Welcome to the southern tip of Japan, Okinawa, a resort area well known all over the world for its beautiful ocean and natural wonders. Even though it’s Japan, there’s a lot of food available here that you won’t find on the mainland! The reason for this is that long ago Okinawa was its own individual entity called, the Ryukyu Kingdom. Because the Ryukyu Kingdom had deep ties with China you’ll find a lot of Chinese influence in the local cuisine. Furthermore, Okinawa’s cuisine was further diversified during the American occupation after World War II when American culture and food was introduced into the islands. If you make it all the way to Okinawa then you’d better enjoy some of the unique cuisine!
Taste of traditional Okinawa
This is the soul food of Okinawa. Generally, the noodles are made from flour mixed with saline water and lye, and the soup is made with bonito or pork stock. The basic style includes toppings like Okinawan kamaboko (boiled fish paste), red pickled ginger, green onions, and pork, but the delicious soki soba with pork spare rib is also extremely popular.
Rafute is Okiniwan for “kakuni”, squared pork belly meat. Here unskinned pork rib meat is thoroughly boiled together with soy sauce or the local Okinawan liquor of awamori. This rich and sweet flavored dish is soft to the bite and goes extremely well with rice and alcoholic drinks. This ingredient which can often be found in Okinawan soba is traditionally eaten during the New Year’s holiday and at Buddhist memorial services.
Mimiga Pig’s Ear
“Mimi” in Japanese means, “ear.” So as the name suggests, mimiga is the skin of a pig’s ear. They can be boiled or steamed and then cut into long strips to be used in various dishes. Generally, in Okinawa, the mimiga is used with vinegar dishes and peanut miso. The firm crunchy texture will get you hooked!
Agu utilizes the valuable pigs that have inhabited Okinawa for ages. It was said that they were all exterminated after 1945, but the animals have actually been restored successfully since 1993. Compared to the general pork found in supermarkets, these pigs have more marbled meat whose fat gives it a sweet and delicious taste. We recommend enjoying the meaty flavor as a steak or parboiled in shabu shabu.
Sata andagi are deep fried doughnuts made with extra sugar. These treats are also known as “sugar tempura” in Okinawa and loved as a home-cooked snack. The sata andagi that are sold at tempura stores usually come in two standard flavors, “white” which are made with white sugar, and “black,” which are made with brown sugar.
These umi budou, translated directly as “sea grapes,” are a kind of seaweed that has been in enjoyed in Okinawa for ages. As the name suggests, the addictive umi budou look just like round grapes that pop like bubbles as you bite in to them, and have made more than a few people fall in love with them on their trip to Okinawa. You can eat them raw, dip them in soy sauce or vinegar like a sauce, or eat them over rice in a “umi budou don,” which is also delicious.
Okinawa is the largest producer in Japan of this delicious seaweed, mozuku. It is black, thin, and may look a little strange, but the taste will remind you of the more common nori seaweed and is very delicious. The mozuku from Okinawa is known to be thick and strong and without too much sliminess. It is most generally eaten with vinegar but we also recommend mozuku tempura. It’s sure to be one of the most popular items on the local Okinawan izakaya pub menu.
“Jimami” in Okinawa dialect means “peanuts,” so as the name suggests, jimami-douju is a dish of tofu made from peanuts. It tastes sticky and soft like sesame seed tofu and has a rich flavor that spreads through your mouth making for quite the addicting dish.
Island tofuyo is tofu made by fermenting malted rice, red yeast rice, and awamori (liquor famous to Okinawa) and is loved by the local people as the best snack to enjoy while drinking awamori. It is said that tofuyo originated from “funyu” fermented bean curds which were introduced from the Ming Dynasty in China during Okinawa’s Ryukyu Kingdom period. Tofuyo has a unique flavor that tastes like liquor mixed with Edam cheese and is eaten in little bites at a time. The distinct taste and smell will either make you love or hate it.
Yushidofu is a kind of tofu that is made simply by putting “nigari” (bittern) from the ocean in soy milk. You can eat the tofu as is, but generally it is eaten in Okinawa with soups like bonito broth or miso soup. Recently, it has become a popular ingredient to put in Okinawa soba.
“Champuru” in the Okinawan dialect means, “to mix.” Goya champuru is one of Okinawa’s most symbolic foods and is made by stir frying lots of different ingredients together like goya (bitter gourd). Actually you’re free to put anything you like in the dish and stir fry it along with the goya. Some common ingredients that are often used include pork lunch meat introduced from America, pork, egg, and slightly hardened island tofu.
Tebichi is pig’s feet. Tebichi is Okinawa’s collagen filled tender textured popular delight which is generally eaten boiled in a seasoned broth or enjoyed in tebichi soup, tebichi soba, and recently popular as deep fried karaage. Tebichi is also one of the unwavering main ingredients in the Okinawan version of the popular Japanese dish, oden.
The greatest characteristic of Okinawa’s mangoes are the skillful means in which they are grown utilizing the subtropical climate as well as plastic greenhouses to raise the fruit to complete ripeness and then harvest and ship them out. These high quality “kanjuku mangoes” are known all over the world for their juicy balance of pulp, acidity, and sweetness. The season for these mangoes is during July and August.
This kind of zenzai treat is one of the local specialty sweets of Okinawa that is made from large and tough American azuki beans that are simmered until they are sweet and then topped with heaps of ice. This treat has a wonderful balance of plain sweetness and cold ice that is a necessity in Okinawa’s hot summers. You can find Okinawan zenzai at specialty shops as well as many restaurants. By the way, the warm zenzai that you normally find around the rest of Japan is called “hot zenzai” in Okinawa. Cold zenzai in Okinawa is considered the norm!
Okinawan flavor that was brought about by American culture
Blue Seal Ice Cream
Blue Seal was first established in an American military base in Okinawa in 1948. At the time, Blue Seal ice cream products could only be obtained within the base, but after a store was opened in Urasoe City, Maki Port in 1963, the ice cream became widely loved by all and considered “the” Okinawan ice cream. Blue Seal generally has over 30 flavors of ice cream available including those that use unique local ingredients like beni imo (purple yam).
During the American occupation, tacos were introduced into Okinawa and quickly evolved in the hands of the local people. Taco rice which is essentially taco ingredients put over rice and has become one of the symbolic local foods of Okinawa which follows the suit of “champuru style” by allowing just about anything to be mixed into the dish. Nowadays, taco rice is loved by both Okinawans and Americans alike. It is believed that taco rice originated on the street lined with restaurants that spreads out before the gate of Camp Hansen in the Kincho district.
During the American occupation, steak shops began to appear around Okinawa for the American soldiers. With the fast-pace influx of American culture, steaks penetrated the local people’s lives booming with popularity and so nowadays you can find a large number of steak houses all over Okinawa! The most popular are tenderloin steaks which are called by the locals of Okinawa, “Joutou Steak” (top grade steak).
Enjoy Okinawa’s food culture born from history and character!
The independent Ryukyu Kingdom which eventually became one of Japan’s prefectures and then later occupied by the American military made for a historical background in which the local people created a “champuru” food culture taking and mixing together the best ingredients. This unique food culture allowed wonderful dishes to be born by incorporating Okinawan, Chinese, Japanese, and American flavors. So please be sure to go around and enjoy all of the wonderful Okinawan style food on your trip to the islands.