Okinawa: a tasting tour with chef Hiroshi Takahashi
Many first-time visitors are surprised when they visit the idyllic southern Japanese island of Okinawa. The stunning blue waters, white sandy beaches, and tropical climate are not the sort of environment one usually associates with Japan.
Sitting almost 2000 km south of Tokyo, Okinawa's location and weather also ensure a unique terroir for produce which is famed across the country and further afield. One man who knows it better than most is Hiroshi Takahashi, the executive chef at the newly-opened Halekulani resort.
The 54-year-old comes originally from Chiba Prefecture and has extensive experience across both independent restaurants and hotel dining. At the elegant Halekulani property, famed for its cuisine and uniquely Japanese service, Takahashi oversees more than 90 staff across seven restaurants, designing and developing concepts and teams.
He also works closely on the innovative dining experience on offer at Halelukani's Shiroux restaurant from consulting chef Hiroyasu Kawate from Florilège in Tokyo, , someone whose two Michelin stars and nr. 5 ranking on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list continues to attract global food connoisseurs. Chef Takahashi explains: "Chef Kawate is very particular about his ingredients, a perfectionist. That's why he came with me to visit Okinawa's vegetable producers and fish markets, to focus on finding and using only the freshest ingredients to craft his cuisine. Okinawa farmers don't want to sell their precious produce to someone who handles it badly. As a result it's important our chefs have those relationships."
That produce is seen in restaurants across the island, ranging from humble to fine dining, and here chef Takahashi selects some of his favourites.
For coffee, chef Takahashi really likes one spot in the capital Naha called Mahou coffee: "They take things very seriously and the coffee master doesn't like people to take photos or even make too much noise!".
They're influenced by Daibo coffee, an old-fashioned coffee shop in in Tokyo's trendy Omotesando distrcit that closed about 10 years ago. The coffee master gained his experience there so his coffee is more like that in style, very strong Italian roast so bitter, but behind the butterness you feel the sweetness of the coffee cherry - plus the cheesecake is so nice, so rich and goes perfectly with the coffee.
Ardor celebrate both Spanish and Italian cooking, often while using local ingredients. A large counter table overlooks the wood-fired oven and open kitchen where chefs specialise in pasta and grilled meats and fish.
"They explain the dishes they create and overall it's a very high-quality experience - the interior designs are so cool that Ardor could even survive in Tokyo. The food is delicious" the opinion of chef Takahashi.
Aomi at Halekulani
Aomi's interiors are inspired by the colour blue as seen as in the ocean and sky just outside the restaurant, while the Japanese cuisine combines both the traditional and creative. "The reason I recommend it - says chef Takahashi - is because the chef is so dedicated to choosing the freshest seasonal ingredients from all over Japan and he and I have visited plantations and farmhouses all over looking for special produce".
His philosophy means sometimes that it will be Okinawan fish on the menu and of course sushi is the best way to enjoy it - however local tropical fish have less fat than from the colder waters so chef uses the edomae sushi technique of ageing it with kombu.
The reputation of Okinawan cuisine partly comes from being remarkably healthy, something which helps to explain why people here live to often incredible ages. Nowhere is this better displayed than at Garamanjaku, where 68-year-old chef-owner Kiyoko Yamashiro oversees a series of vegan dishes featuring up to 50 local Okinawa ingredients, many of which are plucked from the garden outside her home which also serves as the restaurant.
"At Halekulani, our 'Secrets of Longevity' programme includes a lunch and visit to Garamanjaku, amongst other wellness activities, where the menu changes daily but may include yam leaf or medicinal soups, amazing homemade misos and pickles and even smoothies made in front of you from wild plants" chef Takahashi explains.
Okinawa is famous for ingredients including pork, with renowned breeds including the Nakijin Agu, 100% pure-bred and an animal which has joined Slow Food's Ark of Taste. Its meat is used in dishes like shabu shabu hotpot and Okinawa soba noodles with pork, while there are also craft charcuterie producers who have been making hams and sausages for decades.
Chef takahashi explains: "Manmi serve delicious pork grilled yakiniku style. When chef Kawate from Florilège and Shiroux wanted to discover Okinawan ingredients he contacted Manmi's owner as he's an ingredient hunter. He knows all about produce so they went to the mountains together and harvested herbs and even fresh black pepper".
"Bacar is the best pizza place in Naha, but for me it's not just the best in Okinawa but also al of Japan" says chef Takahashi. They only offer two kinds, margherita or marinara, the crust somewhere between a Milano and a Neapolitan - all the edges are tasty too. As they want customers to only enjoy the most freshly baked pizza, literally as soon as they take it out the oven, it goes on a plate and is run to the table within 15 seconds!