Whenever I tell people from overseas that I live in Japan – they seem to think that all I eat is sushi and ramen. If only that were the case… The truth is – sushi is too expensive to be eaten on a daily basis and ramen is just way too oily for health conscious me. Like many other countries, the cuisine in Japan varies from region to region. And I must admit – Okinawan cuisine is my personal favourite.
Due to a long history of trade, Okinawan cuisine has strong Chinese and Southeast Asian influences. Given my own cultural background, every bite felt a little like home.
In Okinawa, the customer service is warm, friendly and a tad laid back compared to Honshu. There was a homely vibe to all the restaurants I went to. The owners and staff always stopped to chat with us and have a laugh. People sing. People dance. People take a moment to celebrate life. I dig it.
Awamori is a super strong and delicious spirit made from Thai rice. The alcohol content is anywhere between 30-43% . Oh yes. It’s ordinarily drunk straight, on the rocks or with a carafe of water. The older it is, the more expensive it is. In some restaurants, it’s served in a kara-kara: a small clay vessel. To me, awamori tastes like a middle ground between sake and tequila. Hmm…. I like.
1. Goya Champuru
Goya Champuru or bitter melon stir fry is simple, unpretentious, packed with nutrients and just wow. I’ve tried cooking goya and failed miserably time and time again. It is BITTER. Yeck, yuck, GROSS. I know goya is good for me, but man… putting that in my mouth has always been a close-your-nose-and-swallow type of experience.
So RESPECT to the Okinawans for making it tasty. Cooked with tofu, pork (or spam) and eggs – each mouthful was surprisingly sensational. I asked the chef how they make it. Remove the seeds and peel the skin. I knew about the first part – but not the second. I know what I’ll be trying to cook again soon…
Rafute is pork rib stewed in soy sauce and Okinawan brown sugar. The meat is tender and the fat just melts off. It’s rich yet delicate. Sweet yet savoury. There’s a very similar dish in Chinese cuisine, but Rafute has a very particular flavour profile due to the use of Okinawan brown sugar – which is waaaaay more intense than regular brown sugar.
3. Deep fried gurukun
Gurukun not a very fishy fish… Hmm… about that. You can also eat it from head to tail – including eyes, ears, bones, etc. I’m not the kind of person who usually does that but I deeply enjoyed this experience. Each bite was crunchy and felt more natural than I expected. Mmm…mmm…mmm…
5. Yaeyama Soba
No, this is not the purple noodle ordinarily served with tempura. The noodles are thin and round and served in a soup that’s mild yet rich and has thin strips of pork, green onions and fish cake. It’s a household staple on Ishigaki island.
The recommended seasoning for Yaeyama Soba is pipachi – a spice that kind of tastes like nutmeg, ginger and pepper all put together.
Deep fried peanut tofu is super famous and everyone raves about it. It was completely different from what I expected. The texture is cheesy and slightly stringy yet light. The tofu itself has a mild flavour but the sauce it’s served with is sweet-salty yummy.
Pig’s ear or mimigaa ミミガー somehow magically appears at every meal. Picked with vinegar, the taste isn’t particularly overpowering. Crunchy and yummy, be prepared to chew. I’m generally not a big fan of such things but the Okinawans make it work.
Tofuyo 豆腐ようwas just sublime. I can’t say I’ve tasted anything like it. Rich, intense and bold – its creamy texture shocked and delighted my palate. Long will my taste buds continue to relive this memory.
Okinawan Mozuku Seaweed was TANGY TANGY TANGY. So be careful when you take that first bite or you’ll be left coughing and clearing your throat like me. High in dietary fibre and calcium, many credit mozuku with supporting the health longevity of Okinawans. Although mozuku is available all over Japan, the Okinawan variety is said to be the thickest.
So I had this dessert in a restaurant and I’m not sure what it’s called – shame on me for not writing it down. In the menu, it was described as a ‘rare tofu’ topped with a herb that’s unique to Okinawa. The herb kind of tasted like pistachio syrup. Do I really have to tell you that it was delicious?
There’s a certain warmth, soul and hospitality to Okinawan cuisine. The flavours celebrate life on the island and showcase the heart of the people who prepare it. I really wish I had more time in Okinawa to sample, enjoy and truly learn about the rich heritage of Okinawan Cuisine.
I’ll be back someday. In the interim, I’ll find a slice of Okinawa in Tokyo. I’ll let you know when I do.
Till next time – have a great meat and enjoy.