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Ogasawara Islands - how to eat 'em


helenjp
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Just a little overdue...I made the loooong ferry ride (over 24 hours) to Chichi-jima, and later further south to Haha-jima, at the end of November '09 in a party of 10 foreigners who were there to check out what Ogasawara can offer foreign visitors. A place to live, is probably the answer most Kiwis would come up with, but meanwhile, I thought people might like to hear about what we ate. Since I haven't been to Okinawa, I was particularly interested to see what arrived on my plate.

The food on the ferry was ferry food (curry, noodles, stir-fries, deep-fries, pasta...etc.), but it was freshly cooked, care had gone into "doing it right" and the photos in the wall-menu were unflattering. What it would be like in peak season, when the boats are crammed, I can't say. The mix and match approach was perfect for the long-term Japanese resident, who likes to have yogurt and a croissant for breakfast, with a nice nori and cucumber salad on the side!

The woman at the cash-register looked as if she could deal with any number of drunk and disorderly customers without so much as drawing a deep breath. I made it a project to get a smile out of her, and it took me nearly half the journey!

The ferry sells a very small selection of island items, including Ogasawara rum(plain and a passionfruit liqueur). Probably the passionfruit one is the one to go for, as this is not actually "rum", but a sugar-based shochu similar to Iriomote's black sugar shochu labelled rum because of regulations regarding shochu labelling, and it definitely tastes somewhere between rum and shochu. I am not sure where the sugar comes from - although a LOT of sugar was grown on the islands by the prewar Japanese settlers, I was told that the current rum (which has a commercial history of less than 20 years) is not made from local sugar. Yet elsewhere I read that it is made from Ogasawara sugar...I would be interested to know which is true!

One thing that was particularly obvious was that the islands are officially part of Tokyo...especially on Chichi-jima, the bulk of the residents are quite recent arrivals, and probably mostly ex-city dwellers. They seem to eat as if they were in Tokyo - I kept spotting plants on the roadside or in the bush that are considered good eating around the Pacific, but it might take Ogasawara's current residents another generation to eat them, or more importantly, to consider them worth putting on guests' plates.

A quick look along the main road showed that the restaurants are mostly serving "Hawaii gone west" favorites, plus standard Japanese resort food, albeit using locally grown vegetables. You can see the urban background of the owners - the cafes, bars, and restaurants know what they want to serve you, it isn't food that "just happened".

If you want food to take out on day-trips, the options seem to be a normal Japanese bento (e.g. from Island Deli or to take a pack of shima-zushi. Seems that people often order the night before to pick up early the next morning...it is a smallish island!

Shima-zushi is click a nigiri-zushi with a sweet zuke flavored generously with mustard, instead of wasabi. In Ogasawara, it's sawara (spanish mackerel). This type of sushi comes from Hachijo-jima, birthplace of many Ogasawara's original wave of Japanese residents, and also of later postwar settlers and returnees. The whole sushi tends to be on the sweet side, both rice and fish, but the mustard saves the day! It seems that people make the zuke marinade with soy and any or all of white sugar, zarame sugar, sake, mirin etc., in varying proportions. The batch I saw being made included mustard in the marinade, but some people just add a dab of mustard under the topping. I thought the addition of mustard to the marinade helped the attractive amber color of the topping.

As well as shima-zushi, you can buy "Ogasawara-zushi", usually a plate of nigiri with local fish, and kame-zushi (scroll down to bottom for green sea turtle sashimi, sushi, simmered turtle, and turtle in zousui). Although the turtles are protected, islanders are allowed to catch a certain number each year as a traditional food, and somehow this includes selling it to tourists...

There is no local source of meat, I was told, as there are no people/facilities licensed to slaughter or butcher animals. This means that the the goats that over-run much of Chichi-jima are not available for food, which seems a pity, especially considering the damage they do to the rather dry island's vegetation.

For foreigners, though, there is a silver lining to the situation...the few markets sell imported sausage and meat products that are quite hard to find on the mainland!

Since we were moving around as a group, I didn't get to look into every nook and cranny, but I'm sure other eGulleteers who have visited the islands (smallworld was part of the same group, and has both a great collection of photos as well as the blog entry that made me stop procrastinating and post about the food here!

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Shima-zushi is click a nigiri-zushi with a sweet zuke flavored generously with mustard, instead of wasabi. In Ogasawara, it's sawara (spanish mackerel).

Thanks for your report!

I've been interested in shima zushi ever since someone mentioned it somewhere in the Japan Forum.

(Don't you think this is a more appropriate link?)

島の蜜蜂や、海水のうまみを100%閉じ込めた自然塩、サワラを独特のタレに漬けて洋ガラシで握った島寿司など、おいしさもいっぱいです

Island honey, natural salt from 100% seawater, sawara marinated in tare, Western mustard..., sounds delicious!

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Yes, I couldn't get that page to load properly before, after spotting the very appetizing photo on Google images!

What I want to know is the name of the herb in the photo...we had some on our shima-zushi too. I recognize the flavor, a bit like angelica, but don't know what it is.

The red-skinned passionfruit also shown in that link are the same type as in Okinawa, but they are new to me.

I still have a few from a bag I brought back from Ogasawara nearly 2 months ago. The shells yield a pretty pink color (I heard that you can freeze the shells first to encourage them to yield more color) and can be used to color food or dye cloth.

More later...

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Yes, I couldn't get that page to load properly before, after spotting the very appetizing photo on Google images!

What I want to know is the name of the herb in the photo...we had some on our shima-zushi too. I recognize the flavor, a bit like angelica, but don't know what it is.

The red-skinned passionfruit also shown in that link are the same type as in Okinawa, but they are new to me.

I still have a few from a bag I brought back from Ogasawara nearly 2 months ago. The shells yield a pretty pink color (I heard that you can freeze the shells first to encourage them to yield more color) and can be used to color food or dye cloth.

More later...

You may be right. It may be ashitaba (明日葉, アシタバ). I posted a question to the blog of the president of the travel agency. I hope I can get a reply from him.

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Thanks for getting this started, Helen, and sorry I left it up to you!

As Helen said, I was there too, and I want to point out that we were on a rigid schedule with and all meals (except for on the ferry) planned for us. It was also a short trip: although it was six days in total, just getting there and back took 25.5 hours each way, plus another two hours to Hahajima and two hours back. So less than four days on the islands, and not a single meal we could choose ourselves.

So I realize there is much I was missing, but I was a bit disappointed with the food. Don't get me wrong, I didn't have a bad meal, and a few were outstanding, but I was expecting more of a unique island cuisine but it was really just standard Japanese fare with a few local ingredients.

As as example, here is a bento we were given on Chichijima:

4149350911_d9822b2a9b.jpg

It's a completely standard bento, with most ingredients imported from the mainland. Except for the green vegetable at bottom right, which is shikakumame (wing bean) grown on the island.

Shikakumame showed up fairly often and was easy to identify, but in many cases other local ingredients weren't pointed out to us. This is especially true of the fish we ate, and I still don't know where the majority of fish- including the sawara in the shimazushi- was from.

Quite a contrast to other islands and coastal areas I've been to in Japan, where local ingredients are much used and proudly explained. As an example see this menu from a dinner course I had last year on Mikurajima, where virtually everything mentioned is from the island. Mikurajima is much closer to the mainland so can well afford to import ingredients, but instead the islanders seem to take a lot of pride in growing and catching as much of their food as they can. It would be really nice to see the same thing on Ogasawara.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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Yes, I couldn't get that page to load properly before, after spotting the very appetizing photo on Google images!

What I want to know is the name of the herb in the photo...we had some on our shima-zushi too. I recognize the flavor, a bit like angelica, but don't know what it is.

The red-skinned passionfruit also shown in that link are the same type as in Okinawa, but they are new to me.

I still have a few from a bag I brought back from Ogasawara nearly 2 months ago. The shells yield a pretty pink color (I heard that you can freeze the shells first to encourage them to yield more color) and can be used to color food or dye cloth.

More later...

You may be right. It may be ashitaba (明日葉, アシタバ). I posted a question to the blog of the president of the travel agency. I hope I can get a reply from him.

It wasn't ashitaba. This is the shimazushi we had:

4151800280_f773a26b63.jpg

Note that the herb, although somewhat similar to ashitaba, is dark green and rather thin-leaved.

This wasn't one of our planned meals, and I think it was only thanks to Helen, who mentioned to the lady that ran her inn that we hadn't had any shimazushi, and soon after was presented with a couple packs of freshly made sushi for us to eat on the ferry back to Chichijima. A very kind and appreciated gesture.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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  • 3 weeks later...

Yes, I couldn't get that page to load properly before, after spotting the very appetizing photo on Google images!

What I want to know is the name of the herb in the photo...we had some on our shima-zushi too. I recognize the flavor, a bit like angelica, but don't know what it is.

The red-skinned passionfruit also shown in that link are the same type as in Okinawa, but they are new to me.

I still have a few from a bag I brought back from Ogasawara nearly 2 months ago. The shells yield a pretty pink color (I heard that you can freeze the shells first to encourage them to yield more color) and can be used to color food or dye cloth.

More later...

You may be right. It may be ashitaba (明日葉, アシタバ). I posted a question to the blog of the president of the travel agency. I hope I can get a reply from him.

Still no luck. I had hoped that the blogger would respond soon because he says on his blog that any questions and comments are accepted 24 hours a day!

We need to find another knowledgeable person to find out what the leaves are.

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Nailed it, I do believe. It tastes like angelica, but I recall the woman who prepared it saying that it was NOT "ashitaba" (Angelica keiskei).

How does Angelica japonica var. boninensis, in Japanese Munin Hama-udo. (Hama-udo is the Japanese name for A. japonica), sound?

A Japanese blog with a photo of the plant (scroll well down) mentions that the Ogasawara variety is in constant danger from goats. This is exactly why Australian and NZ visitors to Ogasawara had trouble understanding having protected turtles on the menu, while exotic but endemic goats were not!

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Nice work, Helen. Most pictures online focus on the flowers, but from what I could see of the leaves this is it.

I notice that a lot of endemic plants on Ogasawara have the same "munin" in their names. Always in katakana, but I assume this comes from 無人島 (mujinto, Japanese for "desert island"). I thought the old pronunciation was "bunin" (thus the English name for the islands, Bonin), but this makes me wonder if "munin" was an alternate or local pronunciation.

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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