Better Belly


The ingredients are nothing special—tofu,bitter melon, scallions, and Spam. Stir fried and topped with a frizzle of dried bonito, the outcome is spectacular. Oil leeching from the pink meat tames the bitter melon, and the curd—broken into uneven chunks, rather than the symmetrical pieces Japanese prefer—makes the pastel heap taste like scrambled eggs and bacon. Goyachampuru is the culinary signature of Okinawa, a remote island nearly equidistant from China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Situated on major sea-trade routes, Okinawa developed its own culture long before Japanese colonization in the 17th century. Then there was America’s 28-year occupation. We’re responsible for the Spam.

Goyachampuru is one of the island specialties you’ll find at Suibi, a full-blown Japanese restaurant run by an Okinawan proprietor. The narrow walk-down space is lined with green banquettes, behind which diffuse light streams upward in film noir fashion, striking a ceiling that looks stuccoed with green-tea ice cream. Come dinner time, the room fills with Japanese businessmen, who loose their ties, doff their sport coats, and knock back beaker after beaker of sake, be it the mild and slightly bitter ichinokura or the bolder and more floral sawanoi ($8.75 each). Offering a stronger alcoholic kick are awamoris—zymurgically innovative Okinawan sakes made from Thai rice and often aged.

Another sturdy Okinawan specialty is “brisket of pork belly.” It’s a dish that would be at home in any trendy restaurant: three generous slices of pork belly braised in thick sweet soy sauce, served with a pair of poached green beans laid across the top, perhaps as a sort of health warning. The unctuous and salty belly may be disassembled into strips of skin, meat, and fat, and the lard discarded, but this prevents the sublime sensation of eating all three at once. I defy you to find better pork belly anywhere in town.

The belly can be ordered as an $8 appetizer or acquired as one of the dinner-size boxed combos that make up the one-page Okinawan menu. Goyachampuru and pork belly together go for $15.95, accompanied by pickles, steamed rice, and mozuku, which floats like a debutante’s reddish-brown hair in its vinegar pickling solution. This delicate seaweed is a specialty of the island. Another set meal includes a tripe soup of many pig parts, including plenty of ear; white rice hashed with yellow miso and pork tidbits; and your choice of goyachampuru or its vegetarian counterpart—a fry-up of scallions, bean sprouts, and bean curd. It’s pretty good, but as a Yankee, I want my Spam! Finally, there’s a soup described as Okinawan soba, though the noodles are more like chubby wheat udon than Japanese buckwheat soba. The big bowl comes with glazed pork ribs and a bitter-melon tempura.

The restaurant also features all the predictable Japanese stuff—the tempuras, teriyakis, yakitoris, noodles, and dons that make up what has become a standard menu in stateside establishments. The sushi and sashimi arrive in giant perfectly dissected pieces, reminiscent of Korean sushi. Deluxe chirashi ($23) is the best deal. Rather than being a hodgepodge of fish scraps, each species is represented by a trio of outsize planks: octopus, eel, yellowtail, salmon, egg omelet, and red tuna. Snowed with orange roe in two sizes, it doesn’t look like East Village chirashi—but it sure is good.

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