A champlu of flavors and colors in downtown Naha
For many soap opera devotees in the noughties, the name Churasan evokes memories of the Japanese drama series of the same name. In that drama, Churasan means “promise of the sea”, and looking longingly at the live lobster and shrimp tanks and market stall baskets filled with Shiikwaasaa limes, I know I am going to enjoy a meal with the freshest ingredients tonight. The banners in bright primary colors, give the entrance a festive market atmosphere, more like a casual but high quality tavern than a formal restaurant.
While it is on a busy main road, once you step inside it is a maze of colors and flavors, and soon we are ready for an Okinawan feast. Feasting is what they do in spades here, followed by copious amounts of Awamori liquor or bright yellow Shiikwaasaa juice.
What I didn't know is that these Okinawan limes change color from dark green to yellow, like autumn foliage, and they become sweeter as they ripen. I was told that they are best in the latter part of the year, so I have timed my visit to perfection. Shiikwaasaa (also spelt Shikwasa) in Okinawan dialect means sour food, which to me is classic understatement. Tangy, refreshing with hints of pineapple and lime, it is a perfect drink in the balmy evening after a day sailing or beach combing on the seashore. What’s more, it is rich in folic acid and potassium, and popular with women, just in case you wish to shout your favorite lady a Shiikwaasaa cocktail.
To get you in the mood, I am presented with abalone slices fit for a king, dipped in ponzu, a tart citrus like soy sauce, as a complementary appetizer.
To many outsiders, Okinawan food is a mystery. Should I try pork’s feet, Champlu (a kind of stir fry, also spelt Champuru or Champloo or even Chanpuru), or sample the various bounties from the surrounding waters? Luckily they have both a Japanese and English menu and a resident Chinese waiter if you want suggestions in Mandarin. Better still; each menu item has a star rating, which actually works! Five star is the Beniimo and Taimo Andagi, a mixture of mashed red sweet potato, tapioca and mochi (rice cake), fried to perfection, sweet and savory at the same time. Some people call Andagi an Okinawan Donut, but that does not do it justice.
Everything here has an Okinawan feel, from the waitstaff uniforms which look like Hawaiian shirts to the uninitiated to the unmistakable giant bottles of Awanami Awamori, screaming out in technicolor Okinawa with their bright but simple primary colors. If you are looking for Zen like calm or Sweet and Sour Pork, I suggest you head elsewhere.
The giant mysterious black liquid jars above the chef’s kitchen on the other hand look ominous, but after trying the black squid ink stir fried rice (four stars) I am tempted to think that I should take some of these black magic potions home.
One difficulty with the menu is that its mish mash nature makes it hard to order selections that complement one another. Wanting something unique, I went straight for the "Okinawa dish" and "original" sections, however within the section the selection can be a bit random if you don't ask for a recommendation.
I ordered the papaya Champlu, which was well balanced with the pork on one hand and the stir fried papaya (tastes more like zucchini) on the other hand. The squid ink so-men Champlu fried rice on the other hand was full of flavor, but much too heavy to accompany anything. Maybe I needed some more Orion beer to wash it all down. Particularly in the outlying islands, Okinawa society is all about family, so it is best to have this feast in a big group, so you can sample a bit of everything, tapas or izakaya style. Even the five stars Andagi can get a bit tiring if you tried to eat six of them in a row.
All in all, it is a fun and delicious experience dining here. The cheerful crowds and the friendly waitresses, some reminiscent of Eri in the Churasan drama series, will ensure you leave with a smile. Shinzato Hironori, the owner, is justifiably proud of this iconic eatery, just a few minutes’ walk away from Kokusai Dori and the Hilton Doubletree Hotel.