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Ultimate Guide to Okinawan Food and Cuisine

Located near the East China Sea, Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture distinctly known for its sub-tropical weather, magnificent coastlines and pristine ocean view. The archipelago consists of four main islands (and a hundred or so tinier ones) that stretch between Japan and Taiwan. Yet even when it’s a part of Japan, Okinawa proudly stands as its own geographical entity. It’s because of its physical isolation that you’ll find Okinawanso far-flung from the typical Japanese culture and customs. The seasons in Okinawa are more forgiving; spring comes early,  humid summer spans longer and winter stays comfortably warm.

There’s no denying that when it comes to cuisine, too, Okinawa strays from its neighboring main islands — Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku — and diverts from our typical glossed-over image of Japanese cuisine. Gone are bowls of tonkatsu and plates of fresh sushi; the Okinawan food is heavily influenced by Taiwan, China Southeast Asia and the United States. Dining experience in Okinawa restaurants is something else entirely. To say that a bite of one of Okinawa’s signatures (chanpuru and goya) is a portal back in time would not be an understatement. You’re (literally) in for a treat if you ever get the chance to dig into an Okinawan dish.

It just so happens you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll be breaking down the history and soul of Okinawa food. We’ll also go through some common foods loved by Okinawa locals — and we can’t guarantee your stomach won’t growl until the end.

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    History of Okinawan food

    The million-dollar question — why is Okinawa so different from the rest of Japan? It’s true that Okinawa is the only prefecture not tethered to Japan’s railway system. And it cannot be denied that Okinawa islands’ geographical isolation may contribute to the birth of an entirely different subculture, but reasons go beyond just the physicality. After all, the prefecture is closer to Taiwan (730 kilometer away) than it is to Tokyo (1,550 km away).

    There’s a long history of trade and unexpected guests when we talk about the evolution of Okinawan culture and cuisine. In fact, Okinawa (“rope in the open sea”) was once a prosperous trading nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. The kingdom acted as a bridge between Japan, China and Southeast Asia for centuries when mainland Japan locked itself from other nations in the Edo period. It comes as no surprise that maintaining relationships with Chinese and Southeast Asian empires means the Ryukyu Kingdom was more susceptible to outside influence. The sweet potato arrived in Okinawa in 1605 and quickly become the area’s staple food. Goya and nabera (luffa) were also said to be likely introduced from Southeast Asia. Other fusion foods and local fares were born, passed down from one generation to the next.

    After all, the prefecture is closer to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo.

    Okinawa’s iconic alcoholic beverage called awamori is also said to be carried from Thailand. Inspired by the Thai drink Lao Khao, awamori’s unique distilling process reached Okinawa in the 15th century. To the present day, the majority of awamori uses long-grain Indica rice imported from Thailand.

    The Ryukyu Kingdom, specifically, was a tributary state to China. Local cooks would travel to China provinces to learn the art of Chinese cuisine, returning with enough knowledge to make new renditions to Okinawan food. The same thing happens between the Ryukyus and Japan; Okinawan cooks studied Japanese cuisine, which caused influence seep into Okinawan cuisine.

    After World War II, Okinawa remained under US occupation until 1972. Large American military bases were erected on the island. It was during this period canned and Western foods entered the market. With Spam and burgers leading the new Americanized food movement in Okinawa, Okinawa cuisine evolved and adapted to modern times. The American military presence remained strong; fast food shops entered the market and quickly gained popularity. Most notable is the presence of A&W outsells in Okinawa, which can’t be virtually found anywhere else in Japan.

    So what makes Okinawan cuisine so unique? 

    The combination of Okinawan climate and historic circumstances allow Okinawan cuisine to have a unique blend of Western, Japanese and Asian flavors. It’s from southeastern Asian influence that Okinawa also uses herbs and spices such as turmeric, although that doesn’t exempt the locals from using typical Japanese condiments like miso, kombu and bonito flakes.

    In place of sashimi, you’ll find Okinawan dishes abundant in pork, vegetables local to the area and spices not common to Japan. In modern Okinawan cuisine, pork takes the spotlight in almost every dish, and Okinawans aren’t shy to use most parts of the pig, including ears, trotters and blood against the general disdain by other Japanese.

    As years progress, Okinawa created their own Americanized foods and developed original dishes such as taco rice (more of that later). Similar to Hawaiin cuisine, Spam products also become a somewhat staple meat product now beloved by the islanders.

    Other Okinawan ingredients include yellow and green vegetables, bitter melon (goya) and purple yam (murasaki-imo). The sweet potato, in particular, is so versatile that most calories consumed by Okinawans come from it.  And then there’s Okinawans’ love for tropical fruits: mango, papaya, pineapple, dragonfruit and lime-like calamansi.

    Almost ironically, the Okinawan diet doesn’t incorporate seafood despite being surrounded by the sea. This boils down to two unassuming reasons: high temperature and lack of fish species surrounding the islands. The hot weather makes it difficult for restaurants in Okinawa to serve fresh sashimi. Instead, they would salt-pickle, dry, grill or simmer them.

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    Okinawan food you need to try

    Common Okinawan dishes Okinawan loves

    Champuru

    If Okinawan food can be summed in one word, it’s this: champuru. Meaning “to mix together”, champuru is a mixed stir-fry Okinawan staple branched to hundred variations. You’ll find almost all izakaya and restaurant serving their own take on champuru. Whatever ingredient takes center stage, they would name the champuru after it. The most popular variety is the goya champuru, made from — you guessed it — Okinawa’s renowned bitter melon that’s usually in season during the summer. Known for its health benefits and obvious, distinguishable flavor, goya champuru usually incorporates tofu, pork and eggs. Other popular variations of champuru include fu (wheat gluten), tofu and papaya champuru — all hearty and apt counterbalance for the imminent hangover the following day.

    Okinawa soba

    The Okinawa soba is another powerhouse of Okinawan food. But don’t be fooled; they might share the same name as Japanese soba noodles, but the similarity halts there. Okinawa soba is made from wheat AND EGG rather than buckwheat flour, giving it a closer resemblance to udon than soba. The toppings are also far from typical: boiled pork (soki soba), fish cakes (kamaboko) and red ginger.

    Taco rice

    The sound of this dish might raise a few eyebrows and question marks, but taco rice in Okinawa is what mac and cheese are to America; what army stew is to Korea. It’s as inexpensive and filling as it is a popular, the kind of quick-whipped meal that evokes a sense of nostalgia.  It originated sometime after the end of the war when there was a surplus of – yes —taco seasoning. Hence, the dish is incredibly simple to make courtesy of its last-resort origin. Taco meat, American cheese, onions, salsa and lettuce are served over rice. You can go ahead and ditch your chopsticks; a bowl of taco rice calls for anyone to eat it using a good ol’ spoon.

    Inamuruchi

    Traditionally saved for celebrations and festivals in Okinawa, inamuruchi was once a royal-worthy cuisine. Thie historic soup dish is an imitation of a wild boar dish (ina means “wild boar” and muruchi means “pseudo”), with pork, fish paste and shiitake mushroom cooked in a white miso broth. You’ll find inamuruchi in almost all Okinawan restaurants.

    Asa Soup

    While asa (sea lettuce) is a common ingredient in Japan for miso soups, Okinawan asa soup uses bonito broth that gives a clear color. Known to be packed with nutrients, asa soup gives off a refreshing scent. Popular items included in this soup are bonito and tofu.

    Popular side dishes in Okinawa

    Rafute

    It sounds as mouthwatering as you can get: pork belly simmered with soy sauce, brown sugar and awamori (Okinawan liquor), then thickly cut for a true-manner feast. The slow cooking process gives room for all the flavors to seep, tenderize the meat and free any extra fat. What comes out is an explosion of well-balanced flavor and texture.

    Tebichi

    Tebichi is widely considered a delicacy in Okinawa. Pork legs are simmered for several hours on low heat, making the meat so tender you can practically cut it with chopsticks. In an oden-style sweet-salty broth, the dish is best served alongside vegetables and shared with a group.

    Mimiga

    This is proof that Okinawa’s pledge to use all parts of pig remains undiluted. It’s prepared by boiling (or pickling) the pig’s ears and later served with vinegar. The texture isn’t offputting — a few have noted that mimiga tastes like chewier bacon due to its saltiness.

    Umibudo

    Umibudo gains the reputation as “green caviar” and it’s easy to see why. The name literally means sea grapes (umi means sea, and budo means grape), the seaweed is ancient to Okinawa and discernable in its small bubble shapes. The seaweed is usually served in a soy sauce and ponzu (citrus vinegar) dressing. The bubble breaks on your tongue and releases that sea-salt flavor, which gives off the puchi puchi experience you won’t find in many foods.

    Shima rakkyo

    These island shallots are small onion-like vegetables with a mild taste. It’s often used as a snack, served lightly pickled or fried as tempura and then topped with bonito flakes. Anyone will find this the ultimate pairing with a glass of beer or awamari.

    Sukugarasu

    Regardless if you’re in a restaurant or izakaya, you’ll be able to find this dubious-looking, literally fishy dish. The name is pretty self-explanatory — suku refers to mottled spine foot fish, and garasu means pickling. It’s an Okinawan preserved food that consists of baby fish pickled in salt, usually served on top of a cub of delicate tofu.

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    Must-try drinks in Okinawa

    Awamori

    Awamori is Japan’s beloved oldest spirit with a history that dates back 600 years ago. The iconic drink is stemmed from Okinawa’s trading history when the Ryukyu Kingdom would act as an intermediary between Thailand and Japan.

    Over time, the Okinawans altered the distillation process ad incorporated their own techniques. The alcoholic drink uses Indica rice from Thailand to make koji (mold), which is then fermented with water and yeast before undergoing distillation in pot stills. Using black koji, which produces a high amount of citric acid, the process of making awamori requires a warm and humid environment. An awamori that is preserved for three years or more is called kusu. 

    Now, awamori is Okinawa’s omnipresent alcoholic beverage. A popular way to drink awamori is with water and ice, although daredevils can always drink them straight.

    Orion Beer

    Whereas it’s a raging war between Asahi, Sapporo, Ebisu and Kirin in the rest of Japan, Orion remains an undisputed market leader loved by its birth island. You can't leave Okinawa without having a sip (or two, or three) of this iconic beverage — because the Okinawa islanders do love their local beer. The quintessential and cult-favorite Okinawan beer might be harder to find in Tokyo, but almost all bars on Okinawa line their shelves with Orion. Its presence is so strong that the brand controls the majority of the beer market in Okinawa.

    Okinawan Desserts 

    Beni imo

    It’s impossible to ignore the presence of this icon in Okinawa — otherwise the perfect omiyage after you get that perfect tan at the Okinawa beach and fly homw. The beni imo (purple sweet potato) is another long-standing celebrity of the island, easily recognizable from its striking purple flesh. You can find locals whipping up creative deserts using this sweet potato: tarts, ice cream, brownies and cheesecake. The most famous treat, which is also perfect for omiyage, is the beni imo tart. The shape resembles a small boat filled with pied purple cream. You can also eat beni imo directly, baked or fried; they have a slightly chewier and denser texture than your average potato but is probably twice as addicting.

    Sata andagi

    A popular street snack in Okinawa, the sata andiga are deep-fried Okinawan doughnuts made with three ingredients: cake flour, sugar and egg. Its simplicity allows anyone to customize these small balls of heavenly goodness. A lot of variations come into play: beni imo, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), brown sugar, cinnamon and more. The texture of sata andagi is less airy than regular doughnuts — a perfect harmony of cakey and crispy. You can easily spot them on tiny kiosks along the streets in Okinawa.

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    Where to find Okinawa restaurants in Tokyo

    We totally get that traveling to Okinawa is not possible at the moment due to restrictions — that, or you’re just not strapped for cash at the moment to book an impulsive flight to the island. That doesn’t mean your dreams to get a bite of that champuru or beni imo tart is gone. There’s a plethora of Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo that serves budget-friendly and authentic Okinawan dishes.

    Want to know more about life in Tokyo? Check out our article!

    Okinawa Paradise

    Nestled in the nook of the red-light district of Kabukicho, Okinawa Paradise is the closest thing you’ll ever get to being in Okinawa (without being technically there, of course). The friendly and down-to-earth atmosphere attracts Tokyo-based Okinawans to go grab a seat and mingle with the crowd. Besides their famous goya champuru, the izakaya also serves other authentic Okinawan dishes like the rafute and umi-budo — all ready to be washed down with the all-time winner Orion beer. In the evening, dine a tad longer, as the owner will climb on stage for his nightly performance of traditional songs and shamisen music.

    Location: 1-2-16 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku

    Miyarabi

    This is a great option for someone with a looser (but still reasonably affordable) budget. Miyarabi is Okinawan food as haute cuisine. Just a few minutes away from Ikebukuro station, the restaurant specializes in royal Ryukyu cuisine. Tofu is hailed as the main vehicle; the sukugarasu tofu and tofuyu (fermented Okinawan food) are must-orders. Other recommended dishes include their braised tender pork and Okinawan soba.

    Location: 2-45-1 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku

    Kuro Usagi

    The pub is a solid hidden dining destination that serves great Okinawan food and drink — with a few surprising twists (like their champuru curry). The place is best known for their stir-fry dishes and affordable lunch sets, too.

    Location: 4-8 Kojimachi, Chiyoda-ku

    Taketomijima

    Named after one of the islands in Okinawa, it’s easy to miss this unpretentious restaurant as you glide through the streets of Ginza, but finding them is worth it. Their sashimi is imported straight from Okinawa, waiting to be paired with their selections of awamori.  Scenic views of Okinawa are projected to one side of their wall, making the dining experience here otherworldly.

    Location: 6-12-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku

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