Between its enviable geography, colourful history and multilingual culture, Okinawa is a truly unique place to visit. So it’s only fitting that Japan’s tropical playground is home to a distinctive food and drink scene. Check in to your Okinawa hotel and set off for a foodie adventure with stories and photos to show your friends. From awamori—Okinawa’s answer to sake—to goya chanpuru—the area’s signature dish—here are seven things you shouldn’t leave Okinawa without tasting.
This clear local spirit is distilled from just three ingredients: Thai rice, black koji yeast culture and water. With roots dating back to the 1400s, it’s been compared to sake, vodka and even bourbon, thanks to its complex flavor profile. It can be served straight, on the rocks or mixed into a cocktail like the classic “Dan Ball.” Feeling daring? Try habushu, awamori that’s been bottled with a small pit viper (see above).
2. Goya Chanpuru
Goya is a bitter melon that you’re sure to see all over the island. It’s a key ingredient in an array of foods, including beer, burgers, pizza and chips. But for a truly Okinawan speciality, be sure to try goya chanpuru, a stir-fry composed of eggs, tofu, pork (or Spam) and, of course, goya. Topped off with dashi, bonito and soy sauce, the dish is salty, sweet and sour—and completely satisfying.
An Okinawan delicacy that means “island tofu,” this firm, unpressed tofu is coagulated in a brine made from magnesium chloride, which gives it an extra-salty kick. It’s dryer and heavier than mainland tofu, with a higher protein content. It’s also traditionally served hot rather than cold. This is typically the type of tofu you’ll find in goya chanpuru. For something a bit different, try yushi dofu, which is shima-dofu that’s been collected before it firms up. It’s often served simply as a soup with a splash of soy sauce.
4. Umi Budo
Umi budo—known as Okinawa’s “green caviar”—is a type of seaweed harvested in Okinawa and the Philippines. It’s more of a snack or garnish than a main dish, and is also known as “sea grapes.” The tiny “grapes” have a rich, briny flavor. They’re especially tasty served over a bowl of Okinawa Soba.
5. Okinawa Soba
Unlike traditional Japanese soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat, Okinawa soba is made from wheat flour and eggs. The consistency is different, too—they’re thicker and lighter than the thin, dark soba of mainland Japan. And the broth, typically a pork-based dashi, tastes more like ramen broth.
6. Taco Rice
For a reminder of America’s influence on this island, look no further than the popularity of Taco Rice. This Asian-Western hybrid dish tops steamed Japanese white rice with seasoned re-fried beef, shredded cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce. Try King Tacos, a local favourite famous for the distinct dish.
7. Sata Andagi
These fried cake-style doughnut balls are rolled in rich Okinawan sugar and sometimes black sesame seeds. Also popular in Hawaii, they’re crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. They’re the perfect sweet treat to finish off any meal in Okinawa.
As if Okinawa’s stunning beaches and fascinating cultural attractions weren’t enough, it’s worth making the trip to this incredible island for the unique food alone. Whether you’re brave enough to sip a drink steeped in a snake, or prefer to stick with the local take on donuts and tacos, there’s an Okinawan treat for every traveller’s taste.