, at once absolute and patriarchal, resting not on any armed force, but on the theory that subjects owe unqualified obedience to their rulers, the monarchy surrounded by a large cultured class of men of birth, and the whole supported by an industrious peasantry." You know, a land of propriety.

References: Bank of Ryukyu International Foundation's Okinawa Tour Guide and Folktales of Okinawa, Tomiko Higa's The Girl With the White Flag, Hui O Laulima's Okinawan Mixed Plate, George H. Kerr's Okinawa: The History of an Island People, The Okinawa Guide, June 2003-2004, Ryukyu Cuisine by Okinawa Prefecture at, Susan Sered's Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa, Shinjo Sayuri, for advice on Inamuduchi, Takanoya's An Account of Okinawan Culture, Gladys Zabilka's Customs and Culture of Okinawa, Bradley and Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki's The Okinawa Program: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health, and a variety of articles and commentary on the web.
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NEXT MONTH: A Bitter Soup of Black-Eyed Peas