My mom’s family originally hails from Okinawa, so the culture and cuisine have always had a special place in my heart. Okinawa might have spent the last four centuries as a Japanese prefecture, but this region has a unique culture and cuisine that its residents are proud to keep alive. In return, their traditional cuisine keeps them alive longer than any other ethnic group on the planet!
For centuries, Okinawan cuisine has been heavily plant-based, utilizing native fruits and vegetables in ways that have been influenced by Okinawa’s role as a trade hub throughout East and Southeast Asia. In more recent decades, this region’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by Western presences. Now, alongside traditional favorites, Okinawa has taken Western ingredients and completely reinvented them!
Purple sweet potatoes (pictured above) are a must in Okinawan cooking. They have some wine-like notes to their taste, and they are starchier than most Western sweet potatoes. The vibrant color stands out when these tubers are used as pastry or mochi fillings, and many Okinawan ice cream shops feature a purple sweet potato flavor!
Another popular vegetable in Okinawan cooking is bitter melon, also pictured above. While this gourd certainly lives up to its name, it’s a powerhouse of a vegetable! With its high levels of folate and Vitamin C, it helps fight everything from bad skin to high cholesterol. Bitter melon also makes routine appearances in Indian, Southeast Asian, and Caribbean cuisines, so if you want to experiment with different cuisines, bitter melon is a perfect ingredient to try.
Much like other East Asian cultures, rice and soy products are long-held staples of Okinawan dishes. Soy sauce isn’t used quite as frequently here as it is on mainland Japan, but the complex, salty flavor of miso makes it a favorite ingredient for a variety of dishes, including Okinawan soba (which, interestingly enough, is closer to the texture of udon than it is to mainland soba—go figure).
The use of pork in just about every meal is a trait that sets Okinawan cuisine apart from mainland Japanese food. (In fact, when Okinawans first immigrated to Hawaii, their love of pork was a shock for their mainland Japanese neighbors!) While pork was originally used just for special occasions, its use has become more and more common over the last 200 years. In Okinawa, they go by the motto 豚は鳴き声以外全て食べる—“Eat every part of the pig except the squeal.”
World War II changed a lot of things for this region. In the years following the war, the US set up military bases around the prefecture, and the soldiers introduced the locals to ingredients like peanut butter and Spam. Canned fish became a common ingredient, and locals started eating more dairy than ever.
Once they were introduced to these ingredients, the people of Okinawa wasted no time in getting creative. Spam, as it turns out, is a tasty way to fill a rice ball, and even tacos were reinvented as taco rice. Peanut butter has proven to be a delicious addition to salad dressings, even when blended together with miso and tofu.
Okinawa’s story is a unique one, and the food reflects every step of that story. With its creative combinations of Eastern and Western influences, Okinawan cuisine might just be Japan’s best-kept secret.