Okinawa is a chain of islands that are part of Japan, but if you were to compare them to other islands in Japan, they’re quite different. There’s a certain culture on the Ryukyu island chain that isn’t found anywhere else in the country (and some would argue it still hasn’t been replicated). Okinawan cuisine is one such example. You might think you know all about Japanese food thanks to your local sushi spot or ramen joint—or worse yet, takeout sushi rolls—but these dishes will definitely take you by surprise!
Awamori is a distilled spirit made from sweet potatoes and rice. It’s been produced in Okinawa for hundreds of years and is the island’s most famous alcoholic drink.
It’s hard to pin down what exactly awamori tastes like, but it’s generally thought to be somewhere between sake and shochu (another Japanese liquor). A lot of people describe the taste as similar to tequila or mezcal; others liken it more closely to rum or brandy. Like any strong alcohol, it has a distinct smell: one writer described it as “aniseed-flavored cough syrup.”
Awamori can be consumed straight or mixed with soda water as an appetizer before dinner; however you choose to drink yours though, just be careful–this potent little spirit packs quite a punch!
Okinawa soba is a popular dish in Okinawa. It’s made with buckwheat noodles and often served with a dipping sauce, similar to ramen but with a different taste. The noodles are thinner than regular ramen, so you can eat more of them!
Champuru is a dish of mixed vegetables, meat and seafood that originated in Okinawa. It’s popular in Japan and can be eaten hot or cold. The name comes from the Japanese word for “to mix,” which describes how the ingredients are combined together. Champuru usually has a dipping sauce that may include soy sauce and garlic or ginger juice
Goya champuru (ゴーヤチャンプル) is a stir-fried dish made with a variety of vegetables, tofu, and goya (bitter melon). This traditional Okinawan dish is served with rice and okara (soybean pulp).
Goya champuru can be served as an appetizer or side dish. It’s commonly eaten in restaurants or teahouses called “yatai” during festivals or special occasions like New Year’s Eve or Setsubun when people customarily eat meals outside their homes.
Chanpuru is a stir-fried dish of vegetables and meat that’s traditionally made with beef, pork, chicken or fish. But it can also be made with tofu for those who don’t eat meat. The main ingredients are usually carrots, cabbage and onions–but you might find some other veggies in there too!
Chanpuru usually contains sesame seeds and green onions (scallions). You might see some variations in recipes depending on where you’re eating chanpuru at; one popular variation has mushrooms added to give it an earthier taste.
Furumochi (fried noodles)
Furumochi (fried noodles) is a popular Okinawan dish that’s similar to chow mein. It’s made with egg, vegetables, pork and other ingredients fried in a pan. The dish can be found on the streets of Okinawa as well as in restaurants across Japan.
Goya mochi (bitter melon rice balls)
If you’re a fan of bitter melon, you’ll love this dish. Goya mochi (bitter melon rice balls) are made with goya, a fruit that looks like a cucumber but tastes much more mild. It’s often used in Japanese cooking to make soups and rice balls because it has such a mild flavor!
Goya natto (fermented bitter melon)
Goya natto is a popular Okinawan dish that is made with fermented soybeans and bitter melon. The goya (bitter melon) has been consumed in Okinawa for centuries and was traditionally used as a medicine to treat stomach ailments, colds, fevers and sore throats.
Natto is also known as “fermented soybeans” or simply “fermented beans.” Natto has been popular in Japan for many centuries; it’s believed to have originated from Korea during the Asuka period (538-710). It’s eaten like any other food–raw or cooked–but most people prefer it raw because it tastes better this way!
Nokanjyusu (coconut milk soup)
Nokanjyusu is a popular Okinawan dish made with pork, vegetables and coconut milk. It can be served hot or cold and is often served with rice or noodles. The name “nokanjyusu” comes from the Japanese words for coconut milk (noko) and soup (jan).
Spam musubi (rice ball with fried Spam on top)
Spam musubi is a popular dish that originated in Okinawa. It’s a sushi-style rice ball with fried Spam on top, and it can be found at Japanese restaurants all over the world. The word “musubi” means “to tie,” so this dish ties together two of America’s favorite foods: sushi and Spam!
To make Spam musubi, you’ll need:
- 2 cups cooked white rice (you may substitute brown rice if you prefer)
- 1 block or slice of fried Spam–the original recipe calls for Hawaiian-style Spam but any kind will do; I prefer using sliced luncheon meat since it tastes better than regular fried ham
Here are some classic Okinawan dishes that you may never have heard of.
The following dishes are unique to Okinawa and are worth checking out if you’re looking for something different.
- Goya chanpuru – A stir-fry of bitter melon, egg, pork belly and other ingredients. It’s a popular breakfast dish that blends the flavors of Japan with those of China and Korea.
- Goya champuru – This is another version of goya champuru except it uses Okinawan sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes (which aren’t native to Okinawa). It’s delicious served over rice!
- Yaeyama soba – This noodle dish comes from islands off the coast of Okinawa known as Yaeyama Islands–hence its name! Like many other local dishes in Japan, it features seafood such as oysters or shrimp along with vegetables like carrots and cabbage seasoned with soy sauce or miso paste depending on how you make yours at home (I recommend going wild with both!).
If you’re looking for a new place to eat, why not try some of these Okinawan dishes? They’re delicious, unique and easy to make at home. And if you’re ever in the area, be sure to stop by one of these restaurants!