A view of Okinawa with the cliffs, waters and mountains

The Cuisine of Okinawa: Japan’s Tropical Paradise

What makes Okinawa cuisine so special in Japan? With Chinese, Southeast Asian, and American influences, Okinawan dishes feature a range of ingredients not often found in mainland Japanese cuisine. Okinawa has the highest number of centenarians (people who are at least one hundred years old), so we think they’re doing something right!

Okinawa is known as Japan’s southernmost prefecture. It was formerly part of the Ryukyuan Kingdom that governed the Ryukyuan Islands, with Okinawa being the largest. The Ryukyu Islands have their own rich culture, biodiversity, languages, arts, folk customs, religion, and cuisine distinct from mainland Japan.

Shiisaa are Ryukyuan artifacts derived from Chinese guardian lions and are believed to ward off evil. Image via Adobe

Okinawa’s International Trade and History

Before Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan, it was an autonomous island known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. This kingdom engaged in extensive trade with both Japan and China, dating back to the Ming Dynasty (or Nanboku-cho Period in Japan) in 1372. The Ryukyu Kingdom maintained its trading relationship with China even during Japan’s isolationist policy throughout the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). Over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the kingdom also established diplomatic missions to various regions, including the Korean Joseon kingdom, Thailand, and Indonesia.

However, in 1871 during Japan’s Meiji period, Okinawa came under the administration of Kagoshima Prefecture, becoming part of the Ryukyuan domain. This period coincided with Japan’s efforts to consolidate its control over the archipelago. Subsequently, in 1875, the Ryukyu Kingdom terminated its tributary relations with China, and in 1879, King Sho Tai’s domain was abolished and he was forced to assume a diminished political role in Tokyo.

As Okinawa transitioned into a newly established Japanese prefecture, many Okinawans were compelled to conform to mainland Japanese customs and traditions, including changes in dress, language, and educational practices.

Following World War II, the Ryukyu Islands were occupied by the United States military until they were eventually returned to Japan in 1972, but the U.S. military still maintains a presence in Okinawa due to its strategic location and agreement to contribute to the defense of Japan. Even today, 75% of all U.S. military installations in Japan remain stationed in Okinawa.

This history of trade and occupation has significantly influenced Okinawan cuisine and its diverse blend of influences from Chinese (particularly Fujian), Southeast Asia and North America.

Okinawa Cuisine

Goya Champuru is a popular dish in Okinawa consisting of bitter melon, pork, and egg. Image via Adobe

Gōya Chanpuru

This unique dish combines stir-fried goya, egg, tofu, and pork, seasoned with Japanese dashi over rice. Goya, or bitter melon, is a kind of gourd native to Okinawa, and the use of pork is a testament to the islands’ long history of trade and tributary relations with China. As you might imagine, goya is extremely bitter and is an acquired taste whether eaten raw or boiled, but the sweet and savory eggs, dashi, and pork help balance out the flavor to make it a welcome addition to this dish, with a satisfying crunch and alleged anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting properties.

Taco Rice

You know tacos – Seasoned minced beef, jalapenos, salsa, and cheese in a corn tortilla chip – but what if you added rice? Okinawa has its own take on this Mexican classic by topping all these ingredients over Japanese white rice. Taco rice is a popular Japan-ified American food that you can find in major cities across the nation. You can even find it at popular American chains like Taco Bell in Japan.


Mozuku is a kind of sea moss with a browner color compared to the usual bright-green seaweed salads you'll find in Japanese restaurants abroad. Mozuku contains fucoidan, a chemical compound known for its numerous health benefits. It's typically eaten raw or seasoned with sweet vinegar, and can be found in izakayas or even at Japanese convenience stores.

Okinawa Soba

Okinawa soba actually includes udon noodles and has ramen-like toppings like pork belly! Image via Adobe

Despite its name, Okinawa soba does not use buckwheat noodles, but rather thick wheat noodles resembling udon. It is served in a bonito broth and topped with egg, pork belly and/or rib, beni shōga (pickled red ginger), and kōrēgusu (Okinawan chili sauce), the Okinawan hot sauce.

In fact, while soba noodles are commonly eaten on Japanese New Year’s  (toshikoshi soba), many Okinawans enjoy wheat noodles instead! So is it soba, udon, or ramen? All we know is that it tastes delicious!

Craving noodles now? Get your very own collection of ramen, soba, udon, and all of Japan’s noodle delights with Nakama Noodles! Get your own Nakama Noodles box!

Okinawa Spirits


Awamori, also known as shima-zake (“island sake”), is a distilled beverage made from long grain indica rice imported from Thailand. It originates from the Thai beverage lao khao, another distilled beverage that likely made its way to Okinawa when the islands served as a major trading post.

Awamori was also commonly sent as a tribute to China and Japan as part of its tributary relations. It contains 30-43% alcohol and is commonly enjoyed with water and ice. Kōrēgusu, a popular Okinawan hot sauce, is made from chilis infused with awamori and is a popular condiment enjoyed with Okinawan soba. Awamori can be found in the United Kingdom under the name Ryukyu 1429.

Orion Beer

Orion Beer is located in Tomigusuku in Okinawa and maintains 60% of the beer market in the prefecture. Popular for its draft beer, pilsner, and IPA, Orion uses German hops and malt imported from Germany. If you are ever in Okinawa, swap Asahi Super Dry or Sapporo for Orion to drink beer like a local!


This beverage is made with the body of a habu, a venomous snake native to Okinawa. Awamori is added to help rid the snake of any poisonous venom, making it safe to drink. A bottle of habushu often features the habu in an aggressive striking pose. 

This drink is thought to be beneficial for men's health due to the habu snake's famous endurance, but its aroma and flavor are an acquired taste.

Shiikwaasa Shōchū

Shiikwaasa is a type of citrus fruit native to Okinawa, similar to a lime. It is popular for its tart taste, anti-inflammatory, and metabolism-boosting properties. Mix 30 ml of shiikwaasa juice with 100 ml of club soda and 50 ml of shochu for a delicious sour drink.

Shiikwaasa highball and mozuku salad with onion on top.
A Shiikwaasa highball with a side of mozuku will make you feel as if you've been transported to Japan's southernmost islands. Image via Adobe

Okinawa Sweets

Kokutō (Okinawa Brown Sugar)

Okinawa brown sugar can be found in many Japanese desserts, including Okinawa brown sugar milk tea, manju (stuffed dessert dumplings), kinako (soy bean powder) parfaits, karintō (sweet deep-fried sticks), and warabimochi (mochi dipped in kinako).

Unlike American brown sugar, in which molasses is added back into refined white sugar, Okinawa brown sugar is made by cooking sugarcane juice and is popular for its savory, bitter, tart, and sweet complex flavor.

It is high in calcium, iron, and potassium, and has a lower glycemic index than traditional sugar due to its slow-cooking process. You can find a seal of approval by the Okinawa Prefecture Brown Sugar Industry Council to tell the difference between Okinawa brown sugar and other imitation sweeteners.

A mall bowl of kokuto cubes and purple and white chinsuko cookies
Kokutō and chinsukō cookies are Okinawa's pride and joy. Image via Adobe


Have you ever seen purple sweet potato flesh? Beni’imo is a popular sweet potato variety from Yomitan village in Okinawa. It is a vitamin- and fiber-rich superfood, with an intense natural sweetness. It has inspired countless desserts, like sweet potato tarts, pie, ice cream, cake, and cookies. We would wager that this is one of the prefecture’s most popular souvenirs!


Chinsukō is a small cookie that was formerly eaten by Ryukyuan mobility. It is made from lard and flour and tastes similar to shortbread. It is thought to be inspired by either Taosu cookies in China, castella and bolo in Portugal, or Polvoron cookies from Spain and its former colonies.

Whatever its origins may be, it tastes especially delicious with traditional Okinawan flavors, like shiikwaasa, beni’imo, and kokuto! 

Have you ever been to sunny Okinawa? What kind of Okinawan cuisine have you tried or would you like to try? Have you checked out MiauMall yet to get your hands on Okinawan sweets like kokutō and beni’imo? Let us know in the comments!

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