Discussions on Southern Food Reveals Unexpected Parallelisms

7 Dec

Nago City's version of Okinawan Soba--July 2006

On November 10th Eatocracy hosted its inaugural Secret Supper, an initiative aimed towards creating dialogue between food writers, experts, and aficionados. Hosted at Chef Linton Hopkin’s Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, this Secret Supper “centered around the topic of how chef’s increasingly close collaboration with farmers figures into the preservation and evolution of Southern cooking.”

More specifically, they wanted to emphasize how Southern cuisine isn’t just about biscuits, gravy, and fried chicken; but about how ingredients travel from farm to table. In an interview, Chef Hopkins expressed how careful preparation focused on preserving the raw tastes of fresh local produce can evoke memories of the plantation community and old traditions of the South.

As someone unfamiliar with Southern food, having never visited the South or tasted its food (this is the one thing that can’t be found in the mixed plate culinary culture of Hawaii), I was taken aback. This is not how you portrayed Southern food, Paula Deen! Intrigued by this new perspective on Southern food I read Reclaiming the soul of Southern food, a sister article that delves deeper into what Southern food was meant to be. Things started to make sense, but in the back of my all I could think about was how eerily similar Southern food was to the food of my ancestors.

Yes, surprisingly, Southern food has a striking resemblance to Okinawan food: the food eaten by many of the world’s centenarians.

As someone who believed that Okinawan food was unique to any in the world—what I now realize to be a poor misconception construed on superficial knowledge—I thought it would be interesting to explore how the key points of this article function as descriptors of Okinawan food. And that by doing so I could perhaps gain a deeper appreciation for my heritage.

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1. “Southern food hits on every level, and for us, this is about community and building trust”

I was seventeen when I traveled to Okinawa for the first time. It was my first time flying solo, first time leaving the country, and I’ll admit, I cried after saying goodbye to my Mom at the airport. Needless to say this turned me off to the idea of visiting this exciting, foreign place.

But things change quickly, especially with food on the agenda. Once I arrived in Naha, my relatives greeted me with a welcome sign (written in English and Japanese) and none other than a box containing a turkey cucumber sandwich. Although not by any means a traditional Okinawan dish, it is a very popular sandwich sold at every convenience store and regularly prepared at home. (As we will later discuss, the prevalence and popularity of such food items can be considered as a part of the regional cuisine.) The sandwich was delicious and expressed a heartfelt welcome, or mensore as we would say in the Okinawan dialect, that quickly established a sense of comfort and trust with my relatives.

During my first week in Okinawa I learned that Okinawans follow a peculiar schedule; they love sleeping in and love staying up into the wee hours of the morning. This schedule taught me two very important lessons about Okinawan food culture: that food can, and will, be consumed at all times of the day, and it is the glue that keeps everyone together. Even at 2am in the morning, visitors ranging from a distant relative to the neighborhood Battle of Okinawa veteran would visit to discuss the day and the plans for the rest of the week. Every time, my aunty would play host, offering snacks and taking requests for whatever they craved. One day an assortment of nakami (pig intestine and stomach soup), andagi (Okinawan fried donuts), and goya (bittermelon) juice covered every inch of the sitting room coffee table. I later learned that the food, which everyone swore was the best in the neighborhood, was what brought everyone together.

2. Southern food is born off of farms; it’s about cooking what’s around you

John Kessler, a food writer and dining critic who attended Eatocracy’s Secret Supper defined Southern food as “food that is very close to the agrarian tradition. It’s close to the earth.”

Okinawan food is no different.

Most Okinawans cook with homegrown vegetables and herbs and some still raise their own livestock, namely pigs. The earthy quality of the cuisine is so strongly connected to the landscape and its people that many Okinawan Americans who visit insist that they reconnected with their heritage and cultural identity through the food.

I experienced this first-hand when we went to visit my aunt and uncle’s house up in the mountains near Nago city. This house, accessible only by dirt road, and surrounded by nothing but untouched vegetation, was where they grew most of their vegetables—including the very popular goya.

 

The view from my Uncle and Aunty's mountain home -- July 2006

For our visit she prepared somen champuru (stir-fried noodles) containing herbs and vegetables picked from the garden; freshly squeezed shikwasa (hirami lemon) juice; and goya soda, made from goya zest and Sprite.

The freshness of the ingredients resulted in a unique resonation of flavors on my palate, and I immediately understood what my fellow Okinawan Americans were talking about.

3. Notion of the “global South”—contributions of labor, ingredients, and techniques from immigrant groups to the South

The “global South” emerged through the culinary influence of immigrants who relocated to the South. Okinawan food, on the other hand, has been diversified by the American military presence as well as by returning Okinawans whose families emigrated to North and South America to work on the sugar cane plantations.

The strong American influence in Okinawa has greatly altered the food scene by popularizing American favorites, such as hamburgers and fried chicken, and by introducing new creations such as taco rice. Basically rice covered in taco-seasoned ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and salsa, it is now considered to be part of the regional cuisine; despite bearing little to no resemblance to traditional Okinawan food.

At first it was hard for me to accept this as an Okinawan dish but I soon realized that I was looking at this too narrow-mindedly. Think of it this way, Americans consider hamburgers and hot dogs as All-American food–despite being foreign imports–because of their historical significance in defining American culture. The same can be said for taco rice (and that previously mentioned turkey cucumber sandwich) in Okinawa.

100 years ago many Okinawans immigrated to North and South America to work on sugar cane plantations. Now, with the Okinawan government sponsoring exchange programs with these countries as well as their Worldwide Uchinanchu (Okinawan) festival held every five years, many overseas Okinawans are returning to Okinawa.

This unique pattern of immigration has greatly influenced Okinawan cuisine, introducing new dishes as well as innovative interpretations of traditional dishes. On Okinawa Hai!, a blog where most of the contributors are military personnel currently residing in Okinawa, the extent of this can be seen in their restaurant guide section. Restaurants serving Peruvian, Hawaiian, Brazilian-Okinawan fusion cuisine, and more, are plentiful and representative of the diverse experiences of Okinawans worldwide.

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Virginia Willis, and attendee of the Secret Supper said that food “will allow us to connect what we’re putting in our mouth with what is happening around the world.” She’s right. The discussion started at the Secret Supper inspired established voices in the food industry to discuss Southern food and it inspired this food blogger to take a closer look at a regional cuisine close to her heart. The process has yielded revelations but also mysteries that require further exploration. That was the point, right?

But what happens next? The next Secret Supper is probably in the works already but I’m not going to wait for its unveiling to continue this conversation. What about you?

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