Food in Okinawa is as different as everything else in this strange, far-southern part of Japan. From Roald-Dahl-esque vegetables to soy-marinated pork belly from local wild boar, delicious challenges are abound in this unique prefecture.
There are things you can eat in Okinawa that you won’t find anywhere else in the country – perhaps even anywhere else in the world.
And perhaps it’s these delicacies that hold the secret to the famed longevity of the people of this isolated island prefecture.
Spread across the South China Sea, Okinawa is closer to Taiwan than the rest of Japan. Its food influences are therefore much more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country.
With culinary injections from China, Thailand and Korea – and since WWII the USA – Okinawa’s kitchens turn out an incredibly diverse range of dishes. All with a Ryukyu twist on these adopted recipes, styles and ingredients.
Here are some of the Ryukyu dishes we discovered and fell in love with while we were in Okinawa.
15 things to eat in Okinawa, Japan
1. Goya – bittermelon
Goya – or bittermelon – is a staple in Okinawa. If you’re a Roald Dahl fan, you’ll know what I mean when I say the word ‘snozzcumber’ – the goya looks just like one. Lumpy and weird. Its very bitter, yet deliciously crunchy with a little sweetness.
In a slaw, goya is amazing. It’s also an excellent amuse bouche palate-cleanser. But Okinawans love it any way they can get it. Especially in what’s called ‘goya champuru’, which basically means ‘mixed goya’… so ‘goya with everything’!
We tried it mixed with a kind of omelette with pieces of chicken in a soy sauce base. Delicious.
2. Umibudo – sea grapes
This is a favourite beer snack in Okinawa. In fact it’s something people eat in Okinawa all the time. Umibudo is a seaweed, but it looks more like green caviar. As each ball pops between your teeth the whole thing seems crunchy, which then turns to a creamy texture. And it tastes like the freshest seafood you’ll ever eat. Delicious.
3. Asa soup – miso
Asa soup is primarily a seaweed soup – just hot water over this very fluffy, wispy seaweed. We experienced this soup at breakfast where we were staying in Okuma and went back every day to have more.
This is Yoshiko Oona. She was born in Okinawa in 1934. The soup was good, but seeing her each morning was more of a motivation for us to come to breakfast!
With the asa soup, you often get to add a bit of miso paste, crouton and bonito flakes. The whole thing is delicious.
4. Hirayachi – Okinawan pancakes
These savoury delights are eaten any time of day. We had them at breakfast and dinner, and to be honest I’d eat them all day long too. They’re very simple flour-egg-and-water pancakes, but mixed with spring onion or garlic chives, which are also a speciality here, and seasoned with bonito, they’re amazing.
Adding a dab of Kewpie mayo is a must.
5. Okinawa soba
The soba noodles and the varieties soup dishes you find them in here in Okinawa are excellent. Rounder, fatter, whiter and more tender than regular soba, the ones you find here are – we think – better too.
You get them like this in a ramen bowl or in a more Thai/Chinese soup bowl with chilli and beansprouts. Either way, they’re not to be missed.
6. Agu – Okinawan boar pork dishes
The wild boar of Okinawa are treasured for their sweet tender meat – especially by us! We tried agu a few different ways. Mrs Romance had it as a slow-cooked dish over salad and rice. I had it in a katsu-don schnitzel style, we also had it in a katsu curry (I don’t know what it is about Japanese curry but it’s addictive), and we also had it in a couple of traditional pork belly styles. It’s amazing.
If you look back at the hirayachi photo, you can see the traditional glazed agu belly on the right. They marinade it in soy and honey, and it’s spectacular.
7. Agu gyoza
Although this is also agu – the same as the previous point – I thought these dumplings deserved their own mention.
We were in a random little supermarket in Nago, essentially the midlands city of Okinawa, and we saw this old guy cooking gyoza. At first we thought he was just cooking them as a kind of expo sample stall you sometimes get. Then we realised he was actually making these gyoza by hand.
He was stuffing, pinching and cooking them for people to buy! He didn’t speak English but said the magic word ‘agu’ and we had to buy some. When we got to the checkout, we could pay for everything else with credit card, but the box of gyoza was a cash-only item!
8. Sata andagi – Okinawan doughnuts
These little crispy clouds of semi-sweet heaven are ubiquitous in Okinawa and are a bit like catnip for the locals. They’re very cheap and very simple, but dearly loved and quite tasty.
Not sure if they’re worth quite so much hype as they’re given but they’re worth trying. Oh and make sure they’re fresh or they can be a bit hard and chewy instead of crunchy.
9. Taco rice
Another ubiquitous dish in Okinawa is taco rice. Thanks to the American influence, certain foods have made their way into Ryukyu life. Most restaurants serve this and you can find lots of different taco rice mixes in shops to use at home. Okinawans have really taken this one on and made it their own.
It’s basically mince with Mexican taco seasoning on a bed of rice and/or salad leaves. It’s a bit like chilli con carne… but with an Okinawan twist.
10. Jimami tofu – dessert tofu (plus a lot of other things!)
Jimami tofu – top right in the photo – is a strange product. It’s made with the ‘juice’ of peanuts and is suspended in a kind of sweetish soy liquid. The texture is quite slippery bit not gross and the flavour’s excellent. We didn’t know this was dessert at first but it makes sense.
There’s a lot of other stuff happening on this plate. In the middle is a bowl of sashimi and umibudo, including octopus sashimi, which was really quite excellent. Bottom right is some more asa soup and to the left is benimo (see below) and all delicious things to eat in Okinawa.
11. Benimo – Okinawan purple sweet potato
Could this be the secret to long life? Could this be why there are 5 times more people getting to 100 in Okinawa than in the rest of Japan? Maybe. Okinawans absolutely lust after this root vegetable and it’s full of the superfood antioxidant anthocyanin found in other purple veggies. Bemino is so popular in fact that it has more forms than a government office.
Baked, mashed, ice cream, KitKats, bubble tea, cakes, biscuits… you name it, the Okinawans have found that way to eat benimo. This little piped ball was one of the ways we tried it.
For more detail on Benimo, check out Little Okinawa’s funny yet informative write-up here.
12. Okinawan sugar rice bread
The brown sugar made in Okinawa is a pretty big deal here. There are lots of ways to eat this rich, molasses-flavoured, fine-grained sugar, and this bread is one my favourites. It’s quite dense and crumbly, and very tasty indeed.
13. Okuma breakfast – where you can have it all!
Where we stayed in Okinawa – the JAL Okuma Resort – has an excellent breakfast buffet with lots of Okinawan dishes to try. I’ve mentioned the asa soup and the sugar bread above was from here too, but as you can see from this plate of food, there’s a real mix of Okinawan specialties.
In particular at the front there’s more agu pork belly – this time with a black sesame top, there’s a miso-coated white fish and a delicious mackerel next to that. Behind the fish is a piece of benimo – this time steamed.
Perhaps not the most uniquely Okinawan dish, but the sushi we got to eat in Okinawa was excellent. Our opinion could also be tainted by the fact we had such a great meal in this little place though.
We were in the north of the island where fewer tourists tend to venture. We found ourselves in a very local, very small restaurant where the waiter and chef were busy chatting the raucous old locals at the bar and enjoying a beer with them. The sushi was so fresh and delicious, not to mention cheap. We’d go back there in a heartbeat and eat there every night if we could.
15. Awamori – Okinawa’s sake
Awamori is Okinawa’s (much better) answer to sake and is incredibly popular. Very much part of the Okinawan Ryukyu culture, awamori is different from sake. Sake is brewed from rice grain whereas awamori is distilled.
It tastes a bit like sake but has its own distinct flavour. It’s stored and aged in clay vessels to improve its flavour and smoothness. You can find some bottles with snakes in the bottom – but these reek of tourist trap. Locals we’ve seen drinking it have it with lots of ice and added water, though you can drink it straight.
Watch out though – awamori can be as strong as 65%ABV!
Bonus: Orion beer
When it comes to beer, the Okinawan favourite – and in fact national favourite – is Orion. This brewery is known for its beer’s cleanness of the flavour and colour. It’s a very easy beer to drink. Kampai!
There are quite a few other uniquely Okinawan foods and dishes we haven’t mentioned here – most of which we haven’t tried. If you’ve got a favourite Okinawan delicacy we haven’t talked about, tell us in the comments below. We’d love to hear more!