Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr (2001) 10(2): 159–164
History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food
Hiroko Sho Director
University of The Air Okinawa Study Center, Okinawa, Japan
Okinawan food culture in the Ryukyu island is one of the world’s most interesting culture because its consumers have the longest life expectancies and low disability rates. It is a product of cultural synthesis, with a core of Chinese food culture, inputs through food trade with South-East Asia and the Pacific and strong Japanese influences in eating style and presentation. The Satsamu sweet potato provides the largest part of the energy intake (and contributes to self-sufficiency), there is a wide array of plant foods including seaweed (especially konbu) and soy, and of herbaceous plants, accompanied by fish and pork, and by green tea and kohencha tea. Infusing multiple foodstuff and drinking the broth is characteristic. Raw sugar is eaten. The concept that ‘food is medicine’ and a high regard accorded medical practice are also intrinsic of Okinawan culture. Again, foodcentered and ancestral festivities keeep the health dimensions well-developed. Pork, konbu and tofu (soy beancurd) are indispensable ingredients in festival menus, and the combination of tofu and seaweed are used everyday. Okinawan food culture is intimately linked with an enduring belief of the system and highly developed social structure and network.
Key words: festivals, fish, foods, history, Japan, konbu, longevity, Okinawa, pork, raw sugar, Ryukyus, sweet potato, soy, tofu.
History of Okinawan Cuisine Okinawan cuisine has developed under the influence of a number of factors, including the geographical and historical background of the Okinawan people and their attitude to food. If we place the point of a compass on Okinawa, and draw a circle with a radius of 2500 km, which is the distance to Hokkaido (Fig. 1), we find that Okinawa occupies an extremely important position in the arc of the Japanese archipelago. In the north lies the main islands of Japan and the Korean Peninsula, to the west is continental China and to the south are the countries of South-East Asia, from Taiwan through to Thailand and Vietnam. The Okinawan geographical environment is unique and is only seen in a few parts of the world, with islands that are subtropical in nature, however with the surrounding ocean tropical. Historically, relations with China go back the furthest, with mention of the Ryukyu islands appearing in Chinese history texts dating back to 605 AD, corresponding to the Japanese Asuka Period and the Chinese Sui Dynasty. The ensuing Tang Dynasty, established by Li En, exerted a strong influence on the rest of Asia in the fields of ‘Culture and Institutions’. From that time, the people of the Ryukyus have known China by the name ‘Toh’ (the way the local and other Japanese people read the character ‘Tang’).1 Envoys of the Chinese Emperor began to visit the Ryukyu kingdoms from the 14th century. From the beginning of the 15th century, special envoys were sent to legitimise the enthronement of new Ryukyu kings in the Sappo investiture ceremony.2 Records indicate that the Sappo envoys were entertained at a series of seven banquets. The envoys from the Chinese emperor were sometimes 500 and they remained in the capital Shuri as guests of the court for 6 months, making their entertainment a major enterprise for the entire kingdom.
In the 17th century, Okinawa was annexed by the Satsuma clan from southern Japan. Satsuma officials were stationed in Okinawa to oversee the puppet Ryukyu Kingdom government. To entertain these officials, cooks were sent to mainland Japan to learn the Yamato cuisine. As a result, an unique Ryukyu ‘Court Cuisine’ for special occasions which incorporated influences from Chinese and Yamato cuisines developed, centred on the court at Shuri.5,6 In contrast to these elaborate cuisines, a commoners’ cuisine, also unique to Okinawa, grew...
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