The Phantom Pig of Okinawa: Centuries of tradition, decadent meat, near extinction. They were rescued – but where are they now?
Okinawans eat every part of the pig except for the squeal.
Pork is an integral part of Okinawan cuisine and culture, and pigs used to be raised by most families on the island. These were not just any pig species: these were waa, a special pig from China that flourished on the island after its introduction in the late 1500s. The waa have a unique appearance and fantastic meat, with numerous health benefits that Okinawans have benefited from for centuries. Forty years ago, these pigs were almost extinct – they were so rare that they became known as Phantom Pigs.
A Mixing Pot with a Unique Culture
Even with centuries of foreign influence and governance, Okinawa maintains a unique culture separate from mainland Japan. Their pigs are a testament to this.
Okinawan/Ryukyu culture has been mixing with foreign nations for millenia. They began trade relations with China over 2,000 years ago, and became China’s vassal state in the 1300’s (Okinawa still enjoyed self-rule, by and large). In the early 1600’s, the Ryukyu were conquered by Japan. Japanese control didn’t end until after the devastation of World War II, but even after returning to the Japanese in 1972, external influence (especially from the USA) continues to be extensive.
Despite this, Okinawan culture has survived underneath it all – and one important part of that literally looked extinction in the face and barely escaped.
Enter the Pig
What does this have to do with pigs? Over 600 years ago, China sent some very unique pigs to Okinawa. They had short legs, thick black hair, big drooping bellies, straight tails, and large heads. And they were delicious.
These pigs bred and spread throughout Okinawa. Most families had one to several pigs, and would celebrate the New Year by butchering a pig as a family, in a tradition called wa-kurushi. They would eat and preserve the meat; blood was used to make chiricha, bladders were made into inflatable balls, and literally every other part of the pig was used, too (the hair was used for toothbrushes – go oral hygiene!) – even ears were eaten.
Disaster Strikes – and the Rescue Begins
Then World War II hit. Most of the native pigs were killed, foreign breeds were introduced, and by the 1980, only 30 phantom pigs were left. Thankfully, 18 of these pigs were rescued, bred, and preserved in Nago, Okinawa. A breeders association was formed to define and protect the breed, which the association called aguu or agu. The association trademarked the term “agu,” applying it only to pigs that are at least 50% original waa.
Now, the meat is in high demand in Okinawa and all around Japan! Ironically, the demand for the meat helps save the pigs – save the breed by eating them!
What Makes Agu Different?
Agu meat has a unique nutritional composition and flavor profile that you have to eat to appreciate.
Most pigs these days have too little fat; the flavor is poor, and it’s a shame. Agu is a traditional breed, and retains the succulence that pigs used to be known for with some special characteristics:
Agu meat has ¼ the cholesterol of normal pork, despite having a higher fat content. Most of the fat is unsaturated, with a melting point below human body temperature – so it melts in your mouth! It also has a characteristic sweetness to it. Even when cooked, it does not give off strong smells like most pork does.
Agu pork is rich in Vitamin B1, an essential nutrient, and glutamate – glutamate gives foods umami flavor, or savory richness. So, it is rich, flavorful – and also tender! You can really taste the difference!
The Hunt Begins
I learned about the phantom pigs’ rarity, their amazing meat and their importance to Okinawan culture. Now, I just needed to find a place to try it myself!
I discovered a few restaurants in Naha that advertise agu meat. I chose Ganaha Farm Co., LTD, because they raise their own pigs and then sell the meat in a few restaurants, a sidewalk café and butcher shop. Their pigs are hybrids, a mix of two European breeds with waa. They had their reasons for breeding this way; increasing the diversity of the gene pool is one of them.
I visited their restaurant, Fresh Meat Ganaha, and bought a pork cutlet that was very tasty.
The restaurant has a nice, modern interior and is great for bringing a big group of friends!
Buy from the Butcher Shop
If you feel like cooking yourself, try the butcher shop! I bought a large section of pork belly, and brought it home to cook on the stove. It works great added to soups, eggs or just by itself.
I bought some meat and I enjoyed it, but I wanted more than this: I wanted to see the pigs myself. If I’m going to eat animal products, I want to know their living conditions and not just trust an idyllic picture on the label.
Off to the Farm
Ganaha’s headquarters are located in the mountains of northern Okinawa, between Nago and Camp Schwab. It’s called “Agu Village;” check the map for the location, as it is off of a side road.
After arriving early one morning, I learned they are closed on Mondays! A lady stopped me at the gate; I explained that it was the only day I could visit, and smiled, and explained again, and smiled…and eventually the nice lady went to find someone else to come talk to me.
Who appeared but the president of Ganaha Farm Co., LTD, Takashi Ganaha himself! Ganaha-san could have dismissed me right then and there, but instead he gave me a personal tour of the facilities.
I am extremely grateful for the time he took. He speaks great English and I learned a lot with him, like the fact that they keep every litter of pigs together from birth until they’re butchered so that family bonds are maintained. There is a shop downstairs for pig souvenirs and meat; if you bring your own insulated container, you won’t have to purchase one there. The containers are cute, though!
I took home some rib meat, pork belly, and four packages of sausages. These were my thoughts:
Rib meat and pork belly: mild flavor and aroma, buttery, indulgent. Tender, no toughness at all. Flavors revealed themselves with just salt. No oil needed for the pan.
Sausages: Tasted fresh, healthy, without unpleasant aftertaste like from processed foods. Great texture, no gristle; satisfying resistance to bite, with tender meat; skin of sausage crisped well while keeping juices locked in. Chorizo sausage was my favorite; the spices balanced nicely with the meaty flavor; there was just enough heat to give a bit of tingle, and it adds to the experience. The cheese sausage was a close second!
There was some unfortunate news (for me) at Ganaha Fresh Meat. The company is concerned about a viral outbreak that was going on in other countries, and since in late 2018 visitors can no longer interact with the pigs. A video plays upstairs that shows their living conditions, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see them.
I was determined to find the pigs! Join me in Part 2 to find out what happened next…