Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

I regret not taking more time to chat with my ojïchan. He was the only member of his immigrant family to remain in Hawai‘i.

Later my interest in my families’ history grew. I learned from the 1940 U.S. Census that Ojïchan arrived in Hawai‘i when he was 14 years old with his parents and a younger sister. About three years later, the family moved back to Hiroshima but Ojïchan stayed in Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantation where he met Obächan. I got more curious about what had happened, so I frequently asked Obächan about Ojïchan’s family and their mon (family crest). She was very vague with her responses; my Dad eventually informed me that Ojïchan’s family in the Japan never treated Obächan like family. (Perhaps they viewed her as a gaijin since she was born in Hilo?) So all I know about that side of the family is that Tatsumoto means “dragon origin” based on the kanji characters and that I’m one part from Hiroshima-ken, one part from Yamaguchi-ken and two parts from Kumamoto-ken (Mom’s side) … or am I?

Misplaced Roots?

Many years ago, while I worked as a supermarket pharmacy manager, one of my regular patients — Mrs. Nakahodo — was purchasing her usual bottle of Tylenol. She would normally smile as she didn’t speak much English and was always impeccably dressed with her hairnet, crocheted vest and Japanese umbrella. I would use what little Japanese I learned in high school: ohayou, doomo arigatou, doo itashi-

mashite. One day, she started speaking to me directly; I didn’t understand a word, so I simply stated “wakarimasen.” Another patient waiting behind her said that Mrs. Nakahodo was using an Okinawan dialect and that she could understand the gist of her conversation. She said Mrs. Nakahodo was telling me she could tell I was Okinawan because of my face. I replied, “Nakahodo-san, uchinanchu nai. Watakushi wa Hiroshima to Yamaguchi to Kumamoto ken.” Mrs. Nakahodo simply waved her hand side to side and muttered something then took her bottle of Tylenol and bowed before leaving. I always assumed having an Okinawan appearance for men meant full facial hair. I have Okinawan buddies who are clean-shaven in the morning and have nearly full beards by nightfall; whereas it takes me two to three weeks to simply grow a scraggly beard and mustache. I forgot that incident until …

The Master Blueprint

Several years ago, I decided to purchase a 23andMe DNA kit for myself and some other family members, including my mother. I opted for the full analysis which included various genetic markers for certain diseases or predisposition to various physical ailments. However, the basic kit still included ancestry which the rest of the family received. Initially, the results were very general, as 23andMe likely didn’t have a large database of DNA from Asian populations; as they explained, the results are generalized as an average and not precise for any given lineage. Therefore my initial results were about 94% Japanese and just under 6% Korean — the Japanese lineage was simply reported as Japanese. However, with a larger database, my results are now 99.9% Japanese and 0.1% Vietnamese, with the Japanese now divided into prefectural predominance. So I assumed Kumamoto first followed by Yamaguchi and Hiroshima. WRONG! Hiroshima first followed by … Okinawa? And though both of Mom’s parents hailed from Kumamoto, her DNA test results revealed that Kumamoto was the fourth most prevalent prefecture with Okinawa being No. 1! Nakahodo-san, sumimasen, you were right! I should not have doubted her keen sense for Uchinanchu blood.

Okinawan Cuisine: Shoyu Pork Belly

I used to say, “This is my interpretation of the Okinawan dish, shoyu pork-belly.” But perhaps I should now state that this IS Okinawan cuisine! Actually, any Asian cuisine that was bought to Hawai‘i from the Motherland has morphed into Hawai‘i/(fill in the Asian culture of your choice) type of cuisine, as her immigrants had to make-do with proteins and produce that were available in Hawai‘i. Like meat jun: Hawai‘i transplants to the mainland say you‘ll never find meat jun in the continental U.S., as it seems to be only a Hawai‘i-Korean dish. And it seems that chicken hekka is also a dish that’s made only in Hawai‘i. So here’s my Okinawan/Japanese/Hawai‘i version of rafute or shoyupork belly:

Ryan Tatsumoto’s homemade rafute. (Photos courtesy of Ryan Tatsumoto)

Take 8 to 10 strips (3/4” to 1” thick and 10” to 12” long) of pork belly with skin.

Fold a long strip of aluminum foil around each individual strip of pork belly so that only the skin is exposed. The foil-wrapped pork belly is placed under a broiler to brown (but do not burn the skin) for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Then simmer the browned pork belly strips in a deep skillet covered with water for 60 minutes. Then refrigerate the strips overnight in the braising liquid. The next day, remove the hardened pork fat and save the braising liquid. Slice the belly is into large bite-sized pieces.


1/2 cup shoyu

1/2 cup awamori

1/2 cup brown sugar

A thumb-sized piece of fresh, peeled ginger

1 large garlic clove, sliced lengthwise

About 1 cup of reserved pork-belly stock (braising liquid)

1/4 cup mirin

Bring the mixture to a simmer then add the sliced pieces of pork belly and simmer for 90 to 120 minutes, adding the mirin during the last 15 minutes. Serves 8 to 10 (since pork belly is so rich) or 4 to 5 diners if everyone is already taking cholesterol medication.

Okinawan Soba

I first sampled a version of this dish made by Chef John Iha while he ran the kitchen of the former Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas. Currently he owns Gochi Grill in the Remington College food court on Bishop Street (see facebook.com/pages/category/Asian-Fusion-Restaurant/Gochi-Grill-601015770251988/). Unlike the thin noodles in common soba, Okinawan soba is a lot thicker, more like traditional udon noodles with a pronounced chewiness like Italian al dente pasta.

Chef Iha originally topped the Okinawan soba with fried salmon, salmon skin and fresh herbs. But at Gochi Grill he adds beef, chicken, kim chi and cilantro broth or pork belly to the chewy noodles. Ever since sampling Chef Iha’s old and new Okinawan soba creations, I’ve always kept a bag (made by Sun Noodle of course) in my refrigerator just in case I have any leftover pork ribs or shoyu pork and the mercury takes a dip.

The Bitter Delight (Goya Champuru)

Gochi Grill’s Okinawan soba with pork-belly meat.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I used to avoid bitter melon or goya whenever Obächan or Mom would either stir fry or stuff those bitter gourds. Then some time after I hit those middle-age years, my palate did a complete reversal and I can literally have a goya dish with every meal. The only roadblock was the price as they’re usually about $3.99 per pound at the supermarket and not much cheaper at the farmers’ markets. However, a co-worker grows several types of bitter melon, and I’m always grateful to take any extra gourds off her hands. My usual standby is my basic champuru or stir fry with either chicken or pork. Sometimes I’ll also slice then salt batches, rinse then marinate in bottled kim chi sauce for a day or two until the slices soften and create a fresh, bitter melon kim chi.

Ryan Tatsumoto’s goya champuru (bittermelon stir fry).
Bittermelon kim chi from Ono 2 Guys.

In lieu of adding my champuru recipe here, you can go to the link on my blog for a visual recipe: the-gochiso-gourmet.blogspot.com/2019/02/champuru.html.

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).


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