Japanese Food: Okinawan Food
Okinawan Cuisine - A Taste of Japan's Spicy Southwest
Peter D. Evan
The people of Okinawa, Japan's southernmost chain of islands, pride themselves on being different from the mainland. The unique nature of Okinawan culture is especially obvious in their music, but it can also be seen and tasted - in their distinctive cuisine.
Just about every aspect of Okinawan life is the result of a mix of Chinese, Japanese, South East Asian, and American elements joined to the vibrant native culture, and it is appropriate that the Okinawans themselves use a culinary analogy to illustrate this: Okinawa is one big champuru - a mixed stir-fry of culture.
And the good news is that you don't have to brave the sweltering heat of Naha to partake of this traditional international fusion cuisine. The Okinawans have been mounting something of a cultural counter-invasion in resent years, so you can now find Okinawan restaurants and izakaya in most major Japanese cities.
One of the first things you're likely to notice as you enter an Okinawan eatery is the difference in language. Even native Japanese speakers can have trouble deciphering a menu in uchinaguchi (the Okinawan dialect).
With some items such as tofu champuru (tofu stir-fry), this difficulty is simply a matter of translation, but with others the cultural gap is just too wide - you aren't likely to find mimiga (pigs' ears) or tofuyo (fermented tofu) by any name on a Japanese menu.
Don't let this worry you though, because Okinawans are well known for their openness and are used to explaining their culture to bemused mainlanders and foreigners. To help you get started, here's a brief glossary of the more unusual dishes that you're likely to encounter:
sata andagi: a fried doughnut usually seasoned with kokuto
(black cane sugar).
awamori: often referred to as Okinawan sake', it's actually the local variant of shochu, and ranges in potency from about 30 to 60 percent.
basashi: raw horse meat served so cold as to be almost frozen tasty but not for the squeamish.
beni imo: a purple sweet potato often used in tempura or simply baked and topped with butter.
champuru (or champroo): an Okinawan staple, champuru is a mixed stir-fry with a seemly infinite number of potential ingredients. Goya (bitter melon see below), somen (noodles), papaya, eggplant, pork, and fu (glutinous bread) commonly serve as the base, while egg, katsuobushi (fish flakes), seaweed, and Spam are often added to round out the flavor.
goya: a bitter fruit that looks like an extra knobbly cross
between a melon and a cucumber. Goya finds its way into almost any
dish. It is most often stir-fried but is also eaten in salads or tempura
and is even made into tea. Some people argue that it is the secret behind
the Okinawans' famous longevity.
rafte: fatty, tender slices of pork in a sweet brown sauce often made from soy, awamori, and ginger.
Orion Beer: the local beer that tastes suspiciously like Budweiser.
mimiga: thin shavings of cured pigs' ears, often served with a little mayonnaise and washed down with beer.
po-ku tamago: fried Spam and eggs, an American import great for the morning after a night of too much Orion.
sanpincha: jasmine tea, arguably Okinawa's most popular non-alcoholic beverage.
suteki (steak): Okinawan steak is famous throughout Japan, but it tends to be expensive and is nothing to write home about.
tako raisu (taco rice): although the name might lead you to expect this dish to contain octopus (tako in Japanese), taco rice is simply that - the contents of a taco (beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and salsa) on a bed of rice. In addition to the ubiquitous Spam, the US forces brought a taste for Tex-Mex food that has made a lasting impression on local cooking.
tofuyo: this form of fermented tofu tastes a little like a strong moldy cheese and is great with awamori, but a bit hard to handle without the aid of a stiff drink.
togarashi: hot sauce made from whole chilies in alcohol - especially good with noodles or champuru (not that same as the chili powder referred to by the same name on the mainland).
soki soba (or suki suba): buckwheat noodles and pork
ribs served in a clear broth.
If all these weird and wonderful dishes don't suit your palate, you can always opt for local variants of mainstream Japanese cuisine. Tempura, sashimi, and sakana furai (fried fish) are all authentically Okinawan, but closer to what you'd expect to find on the mainland.
Whether you first taste Okinawan food at a beach-side shokudo (restaurant), or at one of Shinjuku's many Okinawan izakaya, it's sure to be a unique dining experience.
You can try a distinctly Okinawan meal of goya champuru and mimiga washed down with a few glasses of awamori, or a less adventurous Okinawan reinterpretation of a Japanese standard such as tempura.
In either case you're bound to recognize some of the many elements that make Okinawa and Okinawan food in particular such an amazing champuru of culture.