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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menus and in the everyday diet. This dates back to the 18th century, when raw sugar from Okinawa was traded at Shimonoseki to the Kitamaesen trading ships in return for konbu. This was brought down all the way from Hokkaido down to Okinawa on the ships of the so-called ‘Konbu road’, then used in trade with China.19 Konbu grows in seawater and said to contain 45 or more different elements, all being important minerals. The absorption rate has been reported to be high, and konbu also contains dietary fibre and essential fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Okinawan people eat tofu regularly. Consumption of large amounts of seaweed rich in sulfur-containing amino acids brings supplementary effects of amino acids and makes good dietary sense for Okinawan people, as these amino acids are lacking in soybean protein. Pork, konbu and tofu are indispensible ingredients in festival menus and the combination of tofu and seaweed is common in the everyday diet. Some examples include clear soup with tofu and asa (hitoegusa, a green seaweed), or adding fried tofu and konbu to a meat broth. These features of Okinawan longevity food we have seen can be said to have anticipated many of the dietary factors now being studied worldwide for the prevention of lifestyle related diseases. We can but bow our heads in admiration to our forebears, and their wisdom in adhering to the principle that our health is in our own hands. A rough summary of the Okinawan longevity food culture might include the following points: 1. In modern pork cuisine, unlike in the past, saturated fats are carefully removed in the process of boiling or akunuki. Clever use is made of collagen-rich pig’s feet and internal organs. 2. Large amounts of various types of seaweed, rich in minerals, dietary fibre and essential fatty acids (EPA, DPA and DHA), are included in their diet. 3. Leafy vegetables and herbs that are rich in dietary fibre, chlorophyll and Vitamins A and C, are part of the everyday diet. 4. Okinawan tofu, which is receiving worldwide attention as containing isoflavones for the prevention of lifestyle related diseases, is consumed in large amounts. 5. Raw sugar is eaten in healthy snacks with tea and kohencha (a semifermented tea) is a popular drink.
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