Once the independent kingdom of Ryūkyū, Okinawan (or Ryūkyūan) cuisine is a different animal than that of 'mainland' Japan. While you'll find all your favourite Japanese standards on the island chain, one of the joys of eating here comes from sampling its unique regional specialities.
While Okinawan food has long incorporated ingredients and cooking techniques from China and Southeast Asia, more recent influences have hailed from the decades-old American military presence on Okinawa-hontō (Okinawa's main island) – hence the ubiquity of Spam and the delightfully unlikely but delicious comfort food that is taco rice.
Tex-Mex meets white rice
Taco rice, for the uninitiated, is a plate of Japanese white rice topped with seasoned ground beef, grated cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and usually a dollop of salsa out of a jar. It's essentially a '70s-style Tex-Mex taco nestled on a bed of rice instead of in a crunchy tortilla shell. Taco rice appears on menus throughout the islands and is a must-try local dish that represents the beautiful, oddball harmony of Mexican-American and Japanese culinary cross-pollination.
More recently, Okinawa's contemporary culinary trends are going the way of many other regional styles, by leaning international. While the islands aren't necessarily a hotbed for innovation, there are a few standouts worth checking out.
In Naha, break away from the noisy, garish souvenir shops of the main drag and wander the curving alley leading to Ukishima Garden (ukishima-garden.com). This little oasis of calmness and clean eating offers a seasonally changing, all-vegetarian, macrobiotic menu consisting mostly of vegan Okinawan goodness. Using organic produce, the chefs create lovely, fresh fusion pastas, vegan 'hamburger steak' and taco rice with locally gathered and grown mozuku (local seaweed), millet, gōyā (bitter melon, an Okinawan staple) and a rainbow of creatively presented veggies. Pair your meal with a cold Orion, the local lager, or a glass of imported wine and relax on the greenery-laced patio for a refreshing twist on local fusion.
For a taste of the traditional (served in contemporary style), head to the Tsuboya pottery district of Naha where Nuchigafu serves up spectacular multi-course Okinawan feasts on gorgeously glazed ceramic ware (the likes of which you can shop for in the neighbourhood). Housed in a historic building on a hill, the interior is beautifully preserved and modern in its minimalism. Dishes here are portioned at a size that allows sampling of an array of dishes – from tempura gōyā to falling-apart tender, sweetly-simmered pork belly to jiimami tofu (peanut-based tofu), all served by a kimono-clad waitress. In a full circle kind of way, Nuchigafu is one of a handful of sister restaurants founded in Osaka, and now showcasing Okinawan regional cuisine in its place of origin.
Meanwhile, on the island of Miyako-jima, the local izakaya (pub-eateries) happen to be concentrated in the island's central town of Hirara. The downtown restaurant district has loads of excellent spots to try, whether you like raucous, live, traditional music as part of the experience or a cosy one-on-one exchange with the chef at the bar of a sought-after husband-and-wife institution. One such izakaya, run by ebullient local boy Takashi Nanraku, is Nanraku. This colourful, informal and welcoming place is the perfect example of island-idiosyncratic cuisine enhanced by foreign elements. One house specialty is the donburi (rice bowl) topped with sashimi, mayo, dried bonito flakes and locally cultivated seaweed called umibudo (sea grapes). Also known as 'green caviar,' umibudo is one of those hyper-local delicacies best sampled where it's grown, as it's too delicate to travel very far (unlike you, hardy gourmand!). The artistically-minded chef can cater to your budget whilst still throwing down beautifully plated course after course of octopus and green papaya drizzled in olive oil, seawater-cured island tofu garnished with cherry tomatoes and tempura mozuku – all sourced locally.
And while we're on Miyako-jima, let's talk about that one guy who mindfully bakes bread in batches throughout the morning, so as to ensure that all his customers receive hot, freshly baked buns (and coffee) out of his little window on the street. Who does that? Tomohiro Murokami does, that's who. Mojapan is just one member of Okinawa's young, conscious foodie generation that puts quality, thoughtfulness and super-toothsome eats into the community.
Modern food hall
In the spirit of hole-in-the-wall bakeries, repurposed Airstream food trucks and old-fashioned yatai (food stalls) that you'll stumble upon all across the island chain, there's one last spot worth a mention. On Ishigaki-jima, just a couple of blocks from the ferry terminal in Ishigaki City, there's a tiered white building with three storeys of culinary adventures inside. Though Ishigaki City is full to bursting with wonderful izakaya, if you travel for any amount of time in Okinawa, your appetite may weary of the endless gōyā champuru (stir-fry of bitter melon, island tofu, scrambled egg and Spam) or soki soba (thick wheat noodles and Okinawan spare rib in pork broth) – delicious as they are.
The new Ishigakijima Village is one antidote to palate fatigue – modelled after old-school alleys and markets, this three-storey restaurant 'village' is packed with sleek, contemporary little restaurants and izakaya, each specialising in something from ice cream to kushiage (deep-fried skewered bites). If you're travelling with someone who fancies a juicy Ishigaki grassfed burger while you desire a tasting flight of sake, this is the place to split the difference. The open-plan layout makes it easy to roam around and explore your options, and you can hop from shop to shop for a taste here and a sip there. And while the cuisine may not be all that Okinawan, the convivial vibe very much is. Pull up a barstool at any one of these spots and sample the true flavour of sweet, salty, sunny Okinawa.