An Okinawa food guide from my trip to Japan. What foods to try, explanation of traditional Okinawan food and restaurant recommendations!
Okinawa, Japan is a foodie’s paradise. If you were following me on Instagram during my trip last month, you’ll know that every meal I ate on the island was an actual feast, for the eyes and for the belly. The food there is unlike anywhere else in the world, even mainland Japan.
The Okinawan people have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. Why exactly is a mystery that researchers are still trying to crack, but much of it has been credited to their diet.
Surprisingly, the Okinawan diet is heavily pork-based. It also includes a lot of strange-looking seaweeds and bitter greens. Luckily my guide for the trip, Naomi Ohara, specializes in traditional Okinawan food and actually teaches ‘Food as Medicine’ courses for visitors to Okinawa. She introduced me to so many foods on the trip that…how do I say this politely, tasted very healthy. Naomi explained that Okinawan children are forced to eat these healthy foods until their palates adapt and their bodies start to ‘crave them’. This sounds suspiciously similar to my personal experience with brussels sprouts here in the US.
I was struck by the joy that surrounds eating in Okinawa, and the appreciation they have for food and its health benefits. Here are some of my favorite Okinawan foods that you must try if you visit the island. I’ve also thrown in a few restaurant ideas to check out while you’re there.
Okinawa Food & Restaurant Guide
Shabu Shabu Japanese Hotpot
Oh shabu shabu. Seriously one of the most fun, most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Best experienced with a group, shabu shabu is like Japanese fondue. You order an assortment of uncooked thinly sliced meats, noodles and fresh vegetables and cook them yourself right on your table in a pot of boiling broth. SO good.
Ufuya is well-known in Okinawa for not only hot pot, but also Okinawa soba. It’s worth going for soba for lunch and then back again for hot pot for an epic foodie adventure! Not only is their food amazing, but the setting is also pretty fantastic. Think waterfalls, rock walls with floral arrangements and multiple levels of seating.
Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Taco Rice in Okinawa
Of all the foods I mention here, this is the dish that everyone mentioned when I said I was visiting Okinawa. Because of the military base presence on Okinawa Island, a portion of their cuisine has been inspired by the American influence. Taco rice is a perfect example of this. I was a little skeptical that it was just a gimmick, but it actually tastes amazing. Taco rice is all of your favorite taco ingredients – ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and avocado served on a bed of rice. It’s like nachos but better.
Taco Rice Cafe Kijimunaa
American Village Okinawa
〒901-0233 Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Tomigusuku, Senaga, 174−6
Sea Grapes (Umibudo)
Sea Grapes aren’t grapes at all! They are . It’s usually eaten raw and in Okinawa it commonly accompanied sashimi. The experience of eating sea grapes is hard to describe. Biting each one is like bursting a tiny air bubble. It’s the foodie equivalent to popping bubble wrap. They have a slightly salty taste and are the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer on a warm night.
Uminchu Ryori Kaihomaru
1421-1 Yamakawa, Kunigami-gun
Motobu-cho 905-0205, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Pigs Feet – A Traditional Okinawan Dish
Here’s one that is tough to swallow, literally. Although my first instinct is to recoil in disgust, Okinawan people eat pigs feet as a normal part of their diet. The women I met on my trip swore that the collagen in the feet prevents wrinkles and make their nails and hair stronger. They aren’t as disgusting as they sound (and look). Wondering what they taste like? Pigs feet actually taste like bacon!
Nago 905-0022, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Goya or Bitter Melon
This spiny green veggie is something I’d never had before traveling to Okinawa. It’s super crunchy and tastes like a bitter cucumber. I ate goya so many ways – dried, pickled, fresh and stir-fried. It’s so versatile! Goya is one of the health foods that Okinawans credit for their long lifespan. It’s high in vitamin C, B vitamins and flavenoids, which in theory means it is immune boosting, aids metabolism, regulates blood sugar and fights cancer.
Okinawa Goya Chanpuru Tofu Stir-Fry
This was my favorite way to enjoy the Okinawan goya (above). It’s basically a tofu scramble with miscellaneous veggies, and even spam. It’s great for any meal – breakfast, lunch or dinner. So satisfying – it’s total comfort food.
Okinawa Buku Buku Foam Milk Tea
Okinawa buku buku tea is definitely worth seeking out if you’re on the island. The heavenly foam itself has no taste, but it’s so fun to drink! The millions of tiny bubbles are made by vigorously whisking a large bowl of tea with a wooden whisk. We weren’t lucky enough to catch an Okinawan tea ceremony, but I want to do that during a future visit.
Okinawa Soba Noodles
Soba is a traditional Japanese soup that contains tasty noodles and There’s an important difference between Okinawa soba and soba noodles in the rest of Japan. Okinawa soba is made with regular flour instead of the buckwheat flour used for typical soba. The Okinawan noodles are wider and flatter. There is a difference in taste too – Okinawa sobas are chewier and perfect for slurping.
Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Blue Seal Ice Cream
Blue Seal’s slogan is “Born in America, Made in Okinawa”. It’s an Okinawan institution, having been on the island for 70 years. Blue Seal has a million flavors from traditional like Cookies & Cream to weird like Purple Yam. They are more than happy to provide samples too, so you can eat to your heart’s content.
Blue Seal Ice Cream
5 Chome-22-20 Agarie
Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Okinawa Doughnuts – Sata Andagi
Okinawa doughnuts are cake-style, sweet balls of happiness found all over the island. They are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Bonus points if you find a fancy one like we did that is stuffed with purple yam!
Okinawa Zenzai Shaved Ice with Red Beans
Zenzai is perfect for a hot Okinawan summer day. You can find it on the island anywhere from food trucks to restaurants. We picked a little hole-in-the-wall place where you put your coins in a vending machine and a ticket is dispensed. You then take your ticket to the counter and a nice lady shaves the ice on the spot with a machine and scoops it over this super sweet red bean rice syrup.
Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Okinawa Kotsuo Bushi
Kotsuo bushi is a staple in Okinawan cooking for the umami flavor it imparts into food. It’s dried, fermented and smoked tuna that looks almost like wood when it’s done. For cooking, flakes are shaved off of the fish. You may have heard of bonito flakes, which are similar but made with a cheaper fish. It’s worth asking for a sample of the flakes at a market if you see it. We found it at the famous Makishi public market in Naha.
Makishi Public Market
Naha 900-0014, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Okinawa Shikuwasa Citrus
The shikuwasa is a delightfully tart Okinawan citrus that looks like a mandarin but tastes more like a mix between an orange and a lime. It’s enjoyed in many ways, including as a liqueur (above), juice, jello and more. The Okinawans laud the health benefits of the shikuwasa, including improving the immune system and preventing cancer. They call it their “green jewel”. It’s one of the foods that they give credit for the famed long lifespan that Okinawans have.
Okinawa Beni-Imo Purple Yam Dessert
People go crazy for the beautiful Okinawan purple yam. You can find it in many Okinawan desserts, from ice cream to the Beni-Imo tart. It tastes like a traditional yam or sweet potato, but it’s vibrant purple color makes any dessert better. Luckily, the souvenir store mentioned below has samples of each of the dozens of sweets they sell, so you can try them all before you stock up on gifts for home. They also have a cooking class yo ucan take where you learn to make the Beni-imo tart shells and how to pipe the beautiful purple swirls you see in the above photo.
Okashi Goten Souvenir Store & Cooking Class
Nago City, Okinawa 〒905-0004, Japan
Have you been to Okinawa? Do you have any recommendations for other foods to try or places to eat? Let me know in the comments below!