Positioned in the far south, Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands are an incredibly distinct part of Japan.
This big group of islands, altogether called the Ryukyu Islands, is a center where Chinese, Japanese, and American cultures all meet and blend into one. In addition, the warm subtropical climate makes the plant and animal life of Okinawa quite different from the more temperate mainland Japan.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Okinawan and Ryukyu cuisine is unlike the rest of Japan too.
Today, we’ll dive into the diverse (and frankly, quite unusual) foods that Okinawans and other Ryukyu island inhabitants love. From pork to papaya, let’s talk about what makes the islanders’ mouths water!
P.S. If you’re not sure what makes the Ryukyu Islands so special, check out our Okinawa and Ryukyu Culture guide – you’ll be surprised by the unique circumstances that shaped their culture and cuisine!
Famous Okinawan and Ryukyu Foods
In the Okinawan dialect, chanpuru means “a mix of things”.
As a dish, chanpuru is a stir-fried combination of ingredients easy to find locally in Okinawa and other Ryukyu islands. It comes in many varieties (there are probably as many recipes as there are households on the islands), but chanpuru typically includes:
- Tofu – The tofu most commonly used in Okinawa is a bit firmer and doesn’t fall apart easily. It’s usually called island tofu (shima-tofu, 島豆腐)
- Meat or fish (most commonly pork, luncheon meat like Spam, or canned tuna),
- Veggies like carrots, mung bean sprouts (moyashi, もやし), or a local sort of bitter gourd (goya, ゴーヤー in Okinawan or nigauri, 苦瓜 in Japanese).
The ingredients differ but the concept of chanpuru is the same – it’s a mixture of various ingredients, usually whatever you happen to have around the home. The concept of chanpuru is used to describe the Okinawa and Ryukyu island culture itself – since it’s truly a unique mix of Japanese, Chinese, and US influences.
Okinawa Soba (沖縄そば)
Okinawa Soba, manufactured by The Okinawa Noodle Manufacturing Co-op, had to fight hard to keep the right to use the word “soba” in its name – and they did it.
Soba typically refers to dark brown buckwheat noodles, and according to the Japanese Fair Trade Commission, a noodle product must contain at least 30% buckwheat to reach the criteria for the name. However, Okinawa Soba are 100% wheat noodles, and always have been. On October 17th, 1978, the local dish finally got the right to keep its traditional name – Okinawa Soba – and the date is celebrated as Okinawa Soba Day every year!
Compared to other Japanese noodles, Okinawa soba has a similar texture and size as udon. It’s typically served in soups made with kombu seaweed, katsuobushi (bonito flakes), green onions, and pork, and garnished with pickled ginger.
Irabu Jiru (イラブーじる)
Irabu is a dark-blue or black striped sea snake native to the seas around Okinawa. It tastes fairly similar to white fish meat.
Despite being highly venomous, irabu are very easy to catch, so dishes based on this sea creature existed since the ancient times of the Ryukyu kingdom. In fact, irabu jiru or irabu soup was a high-end meal served only to the most important guests and envoys.
The sea snake is smoked and then cooked with kombu seaweed. Irabu jiru soup is famous for its health benefits which include blood pressure control and reinvigorating effects.
Ever seen a bright-red chunk of tofu? This pungent traditional side dish or appetizer stems from the courts of Ryukyu nobility.
While preparation is simple, getting that perfectly fermented tofuyo takes a long, long time, making this dish so rare and revered back in the day. Tofuyo is made by mixing Okinawan regional tofu (shima tofu) with red yeast, rice malt, and the locally famous alcoholic drink awamori. After this mixture of ingredients ferments, you get soft, creamy, yet very aromatic bites of red tofu.
Suku-Garasu Tofu (スクガラス豆腐)
If you’re having a night out, drinking beer or awamori in Okinawa, have a few pieces of suku-garasu tofu to go with your drink – you’ll love how well the two combine!
This local delicacy consists of a piece of Okinawan tofu topped with a salted suku – baby rabbitfish.
Umi Budo (海ぶどう)
The sea around Okinawa has the perfect conditions for interesting-looking seaweed considered a local delicacy famous across Japan. This seaweed, known as umibudo which translates to “sea grapes”, really resembles young unripe grapes – but only in appearance.
Umibudo has a similar flavor as other seaweeds (think kombu or wakame), but it stands apart for its unique texture. It’s full of little bubbles that pop as you bite – somewhat like fish roe – making this a fun, healthy dish for kids.
The seaweed is typically eaten raw, topped with a little bit of ponzu (citrus soy sauce).
Okinawan Pork Delicacies
Pork is all the rage in many parts of Japan, but this kind of meat reached the peak of its popularity in Okinawa.
The Okinawan people eat almost all parts of a pig – including but not limited to feet, ears, stomach, and face – save for the snout. In fact, Okinawa has its own kind of premium pork called aguu (あぐー豚), coming from a black-haired hog indigenous to the island.
Here are some of the most common pork-based meals popular in Ryukyu cuisine.
This sweet and savory cut of pork belly, cooked in soy sauce, awamori alcoholic drink, and brown sugar, is a melt-in-your-mouth recipe that’s a must-try if you visit Okinawa.
What makes rafute special is its long simmering process which tenderizes the meat and rids it of excess fat, giving you an extra-fine cut that’s a joy to chew on.
Rafute is a common topping for Okinawa Soba, but you can eat it on its own too.
Minudaru doesn’t look like much – but it definitely tastes amazing. It’s quite easy to make too – it’s simply steamed pork topped with a lot of black sesame.
This simple dish is one of those foods served on the Ryukyu court – and it’s still used to demonstrate Okinawan hospitality.
This steamed rice meal has a long history – and while it seems similar to a few of mainland Japan’s dishes, Okinawan jushi is set apart by the use of pork belly.
It’s super simple to make: simply throw some rice, diced pork, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and kombu seaweed into your rice cooker, and you’re good to go!
Kubuirichi is easiest described as kombu seaweed stir-fry with pork. Unlike most of Japan, where kombu is mostly used as a base for soup stock, Okinawans love their seaweed cut in long strips and fried.
This meal is very healthy and easy to make, so it’s one of the most common school lunches in Okinawa.
Papaya Irichi (パパイヤイリチー)
Okinawa has a climate unique for Japanese territory – the tropical and subtropical heat makes it possible to grow fruit that doesn’t grow elsewhere in Japan. Tropical fruit like mango, pineapples, dragon fruit, and papaya make a common appearance on the islands.
However, unlike other tropical fruit, papaya is considered more of a vegetable in Okinawa. That’s because they prefer to eat it while it’s still unripe. In fact, Okinawans believe that green papaya has the power to help nursing women lactate easier.
One of the popular recipes that use papaya with “other” vegetables is Papaya Irichi. It’s basically stripes of green papaya, carrots, and pork or tuna fried with soy sauce and mirin.
US-Inspired Okinawan Dishes
Luncheon meats like SPAM aren’t exactly a Japanese staple. But thanks to the Okinawans’ long history with US military bases, the American diet influenced the food people that live in the Ryukyu area eat. Here are some interesting American-Ryukyuan food blends.
Pork Tamago (ポークタマゴ)
Pork tamago may be best described as a kind of Japanese-American sandwich. In essence, it’s a slice of SPAM, a bit of omelet, and rice wrapped in a sheet of nori (海苔, the kind of seaweed used for sushi).
It’s super easy to make, which makes it a tasty breakfast (though a bit high on sodium) to have in Okinawa.
Taco Rice (タコライス)
Okinawan restaurants offer Taco Rice, but you may be surprised to get your meal in a bowl, and not in a tortilla. In fact, it’s hard to say whether taco rice can be called taco at all, but that’s what they call it!
In essence, taco rice is a bowl of rice topped with your typical taco ingredients: ground cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa sauce. This meal became a big hit both with native Okinawans and the US military personnel residing on the islands.
Ryukyu Cuisine – A Chanpuru of Influence
From tropical fruit, an indigenous type of pork, to US-imported luncheon meats, it’s incredible how many foods unusual for Japan you can find in Okinawa and the Ryukyu region. We hope we managed to tickle your imagination and make your mouth water at least a bit. The incredible mix and match of cooking styles and ingredients gives Okinawan cuisine a distinct quality that’s almost impossible to describe with words – You simply have to try it for yourself!