Okinawa is in the southern-most prefecture of Japan, straddling the East China and the Philippine Seas. With itswhite, tropical beaches and turquoise waters, it’s not what you usually imagine when you think of Japan.
Besides being known as the location of a U.S. Army base, Okinawa is one of the five ‘Blue Zones’ described by journalist, author and National Geographic fellow, Dan Buettner. These are five populations throughout the world with unusually high numbers of individuals who live happier, healthier lives, often to one hundred and beyond.
In a nutshell, what these societies have in common is they:
1. Exercise naturally in their every-day activities, walking, gardening, building, etc.
2. Maintain purpose throughout their lives.
3. Take time each day to de-stress.
4. Belong to a society or faith-based organization.
5. Put families and friends first.
6. Choose or were born into societies with healthy behaviors.
And when it comes to eating, residents of ‘Blue Zones’:
7. Drink alcohol moderately and regularly.
8. Eat until they are just 80% full.
9. Consume a mostly plant-based diet.
Legumes, including fava beans, black beans, soybeans and lentils, are the base of most centenarian diets. Meat is eaten in moderation, perhaps four to five times per month. Serving sizes are three to four ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
The cuisine of Okinawa is even more vegetable-centric than the typical Japanese diet. Okinawans dine on a menu that is heavy in whole grains, soy products and vegetables, both from land and sea. As a result, they enjoy a level of heart disease that is one-fifth that of Americans, as well as lower rates of cancer.
One of the mainstays of the Okinawan diet is a purple sweet potato called, beni imo. Like other highly colored fruits and vegetables, including cherries, blueberries, raspberries and red cabbage, these sweet potatoes are high in flavonoids, which are antioxidant compounds. They also contain large amounts of cell-repairing vitamin E and lycopene. There is also a domestic sweet potato with purple skin and flesh, called the Stokes Purple® that is available late August through winter. Okinawa purple sweet potatoes have buff-colored skins and purple flesh and are available fall through winter. For optimal sweetness and fluffiness, both should be baked lower and longer than other potatoes—about 90-120 minutes at 350 degrees (though you may have to experiment). These potatoes are delicious baked, slit open, sprinkled with salt and pepper with a squeeze of lime juice. You can also top them with a little sour cream or plain Greek yogurt and sprinkle with chives.
Here’s a tropical-style soup featuring purple potatoes that will dazzle your friends. It contains a healthy dose of herbs and spices that help regulate blood sugar and blood pressure.
2 medium sweet onions, sliced then chopped into ¼” pieces
1 ½ Tbs. vegetable oil such as avocado oil
2 medium purple sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾” cubes
1 serrano chili, seeded and minced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
½” slice fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1-14 oz. can coconut milk (or 1 ½ cup macadamia milk)
2 ½ cups water
¼ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. ground coriander
Sea salt to taste
3 cups cooked rice
Chopped cilantro and lime wedges for garnish
1. Sautee the onions in the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes
2. Add the sweet potatoes, the serrano chili, garlic and ginger; cook 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently
3. Add the coconut (or macadamia) milk, water, turmeric, coriander and pinch of salt; bring to a boil
4. Reduce heat and simmer 20-25 minutes until the sweet potatoes are tender
5. Place a scoop (1/2 cup) of rice in a shallow bowl and ladle the soup over; top with chopped cilantro and a wedge of lime
Another vegetable with outstanding health benefits that is commonly featured in Okinawan cooking is goya, also known as bitter melon. It looks like a warty, wrinkly cucumber and has a mild flavor once it’s been soaked in salted water to remove the bitterness.
Bitter melon contains beta-carotene, potassium, and fiber. Asian herbalists prescribe it to diabetes patients to help them stabilize their blood sugar. This salad recipe from my Age Gracefully Cookbook makes an excellent side dish for grilled meat, fish, and vegetables.
4 medium-size bitter melons
¼ cup kosher salt
Pinch of baking soda
1 cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
2 chopped hard-boiled eggs
2 chopped medium tomatoes
1. Slice the bitter melons lengthwise and remove all white parts, including the seeds. Sprinkle with the salt and let stand for 10-15 minutes. Rinse.
2. Cut the melons crosswise into strips. Blanch the slices in boiling water with the baking soda for 5 minutes. Drain and let cool.
3. To make the dressing, mix together the rice vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. Let stand for up to 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend.
4. Toss the melon slices with the dressing.
5. To assemble, arrange the melon slices on salad plates. Top with the chopped eggs and tomatoes, evenly divided.
So, take it from the Okinawans. Go for a hike, then gather your friends and family for a meal of Tropical Purple Potato Soup and Bitter Melon Salad and enjoy an extra three years of good health!