The secret to living a long life?

May 08, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

While visiting Okinawa recently, I learned that a remarkably high number of residents of Japan's southernmost prefecture live to be 100 or older.

Indeed, sturdy old people seemed to be everywhere. I saw them tilling tiered gardens, walking through villages, shopping in Naha and Ginowan. As we drove through a village, I remember one woman in particular: She was tiny, her skin smooth and sun-burnished, and she wore a smile as she marched up a hill.

Maybe she was 100. Or maybe she had a decade or two to go. It's notoriously difficult to guess a person's age in a place where 97th birthdays are an important milestone according to folk belief and cause for community celebration.

In a presentation to the group of journalists I was traveling with, Dr. Makoto Suzuki, an expert on Okinawan longevity, explained why residents of the subtropical island group are so healthy and live so long. His findings are also found in the best seller The Okinawa Program: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health - And How You Can Too. Written by Suzuki and Bradley J. Willcox and D. Craig Willcox, The Okinawa Program was released in paperback (Clarkson Potter, $15) in March.

Okinawans, Suzuki said, owe their low rates of heart disease, cancer and other maladies to spiritual well-being, strong family ties, exercise and a healthy diet that includes tofu, fish, sweet potatoes, brown rice, seaweed and bitter melon.

Of this last ingredient, the Willcox brothers write: "The first time we tried it, it was hard to fathom why the Okinawans have developed such a taste for this strange vegetable." Then they proceed to sing its praises.

Until the bitter melon part, I could imagine getting with the Okinawan program. But the vegetable's very name was intimidating. Would it be worth living to 100 if you have to eat all that bitter melon? "The more you eat it, the more often you want it," Suzuki and the Willcoxes claim. Maybe, I thought, Okinawans have no choice but to live to 100, because they just can't stop eating bitter melon.

According to the Cambridge World History of Food, bitter melon, also known as goya or bitter gourd, is used throughout the tropical world, but is "most highly regarded in much of Asia."

Goya resembles a homely cucumber with a ridged and warty surface, and is deemed at its best when still green and unripe. Folkloric claims for its healing powers abound. The Okinawa Program authors cite early evidence of the vegetable's role in cancer prevention as well as lowering blood sugar in diabetics. And while the seeds aren't edible, there are indications that the protein found in bitter-melon seeds slows the growth of the herpes and polio viruses, the researchers say.

Bitter melon is very high in vitamin C and appears to retain the vitamin's potency when cooked at high temperatures, according to the book. Also, "Okinawans believe that goya helps keep their skin and bones young, which again might possibly be related to its vitamin C content and its ability to help synthesize collagen, an essential protein for bone and connective tissue health."

OK, I was in. When I returned to the United States, I would get some bitter melon and prepare it the Okinawan way. The less bitter and intimidating zucchini is considered an adequate substitute, but I wanted to "go for the goya" as The Okinawa Program authors urge, because in 40 years, I'd like to be like that little old lady, smiling while trudging up the street to the market, after a long day working in the garden.

Bitter melon commonly appears in an Okinawan stir-fry called Goya Chample. I found the vegetable at a nearby Asian market (and later at my local Giant) and prepared this dish for dinner.

I cut through the bright-green skin and found a pale-yellow fruit inside. I removed the pith and seeds and scraped off the rough part of the skin before slicing the melon thinly (if the skin is unblemished it doesn't have to be scraped).

The bitter melon was very bitter. Its taste, though, was not unpleasant, buffered with mild tofu, eggs, salt and soy sauce.

I'm not sure bitter melon will become a staple in my kitchen, but I think it might grow on me. If I reach 100, I'll let you know.

Goya Chample

Serves 4

canola cooking spray

1 10 1/2 -ounce piece extra-firm tofu-lite, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large goya, with core and seeds removed, sliced thinly

2 eggs or 1/2 cup egg substitute, beaten

pinch of sea salt

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

Coat a large skillet with canola spray. Over medium heat, cook the tofu for 2 minutes, or until golden. Set aside.

Spray same skillet with a little more canola spray and cook goya for about 7 minutes, or until tender. Return tofu to skillet, pour in eggs, and cook for 1 minute while stirring. When combined well, add sea salt and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Evenly divide among four plates and serve.

From "The Okinawa Program"

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