Okinawan Fest: Celebrate with Bitter Melon

It’s never a good idea to make generalizations about people. Yet, we do. Gender, hair color, occupation, dog or cat owner, coffee or tea drinker … we often make assumptions about people based on appearances. But if I said that all the Okinawans I’ve ever known are basically happy, optimistic, and fun to be around, is that a bad thing? 

I hope not.

Okinawa (“Uchina” in their language) is one island among hundreds of Ryukyu Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which is between Japan and Taiwan.

The traditional Uchinanchu diet was plant-based with lots of vegetables, fruit, tofu and seaweed, supplemented with pork and fish. It was also low calorie. This diet, it’s been reported, is one element contributing to the remarkable health of the Uchinanchu, who are among the longest-lived people in the world. There’s nothing extraordinary about this way of eating, only that it’s in line with what many experts recommend to help prevent several chronic diseases. It’s also one factor that earned Okinawa the designation as one of the five original Blue Zones® – areas around the world where people are living vibrant, active lives well into their hundreds.  

The 33rd Annual Okinawan Festival is this weekend – two full days and one night of entertainment, activities, culture, and food with happy, optimistic, fun-to-be-around people. Held at the Ewa end of Kapiolani Park, the festival is the biggest annual event of The Hawaii United Okinawa Association

To celebrate the Uchinanchu, try my recipe for Bitter Melon Namasu. 

Bitter melon, or “goya,” look like bumpy cucumbers. 

First, make the dressing in a little bowl. Mix rice vinegar with sugar and set aside.

Slice bitter melon lengthwise and scrape out seeds and pith with a spoon. 

Scrape it all out. Throw that stuff away. 

Thinly slice bitter melon on the diagonal. 

Two bitter melon resulted in a pile this big. About 2 cups, I’d say. 

Place in a bowl with enough water to cover and add salt. I guess I could have added a little more water. Cover and let stand 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. There’s no need to refrigerate this. I’ve let this mixture stand for up to 2 hours (i.e., I forgot about it), which yielded less-crunchy results. But it was still good.

Drain off the water. Pick up a handful of bitter melon and squeeze out as much water as possible. Here are the squeezed slices. 

Return slices to the bowl and add dressing. Trust me, there’s dressing in the bottom of the bowl. Make more dressing, if you like. I didn’t. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.  

Delicious, refreshing, chilled bitter melon namasu. This is a small serving. I went for seconds. 

Bitter Melon Namasu

1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 bitter melon
1 tsp. Hawaiian salt

Mix rice vinegar and sugar in a bowl and set aside. Slice bitter melon lengthwise and scrape out pith and seeds with a spoon. Slice bitter melon thinly on the diagonal and place in a bowl. Add enough water to cover and add salt. Stir to combine. Let stand 30 minutes or longer (no need to refrigerate). Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Place in a bowl and add vinegar mixture. Make more dressing, if desired. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Makes 6 servings. 

Per serving: Calories 30, carbohydrates 6 g, sodium 200 mg, fiber 1 g, total sugar 4 g

Main Image Photo Credit: zatoichi213 via Flickr