Goya, su-chika, hirarya-chi, shima-rakkyo. These foods sound foreign to my American ears, but part of immersing ourselves in Okinawa, Japan, was trying the local flavors.
Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands located between the East China and Philippine seas and almost 1,000 miles south of Tokyo. We traveled to spend time with our military son who was stationed there, and since we were going that far, we planned 2 weeks in the southern (Naha) area and another week north, in Okuma.
We loved our time in Okinawa. It has all the beauty of Hawaii and all the kindness and courtesies of Japan. When we arrived in Okinawa after a long day of travel, we stepped into our first Okinawan taxi, which was impeccably clean. The quaint lace doilies on the headrests showed us this cab was driven by someone who cares about the details. Early on in our trip, when an older gentleman bowed to us in the elevator, we clumsily bowed back. Our son tried to teach us a formal thank you (“arigato gozaimasu”), and I repeatedly attempted to say that second word correctly and get the emphasis just right. I can’t say we ever got the courtesies or phrases down perfectly, but we enjoyed the abundant beauty of the island and the culture and graciousness of its people.
Amid it all, we enjoyed some great flavors. Okinawan chefs meld the best of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Western cooking, and the outcome is worth trying. Sushi, tuna rolls, shoyu and miso ramen, fried rice, and curious seaweed garnishes are ubiquitous and delicious, but we also tried foods that were entirely unfamiliar to us. Here are six incredible dishes or foods I’d encourage you to try when you get there.
1. Okinawa Sweet Potatoes
It’s easy to “eat your colors” with the help of Okinawa sweet potatoes — they’re purple! Grown in rich volcanic soil, these unique potatoes (also called beni imo) have antioxidants like those found in blueberries. They are dense and drier than the orange ones we know and have a mild taste. At a breakfast buffet, I tried a sweet roll made with sweet potatoes and could see the purple ribbon throughout (convincing myself it was healthy). I spread it with the accompanying purple paste for more sweet potato goodness.
2. Acerola Juice
At the same buffet, I poured myself a glass of acerola juice. Acerola is called an untapped superfruit and is believed to be one of the richest natural sources of vitamin C (50-100 times greater than an orange or lemon), antioxidants, and other nutrients. The juice was fruity and sweet, very similar to cherry.
Pro Tip: Thanks to the American military influence on the island, you can find an English menu in many restaurants. In smaller ones with entirely Japanese menus, the use of photos combined with the universal “point and nod” method works just fine.
Lychees are a small, golf-ball-sized fruit with a rough, purplish-red rind. The rind looks tough and uncooperative, but it peels easily with your fingers. The white, juicy fruit inside has the texture of a peeled grape. It does have a large brown seed you’ll have to eat around, but it’s worth it. Lychee is also known for its health benefits of vitamins and antioxidants.
Pro Tip: If you’re a fan of iced tea, I liked the Kirin brand straight (red) tea and milk tea. Find them in any grocery store.
During our last week on the island, we stayed at the wonderful Okuma Private Beach & Resort. This resort has six restaurants that offer a variety of dining experiences. One night, we enjoyed tapas (small portion appetizers) at Okame, their restaurant that promises an authentic Okinawan atmosphere. We ordered six tapas so we could taste a variety of flavors.
4. Goya Salad
Goya is a bitter melon, but pair it with a Japanese white radish salad and horseradish dressing, and it’s crunchy, zesty, and delicious! Goya is named among the foods that help make Okinawa a “Blue Zone” (five areas in the world with a large concentration of centenarians, age 100+ plus people who’ve grown old without traditional health problems like heart disease, obesity, cancer, or diabetes.)
Pro Tip: Chopsticks are easier to use with large pieces of food, like ramen noodles or this goya salad. (Fried rice was really a challenge!) Etiquette says to eat the entire portion you pick up on your chopsticks in one bite. When not in use, rest your chopsticks on the side of your plate or on a provided chopstick holder. Sticking them vertically into your food is inappropriate because it carries funeral symbolism. We never achieved the expert chopstick skill of our son, but we had fun trying.
Shima-rakkyo, or island shallots, are native to Okinawa and are another vegetable thought to contribute to Blue Zone longevity. They have an aroma and flavor like a green onion, and ours were served lightly salted, crisp-tender and flavorful, with dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) on top. You can also eat them raw or lightly pickled.
Pro Tip: At some point in your culinary journey, try a sip or two of the Okinawan liquor, awamori. It starts with Indica Thai rice soaked in water and is fermented and distilled, and it packs a punch. Tradition says awamori has been made the same way for more than 500 years.
Hiraya-chi is a savory Okinawa-style pancake with chives and green onion. These were served with Worcestershire sauce and mayo. Some might find their rather spongy texture off-putting; I thought the flavor was so good that the texture was secondary. It’s said to be a perfect snack with awamori or a locally brewed Orion beer. Because it’s made with common ingredients, hirarya-chi is also a “go-to” emergency food when the island faces threats of a typhoon.
When you try new things, not everything is a winner. Of the six tapas we tried, three were devoured, and three were eaten “less enthusiastically.” Who knows? You might try these things and like them, but they weren’t our favorites:
- Asa-soup: A salty seaweed soup, served with rice (liked the rice!).
- Rafute: Slowly cooked, salted, sweetened pork belly, stewed in soy sauce and fish broth, served with a lemon wedge.
- Su-chika: Boneless pork ribs, salt-preserved, steamed, and served with rice noodles.
Pro Tip: Tipping is unnecessary in Japan. No need to tip your server, bartender, taxi driver, or anyone else. It seems unusual to us, but it’s perfectly fine in Okinawa.
Bonus: Happy Snacking
Snacks are an important part of a travel food experience. While not all of these are exclusively Japanese, here were some delicious and sometimes surprising snacking options on Okinawa.
Blue Seal Ice Cream
Hand-packed Blue Seal ice cream is an Okinawan classic and a “must-do” on the island. I read that salt ice cream is the way to go, so I ordered a scoop of “salt cookie” but hedged my bets and ordered a second scoop of chocolate swirl, too. The salt cookie was okay, but I wasn’t a repeat customer. You’ll have to try it and see what you think.
Kabaya Brand Chocolate-Covered Almonds
These are almonds covered in rich milk chocolate and individually wrapped for an easy “grab-and-go.” Worth every penny… er… yen.
Chicago-Style Caramel And Cheese Mixed Popcorn
Popcorn is a go-to snack, and the American-influenced mix of caramel and cheddar is a classic combination. I especially enjoyed the “hard sell” of this packaging: “This popcorn is amazing! If you want to eat something good, this is it!”
Kit-Kat Candy Bars
The everyday, run-of-the-mill grocery store in Okinawa has an abundance of Kit-Kat candy bars. Japan sells some 300 regional and limited-edition flavors! Everything from the unusual but appealing green tea, azuki bean (peanut butter taste), and Sakura (cherry) flavors to more adventurous flavors like wasabi, purple beni imo (sound familiar?), apple vinegar, and vegetable juice! Why this Kit-Kat overload? Apparently, the candy bar moniker sounds an awful lot like the Japanese phrase “Kitto katsu” which means good luck or “surely win,” making it a popular gift for many occasions.
Part of the fun of travel is enjoying food and flavors wherever you are. This was our first visit to Asia, and we (pardon the pun) ate it up. Seeing our beloved son was the highlight of our trip and sharing the foods unique to his home-away-from-home over conversation and laughter was so special and dear to me.
When you go, these six incredible dishes and foods will get you started on a unique Okinawan culinary journey. I encourage you to taste and see, and if you like it, to eat fully and drink deeply of the good things waiting for you in Okinawa.