Okinawa has a very different history, culture, and climate than mainland Japan. Known as the Ryukyu Kingdom before being annexed by Japan in 1879, the island chain maintained close relationships with China and Southeast Asia in the centuries when the Japanese mainland was self-confined.
Expect delicious and eclectic dishes when visiting the archipelago from sea grapes to bitter melon and Spam!
1. Rafute (pork belly)
Pork is central to Okinawan cooking. Taking their cues from China, Okinawans have always been big on eating every single part of the easy-to-raise cattle.
The most popular pork dish is rafute, fatty pork belly simmered for hours in a broth of soy sauce, awamori (very strong distilled Okinawan liquor), and brown cane sugar, which is widely grown on the islands. It’s served as thick chunks of meat soft enough to melt in your mouth. Wash it down with a tall glass of awamori—but be careful, because this liquor is dangerous.
2. Goya champuru
Also known as bitter melon, goya (photo at top)is Okinawa’s signature vegetable. This healthy veggie looks like a wrinkly cucumber and tastes exactly as the name suggests—bitter.
Though used in a multitude of ways, goya champuru is Okinawa’s most famous dish involving goya. It sees the vegetable stir-fried with tofu, eggs, and meat. More often than not, the meat in the mix is Spam, a more recent legacy of the American presence in Okinawa. In fact, you’ll find Spam all over the island as a snack or even for breakfast served with eggs.
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