Nov 24, 2017
I love food that tells a story. Sometimes that story is one of a places geography or resources, noticeable through the type of ingredients used or the temperature at which the food is served. Sometimes it's a historical tale, giving insight into the events and interactions that shaped the cuisine.
I am particularly fascinated by the intersection between cultures, and Okinawa certainly has many examples of that thanks to its history of cultural fusion over time, especially with the United States. When WWII ended, US and Allied forces occupied Japan. In 1952, when the occupation formally ended, one prefecture of Japan remained under the administration of the United States: Okinawa. For 20 years, Okinawa existed as an American protectorate, and home to tens of thousands of US service-members and their families. Many observers of Japan and the US-Japan alliance may be well aware of some of the tension is that still exists based on that status as a protectorate and the relationship between US forces and Okinawan people, but strip away the politics, the intra-governmental negotiations, and what you were left with are people-to-people interactions. At the intersection of those cultures, friendships are made, lessons are learned, and, sometimes, new foods are born.
Two of those foods are ones that you must try when visiting Okinawa: Blue Seal and Taco Rice .
Japan has a lot of good ice cream, but if you're searching for one with the best story behind it, Blue Seal is at the top of the list. For those of you new to Blue Seal, it has become the quintessential "Okinawan" ice cream in Japan, but it was born from a U.S. company that supplied dairy products for American personnel stationed in Okinawa after the war. The company, "Foremost," did not have a wide consumer base beyond American bases until 1963 when it opened its first "Foremost" Ice Cream shop in Urasoe City. The company eventually decided to change the name to "Blue Seal" in 1976, but it was a long road to reaching the popularity it now enjoys.
In 1995, Blue Seal opened its second store in Chatan and it wasn't until 2007 that the third store opened in Tomigusuku. After that, though, Blue Seal ice cream took off, and there are now over 75 places to get Blue Seal ice cream in 20 prefectures (see here for the full list).
So why is it so popular now?
First, the fact that Blue Seal was born from a dairy company meant that it had a great deal of control over the key ingredients for the ice cream. The Blue Seal recipes are a company secret which they claim to keep in the "Orange Book." As a result, the ice cream has perfect consistency and terrific flavor, which the company builds upon by using some quintessentially Okinawan ingredients.
Blue Seal offers the industry standards like Vanilla, Chocolate, Mint Chocolate Chip, Cookies and Cream, etc., but where it really separates itself is with its Okinawan varieties like Beni-imo (Purple Sweet Potato), Okinawan Ta-imo (Taro) Cheesecake, Ryukyu Royal Milk Tea, Sugar Cane, and my personal favorite: Chinsukō (Okinawan Salt Cookies). Unlike other seasonal or special edition flavors, these are all delicious, so I would encourage trying one or all of them (Chinsukō is a must!).
The one cuisine I do NOT typically recommend for folks coming to Japan is Mexican. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of good Mexican joints scattered throughout Japan, but I am also originally from California, so I know how standards for Mexican food can be. That said, the one take on Mexican food in Japan where you can almost never go wrong is Taco Rice. Delicious, filling, and with an interesting story to tell in every bowl or plate, this modern-era Okinawan specialty makes for one interesting culinary experience.
Certainly the relatively high volume of American service-members in Okinawa brought a demand for the tastes from home, and so a lot of local Okinawans who were hired to work on the bases learned how to cook cuisines from North America--Tex-Mex and Mexican being among them. Well, somewhere along the way, one of these cooks decided to take Taco meat and other fixings and place it across a bed of rice donburi style as with many other Japanese meals. That's all it took.
Now, taco rice is a staple in Okinawa and has been spreading throughout the rest of Japan. While the versions you can find in Tokyo or elsewhere are good, there's still something about having a taco rice in its place of origin.
You can find Taco Rice all throughout Okinawa, but some of the best places will be located right outside the American military installations (my favorite is in Ginowan City). You can even bring a souvenir Taco Rice seasoning packet to enjoy back at home!
So when you head to Okinawa, be sure to give these foods a try for a treat that has a tale that goes along with it!
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).