Okinawa Prefecture is known for the long life expectancy of its people, and known worldwide as one of the “blue zones”, the areas where people live exceptionally long lives. It has a subtropical marine climate, a small annual difference in temperatures, is warm year-round, and easy to work in. Surrounded by the beautiful ocean and rich nature, it’s environmentally a very blessed place. In other words, a warm climate and a rich natural environment are factors that support longevity. Also, people’s “healthy eating habits” and “mindset” are said to be the secrets of longevity in the Okinawa Prefecture. Before you visit Okinawa, let’s find out about “healthy eating habits” and “mindsets.”
Okinawa has the word “nuchigusui” meaning “medicine of life” that refers to things that heal both the mind and body, such as mother’s love, delicious food, human kindness, and wonderful scenery. For the Okinawan people, in particular, it means food or a meal. Food is considered to be a “kusuimun,” or medicine, and a balanced diet builds a healthy body. A healthy diet is believed to have the same effects as traditional medicines. The idea of a cause and effect (food and medicine) is alive in the diet of ordinary people. The Okinawan word “kusunaibitan” means to “become a medicine” and it’s used to express an appreciation after a meal.
“Champuru” is a common home-cooked dish in Okinawa, in which vegetables are stir-fried quickly with meat and tofu. One of the major characteristics of Okinawan cuisine is that it mixes nutritional and complementary ingredients to create a simple and easy-to-fry dish. The simple part of Okinawan cuisine continues in people’s everyday diet. The main ingredients and seasonings are as below.
The traditional way of cooking pork is to boil the meat in bulk for a long time to remove lard and fat. This eliminates unnecessary fat and removes bad cholesterol. It’s then cut into small pieces and fried or stewed. It’s a good source of collagen, a high-quality protein, and soft enough to be cut with chopsticks even the red or bone-in part of the meat. It’s also easy for elderly people with weak teeth to eat.
People eat tofu often, and it gives a good balance of vegetable protein for meals.
Vegetables & seaweed
People often mix vegetables and seaweed, such as kelp, with meat and tofu. A specialty in Okinawan cuisine is that kelp is cooked and eaten, not only to make dashi soup as in the Japan mainland.
Okinawan people’s salt intake is lower than the national average of Japan. Vegetables can be grown year-round in the warm climate of Okinawa, so there is no need to prepare preserved foods from crops grown during the warm season to be salted for the winter months when vegetables do not grow. The relatively low salt intake is also attributed to this geographical reason.
Dashi (stock soup)
Most of the stock soup (dashi) used in Okinawa is made from bonito, and the per capita consumption of bonito is the highest in Japan. The use of dashi is part of the Okinawan food culture, and pork dashi is often used instead of bonito dashi. Pork stock soup is made by removing fat from the liquid left after the pork is boiled and is mainly used for cooking rice and soba noodles for Okinawa soba.
There’s an Okinawan word “ajikuutaa” that expresses the flavor of a meal. When translated directly, the word means “strong flavor”. However, having a strong flavor does not necessarily mean that the dishes are high in salt and other seasonings. Many traditional Okinawan dishes, such as boiled and stir-fried dishes, use stock soup and a small amount of salt to maximize the original flavor and umami of the ingredients.
Superfoods are ingredients that have a good nutritional balance and are more nutritious than foods in general and also those that are especially rich in some kind of nutrition and health ingredients. Okinawa blessed by the sea and the sun has many ingredients called superfoods that either grow here or are produced through fermentation or traditional cooking.
Goya is a very bitter type of gourd vegetable that is rich in vitamin C, which means it’s effective for relieving summer heat fatigue and exhaustion. As it is also rich in beta-Carotene, iron, and potassium, it is effective in preventing life-style related illnesses, eliminating swelling and constipation, and is effective for skincare and preventing aging. “Goya Champuru” is a famous Okinawan stir-fry dish.
Sunui (Mozuku Seaweed)
Mozuku is a type of seaweed containing plenty of fucoidans, a component that gives it a slimy texture. As fucoidan slows down the rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol, it’s effective in preventing lifestyle diseases such as hardening of the arteries, cerebral strokes, heart attacks, and obesity. It can be eaten fried as tempura or sweetened in vinegar.
Shekwasha is a citrus fruit that is rich in citric acid and also contains a high amount of nutrient nobiletin. It also contains 400 times the polyphenols of other citrus fruits and has antioxidant properties that can help prevent aging. As well as being the secret ingredient for a variety of dishes, it is also used as a raw material in skincare cosmetics.
Uji, or sugarcane, is the largest crop in Okinawa Prefecture. Brown sugar is made by boiling the juice squeezed from the sugarcane. It’s high in calcium and all kinds of minerals. Also, the material left over from straining the juice of the sugarcane is known as “bagasse” and, as it contains many dietary fibers, its powdered form has recently gained popularity as an effective product for encouraging healthy bowel movements.
Uchin (Autumn Turmeric)
A perennial of the ginger family is called turmeric in English and is known as a spice in India and herbal medicine in China. In Okinawa, it has long been known as an alleviation medicine, and has been incorporated into daily life, either as tea or addition to dishes. It contains a large amount of curcumin, which is classified as a polyphenol and is said to protect the liver. Besides the autumn turmeric, there are the spring turmeric rich in minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and the purple turmeric rich in essential oil components.
Ryukyu moromi vinegar
Moromi vinegar is extracted and filtered from awamori liquor lees, a by-product of the awamori making process, Water is added, and the liquid is fermented. It contains abundant amounts of citric and amino acids produced in the process. Ryukyu moromi vinegar is known as a health drink.
Moringa is a horseradish plant native to Northern India. It’s also called a miracle tree, as its seeds, stems, branches, leaves, and roots are said to contain 90 nutrients that affect 300 functions and parts of a human body. It contains plenty of vitamins, zinc, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, dietary fiber and essential amino acids such as lysine and valine, which increase immunity, relieve constipation, improve insomnia, antibacterial activity, anticancer activity, and anemia. It is said to be effective for improving the overall physical condition.
Acelora is a fruit native to the Caribbean. It has about 34 times more Vitamin C than lemon juice and its skin contain polyphenols, which are antioxidants. Motobu, located in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, is known as the production center for acerola and is recognized as the first Super Food Town by the Japan Super Food Association.
It is difficult to prove from a scientific point of view how the mind and heart of the people are related to longevity, but people living in Okinawa are likely to feel less stress than those living elsewhere in Japan. Less stress is thought to contribute to the longevity of people in Okinawa. Okinawan dialect expresses the people’s mindset well, as the character of the people is reflected in the meaning of their words and sentences.
People living in Okinawa are said to experience less stress than people living in other areas of Japan. This is also one secret for their long and healthy lifespans. The word “tege” is one of the expressions that shows Okinawans’ relaxed and generous personality. It means “so-so” or “about enough” and is often used when showing concern for the other person’s struggle and giving them mental comfort. Also, there is a similar expression, “nankuru-nai-sa,” meaning “things will work out somehow.” These two words convey not only the mild temperament of the southern people but also their strength, brightness, and generosity that can forgive others.
Okinawa reputedly has a more relaxed sense of time than the punctuality prevalent in mainland Japan, and there is the term “Uchinaa time (Okinawa time)”. It is a sign of a warm and forgiving attitude of Okinawan people towards being late. It’s said that the warm climate has fostered this kind of attitude.
In Okinawa, ties and relationships within regions and families are stronger than in mainland Japan. Therefore, the participation rate in traditional local events and social activity is high. In this sense, the bonds supporting each other are called “Yuimaru spirit”. This sense of community is reflected in the Okinawan word for “Icharibachodee”, which means that once you meet, you are brothers and able to share.
Also, Okinawa is sometimes called an entertainment island for all the singing and dancing taking place here, but those activities are just releasing the excitement. They’re fun and also relieve stress, which leads to a healthy mind and body. In addition to the nutrient-rich ingredients of food and the culture that supports health, there is a spiritual environment unique to the southern country of Okinawa. And that is also a part of the secret of longevity.
- We live with open mind but not get stuck in every small detail too much.
- We live together with nature without rushing things.
- We live and keep a comfortable rhythm of life.
- We live with human emotions when involving in the people and the community.
- We live with a strong sense of community.
This mindset has developed a rich human atmosphere that has a positive effect on health to well control the mind-body balance, and that’s likely why Okinawa has become a blue zone. For those living in a stressed society, this lifestyle may be a hint of how to live.