Porky faces, fishy balls and medicinal mozuku are all on the menu at a cooking school in Okinawa, writes Kim Knight.

And push and stretch and push and . . .

My arms hurt. Earlier today, they took a pummelling at a karate lesson. Now, they're aching from the effort of turning hard wheat flour into chewy noodles.

The people of Okinawa, Japan, are famously long-lived. Maybe it's because they exercise so hard when they're making dinner. Karate originated here, but so did an incredible cuisine.

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Geographically, Okinawa is closer to China and Taiwan than to the rest of Japan. For centuries it was a separate kingdom called Ryukyu, and traded with China and Southeast Asia.

Annexed by Japan in 1879, it was invaded by American troops in 1945. A reported one-third of the local population was killed in the brutal final Pacific campaign of World War II and Japan did not resume governance of Okinawa until 1972.

The result of all that contested history: A literal melting pot of culinary influences.
Seasoned gastronomic tourists reckon that when you think you know all there is to know about Japanese food, a visit to this very southern island will blow your mind.

To start with, the Americans are still there. Last year, a reported 25,000 US service personnel were stationed in Okinawa. Their gastronomic contributions include Spam and taco rice. Spoiler: This is not the incredible cuisine I referred to earlier.

Miyu Itaka is waiting for us outside Taste of Okinawa in the prefecture's capital, Naha.

She's a trained chef but, perhaps more importantly, "my grandmother was a good cook".

Pushing against that tide of taco rice, this island's younger residents are developing tourism opportunities around traditional foods and also its burgeoning brewing scene. So this is a cooking school, but it's also a restaurant and a craft beer bar.

It's 28C outside, and the humidity is more than 90 per cent. Most people come to Okinawa for the white-sand beaches and crystal ocean, but I'm putting on more clothes.

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My apron is "bingata", a brightly patterned resist-dye cloth first developed in 14th-century Ryukyu and another example of broad cultural influences — in this case, Indian, Chinese and Javanese fabric techniques.

Thirsty? Orion beer is made in Okinawa, but there are also seven local microbreweries here and this bar has a bunch of them on tap.

Market in Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Kim Knight
Market in Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Kim Knight

"Goya" or bitter melon is one of the prefecture's so-called "superfoods", the products that have been attributed to Okinawa's most enduring claim to fame: more centenarians than the rest of Japan (recent statistics challenge this, but earlier, when my wrinkle-free karate instructor said he was 70, my jaw dropped in disbelief).

Bitter melon contains phytonutrients that lower blood sugars. The vegetable-fruit is also (allegedly) a good hangover cure. Helios Goya Dry pours pale yellow and is sweeter than its name suggests. Beer nerds list its taste as cardboard and wet hay, but I thought it was refreshing. Probably those expert drinkers had not worked up a noodle dough-kneading sweat.

Go for the beer, stay for the soup. We're a tourist group of four on a shore visit from the Majestic Princess, a giant cruise ship docked a 15-minute cab ride away. The Majestic will visit New Zealand waters for the first time this month, but, back in May she was doing three-day runs between Taiwan and Japan.

While other passengers headed for those beautiful beaches, my group went to Naha Public Market. Take a deep breath. Those are vacuum-packed pig's faces.

The market experience is not as visceral as some I've visited in Asia, but I will never unsee that rubbery, snouty visage. (Weeks later, I consult my notes: "Pig's head, thinly sliced, peanut sauce and . . . " I can't make out the rest, but I'm still not convinced).

Pork is a big deal here. It's gently poached, long and slow, which, apparently, breaks down the fat. According to one local proverb the only part of the pig Okinawans don't eat is the oink.

"Everything except the nose," confirms Itaka, cheerfully, adding that Okinawan pork is sweeter than that raised anywhere else. It's a common theme. Mozuku seaweed is found in other parts of Japan, but the stuff here is said to be thicker and yummier. Harvested by divers wielding giant suction hoses, it's another superfood courtesy of its slimy, fucoidan-rich exterior.

Swished with cucumber, ginger, vinegar and soy it looks like a nasty version of an uncooked whitebait patty. It tastes okay, but if you're looking for a seaweed party in your mouth, grab some umi-bodo. Also known as sea grapes, it's a vivid green tentacle of algae covered in salty bumps that pop like caviar and taste a tiny bit like oyster brine. I demolished an entire carton.

At the Naha Public Market, you can buy fish, lobster, crabs and whelks downstairs and head upstairs to have them cooked to order. We skipped the fresh stuff and sampled springy processed fish balls and tissue-thin just-shaved bonito that was a prosciutto-like revelation.

Bonito look like wood, but when they're pushed through a mechanical shaver, the flakes are meaty and Marmitey. Just 50g will turn six cups of water into a deeply savoury broth that will be added to pork stock to make Okinawa soba.

You're thinking buckwheat, right? In fact, Okinawa is the only soba noodle in Japan that's made from wheat flour.

No one knows exactly why, though one (unproved) theory says it was Chinese travellers who brought noodles to the Ryukyu kingdom.

Push and stretch and push. There's an egg, water, salt and the baking soda that will give a ramen-like texture to the bite, but then it's just you and that dough.

Push and stretch and push. Roll and slice and poach. Pour on the broth and pile on pork belly, ginger, spring onion and a few slices of springy fish cake.

Skip the taco rice. You're making history.

And it will taste amazing

Eat like an Okinawan

Goya champuru: Everyone's got their own version of this (it translates as "something mixed") but the key ingredient is knobbly goya or bitter melon.

Seaweed: Mozuku for health, umi-budo or "sea grapes" for mouth-popping fun.

Sata andagi: These local doughnuts are denser and drier than usual, but the dark caramelly sugar produced here is something special.

Awamori: It's a distilled spirit, not a food, but we were told to sprinkle it in our soba soup, where it provided a kind of aniseed-like zing.

Okinawa soba: Don't leave without slurping a bowl of these chewy wheat-not-buckwheat noodles in a double umami-bomb of pork and bonito stock.

Jyu-si: Our cooking instructor washed the rice for this simple but glorious comfort dish five times, before soaking it for an hour and then cooking it in stock, with carrot, 4mm-cubes of fatty pork and dry shiitake mushroom. You may never eat risotto again.

Sweet potato: Found in everything from icecream to doughnuts to pies.

FACT BOX

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific

flies from Auckland to Hong Kong, with connections to Okinawa. Return Economy Class fares from $1019.

DETAILS
Taste of Okinawa Cooking Experience, 1-6-21 Tsuboya, Naha, Okinawa.