Okinawa is a beautiful island about 400 miles South of the rest of Japan. It’s a popular summer destination for Japanese and foreign tourists alike.
Ryosuke and I just got back from a fabulous, four day trip on the coast of Okinawa. While we were there, we tried some of the best (and most unique) foods the island had to offer – and I wanted to share my favorites with you:
These are the top 13 foods you’ve got to try in Okinawa!
1. Goya Chanpuru
Hands down, one of the most famous dishes in Okinawa seems to be goya chanpuru. In a word, it is Okinawa. Goya chanpuru consists of tofu, with spam, goya (bitter melon), and egg, fried together into a sort of “soupy” consistency.
“Chanpuru” itself is the Okinawan word for “something mixed” – and if you think about it, that pretty much described Okinawa. For those of you who aren’t too familiar with Japanese history, these island wasn’t always a part of Japan. Its culture is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, American, Southeast Asian and traditional Ryukyu (southern island).
Anyways, all you need to know is that goya chanpuru is freaking delicious and available all throughout Okinawa. We ate it as a side dish, as a main course, and as a topping in ramen.
2. Okinawa soba
I’m not going to lie, Ryosuke and I brought back half a kilo of dried Okinawa soba noodles, so we could make this here in Tokyo.
It wasn’t my first time having soba, not by a long shot. Soba is a popular dish in Japan. The most common type of soba noodles are a brownish/greyish buckwheat noodle, served either chilled with a dipping sauce or inside a hot soup.
That being said, Okinawa soba is nothing like the “regular” soba we eat all the time in Tokyo.
Consistency-wise, Okinawa soba noodles are closer to udon noodles (thick wheat noodles) than soba noodles (thin buckwheat noodles). And the broth they are served in tastes more like a ramen broth – rather than anything I’ve ever had served with udon/soba in Tokyo.
Apparently the broth is flavored with konbu (seaweed), fish flakes, and pork. It’s freaking amazing.
Ryosuke and I went to this restaurant TWICE (the only repeat restaurant, since we wanted to try as many things as we could during our four days on the island). It was a tiny place located on a backstreet and each bowl of soba only cost 390yen! (Roughtly $3.50)
3. Dried goya chips
I love dried fruit. I love goya (bitter melon). Naturally, I loved these goya chips. It was a much more memorable snack than regular potato chips (not to mention much healthier).
4. Umibudo (sea grapes)
Umibudo (also known as sea grapes or green caviar) are a delicious type of caulerpa (seaweed). They are commonly eaten in both the Philippines and in Okinawa. And, of course, they are typically eaten raw.
I loved umibudo because it kind of felt like I was eating tiny, salty grapes. Like really tiny, really salty grapes. They pop right in your mouth and have a pleasant, refreshing taste.
We ate umibudo as a side dish (with vinegar), as a garnish, and as a topping over rice and goya chanpuru ramen.
5. Passion fruit
Passion fruit isn’t unique to Okinawa, of course, but it is still one of the best fruits we ate on the island. By Ryosuke’s (rough) calculations, we ate about eleven passion fruit each, during our four days on the island. I can believe that.
I have never eaten passion fruit as fresh and as a cheap before. Why wouldn’t I try to eat half a dozen slices every day?
And, of course, because we were flying domestically back to Tokyo, we were able to pack another dozen fruits in our suitcase, to eat back in Tokyo. Which were all gone by our third day back. Boohoo.
6. Seakuwasha (shekwasha?) anything
Oh man, I had a fun time Googling the name for this. In Japanese, it is written as シークヮーサー and it was harder than expected trying to find a legit English translation for it. Wikipedia says it is “shequasar” or “Taiwan tangerine,” though, so let’s stick with this.
Shekwasha is a very sour citrus, famous in Okinawa. It is notable for its very low sugar content and extreme sour-ness.
You can find shekwasha in a variety of dishes in Okinawa. Some of my favorites were:
- Shekwasha juice (sold in 1000ml cartons at basically every single convenience store on the island – for only like 100yen. Or in cans.)
- Freshly squeezed shekwasha juice (similar to shekwasha juice, but much more sour and much more expensive, you know, on the account of it being freshly squeezed)
- Shekwasha chips (potato chips with a strong, sour flavor)
- Shekwasha alcohol (cocktail of alcohol and shekwasha juice)
- Shekwasha ice cream (who doesn’t love ice cream?)
7. Black sugar pocky
Pocky is a ridiculously famous Japanese snack, popular not only in Japan, but also abroad. If you’ve ever been to an Anime convention in the States, you’ve probably seen them. They appear in numerous manga and anime – as well as webcomics, games, and most other things related to Japanese pop culture.
Some people are die-hard pocky fans. Ryosuke and I aren’t.
We like them, of course, but they’re just another snack to us.
In any case, there are dozens of varieties of pocky, ranging from chocolate to strawberry to green tea. Okinawa had their own type, “black sugar” pocky. Okinawa is famous for their black sugar (which is like rocks of the brown sugar I grew up eating in my oatmeal in America). We brought back a dozen boxes for friends and family members, as a souvenir. And then proceeded to eat two boxes on the plane, because we were bored and hungry.
8. Beni Imo (purple sweet potato snack)
Beni imo snacks are another solid souvenir. They’re sweat, creamy, and vibrantly purple. And, of course, available pretty much everywhere on the island (including the airport).
9. Goya pizza
I confess, I just wanted to try this one for the sake of it. How cool is it to say “I had bitter melon pizza on vacation!”
It was good. It really was. It wasn’t amazing, of course, but it was a very solid meal.
10. Goya burger and goya rings
This was another dish that I wanted to try just for the sake of it. We found a small fast food restaurant that served goya chanpuru with ham, as a burger. It was an interesting (and cheap!) cutlernary experience. The highlight of the restaurant was actually the “goya chips” – which were like onion rings, except with sliced bitter melon instead of onion.
Weirdly enough, the oil, breaded matter, and salt went wonderfully with the goya.
11. Goya beer (or any other local, Okinawan beer)
Whenever you travel, you really ought to try local beers. We had a couple cocktails (with shekwasha and passion fruit) and a couple beers.
Our favorite was probably the dry goya beer. Apparently it won some sort of competition at the International Beer Festival… and before you ask, yes, it was priced very reasonably.
12. Fresh Pineapple
Why not? Fresh fruit is awesome.
There were tons of stalls selling small, edible pineapples. They were even nice enough to cut it up for you.
13. Snake venom alcohol (habushu)
Habushu (also known as Okinawan Snake Wine or Habu Sake) is an alcoholic drink made from long distilled grain indica rice, mixed with snake venom, of course. Because why not.
Habu sake is an “awamori” type of alcohol, which is indigenous to Okinawa. We got another type of awamori alcohol for Japanese mom and dad (that didn’t contain any dead snakes), so the dead snake part isn’t strictly necessary.
Habu snakes are pit vipers with extremely venomous bites. Habu sake makers stuff the snakes in the yellowish alcohol while they’re still alive, so that they die with a particularly scary look on their face (which is kind of morbid, if you think about it). The snakes are left in the alcohol.
Ryosuke and I bought four different kinds of (cheap) habu sake, as gifts and because we wanted to have a massive taste-testing fest once we got home. All our alcohol was, of course, habu snake-less.
Why do people put snakes in the alcohol? Good question, I’m glad you asked. As you might imagine, it’s supposed to have medicinal properties.
A habu snake can go without eating for a year and still have plenty of energy (so I guess if you eat it, you can also get that super-power? Kind of like eating birds will make you fly). Also, habu snakes are able to bump uglies with their lady friends for over 25 hours (which is rather impressive, if you think about it), so consuming habu sake is supposed to help increase the male libido and cure sexual dysfunction in men.
Personally, I thought habu sake tasted kind of like whisky.