A crush of humanity jammed Kapiolani Park on Oahu when I was there a couple of years ago for the annual Okinawan Festival. Crowds pressed close around the food booths where cooks were frying up deep-purple sweet potatoes, golf-ball-shaped Okinawan doughnuts and rafute -- pork belly, braised to buttery softness in a traditional distilled rice liquor called awamori.
Back in L.A., these regional Japanese dishes were scarcer than Tibetan yak butter. But last July, Realtor Ted Uehara helped fill that culinary void when he followed his dream and opened Shin Okinawa Izakaya in Torrance. His modest place, near the flagship Mitsuwa Japanese supermarket, devotes its menu to home-style cooking from Japan's southernmost prefecture.
"We needed this," says the native Okinawan. "The community on the mainland is even larger than it is in Hawaii."
One evening, an Okinawa-born friend agreed to help choose a menu that would illustrate the cuisine's essential nature. The meal was to the Japanese cooking we're used to what Sicilian food is to Milanese -- more rustic -- and was filled with ingredients rarely seen in mainstream Japanese restaurants in L.A..
The many pork dishes, stir-fries and even the flavor of the food hint at the Chinese influence that had filtered in with trade and diplomacy long before Japan's acquisition of Okinawa's many islands.
Sitting far south of mainland Japan and a day's ferry ride from Taiwan, the equatorial region (nicknamed Japan's Hawaii) produces tropical fruits and warm-climate vegetables such as water spinach and bitter melon. But frequent violent typhoons make fishing sporadic so various preserved sea creatures have become mainstays.
Setting the scene
A hand-painted map of the Okinawan archipelago brightens one wall of Shin Okinawa Izakaya's cozy room. Quaintly outfitted with masses of paper lanterns and rugged wooden tables, it conjures a seaside village pub. Before entering you spot the shisa, a ceramic lion-dog deity that sits on roofs all over the islands to ward off evil spirits.
In traditional izakaya style, the menu groups dishes by cooking technique and diners can pick and choose.
If you're not up for stingray fin (No. B16 on the menu), move on to those famous Okinawan purple potatoes prepared three delicious ways. Fried tempura-style, they needed only a dash of Okinawa's famous local salt, aguni no shio, that's served alongside. Mashed, sweetened and formed into sesame seed-covered balls, they become a toothsome dessert.
But it's the croquettes with their shaggy bread-crumb covering that offer another pearl of insight into this diversely influenced cuisine. They're topped with Mexican-style salsa -- a touch likely adopted during the U.S. military occupation as was the use of Spam, which shows up in stir-fries and as tempura.
Shekwasha, a tart citrus fruit sometimes called Okinawan tangerine, gets put to excellent use in several ways. In a ponzu sauce, it adds the right note of zing to crunchy chunks of fried chicken. The sauce also accompanies hirayachi, a thin, delicate, savory pancake flecked with herbs and vegetables and cut into wedges pizza-style.
To drink with these nibbles, Shin Okinawa Izakaya pours half a dozen brands of awamori. Distilled from Thai jasmine rice, with character similar to soju, it's a great mixer and particularly refreshing over ice with the tangerine's juice.
Hog, hock and all
As for Okinawa's famous pork, nothing gets wasted and restaurants tend to prepare parts of the animal too labor-intensive to cook at home.
Crunchy slivers of long-simmered pig's ears -- called mimiga in Okinawa -- may be gussied up with garlic, deep-fried or -- the tastiest way -- simmered in miso and roasted sesame oil. Mimiga's cartilaginous crunchiness may not suit every palate but tebichi, pork hock simmered until the meat collapses with the nudge of a chopstick, never disappoints. It sits in a shallow pool of deeply flavored, slightly viscous broth along with a small pyramid of very hot mustard to balance the unctuous richness.
Tiny brine-preserved fish, suku garasu, come precisely arranged on small rectangles of tofu; the combination adroitly balances salty and delicate notes. Spice up this or any dish with the awamori-preserved peppers in little glass bottles on your table.
At lunchtime, an abbreviated menu includes so-ki soba, not buckwheat noodles but thick, toothy, Chinese-style wheat noodles topped with pork rib meat in a pork and kombu broth. Rafute, also on that menu, sits in a bento box alongside a mound of Okinawan "black rice" -- actually a mixture of white and deep- purple grains with a mellow, nutty flavor.
In the Okinawan language, champuru connotes disparate things all tossed together. Go-ya champuru, for instance, combines bumpy-skinned bitter melon, tofu, eggs and sprouts in a stir-fry. Champuru dishes occupy nearly a full page on Shin Okinawa Izakaya's menu. Deservedly, because no word reflects more succinctly this ancient culture's wide-ranging cuisine.
Shin Okinawa Izakaya LOCATION 1880 W. Carson St., No. A, Torrance, (310) 618-8357. PRICE Izakaya dishes, $5.75 to $12; desserts, $1.25 to $6. BEST DISHES Rafute (braised pork belly), hirayachi (vegetable pancakes), abeni imo tempura (purple potato tempura), fried chicken with tangerine dipping sauce, so-ki soba (noodles in broth with pork). DETAILS Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 p.m. to midnight, nightly. Lot and street parking. Visa and MasterCard.