Foodie hotspots: Naha (Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba market, Kokusai-dori, Makishi), Ginowan, Nago, Moto, Miyazato, Urasoe. Also look for Okinawan restaurants throughout the Japanese island chain.
Foodies Look Out For: Champuru stir fries, especially bitter gourd and spam goya champuru; Pork dishes such as Lafte and Mimi-ga; Okinawa soba; Soki soba; sea-snake; Ikasumijiru squid ink soup; spicyTofu-yo; Awamori liquor; Orion beer.
The Basics: Reflecting its geographic and historical remove – Naha is actually nearer, both physically, climatically and culturally, to Taipei than Tokyo – Okinawa is a land unto itself. Indeed, of course, it once was.
Foodies Go Okinawa:
In the culinary lexicon of Japanese food, if Kyushu-ryori is a different dialect to mainland Honshu, then Okinawan cuisine is a language unto itself. It was little over a century ago that the Ryukyu kingdom was incorporated into Japan, and Okinawa still has a strong sense of its own identity, not least in the food realm.
Yet the tropical island is also clearly influenced by the heavyweight culinary cultures of China, Japan and, yes, the USA. Spam is alive and well in Okinawa. It’s the blend of Ryukyu individuality and outside influence that make it such a great foodie destination.
The rise to global stardom of The Okinawa Diet (more to follow on that here at Foodies Go Local) shows us that the islanders’ health, and legendary longevity, are interconnected. Okinawans have long believed that medicine and food are essentially the same thing. The Okinawan language actually splits foodstuffs into kusui-mun, ‘medicinal foods’, and ujinimun, ‘body nutrition foods’. The island’s most important staples are pork, which is acidic and rich in protein, and konbu kelp which is alkaline and calorie-free. Not a bad start, health-wise
Mimiga pigs’ ears might not be at the top of every gourmand’s must-try list, but on a sweltering hot summer night in Naha, these washed down with cold Orion beer, are irresistible. Okinawa Ryori Asahi in Izumisaki, Naha, is a fabulous Okinawa-style izakaya where you can try all this stuff. The wonderful Makishi Kosetsu Ichiba market is another. Also look out for ikasumijiru, the jet black katsuobushi stock and squid ink soup made with the aoriika squid. The Okinawans call the ink kuri.
Rafute, similar to the mainland buta no kakuni, is pork stewed with ginger, kurozato brown sugar, soy sauce and awamori liquor until it almost falls apart. It is the most noticeable remnant of the kyutei-ryori palace cuisine from the era of the Ryukyu kingdom. You can still find that ancient cuisine at Akatafu near Shurijo Castle, and the palatial Suitenryo, also in Naha.
Inamudotchi, is also known as ‘fake wild-boar soup’ (inoshishi-modoki to mainlanders), and consists of pork, kamaboko minced and steamed white-fish meat, shiitake mushrooms and konnyaku in a bonito-fish or pork broth mixed with white miso.
The bounty of the oceans is not ignored. Ikasumi-jiru is a stamina-inducing soup of pork stewed in squid ink. Another dish designed to pick you up in the enervating heat of an Okinawa summer is the enticing irabu-jiru sea-snake soup. Dried sea snake is stewed for several hours with, you guessed it, konbu and pork.
While stewing is common, stir frying, much like in Chinese chop suey, is even more common. The technique is called champuru, and follows the name of whatever ingredient is used. Almost the island’s ‘national dish’, goya-champuru is the surfers’ favorite. It is bitter gourd stir-fried with the island’s unique tofu, shima-dofu.
Shima-dofu is distinguished from the mainland variety by being hard, and especially suited to frying, though there is a soft variety called yushi-dofu. Shima-dofu crops up as tofuyo, the sorely fermented, violently spicy, bright pink tofu. You eat small amounts from the end of a toothpick. Don’t try to eat the whole block.
Other popular dishes are hirayachi, an Okinawan ‘crepe’ containing Chinese chives this was once the staple dish when people were trapped in their house during typhoons; hija-jiru or yagi-jiru goat soup, a stamina-inducing, stinky reminder of when goats were traditionally slaughtered to celebrate the building of a new house; fuchiba-jushi – rice gruel with mugwort that comes in two varieties, kufa with hard fried rice and yafara with soft rice gruel zosui; and umi-budo, literally, ‘sea grapes’. Often termed ‘green caviar’ umi-budo is an oddly textured seaweed from Miyakojima island shaped somewhat like mini grapes on the vine.
The Okinawa Budget Gourmet Some less than kind observers have suggested that all Okinawan cuisine fits into this category. That's blatantly unfair, but there is a ring of truth to it. Just look at their penchant for spam. Look out for taco rice (tacos ingredients plus rice); A&W Hamburgers (especially the Kinoko Mozza Burger); Yaeyama soba, teipi soba, and soki soba noodles; mozuku tempura at Nakamotosengyoten in Oushima, Nanjo, and steak in various guizes and quality. Jack's Steakhouse, operating since 1953, in Naha's Nishi district is popular.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Ramen in Okinawa is generally poor. The Okinawan working folks’ food is Okinawa soba. Don’t let the name fool you, it isn’t buckwheat, but rather a type of udon, served in a pork broth. The most common varieties are soki-soba, with pork spare ribs and kamaboko topped with koregusu pickled red peppers soaked in awamori liquor, and yaeyama-soba, thin white noodles akin to somen. Okinawa does make buckwheat noodles, by the way, which are called udunyama-soba.
Locals drive out to the wilds of Motobu for Kishimoto Shokudo's Okinawa soba, often described as the best on the island. It's a hike to get there, so unless you are heading to Chiraumi aquarium, you might seek out more convenient spots. Nago's Miyazato Soba is still a wee bit off the beaten track, but it is so splendidly beaten-up in appearance and tasty of, well, taste, you might like to seek it out. The traditionalist Ganso Daito Soba and the 'pork gone crazy' Ryukyu Shimabuta Menya Nariyoshi are both good options in Naha. Go to the latter really hungry though. Miyara Soba in Urasoe is another good one.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Okinawa is synonymous with awamori, the local cane spirit that is drunk, it would seem, morning till night across the island. I once left Kyoto in the morning via Gion where I saw geisha sipping green tea in a shamisen shop; several hours later on Kokusai-dori in Nara, I witnessed a customer, stripped to the waist, swigging awamori, and belting out tunes in a sanshin store. There you have it in a nutshell.
Miyakojima's Taragawa's classy awamori has won several prizes, especially for its kusu aged awamori. Kusu no Hi is especially prized. Higa Shuzo's Zanpa from Nakagami-gun and Miyazato Distillery's Kari- Harusame are all excellent.
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