Okinawan cuisine is famous for its reputedly multiplicitous health benefits. Try gōyā champurū (ゴーヤーチャンプルー), a stir-fry of pork, bitter melon and the island's uniquely sturdy tofu; Okinawa-soba (沖縄そば), basically udon served in a pork broth; and Blue Seal (ブルーシール) brand ice cream. Okinawa-hontō offers more variety than smaller islands, including vegan, Indian and Western restaurants, and is the birthplace of taco rice, and thus the perfect place to try some.
A Food Lover's Guide to Okinawa
Reflecting the islands' geographic and historical isolation, Okinawa's food shares little in common with that of mainland Japan. The cuisine originated in the splendour of the Ryūkyū court and from the humble lives of the impoverished islanders. Healthy eating is considered to be extremely important; indeed, islanders have long held that medicine and food are essentially the same. And it must be noted that Okinawans are among the longest-lived people in the world.
Today one of the island's staple foods is pork, which is acidic and rich in protein. Every part of the pig is eaten. Mimigā (ミミガー) is thinly sliced pig's ears marinated in vinegar, perfect with a cold glass of local Orion beer (オリオンビール). Rafutē (ラフテー) is pork stewed with ginger, brown sugar, rice wine and soy sauce until it falls apart. If you need some stamina, try some ikasumi-jiru (イカスミ汁), which is stewed pork in black squid ink.
While stewing is common, Okinawans prefer stir-frying, and refer to the technique as champurū (チャンプルー). Perhaps the best-known stir-fry is gōyā champurū (ゴーヤーチャンプルー), a mix of pork, bitter melon and the island's uniquely sturdy tofu, shima-dōfu (島豆腐). Occasionally you'll come across an unusual tofu variant known as tōfuyō (豆腐痒), a type of shima-dōfu whose strong flavour is due to fermentation in awamori (Okinawan liquor distilled from rice).
The ubiquitous okinawa-soba (沖縄そば) is udon (thick white wheat noodles) served in a pork broth. The most common variants are sōki-soba (ソーキそば), topped with pork spare ribs, and Yaeyama-soba (八重山そば), which contains soba topped with tiny pieces of tender pork, bean sprouts and scallions.
Aside from gōyā champurū, bitter melon appears in all kinds of dishes, delivering a dose of antioxidants and holding promise for its potential to combat diabetes.
Finally, there's nothing quite like Blue Seal (ブルーシール) brand ice cream, an American favourite introduced here after WWII. It's best savoured at a shop rather than in prepacked containers.