Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa is a subtropical paradise of sugar-soft beaches and cobalt waters, with its own distinctive culture and cuisine. Here are some of the best restaurants at which to enjoy the island’s unique dishes and local ingredients.
Thanks to its complex history and remote location away from the mainland, Okinawan cuisine differs quite significantly from the rest of Japan. Once an independent state known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa’s food culture has been heavily influenced by China, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as more recently by the USA. The use of local seasonal ingredients such as goya (bitter melon), mozuku (a type of seaweed), beni-imo (purple sweet potato) and umibudo(sea grapes) is popular, while dishes such as taco rice, champuru stir-fry, and Okinawa soba noodles can be found in almost every restaurant. Here are Culture Trip’s top recommendations for where to sample the unique tastes of this beautiful prefecture.
Enjoy healthy local vegan cuisine at Ukishima Garden | Courtesy of Ukishima Garden
Dine like royalty at Ryukyu Cuisine Mie
This high-end restaurant perfectly replicates the atmosphere of old Okinawa, bringing the Ryukyu Kingdom’s culture to life through traditional design, tableware and cuisine. Located in an unassuming backstreet in the heart of the island’s capital Naha, it serves authentic multi-course Ryukyu meals reminiscent of the feasts of old. Each dish is lovingly prepared and exquisitely presented, the end result being as much a work of art as a meal. Diners can enjoy a multitude of small dishes made using local ingredients and served on beautiful classic lacquerware, all in a refined environment full of character and charm. It’s a little on the pricey side, but worth every yen. Reservations are recommended.
One of Okinawa’s most well known dishes is taco rice, thought to have arisen as a result of the post-World War II American presence on the island. It consists of your typical taco ingredients, such as ground beef, cheese, salsa and salad, served over white rice. Countless restaurants here offer it, but one of the most popular is the colourful and cheerful Taco Rice Café Kijimuna in Chatan. As well as standard taco rice, they also offer omutaco, which is taco rice with a fluffy omelette on top. A variety of additional toppings are available for both versions, including avocado, cheese, bacon and jalapeños, all for a reasonable price.
Enjoy healthy local vegan cuisine at Ukishima Garden
Restaurant, Japanese, Vegan, $$$
Courtesy of Ukishima Garden
Plant-based travellers and those on a health kick will be delighted with this elegant, 100-percent-vegan restaurant just off Naha’s famous Kokusai Dori (International Street). The menu is bursting with local, organic ingredients, including fresh Okinawan tofu, millet from Hateruma island and rice from Iriomote island. These are used to make Okinawan dishes like taco rice, as well as Western-style meals such as curry and burgers. Desserts include sugar-free soft-serve ice cream and regularly rotating ‘guilt-free’ cakes, while local beers and natural wines are also on offer if you fancy a little indulgence on the side.
Okinawa soba is another local speciality, which differs from mainland Japanese soba in that the noodles are made from wheat rather than buckwheat flour. This actually makes them more similar to udon noodles. Firm and chewy, they are generally served in a hot broth made with pork, dried fish flakes and konbu seaweed. The dish comes loaded with toppings like slow-cooked pork, fishcakes, pickled ginger and green onions. One of the best places to enjoy the dish is at the ever-popular Shuri Soba, close to Shuri Castle, which boasts quick service, reasonable prices and delicious homemade noodles. Get a side order of jushi rice to try another local treat.
For something completely different, head to this Italian pizzeria in Naha city. It specialises in just two styles of pizza – Margherita and Marinara – which has allowed it to hone its recipes and cooking method to absolute perfection. Only the finest ingredients are used, and each pizza is made to order in front of diners in a giant, fiery kiln. They are carefully watched over by the chef, who trained in Italy, and served piping hot. Crisp but chewy, with a simplicity that allows the ingredients to speak for themselves, this may just be the best pizza outside of Italy.
If taco rice leaves you craving some actual tacos, Esparza’s is the place to go. Just north of American Village and its iconic Ferris wheel, this friendly and relaxed Mexican restaurant has a great selection of tacos and enchiladas, plus a decent range of side dishes. In addition to meat and fish options, Esparza’s has really good vegetarian and vegan options, including beans, tofu, falafel and plant-based cheese. These all come at affordable prices, to be enjoyed with either a beer or coffee. For dessert, don’t miss the (also vegan-friendly) churros with chocolate sauce and cinnamon nachos – heaven on a plate!
Bar, Restaurant, Japanese, American, British, Italian
As the name implies, as well as a restaurant, Rockers Café doubles as a bar and music venue. Don’t think this makes the food an afterthought though. Located right on the seafront in the lively American Village, it offers a mix of Japanese and Western-style food like burritos, locally caught fish with chips, lasagne with homemade bread, and the original curry plate with seasonal vegetables. Dessert options include a rich and moist rum and raisin cake and cookies to take home. Of course, there’s also an extensive alcohol menu featuring beer, wine and cocktails. If the weather’s nice, grab a seat on the terrace for a gorgeous ocean view.
This restaurant near Asahibashi station is a must-visit for meat lovers who want to sample a range of Okinawan specialities. Choose from rich and marbled Agu pork, Kume Island chicken and Okinawan beef to have as part of a shabu-shabu hotpot that you cook yourself at your table. Prices can be high, but the ingredients are top quality. Among the appetisers available are jimami tofu, which is made from peanuts rather than soybeans, and umibudo (sea grapes). These strands, covered with tiny bubbles, are known as ‘green caviar’, and pop in your mouth as you eat them to release a unique salty taste.