Okinawa translates roughly as “rope in the open sea”. A chain of islands stretching from the southern end of the Japanese mainland toward the northern tip of Taiwan, this region has quite a bit of local flair and flavor that differentiates it from the rest of Japan. Much like Hawaii and the United States, the Okinawan island chain was a autonomous kingdom for much of its history before being annexed by the Japanese in 1872. While the last century has seen the region adopt Japanese culture quite substantially, there do remain quite a few examples of ‘local color’. Okinawan food has a wealth of these unique elements and many dishes are still quite popular on the island as well as growing in popularity on the Japanese mainland.
One of my goals when I landed in Okinawa was to make sure I was able to sample a large number of its regional dishes. I was reasonably successful in that effort, so here are some pictures and thoughts to pique your interest, and perhaps your taste buds!
Traditionally in Japan soba is a buckwheat noodle. The Okinawan version of soba is made with wheat flour and is of a thicker circumference, similar to the mainland’s udon noodle. Often this hot noodle dish in seaweed and pork broth is served with soki on top. Soki are pork ribs that have been stewed in local rice wine (awamori), soy sauce, and sugar. This was target number one on my list of things to eat while in Okinawa, because let’s be honest, pork stewed in sugar and booze just has to be delicious.
And it was. Oh sweet Lord was it good.
My first bite of soki soba came at a restaurant not too far from Naha’s Shuri Castle. I had just finished my first full day of sightseeing and a big bowl of noodles sounded like it would hit the spot. I ordered the dish and eagerly awaited its arrival, casually flipping through pictures I had taken at the castle on my iPhone and camera. When it arrived the smell was quite intoxicating. The sweet stewed pork is quite potent and sparks salivation instantly.
The bowl of noodles was placed in front of me and I took it in. In additional to the expected noodles and ribs was some fish cake, diced scallions, and pickled ginger – all commonly found in Japanese noodle dishes. I dived right into the bowl and attacked the ribs with my chopsticks. Eating pork ribs (even boneless!) seems like it might be a bit difficult with chopsticks, yet the meat was tender and pulled apart without any effort. The flavor was powerful and satisfying, the type of sweet roasted meat that hits the comfort food zone on the back of your tongue. It was the kind of overwhelming, delicious flavor that you find yourself negotiating with your stomach about how quickly you’ll be shoving in into your gullet. I needed to save some of the rest of the dish, and it was a test of my will power not to use my hands and devour the entire serving.
The remainder of the dish was pretty run of the mill. I’m not sure if that’s a result of the restaurant I ended up eating at, but the broth and noodles didn’t strike me as anything unique. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t quite taste, because it was. But it wasn’t any more tasty or any different than the average bowl of noodles you find else where in Japan. The soki was definitely the star of this bowl.
I was a bit skeptical about this offering from the get-go. While the origin of this dish is questionable (I’ve heard multiple stories over my lifetime), the basics seem to all center around the heavy United States military presence in Okinawa and its influence on local cuisine. At some point someone decided to take the popular ingredients from American-style tacos (ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and salsa) and substitute the tortilla with a bed of rice. Thus was born the infamous taco rice, an extremely popular local dish throughout Okinawa and in fact is now one of the more popular Okinawan exports to mainland Japan’s food culture.
On my second to last day in Okinawa, I found myself strolling down the main drag in downtown Naha hopping in and out of curio shops looking for some interesting shisas to purchase and bring back for my house and for my mother as a souvenir. One of the restaurants down a side street caught my eye as they had a large signboard outside advertising rather inexpensive set menus, one of which offered a plate of taco rice. Putting my skepticism aside for a minute, and also comforted by the inclusion of a small bowl of Okinawa soba with roasted pork on the set, I plopped myself down at a table and placed my order.
The presentation on the dish is quite nice, in a way that only the Japanese could achieve with something as messy as a plate of rice with taco ingredients thrown on top. Chopsticks are not to be used with this dish, and I picked up the large silver spoon on the tray and started to mix up the ingredients. While it seemed like the dish didn’t have much to it, by the time I was done mixing everything up I was surprised at how much salsa and beef had been hidden under that mound of lettuce. My first bite was tentative, but I was pleased with the flavor and quickly started to enjoy myself.
How to describe the flavor. Hmmm. Well. It’s a taco. On rice. There isn’t really much else to say about it than that.
So that being said, it’s probably not for everyone. Growing up in Japan and with a Japanese mother cooking most of my meals, I’m quite accustomed to having every meal be served with rice. Hamburgers with a side of rice weren’t all that uncommon in my daily life. I’m not 100% sure most folks would enjoy the mix of taco ingredients where rice takes on the roll of tortilla, but for this guy, it worked.
Do you like tacos? Do you like rice? You might like them together. Or not. I certainly did though.
KAGOSHIMA KUROBUTA GYOZA
The little restaurant where I ordered the taco rice set menu also had giant posters all over the wall touting their special gyoza. For those unfamiliar with the magic that is gyoza, it’s a dumpling of Chinese origin. It’s a dough skin (thicker than a wonton but thinner than a noodle) stuffed with minced meat and vegetables. They’re typically steamed, pan-fried, or sometimes deep fried (more often this is in the West).
Using my limited Japanese, I asked the waitress if the gyoza were any good and what, if anything, was so unique about them. She replied that they were indeed quite delicious and that they were stuffed with kurobuta (Berkshire pig) pork from Kagoshima, which is a city on the southern tip of the mainland. I figured I needed a backup just in case the taco rice didn’t pan out, so I asked for a plate to be brought with my meal.
I don’t have any illusions that the kurobuto from Kagoshima had any magic flavor powers, but the gyoza were indeed quite good. The chef pan-fried them just right, making the bottoms crispy and firm while the tops remained chewy.
The filling was a bit fatty but that just added to the full flavor of the dumpling. The vegetable content inside the packet was relatively small, but the pork was so tasty I didn’t mind at all. The dipping sauce on the side was a nice thought but in the end it wasn’t needed. The flavor of the dumpling itself was quite enjoyable and I ended up eating the rest of the plate on its own.
The Japanese are not generally known for having some of the world’s most awesome pastries and sweets, so I was a bit curious to try some sata andagi. Called Okinawan doughnuts by many, the main ingredients to these puffy pastries are flour, sugar, and eggs. Mixed together, rolled into a ball, and then deep fried, they’re sweet on their own and are traditionally served as is fresh from the pan. Over the years producers have learned that consumers enjoy having a variety of options to select from, so flavored varieties have proliferated and are quite popular.
On my last day in Naha I was wandering through a shotengai enjoying the sights and sounds when a wonderful aroma started to fill my nostrils. While I wasn’t exactly dashing down the alley in pursuit of the smell, it definitely was the only thing directing me as I made my way further into the market. Eventually I found the source of the smell – a small store with a large selection of sata andagi on display in wooden racks. An older man was busy bring small trays of doughnuts from the store onto the street where he’d dump them into their corresponding bins to cool off and entice shoppers. It worked wonders, because in no time at all I had purchased three bags of doughnuts and was dashing back to my hotel room to enjoy my treat like a squirrel with a mouthful of acorns.
I popped an original-flavored doughnut into my mouth and began to chew. This is definitely the type of pastry where having something to drink close at hand is recommended. In fact, this is an ideal pastry for a big, cold glass of milk. The flavor was enjoyable, though in the tradition of Japanese sweets was likely not as sugary as many Westerners would prefer. Sugar content is definitely at about 50% of what an American bakery would likely use for this size of doughnut. I wasn’t really able to taste much difference between the original flavor and the brown sugar, they were essentially the same sadly. The purple sweet potato doughnuts were a bit softer on the inside and did have a slightly sweeter flavor. There wasn’t an overwhelming difference in taste for those doughnuts either though, it was a very subtle change. If I were to purchase these again, I’d stick with the original variety as I didn’t feel like the modified flavors really added much to the experience.
Overall, quite delicious! I purchased these on my last day in Okinawa so I ended up tossing out quite a few of these little guys because I couldn’t manage to eat them all that evening. They did make a delicious breakfast before I headed to the airport, though.
OKINAWA BLUE SEAL ICE CREAM SHOP
Blue Seal is a Japanese ice cream company with roots in Okinawa. I stumbled upon one of their stores while wandering around town one day and hopped in for a sweet treat and break from the midday sun. Japanese ice cream flavors can be quite interesting as a whole, and have been delighting and terrifying Western palettes for years now. I made my way down the display case to see what was on offer and to see if I noticed any unique flavors being offered. This shop’s offering had your run of the mill flavors like mint chocolate chip and vanilla, but did seem to offer a few unique Okinawan/Japanese takes on ice cream, as seen below:
Though I was heavily leaning on the Okinawan sweet potato ice cream at first, I ended up going with an entirely different flavor when it was my turn to order. Anyone who knows me will tell you that when I’m spending time in Japan I have a huge soft spot for Japanese-style milk tea. These are sold in just about every vending machine and offered in every corner grocery store in the country. Black tea with milk and sugar, served cold in a plastic bottle. I love it, I crave it, I guzzle it as soon as I get through customs and immigration.
Blue Seal was offering a limited edition royal milk tea ice cream, so as soon as my eyes set upon that flavor it was a done deal. Scoop it up, throw it at me.
The verdict? Ah-mah-zing. It tasted exactly like royal milk tea. Slight hints of black tea with a light milky sweetness. I enjoyed it so much I went back the next day for a second helping!
GOYA (BITTER MELON) TEA
Popular in China and throughout South Asia, the goya is used widely in Okinawa but much less so on the Japanese mainland. Okinawans often credit their heavy use of goya for their long life expectancy, which surpasses their notoriously long-living mainland brothers and sisters. One of Okinawa’s signature dishes, chanpuru, is often made with goya. You’ll notice chanpuru didn’t make it onto my list today, though it was offered in a few restaurants I dined in.
Why is that? Let me explain….
My hotel offered a stockpile of tea bags with the built-in tea kettle on the room’s desk. The first night I didn’t take any notice of the tea bags but by the next morning I was feeling in the mood for something warm and tasty. I grabbed a tea packet and noted the unique packaging and quickly figure out that instead of green or black tea that the hotel had stocked my room with local Okinawan goya tea.
I was excited at first. Another local flavor I could try and I didn’t even have to leave my hotel room! I set the kettle to boil some water and ripped the packet open to access the tea bag. The smell was a bit off-putting, acrid and pungent. Many teas don’t exactly have the most pleasant smell prior to brewing though, so I wasn’t put off by it at all. I poured the hot water into a cup and let the tea steep for a few minutes. The smell didn’t change much once it was brewed, which made me start to worry a bit. Still, life’s about adventures and I was willing to give this a shot.
I brought the tea to my lips and let it tumble past into my mouth.
And promptly ran into the bathroom to spit it out into the sink.
NOT. MY. CUP. OF. TEA. Not in the least.
Ugh. Bitter, bitter, bitter. With a slight nutty aftertaste. But nutty like burnt peanuts, not in a pleasant peanut butter way.
This was the most unpleasant thing I tasted while in Okinawa and the only thing I’d venture to say I absolutely hated. It was so awful that I avoiding anything that listed goya as an ingredient from that moment forward.