Okinawa is an absolutely beautiful tourist destination. Its turquoise seas, white sand beaches and tropical breezes are a relaxing break from the usual hustle and bustle Japan can bring. Another wonderful thing about Okinawa is the unique and delicious cuisine that it offers to visitors. In this article, let’s dive into the top ten foods you should sample in the south of Japan.
In the southern reaches of Okinawa is the Yaeyama Islands. I was lucky enough on a recent trip to sample their famous local noodle dish. This is a type of soba is called Yaeyama soba. Rather than the traditional buckwheat soba of mainland Japan, this noodle dish is flour based. Despite the balmy temperature that was present this Golden Week, the broth is hot and rich with the pork bone and skipjack tuna that Ishigaki is famous for. I prefer my food mild, but if you want a kick, you can add some Awamori-chili or island pepper.
Sata-Andagi are basically dense donut holes that are popular in Okinawa. You can find them served in all corners of the major shopping districts and are a great desert after all that yummy but rich Okinawan food. They are heavy little guys, but are not as sweet as typical donuts.
Another lovely dessert that is a specialty of the southern isles is the chinsuko. This, like the Sata-Andagi, is not overly sweet. It’s light and shortbread-like, and if you are someone who enjoys the flavor combination of salty and sweet, this treat is definitely for you. Unlike the Sata-Andagi, these cookies are the perfect souvenir to bring back with you from Okinawa, and are often sold in decorative boxes for just that purpose.
Number 7: Blue Seal Ice-cream
Keeping with the theme of salty-sweet and heavenly light delights, Blue Seal ice-cream is a famous Okinawan treat that shouldn’t be missed on a trip down to the south of Japan (and don’t worry, if you happen to be in Naha it’s almost completely impossible to miss, as they have stands approximately every twenty paces.) Sure, you can sample the Okinawan brand in other parts of Japan, though here you can get the quintessential Okinawan flavors such as shiquasa, sugar cane, chinsuko and Okinawa ta-imo cheesecake, which is a blend of cheesecake and ta-imo taro from the Kin-cho area.
Taco rice is a delicious and healthy meal to recharge you on your vacation. It is a culinary creation that came to being in the 1960s, blending tacos that were popularized by the American military members who were stationed in Okinawa with Japanese cuisine; it resulted in a unique and refreshing mix of the two. The blend of fresh veggies, meat and rice makes it a wonderful comfort food to beat the heat. This is also a very easy meal to make yourself at home when your vacation is complete!
Shima dofu, or ‘island tofu’ is different than its mainland counterpart. Because of the way it is prepared (with a straining of the water from the raw soybean prior to boiling) it results in a denser block of tofu with a higher protein content. It tends towards fewer calories (not counting the various sauces that flavor the dish) and is richer in nutrients. The shima dofu which I was lucky enough to sample was drizzled in a savory peanut-sauce and was a wonderful precursor to a decadent, meat based meal.
Number 4: Shikuwasa… everything!
This tart and sweet little citrus is everywhere in Okinawa. It tastes a bit like a hybrid between a lemon and lime and has become a new favorite fruit of mine! Since it is native to the south of Japan, as soon as you land in Naha airport you’ll see a myriad of snacks and drinks that have been flavored with its sweetness. They have everything from Shikuwasa beer and other alcoholic drinks to Shikuwasa ice cream and all the way to Shikuwasa potato chips! It reminds you with each bite that you are in a tropical paradise.
Number 3: Shimabuta Gyoza
Pork is absolutely the king meat on Okinawa. While other places are known for their delicious beef (and to be fair, Ishigaki is too) the locals here know how to cook their pigs. There are oodles of ways to enjoy, but a mouth-watering way is certainly in some sizzling gyoza. Of course these are made with shimabuta or ‘island pig’ which are native to the area and have been feeding the residents for generations.
Number 2: Geto Wrapped Muchi
Most people who are fans of Japanese food are familiar with ‘mochi’ which is sweetened, glutinous rice usually paired with red bean paste. Its southern counterpart, however, spelled with a ‘u’ is sweetened with brown sugar or purple yams most typically and is wrapped in a ginger leaf for the most tropical of presentations. You’ll also want that leaf so it doesn’t get stuck to your hand in the hot weather.
Number 1: Okinawan Pork Belly (Rafute)
One thing I was lucky enough to sample was the pork belly, or ‘rafute’ from Okinawa. I would say that Okinawa has the best pork I have ever tasted. They have many ways to prepare the meat, but I still have dreams of the pork belly I sampled in the Kokusai Food Village in Naha, which was cooked and salted to mouth-watering perfection. It was so delicious that after having it, I made sure to return on my last day in the city to eat it again.
Whether you are strolling down the Food Village in Naha or sampling more rural delights on the islands of Okinawa, there is no doubt that the difference in culture and in cuisine would be an absolute shame to miss. It also doesn’t hurt that the Okinawan diet is known for keeping locals alive past one hundred years! We Should take a page from their book.