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Okinawa soba a favorite comfort food

By Brian McElhiney
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

We in America have our comfort foods — meatloaf, chicken noodle soup, apple pie and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to name a few.

With the exception of PBJ, none of the traditional American comfort foods float my culinary boat. Meatloaf is bland and boring; chicken noodle soup reminds me of being sick; a bad experience with apple crisp as a toddler has turned me off to most baked goods featuring the fruit.

My comfort foods come from an island halfway around the world, the place I lived for roughly a third of my life. Those who know me (or chanced to read the Mother’s Day package this paper published in 2011) know that I’m speaking of Okinawa, Japan.

If you read that previous article, you might also recall that most of these foods were introduced to me by my grandmother on my mother’s side, my Obaa-chan, Yoshiko Omine Flores.

One such dish is goya chanpuru — a stir fry featuring bitter melon (goya in Hogen, the traditional Okinawan language), tomatoes, pork and garlic served over rice. The “bitter” in the vegetable’s name is not to be taken lightly — this is an acquired taste that you either love (and then crave for the rest of your life) or hate (and then run in the opposite direction at any mention of the bumpy, cucumber-shaped gourd).

As much as I love my goya, there’s a traditional Okinawan food item that trumps even that: Okinawa soba — soba noodles swimming in pork broth, topped with fish cake, slices of pork belly or ribs, diced green onions and red ginger. Don’t bother looking for it on the menu at any local Japanese restaurant; it’s not there. In fact, it bears no resemblance to any kind of soba noodle you can get in Japan.

My first memory of the best food in the world was at my aunt and uncle’s house in Pismo Beach, Calif., sometime in the early ’90s. My entire family was there and Obaa-chan was preparing Okinawa soba using whatever local ingredients she could find to best appropriate to the recipe. My dad (my parents were still together at the time) got some of the broth in his eye; my Uncle Bob (since deceased) quipped, “That must be why the Japanese squint!”

In 1995, a few years after my parents’ divorce, I moved to Okinawa with my mom and my sister. For the first few years we lived at Obaa-chan’s, sharing the second bedroom, and it was here, eating Obaa-chan’s hybrid of Okinawan and Filipino cuisine every night, that my tastes were solidified.

Some foods, such as goya, I learned to love. But Okinawa soba was always a favorite, a food steeped in familial love and happiness — a comfort food, through and through. A trip to the soba-ya was always met with cheers, with a big bowl of the stuff usually followed by frozen zenzai (a sweet red bean soup served as a dessert item).

In high school, I used to cut lunch and travel off the military base to the little soba-ya just outside the gate, which served hyaku yen soba — a small bowl of noodles and broth for only 100 yen, roughly a dollar. I could pack away four or five of those in a visit, depending upon how much money I had been able to scrounge up that day.

When I graduated from high school in 2003, I moved to the Northeast. At the time, I was happy to leave — Okinawa is a tiny island, with not much going on that a teenager would find interesting. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I soon began missing my home, the place where I’ve lived the longest and experienced my most formative moments.

For two weeks last month, my sister and I went back. It was my first visit to the island since 2004, and was made possible entirely by my mother, who after bouncing from Hawaii to Virginia since my sister’s high school graduation in 2005, is back on Okinawa for at least two more years, working at Kadena Air Base.

Besides visiting all my old haunts (including all four of the apartments and houses we had lived in on the island), my main goal was to shovel as much wonderful Okinawan cuisine into my stomach as it could possibly hold. Fortunately, Obaa-chan’s goal is the same: to feed my sister and me as much of her cooking as our stomachs can possibly hold.

By my final full day on the island, I had eaten just about everything I’d set out to eat when I’d stepped off the plane. But I was lamenting the fact that I’d only had three bowls of Okinawa soba — one at a soba-ya, another two during a visit to Obaa-chan’s that first week.

I got more than I bargained for that last day, as we headed back to Obaa-chan’s. At 2 p.m., we sat down to a lunch of all the Okinawa soba we could eat, plus platters filled with sashimi (raw fish) and sushi. (My sister, now a vegan, ate a variant on Okinawa soba with vegetable broth, cabbage, carrots, tofu and mushrooms.) After two bowls of the stuff, plus an obscene amount of sashimi and sushi, I went for a long walk with my mom and sister.

We returned at 4 p.m. and sat around slumped over our bellies, watching what amounted to the Japanese version of “The Bachelor” on TV. At about 5 p.m., Obaa-chan popped her head out of the kitchen and asked if we wanted goya or kabocha (an Asian squash) for dinner. Our answer was an emphatic “NO!” until it became clear that that wasn’t going to fly.

An hour later, stomachs still bursting from lunch, we sat down and ate again — goya chanpuru, lumpia (Filipino spring rolls) and, of course, more soba. I didn’t think I’d ever want to eat again.
Of course, now I’m craving another bowl.

 
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