The traditional Okinawan diet had over seven times more vegetables than the modern American diet. Why does this matter? Many tout the diet of elders in Okinawa as one of the main reasons they live active, healthy lives to over 100 years old. The biggest difference in nutrition? Okinawans traditionally fill up on vegetables (instead of wheat [flour] and beef). Let’s learn a thing or two and maybe get inspired to try something new.
1-2: TRADITIONAL VEGETABLES: IMO AND GOYA
Goya or bitter melon can be an acquired taste. That said, if you like it, or grow to like it, this superfood has amazing health benefits. This article has more info and a recipe. Imo, or the Okinawan purple sweet potato, gets credit for helping the people of Okinawa survive and thrive. It’s a popular winter treat and deserves an article of its own. Different types of sweet potato can vary in their sweetness and moisture level, but they all contain an abundance of nutrients.
3: DAIKON, SIZEABLE VEGETABLES
Daikon is the typically white, long radish that can be skinny, or huge. I have seen some in the store as big as an adult’s muscular upper arm, and they can be much bigger. These cruciferous vegetables have similar health attributes to others in this category. Good for digestion, you can eat this radish raw, sliced thin in salads. Or you can cook it. We once tried them as “vegetable scallops.” To do this, you slice the thinner, younger, milder daikon into approximately half-inch-thick rounds and pan fry them.
4: MUNG BEANS AND SPROUTING VEGETABLES
Mung beans are a popular food in Okinawa. And a main ingredient in sweet amagashi beans, along with barley and tapioca. The book The Okinawa Diet Plan has a recipe for this chilled summertime dish, which we tried and approved. Mung beans are also grown into bean sprouts, another of the popular vegetables in Okinawa. I have sprouted them and it’s pretty easy – just make sure you follow directions and rinse twice a day.
5: ADZUKI BEANS FOR SWEETS AND EATS
Maybe this one should not be in with vegetables. I have seen this cute red bean most commonly made into a sugary paste used in Asian desserts. It is delicious this way, like in red bean buns. But we don’t have to exclusively eat it this way. My dad makes a mean slow-cooked adzuki bean stew.
6: SOYBEANS, EDAMAME VEGETABLES
Growers leave soybeans on the plant until the pods are fully mature to make tofu or soy milk. Or, a favorite I discovered many years ago, soybeans picked while still green, after the beans fill out the pods. Those green soybeans are called edamame. If boiled and salted, you can pop green soybeans out of the shells for a healthy, tasty snack. Soy products in America are frequently genetically modified and grown with extra chemical herbicides. So I only recommend eating organic soy products. The organic label by law means the product cannot have nasty herbicides, pesticides or GMO’s.
7: SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS: EASY VEGETABLES
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the easiest Okinawa-approved vegetables to find. At least here, locally they are in most grocery stores. You can eat the fresh mushrooms raw or cooked. Chock full of vitamins and amino acids, they have many other beneficial health qualities. You can also purchase shiitakes dried and soak them before using. If you do this, use the flavorful soaking water anywhere you would use broth.
8: GREEN PAPAYAS AS VEGETABLES
One of the most flavorful dishes I’ve had, one that I’ve tried and failed to replicate, was a green papaya dish from the Asian food court in Mesa’s Mekong Plaza. In tropical Okinawa, many yards have a papaya tree. Green papayas are eaten and are more like vegetables. They are not yet sweet, and still firm and crispy. They can be shredded, raw, for salads.
9: SEAWEED OR SEA VEGETABLES
Some call them sea vegetables to try to give them their due respect. I call them seaweed and the name doesn’t mean they aren’t worth their weight in gold. Seaweed is one of the most nutritious greens available. In Okinawa, you can buy a tray of delicious raw wakame in the grocery store refrigerator. Wakame is the main ingredient in my favorite seaweed salad. But I haven’t had a seaweed salad I didn’t like. I highly recommend ordering this the next time you’re at a Japanese restaurant. Or here’s a recipe if you want to try your own hand at making some.
10: KABOCHA SQUASH, SLEEPER VEGETABLES
Here I am using Merriam-Webster’s 4th definition of sleeper: “something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value.” Some people call the kabocha a pumpkin, and once peeled it looks like pumpkin and can be its substitute. I like pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, but overall to me pumpkin and squash are just okay vegetables. My first impression: kabocha doesn’t look like much. But it is delicious in soups and it can also be roasted. I love the sweet, flavorful squares when cooked just right to still have a bit of texture. Because of this, kabocha is the sleeper veg and my favorite veggie-type food from Okinawan cuisine.
Are you ready to check your grocery store or head to the Asian market where you are sure to find a lot of these vegetables? I hope you will, because you will find tasty, healthy foods that help you eat healthier and live a longer, more active life.