By Gwen Battad Ishikawa
Chef Grant Sato’s passion for Okinawan cuisine is evident in the way he talks about it, cooks it and presents it. His reverence and respect for Okinawan cuisine is reflected in his newly published cookbook, “Hawai‘i Cooks: An Okinawan Kitchen, Traditional Recipes With an Island Twist,” from Mutual Publishing.
In it, Sato covers everything from basic dishes, including how to prepare udon, shirae (crumbled töfu dressing) or rakkyo (pickled scallions), to traditional Okinawan dishes such as champuru (stir-fry) and yakisoba (fried noodles). “An Okinawan Kitchen” is part of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s cultural cuisine book series. It will be released later this month at the Okinawan Festival.
“An Okinawan Kitchen,” contains eight chapters: Okinawan Basics, Goya (bitter melon), Pork, Fish, Noodles, Vegetables and Salads, Desserts and Sweets and Contemporary Creations. It also includes a glossary of unusual ingredients; their Okinawan, Japanese and English names; and pictures.
The recipes are traditional favorites and came from numerous sources, but primarily Sato’s grandmother. “They’re versions of recipes from the days of my grandparents — plantation, as well as classics that I’ve thrown my modern spin on (Contemporary Creations),” Sato said.
Each chapter is distinguished by a specific color and obi pattern. Every page of the chapter is bordered with the same obi design and the dishes in the chapter are photographed on that obi. Sato also handpicked the lacquerware, ceramics or glassware that the food is presented in, as well as the figurines or flowers that appear in the book. Sato explained that he wanted to present Okinawan food as “grand as possible.”
“I want people to know I believe in the food. I’m passionate about the food, so if I don’t present in a way that shows I revere it so much, then no one else would respect it, either,” he said.
“An Okinawan Kitchen” is a very personal book to the 44-year-old Sato, who is “half Sansei, half Yonsei.” “You’ll get to know a lot about me from the book. I include my experiences growing up and how it relates to that dish.”
In addition to his personal stories, Sato includes blurbs about Okinawan history, culture and artifacts.
He dedicated the book to his 90-year-old maternal grandmother, Jeanette Akamine, who taught him about Okinawan cuisine and helped him develop his love and respect for it. His grandfather, Bernard Akamine, died in 2012.
“I was lucky to be raised by my grandparents on my mom’s side, who were pure Okinawan. Growing up, I was instilled with ‘old school’ values and taught the old school way — everything was made from scratch and nothing was a convenience item (premade).
“I’m one of those who, if I’m going to make a töfu dish, I’m going to make the töfu from scratch before I make the dish, rather than just buying it from the store,” he said.
Sato worked on the book for a year and a half, from perfecting the recipes to finding the perfect dish in which to photograph the food. He spent several years acquiring the lacquerware, glassware, pottery and obi. Although some items were from Sato’s personal collection, 90 percent was chosen specifically for the book.
“I want people to know that Okinawan cuisine is not just family style, casual, country cuisine, but can be elevated and presented as fine dining so to speak and not just street food.”
Sato developed his love for cooking at a very young age, although art — drawing, painting and sculpting —was his first love. He even attended the summer program at the Honolulu Academy of Arts on a scholarship.
As he grew older, Sato began combining his two passions: art and food. He majored in fine art at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and then transferred to Kapi‘olani Community College, where he received an associate’s degree in culinary arts and pâtisserie. He has done culinary externships in Sri Lanka; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Bussan, South Korea.
Since 1998, Sato has been a chef instructor at KCC, where he teaches garde manger, which is cold food presentation, meaning salads, dressings and sausage making, as well as ice carving, vegetable and fruit carving and edible food containers.
He also hosts “What’s Cooking Hawaii,” a television cooking series that is a partnership between KCC Culinary Arts and KFVE. Sato’s current and former students join him on the show, which focuses on healthy eating choices.
Sato hopes his book will serve as a resource. “My grandma-folks are from the plantation era. A lot of people have lost the recipes from those days, so I want them to use the book to reconnect to their food memories and use it as a means to research how to make things the way they were made, or to find a good recipe for a dish that has been long forgotten.”
As a child, Sato had watched his grandmother cook. As a professional chef, Sato realized that he had to document her recipes.
“I was really a smart child, I have to say. As I got into my teens, I started thinking, ‘What if this spoon broke?’” He started writing down the ingredients and measurements as she cooked. Grandma Akamine had kept the old utensils she used as her measuring tools, so Sato translated them into modern measurements.
He wants his book to raise awareness in the “modern-day Okinawan community.”
“The young folks have forgotten how much of a treasure the old folks are, that they are a living resource we need to honor. We need to take advantage of those that are still here to catalogue the recipes, the traditions, the culture, the language, because if we don’t do it now, we’re going to lose it.”
Asked about his favorite dishes, Sato takes a few moments to think.
“If you ask me what my signature dish is, it’s the rafute (Okinawan braised sliced pork belly). It’s the dish I’m always asked to make, and when I do, it’s always gone.”
His favorite dish to eat is ashi tebichi (pig’s feet soup) and his favorite dish to make is andagi (Okinawan doughnut), “because I still haven’t perfected it. It’s still a work in progress. Even though I have the batter down, haven’t got it 100 percent same size and shape every time.”
“Hawai‘i Cooks: An Okinawan Kitchen” can be purchased at the Okinawan Festival for $20 in the Craft Gallery (scrip only) and the Capital Campaign Tent (cash or check only). Thirty percent of its sales will be donated to the Hawaii United Okinawa Association. After the festival, the books will be sold online through Mutual Publishing, Amazon.com and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.