Over the past week, I’ve been to places with strong Pacific Rim influence: Guam and Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Okinawa in Japan. The food culture in these localities is the result of foreign palates which have shaped their history, and in the case of Guam and Saipan, the cultures on which their livelihoods are hugely dependent on today.
These are places that I arrived at with no culinary reference point, so it’s only fair to say that I don’t know if what I ate was good. However, my belief is now stronger than ever that the cuisine of a place – any place – tells a complex story of history, economy, social development and self-identity. It is more than what is served on a plate and a lot about how this came about.
So here’s a brief rundown before I head to Auckland, and then it’s onward to the other side of the world, eating in Zurich and Venice.
The look on this bear’s face at Incheon Airport sums up how I’m feeling, right about now.
Big, big portions, saucy, some barbecue and seafood, lots of rice. The local cuisine in Guam is named after the native culture which is Chamorros, described by Wikipedia as “Austronesian, but many also have European (Spanish) and East Asian ancestry.”
Arriving on the island, I headed to a popular local restaurant decorated like an old-style California diner, complete with Formica bar and powder blue interiors. I did not check if there was a surfboard hanging above the open kitchen, but there might as well have been. My order was the signature shrimp broth, “boiled for 10 hours” with herbs and spices (tasted strangely like Old Bay Seasoning) and served with French bread. I counted 9 shrimp served in a bowl the size of my head. I was given a ladle and a half a loaf of French bread served in a colander. The steak I ordered at dinner was the size of my foot.
There are no photos of me dining in Guam because I’ll confess that I gave up after my first day. I couldn’t eat the food. There was too much served on a plate for one person. There’s a threshold when volume becomes grotesque, and I might be an adventurous eater but I’m no food martyr by a long shot.
Blue skies in Guam on a clear day
There are some economies that are completely reliant on tourism and the airlines that choose them as a destination. Saipan is on the losing end with a key flight via Delta airlines very recently cancelled, and the ambience on this island is listless. There is nothing that piques one’s curiosity except the sight of Chinese tourists driving around the empty streets in rented bubblegum pink and gold Corvettes complete with faux Gucci or Louis Vuitton interiors, and the eyesore that is the nefarious Imperial Hotel; a misplaced implant straight from the streets of Macau.
Asking for recommendations on where to eat, an American based in Saipan told me that you can forget about fresh food on the island. If you wanted to live here, you would have to be okay with paying the $15 Amazon delivery fee and be on numerous subscription services for commodities like toilet paper. “A lot of frozen chicken,” she says. To give you a sense of the menu available, canned tuna fish stir-fried with cabbage was served at the weak breakfast buffet. My acquaintance recommended all the restaurants at my hotel, which she said were “very good”. Of her suggestions I picked the Japanese restaurant, which was merely passable.
*The Imperial March (aka Darth Vader’s theme) plays in the background* The Imperial Hotel in Saipan
Unfamiliar, albeit delicious, food. Okinawa offered a facet of Japan I was completely unacquainted with. History has made this place a little bit dōmo arigatō, a little bit hang-ten. The relaxed, tropical atmosphere is best encapsulated by the “Kariyushi” shirt, a more tasteful version of Hawaii’s aloha shirts and worn by men to work.
What can I say but you have to come here to try a different kind of Japanese cuisine. Lots of fish, lots of seaweed, great meat and amazing variety on offer. The ingredients and quality of food makes it a no-brainer why Okinawa is famous for the longevity of its people. I honestly would need a week or 10 days to do this town culinary justice, so I will let the photos explain a bit of what’s on offer. If you do plan a trip to Okinawa, please don’t miss the Makishi Public Market.
The “Lady’s Set”: (Clockwise from bottom left) Okinawan mixed rice; Seaweed in vinegar; Goya Champloo; Sata-Andagi (Okinawan donut); Peanut tofu with seaweed; Okinawan soba Peanut tofu;Mimiga (boiled and sliced pigs ears)
Okinawa cuisine serves both the sweeth tooth and the wellness buffs
(Left) Okinawa Salt Cookie ice cream from Blue Seal, though I think Yukiso-salt ice cream tasted much better. (Right) I didn’t eat the classic Benimo Sweet Potato Tart but had a cheese tart with the deep purple topping.