Friday, March 8, 2019

Okinawa Short Trip: The Traditional Cuisine

Despite the brief time we got to spend in the island, we were eager to learn more about traditional Okinawan cuisine, so on the night we arrived at Naha, we went to eat at Tantei, a restaurant specializes in Yaeyama Ryori, the style of cooking rooted in the region for centuries (on another recommendation by my friend JP). The restaurant was a bit hard to find even with GPS equipped in our car with the place also doubled as the home of owner-couple Nobuhiro and Reiko Miyagi in a quiet residential area not far away from the Shuri Castle.

The dining area reminded me more of a chalet, up in a small hill with dark décor and mainly wooden furniture inside. The homey dining area had a few tables with a couple group of customers already there when we walked in. We asked the hotel concierge to book the table for us and we told Nobuhiro-san our budget in advance so he could prepare the ingredients and our dishes ahead of time (dinner set ranges from 8000 to 20000 yen). The courses were served in order similar to the traditional Japanese kaiseki meal, but slightly more rustic in style and made use of many local ingredients found only in Okinawa and cooked using traditional techniques passed down through generations.

We began with the appetizer platter similar to kaiseki hassun course with a few snack-sized dishes served in small ceramics plates and bowls. In the center was what a red bloc described to us as tofu, but instead it’s something similar to the Cantonese fermented tofu but with a soft texture and a milder flavor (known as Tofuyo). There’s also a dab of Yaeyama Miso served in a small bowl, which was similar to the Kinzanji style we tried previously with whole soy beans fermented with vegetables. Completed the rest of the course was mountain vegetables and also goya jello, which has a rather balanced bitter-sweet flavor, and all these were served with a cocktail of awamori and juice of shikuwasa, the Okinawa citrus fruit.

Next course was served in an antique rice bowl and under the lid was deep-fried tofu in Hiryozu-style served with a medley of local vegetables. And after that more seasonal vegetables made its way in in the form of a pickle platter, with a few different types all marinated differently, highlighting the various types of flavor (salty/savory, sweet and sour) that formed the basis of Okinawan cooking. My favorite was daikon (radish) pickled with vinegar and Okinawan kokuto sugar (aka black sugar), but the goya (bitter gourd) was nice too, with the pickled juice taming the bitterness from the fruit.

More traditional dishes came our way, each served in tasting portion in well-designed utensils. The mashed taro (Douruwakashi) in a hand-built soba-choko cup was mixed with mushroom and vegetables, giving it a starchy sweet taste with a hint of earthiness and a bouncy bite from the shiitake mushrooms; the nigana no shira-ae was served in a glass bowl, with mashed tofu mixed with bitter herbs (nigana) which was cut like scallions but slightly more bitter and grinded black sesame.

Jimami Tofu was something new we learned in Okinawa and came to love it after trying the dish here and as snacks elsewhere during the trip. From the appearance it looked like the traditional tofu served in a small bowl with a dab of wasabi, ginger and soy, but instead it’s made with potato starch and peanuts, giving it a sticky, stretchy texture with distinct peanut flavor. It was delicious.

We then had a couple of seafood dishes. Nothing too special about the tuna sashimi, but I like the next course of smoked cuttlefish served with bitter herbs, with the thin slices of steamed cuttlefish got a slight tint and smoky flavor and matched with the equally strong flavor from the Okinawan herbs. We then moved to the soup course served in a lidded lacquer bowl. It looked like a creamy broth but instead it’s made with raw peanuts, giving it a less oily flavor (than the roasted peanuts we were more familiar with) but with a more distinct nutty taste.

Our main course was a platter of various specialty dishes, which include a sea kelp roll with fish, deep-fried taro, Yaeyama Fish Cake, and Minudaru – steamed pork smothered with black sesame paste, and choumeisou, which literally translated as “long life herb”, said to be key to longevity. And to finish, a bowl of rice served with broth, tofu and colorful vegetables (similar to ochazuke but it’s known as saifan locally), pickles, then a slice of pineapples and mochi (made with peanuts and kokuto sugar) as desserts.

What a lovely experience trying out something totally different in a cozy setting – doesn’t make us an expert all of a sudden, but at least now we know there’s more about Okinawan cuisine than just the same few dishes.

When? February 24 2019
Where? Yaeyama Ryori Tantei, 204901 Shuri Akahiracho, Naha, Okinawa, Japan
潭亭 沖縄県那覇市首里赤平町2-40-1 1F

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