Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture. – On Miyako Island, life is easy all year round. With azure seas, dazzling white-sand beaches and an enviable climate that rarely dips below tee-shirt temperature, this balmy, subtropical island in Japan’s far south-west looks like the ultimate getaway destination. .
Located almost as close to Taiwan as the main island of Okinawa, it’s about as far as you can get to Japan on a direct flight from Tokyo. And for most visitors, that’s its main draw: once you’ve disembarked and transferred to your luxury hotel, you can tune out and disconnect from the hassles and stresses of life on the mainland.
However, at many hotels, it’s all too easy to find yourself isolated from local culture, including Okinawan’s distinctive culinary traditions. Over the centuries, the chain of islands, once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, developed its own cuisine, assimilating influences through a web of trade links with the Asian mainland, Southeast Asia and beyond. to Thailand.
The main town of Miyakojima has a handful of noodle restaurants and izakaya (taverns) offering typical Okinawa delicacies and the local joy of awamori, the potent local distilled liquor widely consumed across the islands, to live performances by local musicians. But when it comes to more sophisticated dining, there is only one address to know, that of chef Yasuhiro Tomari and his innovative restaurant, State of mind.
Born and raised in Miyako, Tomari moved to Tokyo at the age of 20 to embark on his career in the kitchen. After training at an Italian restaurant, he changed course under the influence of French-based Japanese chef Keisuke Matsushima, first in Tokyo and then at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice, France.
After stints at Chef Joël Robuchon’s famed restaurants and also in the French Basque Country, Tomari decided it was time to return home and open his own restaurant. Believing it would be too incongruous to serve high-end French cuisine in the very different setting of Miyako, he began to explore a new approach.
With his French training but inspired by local tradition, he has developed a unique creative approach to gastronomy that he calls modern Ryukyu gastronomy, in reference to the name of the ancient kingdom of Okinawa. Nearly all of its ingredients are sourced from Miyako or the neighboring island of Irabu, where its restaurant, State of Mind, forms the focal point of the luxury Konpeki resort of eight villas.
As the evening light streams down from the sky above the East China Sea, welcome drinks are served along with some small nibbles in guests’ private rooms. But before these, you are invited to taste a small aperitif made from mugwort, a bitter herb reputed to stimulate the appetite and give good health. It’s the first of many bold flavors that will open the eyes of visitors unfamiliar with the foods of subtropical Okinawa.
After everyone has adjourned to State of Mind’s elegant and discreetly lit dining room, Tomari opens her elaborate eight-course tasting menu with another toast, this time based on the rituals of the ancient court. Ryukyuan. Known as otorithe drink comes in the form of a thick soup made from local Nakajin pork, ginger, sakekasu (the lees of brewing sake) and the island awamori.
These are mixed with a broth prepared from irabu sea serpent, a traditional delicacy once reserved only for Okinawan’s upper classes, which are used for flavor, much like the katsuobushi (skipjack flakes) used in soup stocks on the Japanese mainland. For added visual impact, samples of coiled jet black sea serpents are brought to the table for you to inspect.
It is the first of many dishes through which Tomari presents the history of Okinawan cuisine. However, rather than looking only to the past, he also lets his imagination take flight, imagining how the cuisine of these islands might have developed had Ryukyu developed as a prosperous nation independent of Japan.
In his hands, tofuyo – a tangy form of fermented tofu often considered a rough, acquired taste – is elevated to a delicate appetizer coated in shiny, ruby-colored cocoa butter and presented in a jewel box. Later, that same ingredient reappears as an umami-rich seasoning for ‘drunken crab’, a version of Shanghai’s more famous dish, but here made with shellfish caught by local fishermen in the last mangroves of Shanghai. ‘Isle.
Looking to Southeast Asia, it draws inspiration from street food eaten in the Philippines, where fried chicken feet are known as “adidas”. At State of Mind, this is reinterpreted using squab (young pigeon) and renamed “hatodas”, a pun on the bird’s Japanese name, hate. Marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and red pepper, the meat is lightly dusted with flour, fried and served with a sweet and savory banana-based sauce.
A gorgeous peacock feather announces a dish that reflects Tomari’s concern for sustainability. Peacocks that have escaped into the wild have proliferated on golf courses in Miyako and are being culled as an invasive non-native species. Rather than letting the carcasses go to waste, he uses their meat and bones to create a light broth in which he serves his refined version of Miyako soba.
For the drink pairing that accompanies each dish, the focus remains just as close to home, highlighting local awamori rather than sake or wine. These present a remarkable range – from crisp, refreshing, low-alcohol types equivalent to fino sherry, to intensely flavorful barrel-aged spirits with the complexity of whiskey or dark rum.
The seafood course includes fillets of local parrotfish, the iridescent blue reef fish often seen while diving or snorkeling (for those who may not have done so, an iPhone photo is brought at the table with your plate). To complement the delicate taste and texture of their flesh, a fin of the same fish is grilled and dipped in a full-octane version of awamori to add a complex, smoky contrast.
Goat has long been the main source of meat on the island, along with pork. As a main course, Tomari prepares it in two ways. First, simply grilled over charcoal; but also in a more traditional form, chopped and cooked with rice. Grilled and served in banana leaves, it’s another reminder that Okinawa shares its culinary traditions with its southern neighbors as much as with Japan.
Culminating with a series of light desserts, perhaps accompanied by a post-prandial drink or two, this adds up to a superb feast that is not only satisfying and fun, but also totally one of a kind. There’s nowhere in Okinawa or the rest of Japan that offers something like this.
For Tomari, her cooking is both a celebration of her roots and a call to arms. Intensely concerned with the rapid changes in his homeland, especially since the advent of rampant overtourism, he sees this as his contribution to the preservation of the fragile local environment. It is also his way of drawing attention to the culture of the Ryukyus, which today, more than ever, is in great danger of being lost.
Currently, however, it’s a message that’s only reaching the select few who dine at State of Mind. All tables are reserved only for guests staying in the hotel’s eight luxurious villas and cannot be booked separately.
Azure La Villa All-Suite, Ikemasoe 1195-1, Irabu-ji, Miyakojima-shi, Okinawa Pref. 906-0502; 0980-78-6000; www.konpeki.okinawa. Open every day from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (by reservation only). Set menu from ¥15,000; nearest airport Miyako; No Smoking ; major cards; English menu; Spoken English.
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