The subtropical Japanese prefecture does many things differently than the rest of Japan, which is part of its charm when you travel there. The difference in climate and culture is clearly reflected in Okinawan cuisine. So, whether you’re in Okinawa, or an Okinawan themed izakaya in Tokyo, don’t waste the opportunity by eating generic chicken skewers and try these drinks and foods instead.
1. Awamori & Orion Beer
Let’s start with drinks, as you do in an izakaya. When in Okinawa, you must taste the local brew called Orion beer. You’ll know they have it, because most izakayas will have a string of paper lanterns hanging in front with Orion written on them.
For the stronger stuff you should try awamori, the Okinawan equivalent to shochu. Distilled from indica rice, this native Okinawan drink is then aged in traditional clay pots, and has a distinct and unique flavor. Like most Okinawan drinks and foods, awamori originated in the Ryukyu Kingdom, when Okinawa was not part of Japan. The distilling technique was imported from Thailand, and to this day a lot of the rice for making awamori is being imported from Thailand too.
Awamori can of course be drunk straight, or in cocktails. It is often combined with fruit such as the Okinawan shikwasa citrus or yuzu, resulting in sweet awamori-based liqueurs. For the most adventurous among traveling foodies, there’s the ‘habu-shu,’ a drink that is awamori with the Okinawan habu viper steeped in. It’s a very, very real thing!
2. Umibudou – Sea Grapes
Anything with a whimsical name like “sea grapes” is unmissable, if you ask me. Some people call it “green caviar” too, while I would argue that the translucent beads resemble green currant berries (but I wasn’t consulted during the naming phase, was I?)
This Okinawan wonder is the first thing people recommend you try, and probably the last Okinawan thing you’ll see at the souvenir store at your departure gate before you fly back. It’s in the seaweed category, yet seaweed haters tend to love it. Its little bubbles filled with salty goodness, eating umibudou feels like popping tasty bubble wrap in your mouth.
3. Goya dishes
This bitter gourd resembling a very prickly cucumber, is another Okinawa-only ingredient, touted as one of the reasons why Okinawans are the longest living people in the whole world. It might be too bitter to some, but think of it as medicine and it will make sense!
The signature goya dish in Okinawa is “goya champuru”, meaning “goya stir fry”, that combines this miracle vegetable mainly with onion, carrots, and eggs. There’s also goya tempura, pickled goya, goya salad, and so on. You can find goya stir fry in any Okinawan izakaya, restaurant, home, so there’s no reason not to try this delicious superfood.
4. Rafute – Okinawan pork
Okinawa is recognized in Japan for its excellent pork, with the specialty Agu pork leading the way. They produce and export pork, and it’s crucial in Okinawan diet. The prefecture is lauded for its long living population, and despite some people shunning pork, Okinawans say it’s a must have in their healthy diet. There are myriad of ways in which Okinawans cook pork, eating every part of the animal, even pig ears in salads! Among those pork delights, “rafute”, Okinawan braised pork belly, is a dish fit for a king – and it totally used to be part of ancient Okinawan royal cuisine.
Stewed in soy sauce and brown sugar until it’s falling apart from tenderness, rafute meat is richer and softer than any other pork belly in Japan. It is usually served either on its own or on top of a bowl of Okinawan noodles.
5. Okinawan noodles
Speaking of noodles, Okinawa’s signature bowl of noodles is a bit of a linguistic mix-up. It’s called “Okinawa soba” in Japanese, although the noodles are not the classic Japanese buckwheat soba noodles, but wheat noodles. When you ask Okinawans how they call this dish, they say simply “soba”. What about the buckwheat noodles dish called soba? Well, they call that one “Nihon soba” meaning “Japan soba”. Untangling from this confusion, let’s say a bowl of Okinawan soba is closer to udon (judging by the noodles) or ramen (judging by the broth flavor).
This delicious dish features pork both in the broth and as topping, as well as scallions, and kamaboko fishcake. Most izakayas offer a smaller portion of Okinawa soba, in addition to restaurants serving a bigger bowl as a full meal.
6. Purple Potato Croquettes
Okinawan purple potato called “beni imo” is another superfood, as pretty as it is delicious. Tasty like a sweet potato, and strikingly colorful like red cabbage, beni imo is used in many desserts in Okinawa. Every snack has a purple potato makeover in Okinawa, and it’s a popular souvenir to take back with you.
When in an izakaya or restaurant, you usually see beni imo on the menu in the shape of a potato croquette. Mashed, breaded, and deep fried, this croquette is perfectly chewy and goes well with a pint of beer. It retains its beautiful color too!
7. Jimami Tofu
Jimami tofu is an Okinawan delicacy made out of peanuts and potato starch, instead of soybeans. This gives it its creamier and thicker consistency, and richer and slightly sweeter flavor than regular tofu. Many liken it to fresh mozzarella, and it’s somewhere between sweet and savoury. Often eaten as dessert, or a light snack in an izakaya, with a little bit of sweetened soy sauce or dashi, and it’s hard to stop eating jimami tofu. Most izakaya’s serve it, and you can also buy packets of it in the shops.
Fun fact: film lovers might know Jimami Tofu is the title of an award-winning Singaporean-Japanese film taking place in Okinawa focusing on the local cuisine.
And then there is the other Okinawan tofu. The one for the braver foodies. Often compared to pungent cheeses or natto, tofuyo is fermented in red kouji yeast and awamori for a period of time which results in a very strong acquired taste. No surprise that it’s served as a small cube, roughly the size of a single piece of caramel. And that small piece is meant to share, as you pick off morsels with a toothpick-like utensil.
However, just like other stinky fermented foods, tofuyo is a delicacy that goes great with alcohol, and people say it’s not even as bad as it sounds. It’s the only thing on this list your humble writer hasn’t tried, but if you love cheese, I reckon you should give tofuyo a try. If you don’t like it, you can always wash it down with a glass of beer! Kanpai!
Have you tried any Okinawa Drinks or Foods? Let us know in the comments!