Okinawan cuisine differs significantly from Japanese cuisine due to the islands' unique history, during which its food culture was influenced especially by China, South East Asia, Japan and the United States, and due to the different climate with its effects on agriculture and the appetite.
Okinawan dishes are widely available at restaurants throughout the prefecture. For trying out a variety of dishes, we recommend a visit to a local izakaya, where multiple smaller dishes are shared at the table. Some establishments offer live Okinawan music to further enhance the dining experience, especially at restaurants in tourist districts like Naha's popular Kokusaidori Street.
The following three meals, especially Goya Champuru and Okinawa Soba, are omnipresent across Okinawa. They are popular not only among tourists, but also in home cooking:
Champuru means "stir fry" in the Okinawan language and refers to a dish which was prepared by stir frying various ingredients. By far the most popular champuru variety is goya champuru, in which the bitter goya vegetable is stir fried with tofu, eggs and pork or spam. Other variations of champuru include fu (wheat gluten) champuru, tofu champuru and papaya champuru.
Although they share the name with soba noodle dishes found on the Japanese mainland, Okinawa Soba are a completely different dish. They are made of wheat rather than buckwheat flour, and therefore resemble udon noodles more than soba noodles.
Similar to ramen noodles, Okinawa Soba are served in a bowl of broth with a number of toppings. A common topping is soft boiled pork, in which case the dish is called Soki Soba, but there are other varieties. The dish generally also includes green onions, kamaboko (fish cake) and red ginger.
A result of the American presence in Okinawa, taco rice is a unique dish that is popular as an inexpensive, filling meal. The meal's exact origins are uncertain, but it appeared in Okinawa sometime after the end of the war.
A bowl of taco rice consists of typical taco ingredients, such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa, served over rice. Other taco ingredients like cheese or onions can also be included. The meal is typically eaten with a spoon rather than with chopsticks.
Like on the mainland, there are many izakaya style restaurants in Okinawa where diners share a number of small dishes instead of eating one main meal each. Among the most famous dishes are:
Rafute is a pork dish featuring thick cuts of meat from the pig's belly that have been boiled to become very soft. It was originally part of the cuisine of the Ryukyu royal court, but has since become a common dish.
An order of rafute typically comes with one to three pieces of meat, but each piece is quite thick. The meat is cooked in soya sauce and fish broth, and sometimes awamori as well. The pieces of rafute are sometimes served with a bit of mustard as seasoning. The taste of the meat is usually very rich and savory.
Another pork dish, Mimiga consists of thinly cut pig's ear that is boiled or steamed. It comes with a crunchy texture and is usually seasoned with a ponzu sauce, salt or a peanut dressing.
Umibudo literally means "sea grapes" in Japanese, and this type of seaweed does indeed resemble grapes on a miniature scale. Each little umibudo ball has a soft skin that releases a salty liquid when bitten. Umibudo is usually served with little preparation, with only a bit of vinegar or soya sauce.
Another derivative of the versatile soya bean, tofuyo is the result of fermenting and aging regular tofu. It is a powerful and pungent dish that is served in very small portions and commonly eaten with toothpicks. Tofuyo is often compared to strong cheese because of its similar texture and taste.
The tofu is soaked in malted rice and awamori during the fermentation process, which takes a few months to complete. A red yeast is added in the process that gives the tofuyo its distinctive color. A glass of awamori is said to complement the taste of tofuyo nicely.
Yagi sashimi is raw goat meat, one of Okinawa's more challenging dishes. The slices of raw goat meat are presented and eaten in a similar fashion as regular seafood sashimi. The meat has a rather strong goaty flavor and is somewhat chewy.
The following uniquely Okinawan drinks are very popular and widely available:
Orion Beer is by far the most popular beer in Okinawa, but outside the islands it is quite uncommon. It has a light taste similar to Asahi Superdry, and is quite refreshing, making it a good drink for the beach in hot weather. It is widely available across the prefecture canned, bottled and as draft beer.
Awamori is a distilled spirit unique to Okinawa with an alcohol content usually between 30-40 percent. It is similar to but differs from shochu in that it is made from long-grained thai-style rice and uses a black koji mold indigenous to Okinawa. Awamori and Awamori based cocktails are widely available across Okinawa.
Sanpin-cha is the Okinawan name for Jasmine tea, and is widely popular across Okinawa. The tea is available at supermarkets, convenience stores, vending machines and at restaurants and is drunk hot or cold. Sanpin-cha was originally introduced from China and is generally flavored milder than its Chinese counterpart.