Okinawan Cuisine: Don’t Call It Japanese Food

Have a seat and eat up a little Okinawa.

Have a seat and eat up a little Okinawa.

About this there is no doubt: Okinawa is a part of Japan. However, this has not been the case for most of Japan’s history. Okinawa, being physically closer to Taiwan then mainland Japan, has always been on the receiving end of various cultures influences. What we have today is a chain of islands that celebrate their local food bounty with preparations drawn from China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Okinawan Cuisine is widely available all over Japan, but maintains its distinction, usually only being served in restaurants dedicated to the southern island chain’s culture.

There are some dead giveaways that you are eating Okinawan food. Bitter melon, served as a stir-fry with scrambled egg, is a standby known as “chanpuru.” Then there is the love of the pig. Or, rather, the love of eating the pig. More popular than beef, in Okinawa, pork is primo, and every bit of the those squealers is used. In fact, a popular otsumami (a snack to enjoy while drinking alcohol) is “mimiga,” which is dried pig ear, cut in strips. This is a very Okinawan dish, but has also crossed over into mainstream Japanese cuisine. Speaking of drinking, there exists a distinctively Okinawan brew called “awamori,” which is made from a longer grain white rice that is similar to what you might find in Thailand. It is also as strong as rocket fuel.

Okinawa’s strategic location, combined with Japan’s special relationship to America, has meant that since World War II there has been a great number of US military personnel in the islands. Among other things, they brought with them a hankering for hamburgers and other American style food. Over the years, this has percolated on up and become part of what modern Okinawan cuisine is today. “Taco rice,” now popular all over Japan, is an example of a fusion dish that got its start in Okinawa.

タコライス1

Taco rice

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