Okinawan Festival
Okinawan Festival grinds: Drive soba.
Image: martha cheng

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Okinawan Festival / Prior to the Okinawan Festival this past weekend, my exposure to Okinawan food culture has been decidedly limited. First, there’s the bit of trivia that Okinawans have one of the longest life expectancies in the world, a fact often attributed to their diets.

My sole personal experience with any kind of Okinawan diet involved the preparation of enough pork stew to fill a kiddie swimming pool for the annual Awamori Fest, back when I was cooking in a restaurant. The stew, though delicious, was merely a backdrop to the awamori–an Okinawan spirit distilled from rice, resembling more Korean shochu than Japanese sake. As for whether and how these two facts are related–longevity and conspicuous consumption of massive quantities of stew and booze–you’ll have to ask a more disciplined researcher than myself.

Ever eager to expand my culinary horizons, I navigate the Okinawan Festival in Kapiolani Park with a map of the food booths as a guide, as if exploring a foreign country. Maybe it’s silly because the festival isn’t that big (though the Hawaii United Okinawa Association says it’s the biggest ethnic cultural festival in Hawaii), but I have a limited amount of time and much to eat (which, incidentally, is also the case when I’m in a foreign country). As I travel from booth to booth, another map comes to mind, that of Okinawa itself. Though Okinawa is part of Japan, the island is equidistant from mainland China and “mainland” Japan, and a close neighbor to Korea.

Okinawa’s proximity to China explains my first festival dish: Okinawa soba. The noodles are fat and chewy, more like the thick wheat noodles of northern China and Shanghai than skinny Japanese soba made with buckwheat flour. And then there’s the champuru plate, Okinawan’s mix of cultures in a single styrofoam clamshell (sound familiar?). There’s a stir-fry of cabbage, fried tofu and Spam-like luncheon meat–an influence that comes courtesy of American military presence in Okinawa.

The most distinctively Okinawan item on the champuru plate is the dollop of andamisu, a goopy miso and pork sauce that gives white rice its meaning in life. In both the soba and champuru plate, there are slices of shoyu pork, thrown in like a condiment, attesting to Okinawan’s love of pork. But fulfilling the promise of a culture that prides itself in head-to-tail pig cookery, the pig’s feet soup is the star of the Okinawan grinds. For those worried about where that foot’s been, it’s more pig ankle and shin, but I can’t tell if the girl wearing the “I Heart Pig’s Feet” shirt is disappointed by the lack of hoof in her soup.

I may like the pig’s feet soup, but what gets all the attention at the festival are the andagi, or Okinawan donuts, judging by the andagi dancers, andagi eating contest, and grinning andagi on Okinawan Festival T-shirts for sale. These almost perfectly round deep-fried dough balls are a cross between a cake donut and sponge cake, with a tender-crisp shell. They’re the best I’ve had, except for a chocolate-filled one at Nobu once upon a time, but that’s not really fair. And in case festival-goers love andagi so much but need a little bit of savory meat to make a true meal, there’s the andadog, an andagi-battered hot-dog-on-a-stick equivalent of a corn dog. I’m beginning to suspect it’s not this Okinawan food that’s linked to their longevity. It’s probably the bittermelon and Okinawan sweet potato at the country store, one of the loneliest tents at the festival. That and the blood sugar screening booth.

Five booths later, I’m far beyond “hara hachi bu,” an Okinawan principle that suggests eating until 80 percent full, but my festival map guides me to the Heiwa Doori, a tent filled with specialty food items from Okinawa. There are boxes of miso, to be eaten on hot rice; Okinawan soba sold in packages like instant ramen; andagi mix; tofu that look like cleaning supplies, dried in sponge and loofah-like forms; as many varieties of senbei, or rice crackers, as there are cereals in an American supermarket. Truthfully, they taste just like variations on a Corn Pops and Honey Smacks theme, but the cute packaging and Japanese labeling makes them irresistible. At some point, I begin to wonder what makes some of these products Okinawan. While some of the snacks–like a black sugar candy with an intense molasses, caramelized flavor–are indeed uniquely Okinawan, a volunteer shrugs when I ask about particular senbei. The logos look Okinawan, she says, pointing to the hibiscus and cartoon panda on the package.

Throughout my cursory (and perhaps indirect) culinary tour of Okinawa, there’s something familiar about the food I tried. Shoyu pork and Spam (not to mention other festival food like chili and rice) could have come straight off Zippy’s menu. Maki sushi and andagi–as familiar as poke and donuts in our supermarkets. Pig’s feet soup versus oxtail soup–most of it isn’t so different from what we find at the local drive-inn. Maybe Okinawan food at the fair has been regionalized for local taste buds, maybe it really is traditional or maybe the two food cultures, both drawing on Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American influences, arrive at roughly the same plate.

In any case, at this point, Okinawan immigrants’ long history in Hawaii has become so intertwined with Hawaii’s food culture that trying to separate the two is like separating shoyu from fried rice. Case in point: aforementioned Zippy’s, the embodiment of local grinds, was started by Okinawans. So maybe I don’t have to go to an Okinawan Festival to experience Okinawan food–it’s already all around me.

I hear Okinawan music – Okinawan Festival 2007