I’ve eaten all over Japan and nothing — nothing — compares to Okinawan food.
The food in this southernmost prefecture is a reflection of its cultural diversity, distance from Japan and complicated history.
The hundred of islands here were only part of an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom that traded heavily with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. (Ryukyu-han became Okinawa Prefecture of Japan in 1879.) All of these connections had an impact on the cuisine here. The pork hailed from China, the dashi and kelp from Japan, the fruits and spices from all over Asia.
And then there’s the big U.S. military presence here, which has contributed such post-war items as corned beef and Spam to the culinary landscape.
It’s strange and wonderful at the same time.
One of the most iconic dishes in Okinawa is soki soba — or Okinawan soba — which, by the way has nothing to do with the Japanese buckwheat noodles with the same name. Not at all.
This noodle dish features thick wheat noodles in a clear dashi (broth) made from pork or bonito fish flakes — or a blend of both. The chewy noodles are always thick and sometimes flat or wavy. It all depends on region and preference.
There are two different types of soki: hon soki (boned sparerib) and nonkotsu soki (cartilage sparerib). And the broth — which, to any Okinawan, is really the most important part of the dish — can range from light and fishy to heavy and porky. Again, it just all depends.
Soki, though, is the star. These slow-cooked pork ribs are the most common topping in Okinawan soba and are braised in a shoyu-sugar mixture with awamori (a spirit made from long grain indica rice) until the meat is fork tender and falling off its bones.
The dish is garnished with shredded pickled ginger, scallions, egg, and sometimes Spam. And many add a few drops of something called koregusu, a chili pepper-infused awamori that’s not dissimilar to Hawai‘i’s chili pepper water.
After a couple of bowls of soki soba, I needed something sweet.
We didn’t see anyone selling andagi on our first full day in Okinawa — I’m on a mission to find that, though! — but we did visit a traditional Okinawan manju shop (above).
Okinawan manju is actually more like Japanese-style mochi. I found this interesting because I’m more familiar with manju as more of a cookie exterior filled with sweetened red bean paste. But the manju here — called nantu — is sweet steamed mochi.
Turns out, manju was derived from a type of pounded mochi from China called mantou. So maybe the Okinawans still make their version in the traditional Chinese style.
We visited Manjyu Cafe, a small manju shop that’s been around for nine years here — but actually a second location for the very famous Yamagusuku company that’s been around for 160 years. The women on each side above — (left to right) Tomi Kobashigawa, Miyoko Iha and Akemi Kakazu — are the sixth generation of owners. (Miyoko Iha in the middle is their 83-year-old mother.)
They only serve a couple of different flavors of manju. Today, they had a traditional one filled with red bean paste sweeter with sugar (white) and another made from Okinawan sweet potato and filled with mashed Okinawan taro (purple).
The manju — 150 yen ($1.25) each — are steamed in ginger leaves, which give is a lovely fragrance when you eat it. So different from Japanese-style mochi.
Another popular dessert is sangatsu gashi, which means “third-month candy” (above). It’s a small, deep-fried bar of dough — not unlike andagi — that contains sesame seeds or peanuts. It’s served during hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day.
And while this may not be a traditional Okinawan staple, you’ll find it everywhere, just like in Hawai‘i.
Spam (above), that precooked canned meat from Hormel, is very common here. In fact, you’ll find it in one of Okinawa’s iconic dishes, goya champuru, a stir fry with bitter melon.
Due to a meat scarcity during World War II, the American GIs would give out free cans of Spam to families in Okinawa. It quickly became a household product.
Today, about 7.2 million cans of Spam are consumed annually in Okinawa.
Take a stroll down Ichiba Hondori, right off Naha’s popular Kokusai Street (think Kalākaua Avenue in Waikīkī) and you’ll see a lot of specialty foods and drinks.
The street was once known as “Sweets Street” because of its large number of confectionary shops, now features a variety of vendors. You’ll see items like Bogor pineapple — its segments can be easily pulled off and eaten — and pickled things like garlic wrapped in shiso leaves.
Grocery stores — like San A — are a great place to see locally grown produce, too, like the yellow Okinawan carrots (long and light with a texture softer than burdock), okra, shima rakkyo (similar to shallot and eaten with awamori), and handama (purple Okinawan spinach).
It’s been a interesting culinary journey so far — and I know there’s so much more to eat.
But for Day 1, I think that’s pretty good.
Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.