The tastes of Okinawa: food and drink in Japan's Southwest Islands
Already know your sushi from your sashimi and can slurp ramen like a local? Why not jump off the Japanese mainland and head southwest to discover the surprising flavours of Okinawa. Here an array of tempting native ingredients makes for a cuisine that is distinct from the rest of Japan.
The culinary style of the ancient Ryūkyū Kingdom developed out of a particular historical and geographical scenario: a heady mix combining Okinawa’s subtropical climate and island geography; independence from Japan until the late 19th century; historic trade ties and proximity to China; and the US occupation following Okinawa’s devastation in WWII.
Today the local fare incorporates a number of influences from mainland Japan, China, Korea and the US, with specifically Okinawan produce as its highlights. Much has been made of the miracle effect of this nutritious diet, said to be the secret to long life. There’s a surprising lack of emphasis on fish and seafood, and a love of top-to-tail eating of the pig. Pork in all forms is beloved – even the ears (mimigā). Seaweed, as in mainland Japan, is royalty. But there are other local treats in store that may seem harder to believe are good for you. Here are some of our favourites to get you started.
Okinawan brown sugar has been produced locally for centuries. It’s made from sugar cane grown in mineral-rich areas. The sugar’s high mineral content (including iron, calcium and potassium) is said to be beneficial, plus it’s divine to taste. The flavour is intense: rich, caramel, almost burnt and fudge-like. You’ll find it as the ingredient of choice in a variety of sweets and ice cream, used as a condiment in cooking and with tea. You can eat it as is, either as a boiled sweet or in its raw crystallised form – perfect for road trips and a quick revive.
These little gems (sātā andagī) take the American doughnut tradition, reshape it into a small fist-sized ball and ramp it up with Okinawan flavours such as brown sugar, black sesame, purple sweet potato and coconut. They’re best eaten freshly cooked and still hot from a street stall. You’ll also find them in restaurants served with ice cream. We’re not convinced these are the key to long life, but they’re immensely satisfying.
Purple sweet potato
Raising itself with unbelievable success from the banality of the root vegetable, the Okinawan native purple sweet potato boasts a stunning magenta colour, an incredible versatility, and has played a key role in Okinawan dishes for centuries. These days entire shops are dedicated to this ingredient. You’ll find it whipped into ice cream, piped into pastry cases, featured in a ball-shaped doughnut, sliced and fried into magnificent chips, and flavouring all manner of other sweet and savoury snacks.
Unlike mainland Japanese soba noodles made from buckwheat, the Okinawan version features thick white wheat noodles. These are piled into a clear broth, usually pork based, and paired with slices of pork and spring onions (shallots). It’s a simple, tasty and nutritious winner. Add kōrēgusu (chilli peppers marinated in awamori) and top with pickled ginger to enhance the flavour.
The iconic Japanese ingredient is enjoyed here with an Okinawan twist. Mozukuis a stringy local seaweed. Eaten raw or commonly served pickled with sesame seeds as a side dish, it’s also a winner when used in tempura. Forget about those encounters with dried strips of seaweed in a thin batter – the Okinawan version of tempura is a sublime whirlpool of mozuku-battered deliciousness unlike its Kyoto or Tokyo cousin. Thin pieces of tender seaweed are coated in a generous and crispy batter to resemble something akin to a bird’s nest. It has a lightness and deliciousness unlike anything else.
Bitter melon (goya)
The nobbly goya is not dissimilar visually to a pale spiky cucumber. With a bitter flavour, it’s an acquired taste, but one you might just learn to love. This local favourite is packed with vitamin C. Try it as tempura, in a mixed stir-fry dish with pork and tofu known as goya champurū, as a side dish and in salads. Also keep an eye out for Goya beer – an unusual concoction best for beer lovers and adventurers.
This distinctly Okinawan tipple is a distilled rice liquor made without sugar. Its history and production goes back hundreds of years to when the Ryūkyū Kingdom exported it to China. Potency can go up to 80%, but it possesses a mellow taste and aroma. Widely available, awamori is frequently consumed at meals and social occasions, and is usually diluted with water. One innovation sees it combined with Okinawan brown sugar as a base for locally produced umeshu (plum liqueur), which creates a memorably rich viscosity, sweetness and intensity. Try it as a bloody Mary base, and look out for awamori and raisin ice cream.
Warning: high likelihood of addiction, especially during steamy Okinawan summers.
This citrus fruit is best served juiced and sweetened as a refreshing long drink with lots of ice. You’ll find it preprepared in vending machines, too, but fresh is best. It’s excellent squeezed into soy sauce to eat with sashimi, or into drinking water or local rice liquor awamori. The flavour has a resonance that will haunt you at the airport departure lounge. The fruit looks like a rounder, plumper version of a lime, and sports a pale lemony flesh with pips. In taste it’s a cross between a lime, a lemon… and grapefruit? We’re still trying to decipher it, but therein lies its magic.
Whether north or south, Japan is far from renowned for its brew. Locally roasted 35 Coffee is taking on the challenge and is really rather drinkable. You’ll find it served in a small selection of cafes around Naha, such as Su-jigua (1-15-23, Tsuboya, Naha-shi), a traditional house off Tsuboya Pottery Street. The name is a play: the individual digits in 35 translate as san (three) and go (five), which put together mean coral (san-go). The coffee is produced in Okinawa using coral in the roasting process, and 3.5% of the profits go back towards protecting coral around the islands.