There’s many different cuisines in Japan. Here’s what you need to know about Okinawan food…
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, and it comprises hundreds of islands stretching over 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) southwest towards Taiwan.
The Okinawan islands only officially became part of Japan in 1879, before which they formed part of the Ryukyu Kingdom – an independent monarchy with its own rich culture and history. After being incorporated into Japan, it was not long before Okinawa found itself embroiled in World War Two, and after the devastating Battle of Okinawa in 1945 the islands were governed by the US until 1972.
This long, interesting, and frequently troubled history has left its mark, and visitors to the islands will note numerous differences between Okinawan culture and that of mainland Japan.
Not the least of these differences is Okinawan food, which differs quite drastically from the usual Japanese fare – and contains a few surprises!
The following is our top ten list of Okinawan food to try – if you dare…
Okinawa has the highest life expectancy in the world – even higher than mainland Japan – and if you ask an Okinawan why, they’ll tell you it’s “goya”.
Often called “bitter melon” in English, this knobbly green vegetable has the texture of cucumber and the bitter flavour of an unripe green pepper. It can be eaten in salad, but is most commonly found in “chanpuru” (see below).
Chanpuru is stir-fry – Okinawa-style. Besides goya, perhaps the most popular ingredient in Chanpuru is Spam. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Okinawan people absolutely love Spam, and you’ll find it displayed in numerous shops as well as on the menu of nearly every restaurant.
It’s said that the Okinawan penchant for Spam is the result of long years of American military presence on the island, which continues to this day.
Pork is one of Okinawa’s favourite products, and every part of the pig is used. Mimiga is pig’s ear, tonkotsu is pig’s trotters, and rafute is a delicious, melt-in-the-mouth cut of boiled pig’s belly – to name just a few popular dishes.
For some reason, vaccuum-packed pig faces seem to be a staple of souvenir shops and grocery stores throughout Okinawa, which can be a little off-putting for the uninitiated.
A bright purple sweet potato native to Okinawa, beni-imo is used to flavour anything and everything – from ice cream to drinks, kit-kats and spaghetti. Almost as ubiquitous as the infamous goya, for most it is much more palatable!
5. Taco rice
An island speciality influenced by the American presence in Okinawa, this dish consists of all the ingredients of a taco – without the taco. Minced meat, cheese, tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, rice and lettuce – it’s not what you’d call traditional Japanese, but it’s delicious!
Resembling a green mandarin and with a taste similar to lemon or lime, shikuasa is Okinawa’s native citrus fruit. Try it as juice, or as flavouring for all kinds of sweets and cakes.
7. Umi budo
The name “umi budo” literally translates as “sea grapes”, and refers to a type of seaweed with tiny, bubble-like (or grape-like) sacs, a salty taste, and a texture like caviar. Eat it fresh, with rice and salmon roe.
8. Yagi sashimi
Not one for the faint-hearted, yagi sashimi is the Japanese name for raw goat. Not sold? Nor was I when I tried it. Chewy and distinctly goaty, it’s unlikely to become your favourite Japanese food.
Chinsuko is a variation on shortbread, and is possibly the most delicious of all Okinawan foods. Not to be confused with “chinko”, which is a Japanese slang word for penis (a similarity that is not lost on chinsuko producers).
Last but not least, if you have a sweet tooth – get your hands on some kokuto, or Okinawan black sugar. Used as a sweetener in dishes across Japan, kokuto has a flavour similar to liquorice and can be eaten as a sweet on its own (if you don’t value your teeth).