These Hui O Laulima members have worked on various projects together. From left: Gerri Maeda, Thelma Arakawa, Ellen Higa, Barbara Kuba, Wendy Yoshimoto and Valerie Teruya.
These Hui O Laulima members have worked on various projects together. From left: Gerri Maeda, Thelma Arakawa, Ellen Higa, Barbara Kuba, Wendy Yoshimoto and Valerie Teruya.

Okinawan Culture Reflected in Its Food

Lynette Lo Tom
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

“If you aren’t going to enjoy the fat, then don’t eat rafute,” Grant Murata declares passionately. Rafute is the unctuous braised pork belly that is a signature dish of Okinawa. Not to be confused with the more common and usually leaner shoyu pork, rafute, made the right way, has layers of fat between layers of rich pork that is lacquered with a rich sauce of Okinawan kokuto (black sugar), miso, peanut butter, soy sauce and awamori (distilled liquor made from rice).

When cooking rafute, Grant “Sandaa” Murata begins by removing any hair from the skin of the pig by searing it off with a propane torch. He then scrubs the skin to remove any hint that the skin was burnt. (Photos by Lynette Lo Tom)
When cooking rafute, Grant “Sandaa” Murata begins by removing any hair from the skin of the pig by searing it off with a propane torch. He then scrubs the skin to remove any hint that the skin was burnt. (Photos by Lynette Lo Tom)

Known to his wide circle of friends as “Sandaa,” Murata is the advertising and promotions manager for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Hochi. He is also a talented Okinawan sanshin performer and teacher. And, for three years, he and his then-business partner, Kyle Matsumoto, owned and cooked up a full menu of dishes at the popular “Off the Wall” restaurant in the Pearl Kai Shopping Center.

“Rafute was food for the upper-class, because the poor couldn’t afford to eat much pork, Murata continues. “It was special-occasion food.” His recipe is delicious and the meltingly tender fat is part of the experience.

His technique is unusual, as he marinates the pork slices in awamori before braising it in the soy sauce, sugar and miso broth.

Rafute is a symbol of the region, making use of what could be grown — soybeans for the miso and soy sauce, peanuts, awamori from rice, sea salt and the black sugar to season the precious home-grown pigs. He also adds ginger and garlic, dashi konbu (soup seaweed) and prefers to use awase miso — a mix of white and red miso.

Murata is particular about his preparation and the final product shows the care. He uses salt from Hanapëpë on the Garden Island of Kaua‘i, which he grinds into a fine sea salt. He also takes the time to remove all of the hair from the skin of the pig by searing it off with a propane torch. He then scrubs the skin to remove any hint of the burnt taste. Murata prefers to use Okinawan black sugar, which he gets from Okinawa, but says dark brown sugar can be used, as well. He even adds the soy sauce three separate times (so it absorbs better). Cooking is faster with a pressure cooker, but it can also be cooked on the stove for a longer time with the same results.

“The cut of meat has to be pork belly to be called rafute,” says Murata. “This was a dish for the wealthy, royalty class, the Samurai class, only for a few.” It’s rich, so you only need a few slices per serving. It is, however, spectacular in color, scent, texture and flavors.

Murata cuts the pork belly into 2-inch by 2-inch-long blocks before beginning the cooking process.
Murata cuts the pork belly into 2-inch by 2-inch-long blocks before beginning the cooking process.

(Okinawan Braised Pork Belly)

Serves 10, as part of a meal

4 pounds pork belly with skin on

1/4 cup awamori (can be substituted with shochu or sake)

3 cups water

2-inch by 2-inch strip of dashi konbu

1/4 cup Okinawan black sugar (can be substituted with dark brown sugar)

1/2 teaspoon finely ground salt

1 thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled and minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon awase miso (a mix of white and red miso) or substitute any miso

1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter (substitute tahini, or sesame paste)

1 cup soy sauce, divided

1/2 cup sugar

Salt to taste

Garnish: thinly sliced ginger

Cut pork belly into 2-inch by 2-inch-long blocks. Over a gas stove or using a propane torch, burn off any hair still remaining on the skin. Scrub off any burnt parts. Cut pork into 3/4-inch pieces, trying to keep the pieces uniform in size. Soak pork in awamori for 30 minutes, skin side down.

Drain pork, but retain awamori.

In a pressure cooker or Dutch oven, mix water, black sugar, konbu and the pork and cook for 7 minutes (on the stove, cook covered on medium high for 30 minutes). Skim off fat. Mix the miso and peanut butter together. Add awamori, salt, ginger, garlic, miso, peanut butter, sugar and 1/3 cup of soy sauce into the pot. Add additional water as needed. Bring mixture to a boil. Add in white sugar and 1/3 cup of soy sauce. Pressure cook for 4 minutes or stove-cook, covered, for 30 more minutes. Add remainder of soy sauce and simmer until meat is tender.

Remove meat and set aside. Skim off oil and continue simmering sauce until it becomes a dark glaze.

On a serving platter, pour some glaze on the plate, arrange pork and top with sauce. Optional: slice konbu and use as a garnish. Top with thin strips of ginger and serve.

“Food is very important, and here in Hawai‘i, we love food,” said Hawaii United Okinawa Association president-elect and 2017 Okinawan Festival chair Courtney Takara. The proof of that is in the wide variety of foods being offered at the festival, from rafute’s cousin, shoyu pork, to everyone’s favorite fried doughnut — andagi.

“You need to go to the festival to get your andagi fix,” Takara continues. And you can bet thousands will take her advice. During the two-day celebration of all things Okinawan, about 125,000 andagi are expected to be consumed.

The experience will be even sweeter this year, as last year’s festival was cancelled due to a hurricane threat.

In addition to food, the festival showcases the customs and culture of Okinawa and is a good first step in learning about all aspects of Okinawan culture: music, dance, language, textiles and martial arts. Members of the Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii will be in the Cultural Tent to help people trace their Okinawan roots.

Much of the information will be available “to-go,” so to speak, in the cultural cookbook, “Chimugukuru: the Soul, the Spirit, the Heart,” which was published by the Okinawan women’s group, Hui O Laulima. The book features Okinawan sayings, recipes and essays on Okinawan music, the language and, basically, anything Okinawan. “Chimugukuru” will be available for purchase in the Cultural Tent at the festival.

Hui O Laulima was established nearly 50 years ago by the Nisei daughters of the early Okinawan immigrants. Its membership today is largely Sansei — some of them the daughters of the Nisei women founders — as well as women who are “Okinawan-at-heart.” It is a vibrant organization that offers its members and others many opportunities to learn about the culture. The group, which is a member-club of the HUOA, awards cultural grants every year to encourage perpetuation of Okinawan culture. Members also help organize a children’s day camp to expose keiki of all ethnicities to Okinawan culture through hands-on activities. The club also does a lot of volunteer work to help senior citizens and other cultural organizations.

Hui O Laulima is in the process of planning for a big 50th anniversary celebration next year. With 300 members, it is obvious that there are years of collaboration and friendship in this organization.

The word laulima, which, in Hawaiian language, means to “work together cooperatively,” was chosen with exactly that thought in mind.

Hui O Laulima’s first cookbook was a plastic spiral-bound softcover book that is now a collector’s item. “Okinawan Cookery and Culture” was published in 1975 and quickly became a classic. The book’s dedication is worth repeating, as it emphasizes what was important to the descendants of those first immigrants: “Dedicated to the Early Immigrants from Okinawa and to our parents from Okinawa who through their hard work, perseverance, and great sacrifice have made Hawai‘i a richer and a better place in which to live.”

The first group of immigrants from Okinawa arrived in Hawai‘i to labor in the Islands’ sugar plantations in 1900 — 15 years after mass immigration had begun from mainland Japan.

Okinawan food was influenced by many factors over the centuries. Of course, Japanese culture was incorporated, but for many years in its early history, as well as after World War II, Okinawa was not a part of Japan. In its early history as the independent Ryükyü Kingdom, the islands were actively involved in maritime trading, so there were influences from China, Indonesia and many of the nearby Asian countries.

“Our parents, the first generation from Okinawa, worked very hard and many now may not understand how poor we were,” said Dorothy (Shiroma) Hoe, a retired social worker for the elderly who grew up on Maui. “We ate the leftover parts of pig and chicken, like the feet and intestines, because the rest could be sold. Candy was homemade melted sugar and water that my mother would make. We came from humble beginnings,” she said.

In Okinawa’s subtropical climate, pork was often preserved in sugar, soy sauce, salt and awamori. There is a wide range of recipes in the cultural books, from food for commoners, to the dishes reserved for court officials of the Ryükyü Kingdom, to the unusual.

Current HUOA president Vince Watabu remembers his Nisei mother cooking a rich and delicious soup made from dried irabu (a sea snake drained of its poison) when he was in high school. Last year, when then-Okinawa Vice Gov. Mitsuo Ageda visited Hawai‘i for the Okinawan Festival, he invited several members of HUOA’s leadership team to dinner. During the dinner, Ageda asked each of them to name their favorite Okinawan food. When the question was posed to Watabu, he remembered his mother’s soup and said his favorite Okinawan food is irabu soup. The vice governor stored away that information and at a special dinner prepared by Ageda and his staff for the Hawai‘i group’s visit during last year’s Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, prepared all of the HUOA leaders’ favorite dishes, including Watabu’s irabu soup.

To this day, Watabu wonders how his mother, who passed on many years ago, knew how to prepare irabu soup. He wishes he had asked her while she was still alive. After all, she had never visited Okinawa.

Fried Okinawan sweet potato mochi is a popular dessert and snack. In this recipe from “Chimugukuru,” the mashed sweet potato is combined with sugar and rice flour (mochiko) and then deep-fried for an attractive, purple crunchy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside treat.


From “Chimugukuru: the Soul, the Spirit, the Heart”

By Hui O Laulima

1-1/2 cups (about 1-1/2 pounds) Okinawan sweet potato, cooked and mashed

1-1/2 cups sweet potato, cooked and mashed

3 cups mochiko (rice flour)

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup water

Optional: zest from 1 lemon or orange

Oil for deep-frying

Steam or boil both sweet potatoes, peel and mash. In a large bowl, add sugar, salt and mochiko. Mix. Add zest to water and gradually add water to the potato-mochiko mixture. Mix until dough is well blended.

Divide dough into 3 parts. Place dough between two pieces of plastic wrap. Roll into a 1 x 2-inch rectangular log. Cut into 1/2-inch slices. Deep fry in oil heated to 350 degrees. Makes approximately 50 sticks.

Helpful Hint: Place the whole, unpeeled potatoes and 1/4 cup of water in a microwavable container, cover and microwave on high for about 15 minutes. To mash, put potatoes in a resealable plastic bag, release air, seal and mash with a rolling pin.

One Okinawan dish growing in popularity is göya champuru, a stir-fry of bitter melon, or göya, tofu and eggs. Göya is high in vitamins A, C, and B-6. Some say it is helpful in treating diabetes and high blood pressure. But, it is bitter and, therefore, an acquired taste.

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga shares the version she learned to prepare from her mother, Naeko Nakama. “Every family has their own way of making göya champuru, “ Nakama-Mitsunaga says. “It’s very easy to make and it’s considered healthy to eat göya.”

GÖYA CHAMPURU (Stir-fried Bitter Melon and Tofu)

From Naeko Nakama and Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga

Serves 4

10 ounces firm tofu

2 large bitter melon

2 tablespoon cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt, more to taste

2 large eggs, beaten

1 package dashi no moto (soup seasoning)

Handful fine katsuo shavings (preserved bonito)

Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and drain for at least 30 minutes. Cut bitter melon in half, lengthwise, and discard seeds and white pith. Slice into 1/4-inch pieces and set aside. In a large frying pan, add oil on high heat. Fry the tofu and add garlic salt. Fry until tofu sides are golden brown. Remove tofu. Add bitter melon to pan and stir-fry on high heat until the texture desired. Add dashi no moto and additional salt, as needed. Add tofu and eggs. Cook on medium heat until eggs are cooked, about 1-2 minutes. Sprinkle with katsuo shavings just before serving.

Food is an integral part of the perpetuation of any culture. As the Okinawan saying goes, “Yasa ru masanu” — “Everything is delicious when one is hungry.”

Lynette Lo Tom is the author of “A Chinese Kitchen” cookbook and is fascinated by old-style foods. She can be reached at 275-3004 or


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