Last week I caught this post over at Ryukyu Mike’s blog and was reminded of my time on Kitadaito Island. Kitadaito’s biggest industry is sugar production, but during my time there (2008-2011) they created a factory to harness the many uses of the getto plant, aka Alpinia zerumbet.
So what is a getto? It’s a tall stalk based plant with broad, tapering leaves and white cone-shaped flowers. The stalks grow slowly but prodigiously, and regrow after being cut down. They are sometimes used as windshields for gardens and field or as decorations.
Even before the factory on Kitadaito was made, the plant was well utilized by locals. One of my first memories on the island was being handed a small greenish cookie. Chinsuko are popular cookies in Okinawa that are only slightly sweet. The getto chinsko I was given had a unique spice flavor that was both bitter and salty at the same time and quickly grew on me.
The other item I had was getto tea. As with the cookie, tea made from the getto leaves had a subtle spice flavor and delicious taste. Every time I gave it as a present it went over very well.
After the factory was completed, they began harvesting getto plants from around the island. The leaves were removed, boiled, dried and turned to various food and health uses while the stalks were compressed, their juices extracted and fibers separated.
The fibers in the stalk were washed, separated, dried, and then sent to Osaka to become kariyushi shirts, traditional Okinawan dress. The getto juice is utilized in fragrance sprays, cosmetics, and health treatments. The getto plant juice is a natural insect repellent which is useful as it doesn’t contain the harmful and corrosive chemicals in modern insect sprays.The island also produces an insect repelling incense coil based on the getto extract.
In addition to the taste, getto has a pleasant smell so it’s used in soaps and other items to add natural fragrance. Finally, it is traditional to serve New Year’s mochi on getto leaves in Okinawa. Its amazing all the things that can be done with one plant.
Check out the getto segment from my video on Kitadaito for a look at the processing of getto on Kitadaito.
Skip ahead to 8 minutes 18 seconds for the start of the section on Getto.
Mozuku is a type of seaweed. Before coming to Japan, I had never eaten any kind of seaweed, even nori which is the kind used in sushi rolls. I had a vague feeling of disgust when thinking about seaweed, which is weird given that they’re just plants that happen to grow in the sea.
On my first day at school, we had soup with seaweed in it, and given that there were a 100 kids around me waiting to see what the gaijin did, I ate it. What I wasn’t expecting was how delicious it was. Over the past five years I’ve had a lot of different seaweeds in a lot of different dishes. One that has popped up a lot since moving to Kumejima is mozuku.
Mozuku (Cladosiphon Okamuranus) is a seaweed that grows in small groups in shallow water in Okinawa. The actual taste of the seaweed isn’t strong, but is a ready source of vitamins and minerals and is easy to harvest. During school lunches I’ve most often found it in soups and tempura, though it also went really well on pizza (okay so that wasn’t at school).
On Kume Island, mozuku is harvested between April and June in the shallow waters around Oo Island. I went out one Saturday afternoon and found several people harvesting during low tide. They suggested that May was when the mozuku was most delicious. I also asked them about how long mozuku would keep. They said that if refrigerated it would stay up to a year, while non-refrigerated mozuku would be good for a month.
Many locals simply go and harvest enough for themselves and their families, though one lady I talked to was planning to send a batch to friends in Tokyo. At the local store, mozuku was available in a small package for about 150 yen since it in season. There are also branded packages available for tourists as omiyage.
Once the mozuku is harvested, locals wash it in sea water to remove shells, bits of coral, sand, and small animal. Be sure to wash your mozuku well before use.
So if you do get some mozuku, here are a few ways you can use it.
By far my most popular post on More Things Japanese is my easy recipe for Chahan. This time around, I wanted to share a slightly more time-consuming, but even tastier recipe for those of you who love Chahan. As with my advanced recipe for miso soup, it is all made from scratch, including the dashi.
5 cups water
1 piece conbu
1 cup packed bonito flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pack mushrooms
1 clove garlic
1 package nirai
1 cob fresh corn
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped nira (a scallion-like leaf)
6 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp pepper
Start off by making the dashi. We’ll use less than we would for soup or chanpuru so set a pot of water (5 cups) boiling and add one piece of conbu. Add 2 teaspoons of powdered garlic and 1 tsp of ground pepper. Let it simmer for about 5 minutes, then remove the conbu. Reduce heat to low. Add 1 semi-packed cup of bonito flakes and stir. Remove the boninto flakes after about 20 seconds. Remove from heat.
Wash 3 cups of white rice. Traditionally this is done in the rice cooker pot, I use a strainer until the water runs clear. Measure the rice to the top of the cup. For sushi or regular rice, you would normally leave about a centimeter free. We want firmer rice for chahan, so we’ll use a smaller water to rice ratio. Add 3 cups of dashi, measuring with the same cup as you measured your rice. You might notice in the video I add an extra cup, this was because the shape of the pot kept each cup from filling completely. Let the left over dashi simmer on your lowest heat setting while you cook your other items.
Cook the rice per the instructions on your rice container, or use a rice cooker. While you’re waiting, prepare your other vegetables. Dice onions, mushrooms, and a carrot. I used pre-shredded carrots for ease of use. Wash and chop green onions and nira. Cut the corn from a fresh cob and dice the sausage. Roast a garlic clove then dice it. Wait about ten minutes to give the rice time to start cooking and then start cooking your other ingredients. If you have a fast rice cooker you can start straight away.
In a large frying pan, add olive oil and set to medium low heat. When the oil begins to heat add the onions and mushrooms. Add 1 tsp of salt to prevent carmelization of the onions. Cook for about 3 minutes stirring occasionally and then add the carrots and corn. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Add the meat and garlic. Cook for another two minutes and add the nira. While the mix cooks, crack open 5 eggs in a bowl, then scramble them. Add the eggs to the mix and stir until the eggs are cooked. Let the mixture cook another two minutes.
In a separate bowl, make the sauce for the chahan. Add soy sauce, sake, mustard, ginger, pepper, and honey. Mix well. Add the remaining dashi which should be reduced to about 1/4 cup.
Add your cooked rice to the meat and vegetable mix. Stir well and cook on medium heat. Add the sauce and mix again. Continue cooking until the Chahan is no longer wet, but is not hard. Serve and enjoy.
You can easily substitute other ingredients in this dish. Try your favorite vegetables or chicken. If you can’t find conbu or bonito flakes, you can use water or chicken stock for the rice, then add a packet of dried hon dashi from your local asian supermarket when you add the sauce. This recipe will yield a large serving for three or four people and will have a mild flavor. For a stronger bite, add more salt or soy sauce.
If you use this recipe, please share how it went in the comments!
This is the second part of this post. Checkout the first part too! Don’t miss the video at the end.
Every winter fourteen fifth grade elementary students from Kume Island’s 6 elementary schools travel to Toakamachi. In the summer, a group of Tokamachi students from 3 elementary schools return to visit Okinawa. In 2013, I was invited along as one of Kumejima’s representatives (read cameraman). I live-tweeted the event and you can catch a record of the trip here (I know, strange title but we left on Valentine’s Day).
The first and last days of the trip were mostly travel. Though Japan’s system is convenient, it took us two flights, four trains, and a bus to travel between Kumejima and Tokamachi. If you’re starting out from Tokyo, you would have a much shorter trip, but that goes for just about anywhere inter-regional.
That first night everyone stayed at a local Japanese-style inn were guests were welcomed to their rooms with a local variation of sasa dango. They were tea flavored mochi filled with azuki bean paste and wrapped in tea leaves. Unlike other dango, they weren’t skewered or wrapped in bamboo leaves (sasa is a type of bamboo).
We had dinner together with many dishes featuring local foods. Many of the dishes included river fish, which the Kumejima students had rarely, if ever, eaten. There were small dishes of everything from sushi to tempura.
The second day marked the real start of the exchange. We ate breakfast together, this time at a breakfast room rather than in the large tatami room from the previous night. Like dinner, the breakfast was a wide assortment of small dishes.
After breakfast, we walked over to a local school for the opening speeches by local officials and students of both regions. Students formally exchanged presents. Our students gave miso and sugar cane cookies, kokuto, and Okinawan doughnuts, while the Tokamachi students gave green tea cakes. Later, the Kumejima students and teachers broke up into three groups to go to the three local schools.
I went with two of our students to a school with just over 30 students. Fifth year students from both schools presented their local culture and landmarks to a gathering of the entire school. The Kumejima students worked hard to memorize speeches about themselves and their homes. If for no other reason, it gave the students a good chance to practice public speaking and build confidence in talking to people outside their usual group dynamics.
After the presentations, and a song from the students, we were given a tour of the school, followed by lunch. The school we were at was small enough and remote enough to have a lunchroom rather than the more common family style dining in their classrooms. Our meal was a beef bowl with salad and a chocolate cake.
After lunch, the students played organized games in the gym. One was similar to “red light, green light” but with a lot more variations, such as “go to sleep,” “sit,” etc. We were treated to another recorder performance and then it was time to go outside. Each school had different activities for their visitors. At the school we visited they ‘let’ us have a try at snow shoveling for a bit before a scavenger hunt for candy in a snow-covered field. I routinely sank down to my knees or higher.
When all the candy was found, we sledded down a steep hill behind the school. At one of the larger schools, the students build snowmen and had a ‘dodgeball’ fight with snowballs. There were also relay races and plenty of other games for the tropical kids to enjoy.
School ended and the students departed with their host families. Each student spent the rest of the evening with their counter part’s family. The teachers and staff went back to the ryokan to plan for the next year and have a welcoming ceremony. It was interesting to see the differences in culture between Okinawa and Niigata during the event.
In Okinawa, its common for people to do a “cheers” when they walk over to talk to you. They say “kanpai” and clink glasses before drinking. In Niigata, it is more common for the hosts to arrive with a bottle and pour more in your drink and encourage you to drink as they chat. The local songs and dances were also quite different. The night ended with a “bonsai” which I’ve never seen in Okinawa.
The third day we met our students and their host families at the nearby Nakasato ski resort. We all spent the morning skiing (I snowboarded). Our students were taught by their host parents and a group of ski instructors while the teachers were herded along by some of the local organizers. It was windy and snowed through most of the morning, creating wonderful powder conditions.
We had lunch at the resort, it seems curry rice is common since we had the same thing while skiing on the Junior High school trip. After lunch, the teachers and students once again split up. Students went with their host families. Some went shopping, others hit some of the many local onsen, while others visited the snow festival. The teachers were treated to some amazing tickets at the Tokamachi Snow Festival.
Our last day started at the school where we met our students and had a farewell ceremony with more speeches. The bus ride back to Eichigo-yuzawa station was a spectacular view of the wide open rice fields and towering mountains… all covered in a clean cover of new snow. We followed the same course we had taken to get there and eventually landed safely on Kumejima later that evening. Along the way I got my first views of Mt. Fuji and the Sky Tree in the distance.
I felt I got a lot from the trip, so I know it will have a huge impact on the students who were lucky enough to go. It is sure to give them great memories, more confidence, and a desire to seek out more information about the greater world. A few days after the trip, the students presented to the rest of Kumejima’s fifth graders so that the experiences could be shared as widely as possible.
To show my gratitude, I made sure every student got a CD of all the pictures I took during the trip plus a video I cut from that taken from one of the organizers. A short version is below. Thanks for reading!