In Japan, Soul Food From a Can


Photo by David Nakamura

When cultures collide, the results can be unpredictable. Surely, no one in Japan would have imagined that Americans would add avocado and cream cheese to sushi. Similarly, it came as a surprise to me to learn this week that some in Japan have taken to mixing Spam with their yakisoba noodles and corned beef with their omelets.

But both have become staples of cooking in Okinawa, the chain of islands off Japan's southern coast. Since the end of World War II, the prefecture has been home to 27,000 United States military troops, whose presence has at times been controversial but whose influence is clearly rubbing off. For better or worse.

I didn't actually make the trek to Okinawa, but rather jumped at the chance when my friend Tomoko Hosaka invited me join a dinner party at Yamanekoya, an Okinawan chain with a branch in Tokyo. I was curious what could be so different about Okinawan cuisine. Plenty, it turns out.

"It's like Japanese soul food," Tomoko explained. "The corned beef, she added, "is probably from a can. Anything that might come from the U.S. military base."

In a country that can appear stiflingly homogeneous to foreigners, Okinawa has long been the neglected step-child of the main island, its ethnically distinct people at times ostracized by prejudice and at other times defiantly independent from the rest of the nation.

The region's cuisine reflects that defiance. In a country where the delicate flavors of food--Japan is not known for its love of spices--are matched by the immaculate presentation, Okinawan meals can appear, and taste, rough and almost unrefined by comparison.

We were served, in quick succession, greasy yakisoba with Spam and thickly chopped fried onions; omelets with spring onions, corned beef and a spicy mayonnaise; cold, peanut-flavored tofu; and, perhaps the most shocking of all, taco rice--a mound of seasoned ground beef and cheese atop a bed of chopped lettuce. I had a brief flashback to high school in Northern Virginia when lunches on Thursdays featured the taco salad bar. The Okinawan version is served on rice instead of tortilla chips. But you get the picture.

"It's like Japanese soul food," Tomoko explained. The corned beef, she added, "is probably from a can. Anything that might come from the U.S. military base."

There were some uniquely Okinawan touches, such as umibudou, a stringy, crunchy sea grape indigenous to the region, served alone as an appetizer and also atop several different salads. Goya, a bitter melon that is popular in southeast Asia, also appeared in two dishes, along with other seaweeds, tofu and bean sprouts.

No one in our dinner party had ever actually been to Okinawa, which is known for its great scuba diving and festive Hawaiian-like beach culture, among other things. Excuses ranged from "it's too far away" to "it's too expensive to get there." But everyone seemed to like the food, with the exception of our friend Daisuke, who came late and ordered two beers without eating. He shrugged and changed the subject when I asked what he thought of the cuisine.

To me, the taste, with the exception of the goya, wasn't remarkable but rather pedestrian. That's not a bad thing. As someone with limited cooking skills--I have been known to mix tuna with ramen and call it casserole--Okinawan food felt like the rare Japanese dish that I could actually make at home.

I'm not the only one. When I asked the restaurant manager Kazuhiro Hoshi whether Yamanekoya's chef had gone to apprentice classes, which is common at Japanese restaurants, he scoffed.

"He's from Okinawa," Hoshi said. "He learned it from his parents when he was growing up."

Yamanekoya is at 2-3-6 Shiba-Daimon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Open 11am-2, 5-11pm daily. Phone: 03-5472-3608.