Okinawa cuisine: tofu, Spam and root beer

NAHA, Japan (Reuters) - Spam, “taco rice” and A&W Root Beer -- if you’re looking to sample authentic Okinawan cuisine, these are musts for the menu.

Cans of "Spam" luncheon meat, specially-designed for the Japanese market, are displayed with other Okinawan specialty products at a souvenir shop in Naha on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa March 5, 2008. Spam, "taco rice" and A&W Root Beer - if you're looking to sample authentic Okinawan cuisine, these are musts for the menu. The southern Japanese island may be best known abroad for a healthy diet heavy on tofu and bitter-tasting vegetables called "goya", but Okinawans are just as likely to tuck into fast food burgers and other dishes first made familiar by American troops. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Residents of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa might like their tofu and other Japanese favourites, but they are just as likely to tuck into fast food burgers and other dishes first made familiar by American troops.

“We’ve been used to American food from an early age and people think it’s just as Okinawan as ‘chanpuru’ (stir fry),” said Yasuyuki Takaesu, 38, master chef at a restaurant in the Okinawa capital of Naha that serves traditional fare such as crunchy “mimiga” (pig ears) and “rafuti” (flavoured stewed pork).

“Lots of people my age are getting fat, but I just can’t stop eating fried chicken and hamburgers,” he added with a grimace.

Okinawa was occupied by the U.S. military from Japan’s 1945 defeat in World War Two until 1972, and remains host to the bulk of U.S. troops in Japan under a bilateral security treaty.

Mainland Japanese often shake their heads at the sweet taste of A&W’s trademark drink, but Americans can find it comforting to grab a burger, onion rings and root beer -- refills free in a frosty glass mug -- at one of the many A&W’s dotting the island.

“It’s nostalgic,” said U.S. Consul General Kevin Maher.


Such fare is familiar to the American palate, but Okinawa dishes that prepare well-known ingredients with a local twist can cause both mainland Japanese and Westerners to do a double-take.

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Take the selection of “onigiri” -- Japanese rice balls wrapped in seaweed -- sold in convenience stores.

In Okinawa, large square “onigiri” stuffed with Spam and egg, or hamburger and cheese nestle next to smaller traditional triangular versions filled with salted salmon or pickled plum.

Markets selling products from pig’s feet to colourful fresh fish also display rows of canned Spam processed meat -- which can be purchased as souvenirs at shops frequented by tourists.

“This kind of food was brought in by the Americans as emergency aid after the war and we’ve all eaten it since we were little, so it’s more popular here than on the mainland,” said a white-haired woman selling Spam at a Naha market.

Equally popular among Okinawans is “taco rice”, a dish in which a spicy meat filling usually found inside a taco is heaped on a mound of rice with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.

Variations include “taco pilaf” and “taco curry”.

Decades of an Americanised diet, Okinawa health officials say, is partly responsible for making islanders fatter, more prone to heart disease and likely to die sooner than either their elders or compatriots in many parts of the mainland.

The trend comes as a blow to a prefecture long home to one of the highest percentages of centenarians in the world.

“Fast food came to Okinawa relatively early, so people are used to it. But traditional cuisine also used a lot of oil ... there are multiple factors,” said health official Mitsuyuki Maeda. Okinawans also tendency to drive rather than use public transport, another cause of high obesity rates.

Opined Maeda: “It’s the same all over Japan, but the problem is bigger in Okinawa.”

Editing by Megan Goldin