Okinawa – The Japanese Tropics
Takao and I spent 10 days in August eating our way through Okinawa. So we put together this Top Ten Must Try Okinawan Foods list. So let’s leave Tokyo behind for just a bit and head to the beach. We’re going way down south for a little holiday. One of the reason’s Japanese food is so varied is due to its geography. Up in the northern regions near Russia you’ll find constant snow and sub zero temperatures. Way down in the southern regions near The Philippines you’ll find pristine beaches and near constant summer. Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate and home to a baffling culinary tradition that is very different to mainland Japanese cuisine. Okinawa is home to the longest living people on Earth. This is due in part to their healthy diet which involves a well thought out balance of sweet potatoes, pork, fish and various types of extremely healthy seaweed.
This post is not about the healthy part of Okinawan cuisine, full disclosure.
Okinawan Food Crash Course
Okinawa was known as The Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th to 19th centuries. Only becoming Okinawa Prefecture and part of Japan in 1879 when Japan was getting a taste for conquering things. From the 15th century on, The Ryukyu Kingdom maintained healthy relationships with parts of China (Taiwan) and Siam (now Thailand). So healthy in fact that if you board a plane for Okinawa from Taiwan it will say “Ryukyu” in Chinese characters but “Okinawa” in English. As a result of these friendly relations much of Okinawan cooking comes from China and Thailand. It was also an important maritime trade post which also brought in elements of Polynesian cuisine. Later, when it became part of Japan, Japanese cuisine spread throughout the kingdom and melded with the Chinese/Thai/Polynesian mix that was already present on the islands. Then even later, after World War II, Okinawa was administered by the United States which brought in even further culinary traditions. Mainly, canned food.
Spam, we gave them Spam.
My Top Ten Must Try Okinawan Foods
Gyuzushi – Beef Sushi
Beef sushi, if you’re up on your Japanese food terminology you’ll recall that sushi and sashimi do not always mean fish. Sushi refers to vinegar-ed, specially prepared rice used with a combination of ingredients and sashimi means sliced raw meat. Like the mainland, Okinawa is big on raw meats. It also happens to home to Ishigaki Island, one of the southern most islands of Japan and home to Ishigaki Cattle. One of the most prized breeds of Wagyu arounbd. Diners in Okinawa are in for a treat as you can find this variety of wagyu on offer, without ever having been frozen. Here we have Ishigaki Gyu Beef on a nigiri sushi rice ball. The beef is blowtorched before you eat it and it is very tender. It’s topped with garlic, green onions and you can dip it in soy sauce. While this dish is available in most steak restaurants in Japan, you wont want to miss trying it in Okinawa.
Eaten at: Steak 88
Soki Soba – Okinawan Ramen
Okinawan Ramen is one of my absolute favorite types of ramen. My top ten must try okinawan foods list could be made up entirely of different tpyes of Soki soba, this stuff is epic. I ate this on several occasions in Okinawa and never got sick of it. Most stores will have their own take on the dish but the base is always the same. The broth is a combination of konbu, bonito flakes and pork. Inside we have soba noodles that are slightly thinner than most ramens but again, this can depend on the ramen shop. For the meat it is slow cooked porkbelly, known as sanmai niku, or three layered pork. It is super tender and very flavorful. You’ll also see it served with boneless pork rib and (best of all) with a giant rib, on the bone, sitting across the bowl. Incredible.
But wait, there’s more!
As a topping for a bit of spice you can add koregusu. This stuff is incredible. It’s Awamori, a long grain Indica rice alcohol infused with spicy, little chilis. Start with a little at first and then see how you like it. It’s not only spicy but boozy as well. You can find this ALL over Okinawa.
Eaten at: Ma-Sa- No Ten
Okinawan Royal Court Cuisine at it’s finest. Rafute is boneless, skin on pork rib. It is slow cooked in soy sauce and brown sugar for what I assume is eons because this stuff is tender. Chopping this in half with a chopstick is no trouble at all. It is often served with a bit of karashi mustard to add some kick to it. Apparently, this dish was introduced to Hawaii in the 1900’s and is known there as Shoyu Pork. Neat.
Eaten at: 山将
Pork Tamago Musubi
This, dear readers, is a spam and omelette rice burger and it is heaven. I am proud that my culture is in someway represented on a Top Ten Must Try Okinawan Foods list. Even if it is Spam. This comes in all sorts of varieties but the egg, spam, rice and seaweed is a must. My particular favorite is spam and egg with a layer of tuna salad and pickled mustard leaf. Yum! I’ve never had anything quite like this simple, filling, calorie bomb. The best place to get them is at Pork Tamago Onigiri Honten. It’s in the center of Naha (the biggest city in Okinawa) and there is always a line out the door. You wont have to wait long though, so hang in there. Inside you’ll see an army of old ladies pumping these things out like clock work. They’re best fresh but can be packed away for later and are even available at most convenience stores.
Eaten at: Pork Tamago Onigiri Honten
If you’re traveling in Japan you would be correct to eat sashimi everyday. Okinawa is no exception. I could make a Top ten must try okinawan foods – sushi edition real quick. It’s just so damn cheap here and occasionally you’ll come across some fish you’ve never heard of. Okinawan sashimi is served a bit differently. See that lime-like fruit? That is a shikuwasa. It is a citrus fruit that is native to Okinawa and Taiwan. It is flavorful, sour and goes great mixed with soy sauce or squeezed over sashimi. If you want to go full local you can squeeze the shikuwasa into your soy sauce and then add koregusu (the boozy chili sauce present in most Okinawan eateries) for an out of this world, tropical variation of sashimi.
Eaten at: Izakaya Maruni
Somen are thin, white, wheat noodles that are common in Japan. On the mainland they are typically eaten with a cold dipping sauce in summer. In Okinawa they come in Champuru, which is like a stir fry. The noodles are stir fried in sesame oil, often with egg, scallions, onions and sesame seeds. After that combinations very. This is a very comforting dish and a great start to an Okinawan meal at an Izakaya. Another version of Champuru called Goya Champuru ditches the noodles for Goya bitter gourd melon, tofu and spam. Highly recommended.
Eaten at: Izakaya Maruni
Hard Shell Tacos
NO list of top ten must try Okinawan foods would be complete without tacos. I can hear you scoffing. I understand but admit it, you love crap tacos. Everyone does. In the US I’d only ever had these at home or maybe Taco Bell. In Okinawa they are all over the place. We even went to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and a tiny little Japanese woman made me hard shell tacos. Interesting, no? The chili sauce is not spicy but it’s good nonetheless and they are just a nice little treat to have. Most places deep fry the shells just before you eat them for a little extra crunch. One of the most shocking things about it was how they seasoned the taco meat: inside industrial sized rice cookers. Other items on the menu were Taco Rice, which is basically all the fillings dumped over a plate of white rice. As well as Taco Burgers, all the fillings dumped between a pair of buns.
Eaten at: King Tacos
Ishigaki Gyu – Steaks
Perhaps due to a combination of the cows from Ishigaki island being absurdly delicious and a large amount of US military personnel, steak joints are all over Okinawa. Most of the steak restaurants we visited have a massive line up of sauces and seasonings you can try with your steak. Some you may have heard of, some will be totally new. I like to cut my steaks into bite sized pieces so I can mix and match seasonings and sauces. Great for people who hate deciding on what to order. Yes, if you’re one of those people who think seasoning/using sauce on a steak is a crime, then you’ll be happy to know, these are also good undressed.
Eaten at: Steak 88
Tako-age Deep Fried Octopus
Okinawan Izakayas fry up some of the best, freshest octopus around. You may have heard of kara-age, which is Japanese Fried Chicken. It is a deep fried chicken that is lightly battered using potato starch and is somewhere between KFC and tempura. It’s delicious, and the Okinawan octopus version is fantastic. Squeeze a bit of lemon and drizzle a bit of soy sauce for a super yummy starter.
Eaten At: Sea Friend Seafood Restaurant
Kakigori – Shaved Ice
Much like they’ve done with toilets and commuter trains, the Japanese have taken shaved ice to dizzying heights. While you can get kakigori anywhere in Japan you cant always get in the winter. Luckily, Okinawa has no winters and is home to okinawan mango and passion fruit. Tinier than their South East Asian cousins but just as delicious. You can find Kakigori all over the island.
Dine like an Okinawan
Hope you enjoyed my Top Ten Must Try Okinawan Foods, I got hungry writing about it. If you ever visit Okinawa it’s not just food. Some truly stunning beaches can be found in Ishigaki Island, Miyakojima Island and Tokashiki Island. Tokashiki is a simple 90 minute ferry ride from Naha, the largest city in Okinawa. If you want to blend in, order Orion Beer. Asahi and Kirin may be available but that’s mainlander nonsense. Orion is the home grown stuff. If you need more dessert options be sure to try Blue Seal Ice Cream. It’s an ice cream company that was started in the US and opened up shop on American Military bases. It’s no longer around in America but it survived in Okinawa. There is a type of Okinawan Salty Shortbread cookie called Chinsuko. Chinsuko and cream (like cookies and cream) is one of my favorite flavors of ice cream and a must try if you visit.
Top Ten Must Try Okinawan Foods – did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments. If you’re into top ten must try food lists check out my top ten must try foods for Tokyo here