(Theguardian) – Okinawa in Japan is fabled for its residents’ longevity. A fact attributed to a diet of ‘major on vegetables, minor on meat’. Now the island’s restaurants are making it available to visitors, too
Travel is said to broaden the mind but could it also lengthen your life? Okinawa in southern Japan is famous for the long lifespans of its residents – usually credited to the traditional diet enjoyed by many. Local vegetables are believed to contain large amounts of beneficial antioxidants. Two of them are famous: goya, or bitter melon, an astringent gourd that resembles a cucumber with pimples and beni imo, (purple sweet potato), which is richer and sweeter than its orange cousin.
Many cafes and restaurants often offer goya chanpuru, or stir-fried goya with tofu and egg (from £3.50 to £7), in which the goya’s bitterness is offset and complemented by the other ingredients. Beni imo is trickier. It is widely available on menus but usually in processed form with sugar added, in buns, cakes, novelty breads and desserts. A healthier boiled version is available in supermarkets and one or two of the island’s farmers’ markets.
A couple of restaurants specialise in longevity cuisine, going well beyond the big two vegetables. Emi no mise restaurant is in Ōgimi, a village in the north-west of Okinawa’s main island. It is run by Emiko Kinjo, a nutritionist in her late 60s.
“I was greatly interested by the dishes prepared at home by local elderly people,” says Kinjo. “I have learned a lot from them.”
The centrepiece of her longevity lunch set (£12) is a lacquered box containing six artistically arranged dishes, mostly comprising several items. I relished the sweet-and-salt notes of silver-striped baby herring presented alongside tofu infused with seaweed. Among the veg – all grown locally – my favourites were a cluster of tender bamboo shoots, as well as another bitter vegetable and creamy tofu combo, this time featuring Korean lettuce (nigana). Kinjo uses local spices extensively, especially powdered shikuwasa, or flat lemon, which is as tart as you might expect.
In the middle of the island, Kiyoko Touma runs Cafe Garamanjyaku. Her detox lunch set (£25) is a harvest festival of local organic vegetables. Around 20 small, exquisite dishes were arrayed before me. If veg is important for Touma, herbs are paramount. “The secret of longevity is medicinal wild herbs,” she says. Her dishes feature yomogi (Okinawan mugwort) and chomeiso (long-life plant).
Eating for longevity is about how you eat, as well as what you eat. The traditional approach in Okinawa is to major on vegetables, minor on meat and dine in moderation: “Eat until you are 80% full,” is the mantra. And food isn’t everything. Elderly Okinawans are markedly active, socially and physically. I can’t guarantee you will live longer if you eat Okinawan longevity dishes but I’m confident you’ll enjoy trying.