JAPAN - (THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) Goya, or bitter gourd, originates from tropical Asia. The vegetable is said to have been introduced to what is now Okinawa Prefecture early in the 15th century.
Okinawans call stir-fry dishes chanpuru, and their famous dish called goya chanpuru is made by stir-frying goya with ingredients such as pork and tofu.
A recipe for goya chanpuru appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun in 1990. The recipe uses only goya and tofu to keep things simple, although the Okinawan style also uses pork and eggs.
The dish nowadays is popular nationwide. Goya became well known especially after it was featured in the NHK TV drama series Chura-san, which aired in 2001. Goya vines have also come to be grown in many households across Japan as a "green curtain" to keep the summer sunshine from windows.
2 goya bitter gourds
1 block of firm tofu
5-7 g dried bonito flakes
3 tbsp oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp cooking sake
1. Cut goya lengthwise and scrape away white part with seeds. Slice into pieces 4 to 5 millimeters thick and sprinkle with salt.
2. Wrap tofu with a cloth or paper towel and put a weight on it to remove excess liquid. Slice into 3-centimeter-square pieces 1 centimeter thick.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan. Sear both sides of tofu pieces, then remove. Add remaining tablespoon of oil along with goya and stir-fry. Add bonito flakes. Add tofu again and continue frying. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon cooking sake.
The taste of goya chanpuru has changed over the years, too. People in Okinawa saw the introduction of fatty foods under the postwar control of the United States and then salty foods after the reversion to Japanese administration. Varieties of the dish have thus come into being, such as the use of soy sauce in stir frying and the inclusion of greasy and salty canned meat as an ingredient.
"Goya chanpuru is nutritionally balanced, easy to cook and economical," said Kayoko Matsumoto, director of the Matsumoto Cooking School in Naha.
"The dish is meant to have a light taste as pork is boiled first to help remove its fat, and then just a pinch of salt is used," she said.
Recently, Okinawa Prefecture has seen itself falling lower in the rankings of average lifespan in Japan. The prefecture aims to regain its crown as "the prefecture where many people live to an advanced age" and currently promotes activities to review its traditional low-salt, vegetable-rich cuisine.
Chanpuru Study, a research project led by Hidemi Todoriki, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus, developed recipes using Okinawan vegetables with the help of dietitians. The study group holds lectures at communities in the prefecture and introduces recipes at farm stands.
"Okinawans have strong family and community bonds," Todoriki said. "We want to preserve our recipes as staple dishes that can be shared in a group."