5 Famous Foods You’ll Find in Okinawa
Anyone for snake soup?
Okinawa has a very different history, culture, and climate than mainland Japan. Known as the Ryukyu Kingdom before being annexed by Japan in 1879, the island chain maintained close relationships with China and Southeast Asia in the centuries when the Japanese mainland was self-confined.
Expect delicious and eclectic dishes when visiting the archipelago from sea grapes to bitter melon and Spam!
1. Rafute (pork belly)
Pork is central to Okinawan cooking. Taking their cues from China, Okinawans have always been big on eating every single part of the easy-to-raise cattle.
The most popular pork dish is rafute, fatty pork belly simmered for hours in a broth of soy sauce, awamori (very strong distilled Okinawan liquor), and brown cane sugar, which is widely grown on the islands. It’s served as thick chunks of meat soft enough to melt in your mouth. Wash it down with a tall glass of awamori—but be careful, because this liquor is dangerous.
2. Goya champuru
Also known as bitter melon, goya is Okinawa’s signature vegetable. This healthy veggie looks like a wrinkly cucumber and tastes exactly as the name suggests—bitter.
Though used in a multitude of ways, goya champuru is Okinawa’s most famous dish involving goya. It sees the vegetable stir-fried with tofu, eggs, and meat. More often than not, the meat in the mix is Spam, a more recent legacy of the American presence in Okinawa. In fact, you’ll find Spam all over the island as a snack or even for breakfast served with eggs.
3. Okinawa soba
Unlike traditional Japanese soba made with flat buckwheat noodles, the soba you’ll find in Okinawa uses thick white noodles made from wheat flour. The noodles are typically served in a ramen-like broth, often with slices of rafute pork belly and pieces of kombu (kelp) on top.
Okinawa soba is traditionally a working-class food. Ask a taxi driver where he and his colleagues eat it—those are the best places to enjoy them.
4. Umibudo (sea grapes)
Umibudo, literally translated as sea grapes, is a dish coming straight out of ancient Okinawa. Those “sea grapes” are actually a type of seaweed forming little bubbles that burst in your mouth. They are also known as “green caviar” and that is what they essentially are.
Umibudo brings a taste straight out of the southern sea to your palate. Usually served with a dressing made of soy sauce and vinegar, it’s one of the defining culinary wonders you will encounter on the islands.
5. Irabu jiru (sea snake soup)
Irabu are highly poisonous sea snakes known in English as the Black-banded sea krait. On the tiny island of Kudaka, an easy reach from Naha, those snakes are caught by hand by two old ladies. Yes, they are total badasses.
The snakes are smoked and later turned into a delicious soup in the few restaurants on the island. Irabu jiru combines a large chunk of the snake, pork rib, and a good measure of kelp into a nice soup. In the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the royals and high priestesses indulged in this dish for its famed rejuvenating properties. Today, it is available to any adventurous gourmand.
If you dig the snake theme, go ahead and sip some habushu—sake made from venomous pit vipers. Did we mention how awamori was dangerous? Habushu is right up there with it.
Hungry for more? Check out the rest of our Famous Food in Japan series.