Etat d’esprit: A modern take on Okinawan cuisine

March 7, 2022 by No Comments

On Miyako Island, the living is easy year-round. With its azure seas, beaches of dazzling white sand and an enviable climate that rarely dips below T-shirt temperature, this mellow, subtropical island in the far southwest of Japan feels like the ultimate get-away destination.

Located almost as close to Taiwan as it is to Okinawa’s main island, it is about as remote as you can get in Japan on a direct flight out of Tokyo. And for most visitors, that is its primary appeal: Once you’ve disembarked and transferred to your luxury resort accommodation, you can switch off and tune out the hassle and stress of life on the mainland.

However, at many hotels it’s all too easy to find yourself insulated from the local culture, not least Okinawa’s distinctive culinary traditions. Over the centuries, the island chain, once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, developed its own cuisine, assimilating influences through a network of trading links with the Asian mainland, Southeast Asia and as far afield as Thailand.

Miyakojima’s main town does have a handful of noodle restaurants and izakaya (taverns) offering typical Okinawan specialties and local cheer from awamori, the potent local distilled spirit widely consumed throughout the islands, to live performances by local musicians. But when it comes to more sophisticated dining, there is only one address to know — that of chef Yasuhiro Tomari and his innovative restaurant, Etat d’esprit.

Born and raised on Miyako, Tomari left for Tokyo at the age of 20 to embark on his career in the kitchen. After training at an Italian restaurant, he changed course under the influence of the French-based Japanese chef Keisuke Matsushima, first in Tokyo and later at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice, France.

Following stints in the celebrated restaurants of chef Joel Robuchon and also in France’s Basque country, Tomari decided it was time to return home and set up a restaurant of his own. Feeling it would be too incongruous to serve upmarket French cuisine in the very different setting of Miyako, he began to explore a new approach.

'Hatodas,' chef Tomari’s upmarket version of a popular Philippine street food, made with squab in place of chicken. | NAOH, INC.
‘Hatodas,’ chef Tomari’s upmarket version of a popular Philippine street food, made with squab in place of chicken. | NAOH, INC.

Drawing on his French training but inspired by the local tradition, he developed a uniquely creative approach to fine dining that he calls modern Ryukyu gastronomy, referencing the name of the former Okinawan kingdom. Almost all his ingredients are sourced from either Miyako or the adjoining Irabu Island, where his restaurant, Etat d’esprit, forms the focal point of the deluxe eight-villa Konpeki resort.

As the evening light drains from the sky over the East China Sea, welcome drinks are served along with a few small finger foods in the guests’ private rooms. But before these, you are invited to try a small aperitif made from mugwort, a bitter herb reputed to stimulate the appetite and impart good health. It is the first of many bold flavors that will be eye-opening for visitors unfamiliar with the foods of subtropical Okinawa.

Once everyone has adjourned to the sleek, discreetly lit dining room of Etat d’esprit, Tomari opens his elaborate eight-course tasting menu with another toast, this time based on the rituals of the ancient Ryukyuan court. Known as otōri, the drink takes the form of a thick soup prepared from local Nakajin pork, ginger, sakekasu (the lees from brewing sake) and island awamori.

These are blended with a broth prepared from irabu sea snake, a traditional delicacy formerly reserved solely for the Okinawan upper classes, which are used to impart flavor, much like the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) used in soup stock on the Japanese mainland. For extra visual impact, samples of the coiled-up, jet-black sea snakes are brought to the table for you to inspect.

It is the first of many dishes through which Tomari presents the story of Okinawan cuisine. However, rather than looking solely back to the past, he also lets his imagination take flight, imagining how the cuisine of these islands might have developed if Ryukyu had developed as a prosperous nation independent of Japan.

In his hands, tōfuyō — a pungent form of fermented tofu often considered a rough, acquired taste — is elevated into a delicate appetizer coated with gleaming, ruby-colored cacao butter and presented in a jewel box. Later, this same ingredient reappears as an umami-rich seasoning for “drunken crab,” a take on the more famous Shanghai dish but here using crustaceans caught by local fishermen in the island’s last remaining mangroves.

Delicate Okinawan-style noodles in a broth prepared from the meat and bones of peacocks, which are considered an invasive species on Miyako Island. | NAOH, INC.
Delicate Okinawan-style noodles in a broth prepared from the meat and bones of peacocks, which are considered an invasive species on Miyako Island. | NAOH, INC.

Looking to Southeast Asia, he takes inspiration from a street food eaten in the Philippines, where fried chicken feet are known popularly as “adidas.” At Etat d’esprit, this is reinterpreted using squab (young pigeon), and renamed as “hatodas,” a pun on the Japanese name for the bird, hato. Marinated in a blend of soy sauce, vinegar and red pepper, the meat is lightly sprinkled with flour, deep-fried and served with a sweet-savory banana-based sauce.

A gorgeous peacock feather announces a dish that reflects Tomari’s concern for sustainability. Peacocks that have escaped into the wild have proliferated on Miyako’s golf courses and are being culled as an invasive non-native species. Rather than allowing the carcasses to be wasted, he uses their meat and bones to create a light broth in which he serves his refined version of Miyako soba.

For the drink pairing accompanying each dish, the focus stays equally close to home, highlighting the local awamori rather than sake or wine. These exhibit a remarkable range — from frisky, refreshing, low-alcohol types equivalent to fino sherry, to intensely flavorful barrel-aged spirits with the complexity of whisky or dark rum.

The seafood course features fillets of local parrotfish, the iridescent blue reef fish often seen when out diving or snorkeling (for those who may not have done this, an iPhone photo is brought to the table along with your plate). To complement the delicate taste and texture of their flesh, a fin of the same fish is grilled and steeped in a full-octane version of awamori to add a complex, smoky contrast.

Goat has long been the main source of meat on the island, along with pork. As his main course, Tomari prepares it two ways. First, simply grilled over charcoal; but also in a more traditional form, chopped up and cooked with rice. Grilled and served in banana leaves, it is another reminder that Okinawa shares its food traditions with its neighbors to the south as much as it does with Japan.

Culminating with a series of light desserts, perhaps paired with a post-prandial drink or two, it adds up to a superb feast that is not only satisfying and fun but also totally one of a kind. There is nowhere in Okinawa or the rest of Japan offering anything like it.

 A dessert made with Miyako black sugar, black beans and awamori liquor is a sweet way to cap off a savory meal. | NAOH, INC.
A dessert made with Miyako black sugar, black beans and awamori liquor is a sweet way to cap off a savory meal. | NAOH, INC.

For Tomari, his cuisine is both a celebration of his roots and also a call to arms. Intensely concerned about the rapid changes to his homeland, especially since the advent of rampant overtourism, he sees it as his contribution to preserving the fragile local environment. It is also his way of drawing attention to the culture of the Ryukyus, which now, more than ever, is at grave risk of being lost.

Currently, however, it is a message that is only reaching the exclusive few who dine at Etat d’esprit. All the tables are reserved solely for guests staying in the hotel’s eight plush villas, and cannot be reserved separately.

Azure The Villa All-Suite, Ikemasoe 1195-1, Irabu-ji, Miyakojima-shi, Okinawa Pref. 906-0502; 0980-78-6000; Open daily 6-10 p.m. (by prior reservation only). Set menu from ¥15,000; closest airport Miyako; smoking not permitted; major cards; English menu; English spoken.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.

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