The following interview is of a primary school teacher from a small town on Okinawa Island, Japan. Okinawa is well known for its traditionally healthy lifestyle, and the indigenous diet has been well studied by nutritionists to determine the reasons for the health and long life of the residents on this island. In this interview we’ll explore the eating habits and foods of children on the Island of Okinawa. The teacher has asked to remain anonymous.
1) Diverse Little Eater: What are the traits of a traditional Okinawan mother?
Okinawan school teacher: It is difficult to say what the traits of a traditional Okinawan mother are. So I’d like to consider many aspects of this question. I think “a mother” is the same all over the world. They love their children a lot. They give their children unconditional love. Japanese mothers love their children and donate to raise them. Okinawan mothers are the same as Japanese mothers in this way.
First, I’d like to compare how Okinawan mothers and Japanese mothers raise their children. Maybe the difference is that Okinawan mothers continue their job after marriage or childbirth. In mainland Japan, women quit their jobs after marriage and become a housewife and manage the house. But Okinawan women take for granted working after marriage. So we work and raise children. We have traditional big marketplaces in cities, towns and villages where the mothers are working. You can see the old women who are still working there.
Second, Okinawan mothers make traditional meals and sweets. We have many vegetables of Okinawa, we have many pork meals and fish meals and sweets [traditional foods].
Third, Okinawan mothers have to prepare foods for many annual worship events. The events of Okinawa are held with Chinese calendar so the calendar of Okinawa includes Chinese calendar, too.
In addition, I hear about the difference in the words, which are given to children who leave their hometown when they get a job or study at the university. A Japanese mother says, “You must not come back until you succeed in your job.” But an Okinawan mother says, “Come back anytime if you feel hard.” Maybe Okinawan mothers are too sweet? But the children can relax and go to new society.
2) DLE: Do you consider yourself a traditional Okinawan mother? If not, how are you different?
Okinawa school teacher: I think I’m not a perfect traditional Okinawan mother. I love my children. I have a job, but I don’t make all Okinawan meals and I don’t know all annual worship events
3) DLE: Describe how most children eat lunches at school? Do they bring lunch or buy it?
Okinawan school teacher: In Japan, we have school lunch. All students at the public elementary and junior high schools in Okinawa and also other prefectures in Japan have school lunch.
There are school lunch centers in the cities, towns and villages. Each school lunch center has a dietitian. The dietitian makes a monthly school lunch menu. The cooks make lunch following the plan and deliver lunches to each school each day.
Each school has a room called “kyushoku shitu” where lunches are delivered and preserved in large containers. After finishing the morning classes, students go to the room and take their lunches to each class. The students serve lunch into each dish, put them on trays, and serve their classmates. We call the students who serve the lunch “Kyushoku Toban.” The other students wash their hands and usually take their seats. Students take turns as the “Kyushoku Toban” in weekly rotations. Lunch time takes 20 minutes. After having lunch, students put their dishes in the basket. Kyushoku toban bring back the lunch containers and dishes to the Kyushoku Shitsu.
Lunchtime is the most important time for kids. They always check their school lunch menu in the morning saying “What is today’s lunch menu?” And if the menu is their favorite they scream or say “Yes!!”
The students at (senior) high school have to bring their own lunch or buy or go to a cafe near their school. So they also bring or buy tea. Many students buy Jasmine tea or green tea but some students buy sweet tea or juice or cola.
School lunch in Okinawa has a long history. It started after World War II. In the beginning, kids were served a loaf of bread and milk (powdered skim milk). I heard the milk was given by the USA. At that time, we had few foods and we were so poor. Especially in Okinawa, everything was burned out. So thinking of children’s health, the school lunch system started. And thus, serving milk for kids started since milk contains much calcium.
4) DLE: Is school lunch expensive? How much does it cost the student to eat at school?
Okinawan school teacher: I don’t know about the budget of school lunch center. But students pay about ¥4,000 (~$33.61) a month. I heard school lunch fee a day is about under ¥500 (~$4.20). Students also can have another helping if there is more in the pot.
5) DLE: Please describe a typical meal that the children at your school eat for lunch?
Okinawan school teacher: School lunch menus are usually local food of Okinawa, Japanese dishes, western menus like pasta, or Chinese and so on.
The students in elementary and junior high school have milk for school lunch. But some students have allergy of milk. In that case, we serve them green tea.
I asked our lunch center staff where they get the local vegetables or ingredients for the lunches. They said they buy from the Farmers’ Market (The local farmers’ market where many farmers come to sell their vegetables. There they also sell fish cakes and tofu or delicatessen items.).
6) DLE: How do Okinawan teachers/schools systems instill healthy eating habits in children?
Okinawan school teacher: We usually instill them in children in homemaking classes. They learn about nutrition, food, how to cook and how to plan the menu. Now ninth grade students learn how to make bento lunch. In Japan, ninth grade students graduate in March and take the entrance exam for senior high school. At the senior high school, they have to bring their own lunch.
7) DLE: How often do you prepare traditional Okinawan meals for your family? (How many evenings per week?)
Okinawan school teacher: In the summer time, I prepare traditional Okinawan meals every day. My father grows goya (bitter melon), hechima (fresh loofah), and touga (winter melon) in his garden. He always brings these vegetables for us. Thanks to him, I use them to make traditional “Goya champru (stir-fry of bitter melon and other vegetables).” And, I cook miso soup with hechima or touga.
Touga, or winter melon, looks like a watermelon, but has very little flavor. There is a story about winter melon in Okinawa following world war II. At that time, Okinawa had been burned out and there was very little food. One farmer cultivated some Touga and went one morning to harvest some from his field. When he got there, he found many Touga cut and partly eaten on the ground. It turns out that one American soldier came through. He was also very hungry and thought that he found watermelons. He tried one, but it was tasteless, so he tried another, and another until he finally gave up. Touga looks like a watermelon, but it is very different in flavor!
8) DLE: Do Okinawan parents have trouble getting their children to eat healthfully at home? Away from home? What are the biggest issues facing healthy childhood eating habits in Okinawa?
Okinawan school teacher: Yes. Because our life style has changed and there are many more mothers who work outside the home. Most of Okinawan foods are slow foods. And many parents focus on cooking quickly. They use boil-in-the-bag food or instant. Sometimes they go to the restaurant or buy delicatessen.
9) DLE: If you could ask other parents from other cultures a question about how they feed their families, what would it be?
Okinawan school teacher: I would like to know what traditional food they have and how to cook them.
10) DLE: Please share a traditional recipe that you like to prepare for your family with us.
Okinawan school teacher: I’d like to share many menus; like Okinawa soba (a local noodle dish), Futiba Jyushi (mugwort risotto), soki (pork rib soup, see photo above) and more.
But you may not be able to get the ingredients, so I’d like to introduce “Shinji-ga.” Maybe you can get these ingredients. When you are sick, it really works (the soup brews a pork liver and pork with onion, Okinawan carrots, carrots, potato, ginger, garlic, a mugwort and bonito soup).
Ingredients needed: a pork liver and pork with onion, Okinawan carrots, carrots, potato, ginger, garlic, a mugwort (for description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mugwort) and bonito soup
- Cut the vegetables and liver and pork.
- Put it in the pot which has bonito soup.
- Brew it for one or two hours.
- You can eat it alone or with miso added if you choose, which is also nice. You can eat the vegetables and meat. (My mother in-law makes it this way.)
- Or, after brewing two hours, pour only soup in the soup bowl and add a little salt. It is like an extract (My mother would cook it this way).
Notes on recipe from Diverse Little Eater:
I tried to make this recipe while living in France, but it was not possible to find a pork liver in the market (most pork livers there are reserved for pate or rillets). In addition, Japanese mugwort only grows in Japan and I was unable to find the imported variety in France. Now that I live in the Northwest US, there is a large Japanese population here. I hope to find imported mugwort at the Japanese market and will obtain a pork liver from the butcher at my local farmer’s market. I asked the Okinawan school teacher about these items and she sent these notes:
On pork liver: Could I substitute pork liver with beef or poultry liver?I have never used beef and fowl liver. But I think they are possible to substitute. Stockbreeding in Okinawa has been pigs since ancient times. So we have many kinds of pork meat.
On mugwort: I searched mugwort on the net, it says “Japanese mugwort”(Yomogi in Japanese, fuchi-ba in Okinawan dialect) and mugwort in western are different. So you can’t find in France. I don’t know what herbs can substitute it.
The Okinawan school teacher sent me her photos of this soup and it’s preparation. Her daughter was sick, so she made this soup for her!
A BIG WORD OF THANKS!
Thank you to the Okinawan primary school teacher for her thorough responses for this interview. She prefers to remain anonymous but her help and kind descriptions have been such a wonderful way for many of us to “travel” to Okinawa and sample the food and culture.
Response from the Okinawan school teacher: Thanks to you, I also learned a lot about the food and culture of Okinawa when I answered your questions. I noticed our culture has been changing. So it is important to continue to cook and show and tell to next generations.
And I noticed our daily food of Okinawa are precious. We must learn them and teach our children. They are our soul foods. The foods remind me of my mother and grandmother – sweet memories of my childhood days. My mother also worked at a bank when we were young, and I now understand how it took time to cook the dishes. So I thank my mother for cooking and serving us such delicious meals.
Additional recipes mentioned in the interview:
intestines of pig, ginger, shiitake mushroom, konnyaku; a gelatinous food made from devil’s-tongue starch (cut like noodles but about 3cm long), salt, pepper, soy sauce.
sometimes, sliced fish cakes
- Boil intestines of pig, ginger with ginger
- Put boiled intestines of pig into the bonito soup
- Put other ingredients into the pan and steam
- Add salt, soy sauce and pepper. When you eat, add grated ginger.
sliced pork meat (Boston butt. and Spare ribs/Back ribs), others are same as “nakamino otsuyu”. But this use white miso instead of soy sauce.
- Boil back libs with ginger and garlic for hours to take oil
- Cut ingredients into rectangular slice
- Put them into the bonito soup and boil
- Add white miso