09 Apr 2013
If there’s one thing I really like to write about, it’s food. Whether it’s a restaurant I’ve discovered, or some exotic cuisine I’ve never tasted before, I think my decades of eating, enjoying, and even being picky (I prefer the term “particular”) about what I eat help me write somewhat informed food and restaurant reviews.
Most of my work as a food critic can be found at Total Okinawa, and a post here and there and a few other places on Okinawa Hai. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m no food critic! I’ve just convinced some people to pay me to dine out and write about it!
So it’s high time we talk about some Okinawan food here on little okinawa. To start us off: we dig into Okinawan sweet potatoes. The most famous one, of course, is ben-imo, the Okinawan purple sweet potato:
The secret to a long life?
Ben-imo is touted as a “superfood” in The Okinawa Program book (a book that makes wild promises to help you live a really long life, if you just eat & do like the Okinawans), no doubt because it’s rich in anthocyanin, an antioxidant that gives it and other purple foods (like eggplant and purple cabbage) their deep color. My favorite color, in fact!
I got about 1/3 through this book, then got bored and skimmed the rest. Here are the “CliffsNotes”: For a long and happy life, eat lots of vegetables like ben-imo and goya (bitter melon), plus fish, ginger, fruit, and green tea, and get out in the sunshine, stay active, and be social and hang out with friends. I just saved you at least 5 hours, maybe 10. Your life is longer already!
More importantly, anthocyanin protects against cell damage and free radicals, which can help prevent cancer, as well as heart disease and age-related brain problems. Or so this article on Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong website says. I know, he hasn’t exactly been considered the bastion of truth these days. But the article does cite the info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is a bit more reliable.
Fifty ways to eat Ben-imo–Such a good Paul Simon song
Ben-imo can be cooked the same ways as any other sweet potato, or potato (though it’s not really related to the potato, or the yam, for that matter). I’ve steamed and peeled them, and mashed the soft ones and sliced the firmer ones:
Ben-imo tastes different than the more familiar orange and yellow sweet potatoes. It has a bit of a flowery aftertaste. A slight tang. I like it; others can’t get used to it.
My all-time fave place to go to taste samples (lots and lots of samples!) of Okinawan treats is the Purple Sweet Potato Factory in Yomitan (there’s at least one more in the southern part of the island, too, I believe in Naha). I like to have lunch at the restaurant behind the factory/gift shop first, for their purple potato noodles with savory sauce:
The noodles are served cold, which sounds weird but is really refreshing, especially on a hot Okinawan day. There’s only the smallest hint of ben-imo flavor in the noodles–quite subtle. The dish is topped with thin strips of seaweed and salty sea grapes. It also comes with two sauces–one creamy and one like a light soy or miso. You can dip the noodles in each sauce, or mix the sauces together and dump them on top. I like to order more sea grapes, to even out my noodle-to-sea-grape bite ratio. Yes, that sounded totally nerdy. I don’t mind–I told you I was particular!
Other things made with ben-imo found throughout Okinawa:
This is probably my favorite ben-imo treat of all time: the soft serve ice cream at Blue Seal creamery:
Since the potato flavor is really strong, I go for the ben-imo and vanilla mix. And, I just noticed that the cake cone is totes Okinawan:
And who can resist this ridiculously fun photo op:
Here’s me at the Purple Sweet Potato Factory, eyeballing all the treats:
The mysterious singing sweet potato truck
But I would be remiss if didn’t talk about the singing sweet potato truck. In fact, it’s what inspired this post in the first place.
The singing sweet potato truck makes the rounds in my Okinawa City neighborhood every Saturday afternoon. However, it took me months and comparing notes with friends to crack the code of what exactly I was hearing–I thought maybe an Okinawan neighbor was practicing for some traditional concert! I had no idea it was a truck, or that it sold anything, let alone sweet potatoes. It could have been a ghost serenading me in the daytime, for all I knew.
I’m not even sure that the song has lyrics, it’s so garbled. But I’ll never forget the tune.
These suckers are piping HOT. So hot, in fact, that like a big galoot, I left them on my dining room table for them to cool, and left this regretful mark:
The smoker on the back of the singing truck also caramelizes the sweet potatoes–they’re a bit sticky to handle. I have to say, these babies are the sweetest sweet potatoes I’ve ever tasted. Maybe I should just start calling them “sweetest potatoes.” There’s absolutely no need for additional brown sugar or marshmallows (and this from someone with a recovering sweet tooth)–they’re already dessert-y.
Even though I know I can count on hearing the singing sweet potato truck every Saturday, it remains elusive–I have to listen for the song and walk around a bit to find it, and I still don’t know where the song come from or what it’s all about!
This unique cultural tidbit is burned into my memory, and if in the future I ever come across someone who has also lived here, I’m sure to ask: “Did you ever hear the singing sweet potato truck?!” Followed of course, by my own rendition of what its sounded like.