Okinawa is not quite the Japan you know. Ths island pretty much sits on its own, has its own cultures and expressions, and food that is unique to them.
Because of its geographical location, Okinawan food is very much influenced by the Chinese culture, while still retaining authentic Japan elements and flavours. As for its beverages, it is no secret that Okinawa is home to some of the best beers and liquor in Asia.
A recent trip to Okinawa had us discovering the many wonders of its food scene, and every single item listed in this guide to 10 MUST-TRY Local Food in Okinawa wowed us in its own ways.
Be unique, #BeOkinawa.
#1 GOYA CHAMPURU
Okinawan cuisine is largely distinguished by the ‘champuru style’. The word ‘champuru’ means to simply mix everything; hence, Okinawan cuisines revolve largely around stir-fry dishes.
Goya Champuru is definitely the most “iconic” champuru dish in Okinawa, and goya translates to bittergourd. Beautiful bittergourd are freshly sliced, then stir-fried with eggs and luncheon meat (sometimes fresh pork); the end result is a comforting, home-style dish that we would gladly eat with Japanese rice every day.
This is, without a doubt, our favourite local food in Okinawa.
#2 SEA GRAPES
These are the caviar of Okinawa. The proper term is umi budo, which translates to sea grapes.
You might think they are not spectacular, but dip it into ponzu (citrus vinegar and take a bite into this crunchy appetiser and you will realise just how addictive it is. The burst of freshness and tinge of sweetness is what umi budo is well-loved for.
Someone once said, “Awamori is to Okinawa what Soju is to Korea.” Essentially a type of sugar-free shochu that is low in calories, awamori is an integral part of Okinawan culture and traditional rituals.
Awamori is produced using fermented rice malt made from rice, with the addition of black koji mould—the ingredient that gives awamori its distinctive aroma. The more aged the awamori, the more mature its flavour, and aged awamori costs a lot more too!
They are usually stored in earthenware, and premium earthenwares will affect the eventual taste of aged awamori. This is also why awamori connoisseurs invest in expensive earthenwares to preserve their alcohol.
Monumental events and celebratory dates are often marked with awamori; a wedding calls for a bottle of awamori, so does a newborn baby.
The locals will probably tell you to go to Chuko Awamori Distillery, as they are the pioneers in Okinawan awamori, and their alcoholic beverages have won numerous awards in the past decades. The factory is amazing to say the least, and it is where you can get the full range of awamori.
Chuko Awamori Distillery – Kuusu no Mori
556-2 Iraha, Tomigusuku-shi, Okinawa
#4 PEANUT-FLAVOURED TOFU
If you see ‘jimami-tofu’ on the menu, it is the famous Okinawa peanut-flavoured tofu. Mostly eaten as a dessert, jimami-tofu has a texture that is denser than the usual tofu we know. Peanuts are squeezed for its liquid, then mixed with potato starch to create the subtly sweet dessert.
Jimami-tofu is inexpensive, and can be commonly found in shokudo and supermarkets (in pre-packed packages). Eat it on its own, or top it off with some grated ginger or brown sugar syrup.
Rafute is very similar to the Chinese-style stewed pork ribs/ belly, or what we know as ‘dong po ruo’. The Okinawan rendition is a flavourful dish of skin-on pork rib stew, and is cooked in soy sauce and brown sugar, and sometimes awamori. It was first created as a royalty dish, as it is said to prolong one’s life span.
Today, rafute is widely enjoyed in shokudo (Japanese-style casual eateries) and often eaten with an accompaniment of rice or Okinawa Soba.
#6 ORION BEER
This is one beer that is synonymous with Okinawa. Orion Breweries in Okinawa produces some of the best beers in Japan, and Orion Beer is one of the most popular beer choices in the whole of Japan.
When in Okinawa, you definitely have to taste the famed Orion beer, which won the hearts of Japanese with its clear, smooth taste. They attributed the great taste to the spring water they used, which is collected from the mountains “just behind the brewery”.
#7 MOZUKU SEAWEED
The simple vinegared seaweed has humbly made it to the list of Okinawan favourites. Locals love this appetiser for its distinct sourness and low calories. Mozuku Seaweed are best harvested in Okinawa waters, for the temperature gives it the thickness.
Mozuku Seaweed is said to be a healthy snack for its anti-bacterial properties. The slimy surface is actually laden with fucoidan, a molecule that is anti-bacterial, balances intestinal health and strengthens the immune system.
There are many types of citrus fruits that are grown in Okinawa, but shikuwasa is a prized breed. Commonly known as the Taiwanese tangerine, shikuwasa is an Okinawan produce that is extremely sour.
The small citrus fruit is usually harvested in between July to September, and when ripe, it has a pale yellowish-green share. Loved for its low sugar content but potent sourness, locals use shikuwasa to produce juices and cordials, jams and as a garnish.
A very popular shikuwasa farm if you’d love a farm visit is Katsuyama Shikuwasa. Not only do you get to pick the fresh harvest (usually during July), you can also get your hands on the homemade shikuwasa sorbet which is extremely refreshing for summer!
9 Katsuyama, Nago-shi
#9 OKINAWA SOBA
Perhaps one of the most popular Okinawan food, Okinawa Soba is a noodle soup dish that is quite unlike your original idea and perception of Japanese soba.
You would think that ramen is a staple for everyone in Japan, but in Okinawa, Okinawa Soba is the noodle dish that locals rely on.
Unlike the usual thin, brown wheat soba, Okinawa Soba uses thick wheat noodles with a round surface, and it looks somewhat like udon. Its taste vary from restaurant to restaurant, but the idea is a clear broth that is cooked with seaweed, pork and vegetables.
A common condiment for Okinawa Soba is koregusu, a spicy dip that is made of chilli peppers soaked in awamori.
#10 SATA ANDAGI
This snack is what the Okinawans affectionately call the ‘local donut’. These donut-like snacks are made of flour, sugar and eggs. The mixture is shaped into balls, then deep- fried to a crispy exterior. The inside remains soft and cake-like.
This is one Okinawan food that you must try! The best one can be found at Makishi Public Market. Look for this stall on the second level called ‘Ayumi’. Their sata andagi are so popular that they sell out within minutes! Be there early to catch the first batch, and you can enjoy them warm.
First Makishi Public Market 2F
2 Chome-10-1 Matsuo, Naha-shi
This post is brought to you by Okinawa Prefecture.