Visitors to Okinawa may be surprised to find that local cuisine is different from food on the mainland. That's because the Okinawan diet is still influenced by the island's Ryūkyūan heritage as well as historical trade links with Southeast Asia and China. Okinawans eat rice in much smaller amounts, with sweet potatoes traditionally making up the bulk of their starch intake.
Be prepared to discover new delicacies on Okinawan menus like fatty pork ribs, bitter melon, and a variety of local seaweeds. But Americans will also find a few familiar items. Because of the influence of the US military bases in Okinawa, classic items like ice cream and even Spam are now food staples, as well as the uniquely Okinawan dish of "taco rice."
The Okinawan Diet
Okinawa enjoys the longest life expectancy in the world, and the tiny island is home to over 400 centenarians. Their longevity has been credited in part to the traditional Okinawan diet. Along with sweet potatoes as their staple starch, Okinawans tend to eat mostly fresh vegetables and legumes along with small amounts of fish and meat.
In recent years, the Okinawan diet has expanded to include international influences, making way for food items like Spam. Mainland Japanese cuisine has also been a big influence. Mozuku, a stringy, locally-harvested seaweed, now gets made into tempura, while rice and noodles have slowly taken the place of sweet potatoes. But you can still catch those colorful tubers in everything from side dishes to ice cream.
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Okinawa has no shortage of more familiar Japanese foods, with the usual conbini, or convenience store, selling rice balls and bento boxes on every corner. But traditional Okinawan cuisine has its own iconic dishes, and no trip to the islands is complete without a taste tour.
Gōyā champurū: Known as Okinawa's signature dish, this bitter gourd stir-fry is ubiquitous. While gōyā, the light green, bumpy-skinned bitter gourd, is true to its name in taste, its bitterness gets balanced out with other savory elements. Hollowed out and sliced into half-rounds, the gourd is cooked with scrambled egg, fermented island tofu, dried bonito flakes, and pork belly—although Spam is often used as a substitute. White rice also sweetens the bitterness of the gourd, making it a tasty local specialty.
Soki soba: On mainland Japan, soba generally refers to buckwheat noodles, but Okinawan soba means thick, udon-style noodles. Cooked in a clear pork-and-bonito broth, they are usually topped with chunks of barbecued pork ribs and a dash of pickled ginger. It's a simple but substantial dish and Okinawa's meatiest meal.
Taco rice: This quirky cross-cultural dish speaks to Okinawa's mixed influences. After the US victory in the Battle of Okinawa, the island became home to thousands of American military personnel. They brought their tastes from home, including Mexican food. Okinawans then made the taco their own by swapping the shell for a mound of white rice. You'll find this fast-food standard served all over Okinawa.
Jushi: This popular side dish consists of seasoned rice. It is steamed together with seaweed, pork, and vegetables, and served in a broth made from sweet rice wine and soy sauce.
Mozuku: Sushi lovers may recognize and embrace nori on their California roll, but they might not have experience with other types of seaweed. Okinawa has many varieties of the edible algae that you can sample fresh. Mozuku, an old Okinawan standby, is a sticky, wiry seaweed that is often served as a side dish with sweetened vinegar. But if the slimy texture is too much for you, you can also get it deep-fried as tempura or in a bowl of udon.
Umibudō: These briny, textured algae look like tiny bunches of grapes—hence their name, which means "sea grapes." Also known as green caviar, this singular seaweed can be sampled as a standalone dish or tried atop a bowl of sashimi and rice at one of Okinawa's many local izakaya, or gastropubs. It does not travel well, so it's a rare treat to eat in Okinawa.
Shikwasa: The tart little citrus usually appears in juices or as a garnish. It's also a popular ingredient in sauces, jellies, and fizzy drinks. On hot, balmy afternoons, squeezed shikwasa juice is a classic Okinawan refresher.
Okinawan brown sugar: Island dishes like braised pork ribs (rafute), simmered fish, and noodle broths are sweetened with kokuto, or Okinawan brown sugar. Minimally processed and made by gradually boiling down sugarcane juice, this unique and flavorful sweetener retains minerals from raw sugarcane.
Awamori: Okinawa's local firewater is distilled from long-grained rice, resulting in in a powerful drink that contains 30% to 40% alcohol content. Traditionally, awamori is enjoyed on the rocks and mixed with water. In bars and restaurants, it's usually served with a carafe of water, so you can dilute it as much or as little as you like. Kampai! (Cheers!)
Where to Dine
In Motobu in northeastern Okinawa, you can feast on Okinawan noodles on the street nicknamed "Soba Road," home to dozens of mouth-watering soba shops. Head west on Route 84 in the direction of Okinawa's famous Churaumi Aquarium, where you can check out the resident whale sharks once you've satisfied your food cravings.
In Naha, soba stalwart Shuri Soba almost always has a line out the door, but it moves quickly and the wait is never long. If you're looking to sample Okinawan specialties, check out the cross-streets and alleys along the main boulevard of Kokusai-dōri, where loads of restaurants cater to visitors. At Yūnangi, you can have a classic izakaya experience, with an illustrated English menu as an added bonus. For a multi-course feast of Okinawan culinary hits, try Nuchigafu, an Okinawan teahouse converted into a chic restaurant.
Budget-seekers can head to the second floor of Makishi Public Market, where tasty and authentic Okinawan, Japanese, and Chinese meals are served up in a busy food court.