Unseen Japan

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Sushi? Yakitori? That's so mainland. Learn about Okinawa's own unique style of food. (Picture: hungryworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Okinawan Cuisine: Not Your Typical Japanese Food

Essay   Posted on February 18, 2019 in food, cuisine, lifestyle, okinawa • By Krys Suzuki • Read Related Articles

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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
美しい海に囲まれ、興味深い歴史と伝統を持つ沖縄県は、日本有数の観光地です。その沖縄観光に外せないのが「琉球料理」。意外と知られていない琉球料理について、沖縄料理との違いやその特徴について徹底リサーチし、詳しく解説していきます。

Fruit and Veggies

Goya (ゴーヤ)

Goya, a popular fruit in Okinawa
Goya: one of those "love it or hate it" kind of veggies. (Picture: マーボー / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

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 (シークワーサ)

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?

Main Dishes

A couple enjoying soki soba in Okinawa
Soki soba (ソーキそば) is a popular variation on Japanese soba that combines the unique culinary traditions of Okinawa and Japan. (Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Goya Champuru

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
チャンプルーは、野菜や豆腐などを炒めた沖縄料理。チャンプルーとは沖縄方言で「混ぜこぜにした」というような意味であり、野菜や豆腐に限らず、さまざまな材料を一緒にし...

Okinawa Soba

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

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?

沖縄県アグーブランド豚推進協議会|アグーの由来

Rafute

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

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.

Side Dishes

Sukugarasu - a small fish on top of tofu
Sukugarasu is what you eat while getting drunk in Okinawa. There - don't say we never gave you any good advice. (Picture: tomicat / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Umi Budo

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.

Sukugarasu

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

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

Sata andagi - Okinawan donut hole
Sata andagi (サーターアンダギー), the delectable puff pastry of Okinawa. (Picture: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Sata Andagi

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

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

いくつ知ってる?沖縄ローカルお菓子【勝手に沖縄マニア検定】
沖縄には美味しい食べ物がいっぱい!実は・・・それと同じくらい不思議な食べ物が存在します。そこで沖縄県民ライターの私が推奨する「ローカルお菓子」を厳選してご紹介します♪

Drinks

Awamori - Okinawan liquor
Awamori, the native alcohol of Okinawa. (Picture: yuuyuu / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Awamori

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

琉球(沖縄)と泡盛の歴史

Sanpincha

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

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?!

沖縄のハブ酒の作り方!ハブの毒は危険じゃないの?
言わずとしれた毒蛇。被害者も煎るが、だけど毒蛇のハブ酒ってなんだろうか?てか、飲んだらどうなるのか?手作りで作ることってできるんだろうか?そんなことでこちらのページではハブやハブ酒について記載してみました!

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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