Friday, August 7, 2009

Tebichi or not Tebichi


When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is especially true when it comes to trying the local cuisine. Here on Okinawa one of the things I think is a must try is Tebichi or pigs feet. You see, in Okinawa, people eat a lot more pork than they do in the rest of Japan. Some people even claim that its one of the secrets to Okinawan longevity.

While it’s probably true that many American’s love pork, pigs feet just isn’t one of the things that immediately comes to mind. Spare ribs, pork chops, hickory smoked bacon and roasted pork tender loin, just to name a few, is more in keeping with the American palate. Pig’s feet just isn’t very high on the delicacy pyramid.

But speaking of American’s, let’s not forget our brothers and sisters across the Deep South. Having lived down there, I can attest that it’s practically impossible to go into a convenience store, gas station or any mom and pop store in virtually any small town without seeing a gallon sized jar of pickled pig’s feet on the counter next to the register. It’ll be next to the scratch cards, lottery tickets and pickled eggs. Down there, you’re just not a true Southerner if you don’t at least try it. Forgive me for digressing.

But let’s get back to Okinawa and the subject of Tebichi. The people of Okinawa have perhaps the longest life span on the planet. Some say it’s due to massive amounts of coral calcium in the diet. Anyone who has stayed up late at night and watched endless, as well as mindless, infomercials knows whereof I speak. No doubt that taking in mass quantities of calcium is good for the bones and seeing as the Okinawan people seem so spry in their golden years and beyond, one might give credence to the theory.

Several books have been published on the subject of Okinawan longevity and diet. At least one of them has made the NY Times Best Seller List. We concede the point as being legitimate, but why pigs feet? Ask any Okinawan and they’ll probably tell you that it’s loaded with collagen. What makes joints work so well? Collagen! It helps lubricate them and on top of that, it’s great for the complexion too.

The problem is cooking pig’s feet. If you fail to cook them long enough, they’ll tend to be too tough and without the right seasoning, not very tasty. The other problem is people tend to guard their family recipes rather jealously. It’s not uncommon for some chefs, in Japan especially, to take their secrets to the grave. Without written recipes, apprentices are on their own to observe closely and try to steal the secrets of their masters.

The truth of the matter is; if you want to try Tebichi, unless you already know of someone who can make it, your best bet is to traverse the region in search of a restaurant that specializes in it. It was just our luck to stumble upon such a place and to our delight, it was delicious!

It was as we were traveling through the southern region of Onna village on Okinawa’s West coast that we happened upon a place that was getting ready to open. We had noticed the large water wheels as we passed the place and that alone piqued our interest. We made it a point to check it out over the next couple of weeks as we traveled the area on our weekly photo excursions.

We were delighted to find the place open on our most recent visit. Unfortunately neither of us can read much kanji but I can speak a little Japanese and my good friend also knows the local dialect. Between the two of us we were able to ferret out the information we needed. As we talked with the owners we noticed the three large water wheels turning and asked the significance of them. They told us that the hillside behind the restaurant is home a natural spring that spews some of the purest water on the entire island.

The water wheels were the brain child of the owner. First of all it’s to tell the customers when they are open for business. It’s as if to say, if the wheels are turning, the fires are burning so bring your appetites and come on in. It’s also to emphasize the importance of pure water to all of their recipes.

From the distance, the place looks interesting enough as a result of the water wheels. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the owner has skirted building codes by assembling several modular type buildings and keeping them close to each other. We discovered that in Japan, buildings that are less than a prescribed size need not have building permits. By putting several small structures in close proximity, he cleverly avoided that problem.

We noticed upon further inspection that several of the modules are actually large recycled piggy back shipping containers. Throw on a little wood trim and some bamboo decorations and the place from a distance looks like a classic wooden structure. In short, not only is the place eco-friendly in terms of water, the whole complex is made from recycled material. This is really a testament to the ingenuity and genius of the Okinawan people.

Of course we just had to try the fare. To our delight, it was delicious. The soup broth was light in body yet full flavored. The noodles appeared to be either home made or at a minimum, came from a quality manufacturer. The best part of all was the Tebichi themselves. The portions were huge with two pieces in each serving and each piece was at least as large, if not larger than my fist. Best of all, they melted in our mouths and the flavor was to say the least, sublime. We’re definitely going back again.

The restaurant is located along highway 58 in the Yamada Ward of Onna Village. Take highway 58 north from Kadena and just as you leave Yomitan Village and enter Onna, take a right at the first traffic light in Onna. If you go all the way down the hill to the Ramada Renaissance hotel, you’ve gone too far. The place is open from 10am till they run out of food for the day. Just look to see if the water wheels are turning. As long as they’re in motion, you’re in for a treat.