Saturday, June 07, 2008

Okinawan Bitter, Okinawan Sweet

Suibi, at 232 E. 53rd St., supposedly does excellent standard Japanese fare, but the real reason to pay a visit is for the rare opportunity to try Okinawan cuisine. It's the only restaurant in New York I know of that serves Okinawan dishes. At lunch the other day I tried an Okinawan lunch special combo that included the most famous Okinawan specialty, goya champura. Goya champura is a dish made of bitter melon with egg and tofu, topped with shaved bonito and sometimes, as my version was, with pork added. According to the menu there was also spam in the dish (popular in Okinawa as in Hawaii), but I couldn't really find any.

Bitter melon, I must say, would probably never make my list of favorite vegetables (or fruits, which I guess it really is), or even my list of favorite gourds. I've most often encountered it in Chinese food and never much cared for it. The bitter melon preparation I was most impressed by was a dry sautéed, spicy Indian version at Minar, prepared similarly to the way okra is often prepared in Indian cuisine.

Still, goya champura being the classic Okinawan dish, I felt compelled to try it. I was pleasantly surprised. The mixture had an eggy richness, and a smokiness that may have been endemic to the bitter melon or may have come from another flavoring.

My lunch combo also included two thick slices of belly pork, some pickles, and an excellent seaweed dish. The thin strands of purplish-brown seaweed were served cold in an amber yuzu (Japanese citrus) broth. The sweet-tart flavor of this dish was a nice complement to the bitter-smoky goya champura and the rich, sweet pork belly.

There are several other Okinawan specialties on the menu, including Okinawan soba, which is actually a kind of udon. My lunch partner tried a combo built around the soba soup, along with sides of bitter melon tempura and belly pork.

For an even fuller Okinawan experience you might want to visit Suibi when they feature Okinawan traditional music (often on Saturday nights).


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