- A Champuru Experience at Okinawa’s First Shopping Arcade, Ichibangai and Sun City Shotengai (Okinawa City)
- Visit Hateruma Island, Japan’s Southernmost Island in the Summer
[Series] Blessings & Tastes of the Island, Part 32; Unche
post : 2019.09.28 07:00
The sun’s rays are very strong in the summers on Okinawa, and it can get so harsh that it’s difficult to describe with words. During this period, most leafy vegetables in Okinawa become very hard to grow, and many of those available at markets are brought over from other prefectures in Japan. One of the few leafy vegetables that grow in abundance in the hot summer environment in Okinawa, is the Unche (pronounced oon-chei). They’re usually piled high at the center of the market when in season, and they’re appreciated for their availability, nutritious content, and for their affordable price, too. With not a huge variety of vegetables in the summer, Unche is a great source of leafy greens for families on Okinawa, a rarity for any vegetable to be in season in the months of May through to September. Unche is a climbing vine, a species from the convolvulus family, and its characteristic lies in its hollow stems and the slightly slimy texture, similar to Jew’s mallow and Malabar spinach.
You may have thought, “What…? The stems are hollow?”
In mainland Japan, they’re also known as Chinese water spinach, but on Okinawa, they’re called Unche, Unche-ba, or Ensai. There are other names for this wonderful vegetable, and they’re known as Panai on Miyako Island, and Untsai on Ishigaki. Some say the name Ensai comes from its Chinese name, but the origins of Unche remains a bit of a mystery. Most people on Okinawa wouldn’t recognize the vegetable when referred to as Chinese water spinach.
Unche is used often in Chinese cuisine and other Asian dishes. They’re great to cook with oil, so they’re mainly used in stir-fries. You may have even tried these leafy green stir-fries with hollow stems. At our home, we use them often in our stir-fries too, but lately, we’ve been combining them with anchovies as they make a delicious match. We’d been using mostly imported anchovies, but I heard about “anchovies from Okinawa” and so…I simply had to get my hands on some.
These (above) are what I found. Simply named “Okinawa Anchovy”, the little jars contain little fish that are locally called Mijun, and they’re like sardines that swim in the beautiful blue seas off Okinawa. The Mijun are pickled in oil and the jars come in charming little boxes.
When you open the lid, it has a pleasant, slightly sour scent together with fragrant aroma of rosemary. Unlike the anchovies I’m familiar with, the pieces are thicker, bigger and a little chewier. The vinegar is refreshing and the oil adds depth in taste, and the chili and salt brings it all together very nicely. These anchovies have a more luxurious enjoyment.
Let me show you a great way to serve the Unche and finely chopped Okinawa Anchovies.
First, slowly sauté sliced garlic and chili in oil over low heat. Be sure to take your time here and let the aroma of garlic spread throughout the oil and pan.
When your kitchen is filled with the appetizing aroma of garlic, add the finely chopped Okinawa Anchovies and again, let its flavors blend in to the oil.
You’ll probably think, “Just adding pasta to this oil would be so good!” When you think the oil is ready, add the Unche, stems first, into the pan.
When the stems are slightly heated, add the rest of the Unche and bring the heat up a little to medium. Shake the pan as you stir-fry quickly. For seasoning, just add a little salt. You don’t need very much because the anchovies are already pretty salty and the base flavor is already there.
Plate by Yoshiriki Yamada (Tsuchibito), Table/Free Cloth by Chika Miyara (Karansha)
Once the stir-fry is thoroughly heated, quickly take the pan off the heat and transfer contents on to a plate to serve.
You’ll enjoy the wonderful harmony of tastes and aromas orchestrated by the garlic, Okinawa Anchovies, and Unche. I recommend it to go with icy cold beer on a hot day. Unche are rich in vitamins A, B1 and C, and offers a boost of iron and calcium, too. They go well with various other ingredients, so add them to your cooking, whether you’re making Japanese, Western, or Chinese dishes. Even if you can’t find Okinawa Anchovies, you’ll enjoy this delicious dish with other brands of anchovies.
This is a great recipe to prevent fatigue from hot weather, so give it a try when you get a chance!
[Recipe for Unche Stir-Fry with Okinawa Anchovies]
Ingredients (for 4 servings)
Unche (1 bunch)
Garlic (2 cloves)
Okinawa Anchovies (5 or 6 pieces)
Olive Oil (as needed)
Chili (as desired)
Salt (a pinch)
[Inquiries for Items Introduced in the Article]
Address: 1-9-24 Ishikawa Akebono, Uruma City, Okinawa
Hours: 11:00 to 16:00
Closed: Wednesdays & Sundays
Okinawa CLIP photo writers, monobox (Tetsumasa & Kozue Kawano)