Using olives in Washoku!? The delicious island of Shodoshima – Part 1
May 24, 2018
A 90-minute flight from Tokyo takes you to Kagawa Prefecture in the northeastern part of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. After a one-hour ferry ride from the capital city of Takamatsu, a lush green island comes into view amid the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea. Welcome to Shodoshima.
The island has a population of just over 27,000 people, but it attracts more than one million visitors a year. Among Shodoshima’s many scenic attractions is Angel Road, a sandbar that appears only at low tide and allows visitors to walk to a neighboring island. Kankakei Gorge, with its sheer cliffs and unusual rock formations, is another breathtaking attraction. Additionally, Shodoshima is one of the venues for the Setouchi Triennale, an international contemporary art festival held once every three years. Walking around the island allows you to view the site-specific artwork that’s integrated into the beautiful scenery.
Shodoshima is also a culinary goldmine. The rich natural environment and year-round mild climate, in combination with locals’ endless dedication, have given rise to a distinctive food culture. Refined over four centuries, the island’s products are the result of painstaking care and the pursuit of perfection-distinct Japanese traits—and they have become internationally recognized. Let’s explore some of Shodoshima’s delicious offerings.
Shodoshima: Japan’s “Olive Island”
In Japan, Shodoshima is known as Olive Island. That may come as a surprise to people who associate olives with Spain, Italy, and other Mediterranean countries.
The history of Shodoshima’s olives can be traced back to 1908, when seedlings were imported from the United States. Thanks to the island’s warm and mild Mediterranean-like climate and the hard work of local farmers, Japan’s first olive trees began to thrive.
110 years later, Shodoshima’s olives have achieved international fame. Olive oil produced on the island has been recognized for its superior quality. Accolades include winning the Best in Class Award at a prestigious international competition, as well as being listed in an Italian-published international olive oil guidebook that is referenced by chefs around the globe.
What’s the secret behind Shodoshima’s premium quality olives? To find out, we visited an olive farm that goes back three generations. Autumn is the harvesting season for olives. On Shodoshima, each olive is carefully handpicked, one by one! Outside Japan, where olive farms tend to be quite expansive, special machines are generally used to shake the olives off the trees. This can cause bruising, resulting in oxidation and lower-quality flavor. To prevent that from happening, the olives on all 4,500 trees at this farm are handpicked. Then, just like many other fruits and vegetables in Japan, the harvested olives are subject to a stringent selection process. Olives are individually checked to ensure they haven’t been damaged, eaten by bugs, or have any stems or leaves still attached. This delicate, painstaking care results in a clean tasting oil bursting with fruity, natural flavor and aroma, earning Shodoshima’s olive oil a stellar reputation worldwide.
Enjoying olives the Shodoshima way
Due to Shodoshima’s century-long history of olive cultivation, a unique olive-eating culture has developed on the island. Alongside the usual seasonings of salt, pepper, and soy sauce, there were also several varieties of olive oil on each table in the cafeteria at the olive farm we visited. Talking to the staff, we found that they add olive oil to just about everything―including miso soup, tofu, and natto! They say it goes very well with Japanese soybean products and helps draw out their umami flavor. They also drizzle it on tamago kake gohan, a classic Japanese breakfast dish of hot white rice mixed with raw egg and soy sauce.
Shodoshima’s distinctive way of enjoying olives extends to the fruit as well. One local specialty is freshly harvested green olives pickled in brine. Perfectly crunchy and bursting with umami, they’ve become increasingly popular off the island, too. Pickled olives are also produced in Italy, the heart of olive cultivation, but the way they’re eaten on Shodoshima is unique. In addition to being paired with drinks, they are also cooked with rice, prepared tempura-style, or coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. When heated, the oil contained in the olives melts and helps to mellow their fragrance and flavor.
Olives are an essential part of life on Shodoshima, as can be seen from the tradition of the town presenting olive seedlings to celebrate life milestones such as marriage, childbirth, and the start of school. Children grow along with their individual olive trees, and there is even a service to have olive oil extracted from the fruit of such trees. This personalized olive oil can be found on the dining table of any household on the island.
As we bid the olive farmer farewell, he offered us some parting words. “When olive cultivation first began here, there were no examples or guidebooks available. The reason olives became an integral part of Shodoshima is due not only to the island’s mild climate, but also to the farmers who came before us and discovered, through trial and error, the conditions under which olives thrived.” Shodoshima’s incredible century-long cultivation history has enabled its olives to become world-famous, and the face of the island’s food culture.
Text and photos: Nao Ishikawa
2352 Ikeda, Shodoshima-cho, Shozu-gun, Kagawa Prefecture