As someone who grew up in Okinawa, I always loved the food of the islands. Though some might say Okinawan food is too simple and not delicate enough compared to Japanese food. It is also the simplicity of its taste which makes people come back for more. It’s bold and down to Earth. Here are my choices for the best Okinawan food.
#1. Okinawa Soba
Photo Credit: Banzai Hiroaki@flickr
It’s not ramen nor is it Udon, and it’s definitely not the Soba you see in Japanese restaurants…
It’s Okinawa Soba!
This beloved Okinawa-born soba is a flour noodle dish served with pork and Katsuo soup base. Though there are lot of variations of this local’s most favorite food, the most popular is Sōki Soba which is Okinawa Soba topped with slow cooked pig feet that is so soft, it just melts in your mouth. In fact, It is so loved in Okinawa that there is a Specific local word for Soba lovers; Suba Jōgū (Suba means Soba and Jōgū means Big eater in Okinawan). I’ll guarantee once you try this, you will be hooked.
#2. Jīmāmi Dofu (Peanut Tofu)
If you are not a huge tofu fan, don’t be turned off by its name. Jīmāmi Dofu is more like peanut pudding then anything. Plus, its perfect silky surface should be appetizing enough to give it a try. The recipe is pretty simple. After grinding peanuts and squeezing out pure peanut juice, the juice is mixed with sweet potato starch, which is then brought to boil. When it’s completely solidified and cooled down, it’s served with sweet soy-sauce based syrup. The best kind of Jīmāmi dofu is the homemade ones sold at local grocery stores.
#3. Taco Rice
Photo credit: ayustety@flickr
Taco Rice probably best represents the Champurū (mixed) culture of Okinawa. It’s made up with little pieces of different cultures spiced up with its own flavor. Taco Rice is basically meet, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa (basic taco toppings) sitting on steamy hot rice. It’s not really Mexican nor Japanese, but nobody cares because it’s so good! Personally I’ve never met anyone who dislikes this awesome fusion food.
#4. Gōyā Champurū (Bitter Melon Stir-fry)
Photo credit; ymrl@flickr
When it comes to Gōyā Champurū, you either love it, or hate it. And hopefully in the future, you’ll come to appreciate it. It is stir-fried Bitter Melon normally cooked with Tofu, egg, and spam. I remember growing up, we would eat this dish at least three times a week in the summer just as every other child did in Okinawa, but we didn’t like it at all. And now, I love it. Gōyā,-the Okinawan name for Bitter Melon- is not only known for its notorious bitterness but also known as a highly nutritious vegetable. When talking about healthy life style and longevity in Okinawa, Gōyā plays a huge part. Though unpopular by children, this dish is something nostalgic for local adults, reminding them of their mother’s cooking.
#5. Okinawan-Style Zenzai
If you are familiar with Zenzai, a red bean dessert in warm syrup served with Mochi, you probably picture yourself enjoying it on a cold, winter day. But under the hot Sun of Okinawa, Zenzai means a summer treat. Red kidney beans are cooked in syrup topped with shaved ice and sometimes added with sweetened condensed milk. The dense bean syrup and the light texture of the sweetened milk flavored shaved ice make for a perfect harmony in your mouth on a hot summer day. It makes a perfect after-the-beach dessert as well.
Photo Credit; ayustety@flickr
The origin of Rafutē goes all the way back to Ryukyu kingdom. It is said that it was one of the entries served in the royal court of Ryukyu’s Kings. Even now, it’s not something you see everyday on your dinner table. Rafutē is Sanmainiku – three layers of pork meat including skin – slow cooked with Awamori (Okinawan Alcohol), soy-sauce, brown sugar and Katsuo Dashi. The making of Rafutē sometimes involves removing the hair from the pig skin by boiling it. And after hours of boiling and stirring, the rough pork meat becomes very tender. It’s a royal-court approved dish which literally melts in your mouth.
#7. Nakami Jiru
Just like Rafutē, pork has always been the main element of an Okinawan feast. Nakami Jiru is pig stomach and small intestine soup served on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and other celebrations. Traditionally, the soup was always prepared by women in the house in a huge pot called Shinmēnābī for their large family. They repeatedly washed pork intestines with salt and flour to get rid of the smell and sliminess. Then, the intestines are cooked in Katsuo Dashi along with Shiitake mushrooms and Konnyaku. Normally served with ginger, this soup tastes surprisingly comforting.
#8. Mozuku (Sunui)
Mozuku or Sunui, in Okinawan, is brown-colored seaweed which has been very popular in Okinawa. Although, it can be found in other parts of Japan, most of Mozuku is imported from Okinawa. Usually as a side dish, it’s marinated with vinegar. Sometimes it’s also deep fried as Mozuku Tempura. Once you can get the slimy texture, you’ll find it pretty addicting. The strong vinegar taste is a good accent in Okinawan cuisine.
#9. Okinawan-Style Tempura
Photo Credit: Fumiaki Yoshimatsu@flickr
Compared to Tempura you see at Japanese restaurants, Okinawan Tempura is bulky and heavy. Instead of the light crispy texture, you have a thick, chewy texture. It’s already been seasoned with salt, so you don’t need a dipping sauce and it still tastes great even when it’s cold. It has been everyone’s favorite snack for generations. The filling is usually Fish or other seafood, such as seaweed or squid. In fact, in the hot humid air of Okinawa, seafood never lasts long. Okinawan-style tempura is a delicious product of the wisdom of the locals to make food last longer and tasty.
If you have a chance to visit Okinawa, don’t leave until you try the flavors of the islands known for longevity and its laid-back attitude toward life.