Unique Okinawa Part 1

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
5 Jun 2015

Okinawa means "rope in the sea." That's a fitting description of the string of islands that comprise Okinawa between the main islands of Japan and Taiwan. What attracts the honeymooners and many tourists that flock to Okinawa in droves?

Stay tuned, as that's exactly what is coming up next: discussions of the climate, unique culture, and adventures in eating usually not available elsewhere. All are from the perspective of someone who thoroughly enjoyed living on the "rock" for more than eight years, so you may note my positive bias.

Getting to and from Okinawa via Japan is easy; almost all connections with Okinawa are through Tokyo, Nagoya or other major cities. One of the first things that you'll notice when you step off the plane in Okinawa is the climate. Okinawa and its islands range from subtropical to tropical. Even in January, the temperature is about 20 degrees—Celsius, that is.

If you're as unfamiliar with Celsius as I was when I was first on the island, there's a little rhyme that may help you quickly estimate: thirty's hot, twenty's nice, ten's cold, zero's ice. So, by that measure, January is nice, especially when compared to other locations in Japan, which is a major tourist draw. For those of you who need the more scientific formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, here it is: multiply by 9, then divide by 5, then add 32.

One thing that you'll notice when flying in is that Okinawa is a long, thin island, with the smallest width about 1.5 miles wide (of course they'd use kilometers.) The length of the island varies according to the tides, but is roughly 70 miles long.

Photo credit [Ricymar Photography](https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricardo_mangual/5991224861/)

Traditional Okinawan language

For centuries, Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and they spoke their own language. Those Okinawans living in southern Okinawa or some of the nearby islands still speak the Okinawan language, which is also called Central Okinawan. It was derived from Old Japanese. Those in the northern region speak Northern Okinawan. Both are considered endangered languages, however. Rather than considering them separate languages, mainland Japanese view them as Japanese dialects.

In 1879 when Japan annexed Ryukyu, Okinawan began changing to more standard Japanese. Schools were mandated to use standard Japanese in school. If the young don't learn and use a language in school, it begins to fade away, and that's what happened. During the American occupation of Okinawa after WWII, there was a failed attempt to revive the complex Okinawan language. Okinawan is kept alive in heritage theatre productions featuring local culture and language, but now most young people speak only Japanese. One of the cultural aspects that remains distinctly Okinawan are the foods generally found only on "the rock."

Traditional Okinawan Foods: Ryukyuan Cuisine

One enjoyable way to get to know a culture is through experiencing local foods, and Okinawa has some unique dishes based on early influences. Traditional Okinawan food was influenced by other countries, including China, SE Asia, and the United States. You may find some foods to be an acquired taste. Many dishes feature locally grown pork, and an Okinawan saying is that every part of the pig can be eaten but the squeals. So, if you hear your meal squealing, that might be proof that the chefs overcame that limitation—or perhaps you've stayed too long at the local watering hole.

American influence can be found throughout the island at fast food places, such as burger joints, the A & W root beer stand, and KFC. The ubiquitous Spam, introduced by GIs, can be found as a component in several entrees and soups. It seems so pervasive that I was reminded of this line from Monty Python's Spamalot musical comedy: "We eat ham, and jam, and Spam a lot."

Unique Okinawan Dishes

When we were homesick, pulling up to the A & W drive in provided just a touch of home that helped us get through the years. However, it also reinforced our appreciation of the local cuisine, most of which we found flavorful and tasty, but others provided more of an "experience" to be savored, and we appreciated both.

  • GOYA — Goya dishes were probably influenced by SE Asia. Goya is a bitter green vegetable that is often coupled with tofu, eggs and (wait for it) spam or pork. It commonly is served as tempura, put into salads or pickled.
  • Photo credit [Hajime NAKANO](https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetalone/4861701938)
  • GOYA CHAMPURU — You may be tempted to try a [nurayu burger](https://www.flickr.com/photos/earthhopper/311977468/) that features goya champuru (bitter melon), cheese and a slice of spam, but I find that a great example of what I mean by an acquired taste.
  • TACO RICE — Taco rice is an American contribution to the local cuisine made during the occupation of Okinawa. As the name suggests, it's like a taco salad, but served on rice, which gives it an Okinawan twist.
  • Photo credit [Hajime NAKANO](https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetalone/3270836501/)
  • MIMIGA — It's said that you can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, but you can make mimiga by boiling or steaming them. It's best seasoned with a peanut sauce and accompanied by a strong drink that allows you not to notice the typically tough and chewy aspects.
  • SASHIMI — Sashimi is slices of raw fish: sushi without the rice. It's usually served in Okinawa as a part of an entrée rather than as a separate entrée. Although Okinawa is completely surrounded by the sea, likely the hot climate makes safe storage and use of fish more difficult than in mainland Japan.
  • OKINAWA SOBA — This soup has thick, slightly chewy noodles floating in a savory broth of fish flakes, fish cakes and pork. It's often topped with spare ribs. Yum!
  • Photo credit [pelican](https://www.flickr.com/photos/pelican/7772006206)
  • SATANADAG — A common dessert is this delicious Okinawan donut that's nearly irresistible when eaten fresh from the deep fryer.
  • Drinks and Accompaniments

  • TOFUYO — Accompanying awamori liquor might be some rather smelly tofuyo, which is eaten with a small skewer. Tofuyo is a pungent, fermented version of tofu.
  • UMIBUDO — is a dish of tiny sea grapes filled with salty fluid that's often served with a dipping sauce accompanying awamori.
  • ORION — If these foods make you thirsty, you can reach for Orion, the popular light tasting local beer that's difficult to find elsewhere.
  • Photo credit [ayustety](https://www.flickr.com/photos/ayustety/11459959)
  • AWAMORI — is the indigenous 30-40% alcohol rice liquor that probably originated in Thailand.
  • SAKE—Sake, a fermented rice drink drunk from small porcelain cups, is not unique to Okinawa, but very popular, nonetheless. If you're drinking sake, you may be served some accompaniment such as sukugarasu.
  • SUKUGARASU — is a small square of tofu topped with small, salty fish. If you want to try it, it's best eaten in one bite.
  • SANPIN — If you prefer a drink without alcohol, sanpin, a savory jasamine tea, is widely available in restaurants, stores and vending machines. By the way, it's never far to a nearby vending machine, as Okinawa averages one machine per every eight residents.
  • My favorite Okinawan food was an unnamed stir fried dish that our housekeeper prepared for us. She'd pick an unripe, green papaya off the tree in our back yard, then painstakingly shred it with onion and carrots. She'd then put in some fish sauce and flakes and stir fry it.

    That dish alone made it worth the money we paid her, despite her (literal) shortcomings as a housekeeper. She was so short that she never threatened our upper shelves with a dust cloth. However, her cheerful disposition and cooking skill earned her a spot in our hearts to this day. Plus, recalling and recounting the tale of the short housekeeper has provided lol.

    As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed sampling what Okinawa offers, and there's so much more to write about. I've barely scratched the surface.

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    Next: Unique Okinawa Part 2
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