There’s no doubt that visiting a foreign country, let alone living in one for any period of time, offers the best opportunity to try some of the best, authentic, local dishes. This was one of my favorite perks of living in Japan for about three years. A lover of all things Japanese (especially the food) since childhood, it was a dream come true to be able to finally taste “real” sushi, yakiniku, and the like.
However, as with all things, after a good year or so of continued exposure, the novelty sort of died off. I’m not saying I lost my taste for Japanese food – if anything, I’ve only come to love it even more, and even to this day, as I sit back home in my very American hometown of New York City, Japanese cuisine holds a very special place in my heart.
It’s just that after giving Japanese food a good run for the money, after about a year, I had already tried every typical – and many not-so-typical – Japanese dish available in my little Saitama town. From sushi and sashimi, to donburi, to more unique items like horse, whale, and sea urchin, I thought I had tried it all! I wanted to try something new! Be more adventurous!
And then I discovered Okinawa cuisine.
My first trip to Okinawa would come during my first Spring in Japan. Excitedly, I told my fellow teachers about my upcoming trip, but for some reason, the big question that seemed consistent with every teacher I told was: “Do you like Okinawa food?”
I’ll admit ignorance on my part, but up until that time, it had never occurred to me that Okinawan food would be much different from the typical Japanese food I ate in Saitama every day. My fellow teachers soon informed me, very kindly, that I was in fact very, very wrong. I spent lunch periods with my favorite teacher assistant that day as she took me on a little virtual tour via her smartphone of all the unique and interesting foods I should expect to find (and try) on my upcoming trip to Okinawa.
The good news is, you don’t have to go all the way to Okinawa to try some of these dishes. I found myself quite fond of a particular Okinawa-ryori house in downtown Shinjuku, and there are many other Okinawan restaurants scattered throughout Tokyo and many other urban areas in Japan. There are even some Japanese restaurants in New York and other parts of the US that you can find Okinawan cuisine (though whether or not you can deem it “authentic” may differ according to location and taste).
Here are some of the most interesting Okinawan dishes, all of which I can proudly say I have tasted at least once in my life. Whether or not you will be so bold as to take that challenge is up to you...
Okinawan Cuisine: A Brief History
Okinawa was not always part of Japan as we know it, but an independent state called Ryukyu, made up of all the little islands now collectively known as Okinawa. Once a major trading hub between China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, it is easy to see how such a diverse development of culture and cuisine came about.
From China came pork, the most commonly used meat in the islands. Unlike mainland Japan, Buddhism never quite got a strong foothold on the islands, hence the vegetarian eating practices of the time never took root, which is why livestock as a main food ingredient spread more throughout this region than the others.
Japan introduced dashi, or fish-based soup stock, as well as other fish dishes. Despite being an island region, the locals’ reliance on livestock meant they were not as avid fishermen as the Japanese.
Finally, Southeast Asia contributed many of their fruits and veggies, as well as herbs and spices such as turmeric.
Combine all that with the ingredients already native to the islands, such as their livestock, plants, and even seaweed, and have you got yourself a sparkling hotpot of diversity!
Not only did this diversity spawn a variety of tastes to enjoy, it is also great for your health. This can be attributed to the number of natural foods incorporated into the dishes – vegetables and seaweeds boasting some of the highest health benefits – as well as nutritional balance, and healthy eating habits, (such as the concept of “Hara-Hachi-Bu,” or eating until you are 80% full). Natives of Okinawa are infamous for their longevity, many living to see 100 years, and it is no secret that diet plays a great role in that statistic.
(JP) Link: What is Ryukyu-Ryori? Examining the Differences and Features of Okinawan Cuisine
琉球料理とは？沖縄料理との違いやその特徴について徹底解説！ | TRAVEL STAR
Fruit and Veggies
At the forefront of many Okinawan foods, used in both cuisine and snacks alike, is the love-it-or-hate-it goya. A very bitter vegetable, commonly called “bitter melon” in English, it is a bumpy, cucumber shaped gourd that was adopted from Southeast Asia as one of Okinawa’s favorite vegetables. Because of its bitterness, it is said to be an acquired taste, especially for non-locals and foreigners, but it is a staple in the Okinawan diet. Its most common use is in goya champuru (covered below), but can even be found as potato chips, and even as an ice cream flavor.
Shikuwasa, known as a Taiwanese citrus fruit, is also natively found on the Okinawa islands, and is something between a tangerine and a lemon. It is delicious as a fruit, as well as in its many other forms such as juices, snacks, and ice cream. And not only is it good as a flavor, it is also good for you! Full of vitamins and minerals, and said to relieve fatigue, it is also somewhat of a super fruit.
Beni-imo - Purple Sweet Potato (紅芋)
This sweet potato is native to Okinawa, and served in many forms. It can come as a side dish to your meal breaded and fried as tempura, or even as a dessert as an ice cream flavor. Considered a super food, it is healthy when eaten in its original form, however its unique color also makes it a cute and popular snack and souvenir ingredient. Who wouldn’t like to receive purple cookies as a gift from abroad?
One of the most famous dishes of Okinawa, champuru basically means a “mixed dish,” similar to a stir fry, and is usually based on tofu mixed with vegetables, meat, or fish, and commonly includes eggs. Goya champuru combines tofu and eggs with goya, and American luncheon meat such as Spam.
Another version of the champuru dish is the “Fu Champuru,” and is a similar dish, except the star is “fu,” or wheat gluten. Wheat gluten has a thick, meaty texture and is used as a meat alternative in this and other dishes, making it vegetarian friendly, too!
(JP) Link: Did You Know? Types and Kinds of Okinawa’s Specialty Champuru
【意外と知らない】沖縄名物「チャンプルー」【種類も豊富】 - NAVER まとめ
If you know traditional Japanese food, then you definitely know soba. But what makes Okinawa soba any different? While it uses a Japanese broth, the noodles are much thicker and more firm than typical soba noodles, and the soup is often topped with a slab of soki, or spare rib slice.
Agu pork is sometimes called the “Wagyu beef” of pork. Agu pork comes from a rare breed of pig that is larger and black in color, and more closely resembles a wild boar than your typical farm pig. The texture is more tender, thicker, and sweeter than regular pork. However because of its rarity, it is often cross-bred with other species, and it is less likely that any “agu” branded pork sold outside of the pigs’ native Okinawa is pure and authentic.
(JP) Link: What Kind of Pig Is “Agu” Pork?
Another pork dish, rafute is also said to have originated in China, and is a sweet and savory dish of pork belly slabs, simmered in soy sauce and brown sugar. Rafute slabs can also be used as a topping for Okinawa soba.
Yagi is the Japanese word for goat, and that is exactly what it is: goat meat. In Okinawa, a common serving for yagi is as sashimi, and eaten raw. Think of it as regular sashimi, only more chewy and with a stronger, meaty flavor.
The name umi budo literally translates to “sea grapes,” and is actually a form of sea weed in the shape of a small bunch of grapes. The shape and texture is quite similar to caviar, and pop like bubbles in your mouth when chewed.
This is a seasonal dish served as an accompaniment to alcohol. Suku, a small salty fish only available in the summer, is served on top of tofu cubes together with your drink. However be careful, as they are eaten whole and contain small bones that are known to cause irritation to the throat when not chewed thoroughly.
Tofuyo, or fermented bean curd, resembles a small block of cheese. It is actually more of a condiment or ingredient than a side dish, however it is also sometimes eaten as a side to a glass of awamori. Sometimes compared to “stinky cheese,” it is said to be an acquired taste.
Desserts & Snacks
This is a local donut-like pastry (similar to a donut hole), but unlike its American counterpart is fried, rather than soft and frosted. It is made from sugar, eggs, and flour, and is one of Okinawa’s favorite desserts, available in almost every eating establishment, as well as outdoor events as a grab-and-go snack.
Chinsuko is a popular cookie, also commonly sold as a souvenir. At first it looks plain, with a simple design and taste. But it's made with lard instead of butter, which gives it a richer, more unique flavor than an average butter cookie.
(JP) Link: How Many of these Do You Know? Local Okinawa Snacks Taste-Test
One of the most famous alcoholic beverages of Okinawa, Awamori is a shochu-like drink that can be enjoyed both chilled in a glass of ice, or as a cooking ingredient in your favorite dish. It is a local drink to Okinawa, however said to have its production origins in Thailand, and also uses Thai rice, or “Thai-mai.”
(JP) Link: The History of Ryukyu (Okinawa) and Awamori
Sanpincha is basically Jasmine tea, however it is very common in Okinawa and can be found in just about every store and restaurant, as easily as you might find a bottle of water. It can be enjoyed both hot and cold, and either plain or sweetened.
Habushu is a beverage made from Awamori as mentioned above, however what makes this unique is what’s inside. Habu is the name of Okinawa’s local pit viper, a venomous snake native to the island. That’s right, habu-shu literally translates to “viper wine,” and no, it isn’t just a catchy name. The bottle literally contains an actual, once-alive viper inside. But don’t worry too much – though it can be dangerous to be bitten by a live habu snake in the wild, the alcohol actually dissolves the venom once it is sealed in the jar, making it safe to drink. (However, this process does take time, so you will want to make sure it is aged well, at the very least, two years!)
(JP) Link: How to Make Okinawa Habu-shu: Isn’t it Poisonous?!
It's Not Just Food, It's An Experience!
While some of these may make your mouth water, others may downright shock you. However, that's the beauty of the culture of cuisine. The uniqueness and diversity offered in Okinawan cuisine is one you will definitely want to try for yourself, making each dish more than just a meal, but an entire experience.
While I only touched on some of the most popular (and my own personal favorite) dishes here, you can be sure there are plenty more delicious foods and drinks to try - more than I can possibly cover in a single blog! They say variety is the spice of life, and Okinawan cuisine offers so much variety, it is bound to spice up your palate.
Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.
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