Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, experiences hot tropical weather for at least nine months out of the year. The climate is perfect for growing tropical fruits and plants, especially ones that go into teas. Many of the teas that can be found in Okinawa contain an abundance of antioxidants, nutrients, and amazing health benefits. After reading about them, you’ll probably want to stock a few in your pantry.
Probably the most ubiquitous tea in Okinawa is sanpin cha (さんぴん茶). The word, sanpin translates to ‘jasmine’ and cha, of course means, ‘tea’. Jasmine tea is a scented tea that is made by infusing jasmine flowers into the tea. Green tea is most commonly used but black or white tea can also be used. The difference between sanpin cha and jasmine tea is the type of tea leaves used. Chinese tea leaves that have been slightly fermented are what goes into making sanpin cha. This tea is a popular choice to stay hydrated during the summer and pairs well with Okinawan cuisine. You can find sanpin cha in cans, bottles, loose-leaf, and tea bags in every grocery store or vending machine in Okinawa.
In Okinawa, turmeric is known as ucchin (うっちん) and was said to have been brought to Okinawa through trade along the Spice Route. It’s being touted as the “new superfood” on social media, however it’s been a popular spice in India, and has been used in ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Turmeric aka ukon (ウコン) is marketed as a health drink in Japan that is said to help and prevent hangovers. You may have seen it in the Japanese convenience stores next to the vitamin C shots. Like sanpin cha, turmeric tea is sold in bottles and cans, tea bags, or powdered.
Shell Ginger Tea
Shell Ginger (Alpinia Zerumbet) is a tropical perennial plant that is mostly found growing in tropical climates in Asia so you can bet, there is a lot of it in Okinawa. Shell ginger is known as sannin (さんにん) in Uchinaaguchi or gettou (月桃) in Japanese. If you’ve ever had muchi or Okinawa rice cakes, it is often wrapped in shell ginger leaves because is great for preserving food. Shell ginger tea is unique because it contains 34 times more polyphenols than red wine, making it perfect for non-drinkers.Shell ginger tea is sold in tea bags or as dried tea leaves. This tea has a floral gingery taste to it and recommended ways of drinking are with a little milk, as ice tea, or blended with other herbs like lemongrass or moringa.
In Okinawa, guava is considered a super plant along with java plants and turmeric. The way guava leaves are harvested is a delicate process. Leaves are manually inspected and sorted, carefully choosing between young and old leaves. The leaves are then washed then either steamed or dried under the sun. Some harvesters will crush the leaves after steaming for easier
extraction of nutrients and fiber when steeped. Crushing the leaves also helps reduce the harsh flavor. Like shell ginger tea, guava tea is sold as tea bags or loose leaf teas. The color is said to be similar to green tea but the taste is slightly more bitter.
Mugwort (Yomogi) Tea
Mugwort or yomogi in Okinawa has been used in cooking and herbal medicine for many years. It is highly regarded as a dietary supplement and beauty food because of its cell regeneration properties. Besides containing high levels of chlorophyll and dietary fib, yomogi contains vitamins A, B1, B2, C, iron, potassium, phosphorus. Yomogi is sold as dried leaves, finely ground powder, tablets or capsules, essential oils, and the list goes on. Yomogi tea can be brewed with whole dried leaves or tea bags. The flavor of yomogi tea is said to be a combination of both bitter and sweet with a hint of anise.
Goya, otherwise known as bitter melon, is a well-known superfood vegetable native to Okinawa. It is most notably used in Okinawan cooking like goya champuru, a stir-fry dish with goya, egg, tofu, and a protein of your choice, usually pork or chicken. It is said to be the secret to Okinawans’ long life and gives you strength and energy due to its bitter taste. You can prepare goya tea using dried or fresh goya, or tea bags. The taste of this vegetable is not for the faint of heart as it is incredibly bitter. When cooking goya, most people soak chopped goya in a water bath for 10-30 minutes before parboiling for 2 minutes. The longer they soak, the more bitterness will be extracted. You could use the same method if you’re preparing tea using fresh goya before following the rest of the recipe.
Hibiscus tea is an herbal tea with a beautiful bright red hue, the coloring largely coming from an infusion with calyxes of the roselle plant. Hibiscus tea is good for any season but popular in the summer when paired with ice to make a refreshing tart drink. The taste is often compared to that of a cranberry. You can buy hibiscus tea in tea bags or dried flowers.
Okinawa Milk Tea
Okinawa milk tea is often referred to as kokutō milk tea (黒糖ミルクティ) or brown sugar milk tea. It is available in most boba tea franchises in and out of Japan. Kokutō, also known as Okinawa brown sugar, is what makes this milk tea different from ordinary brown sugar milk tea since kokutō contains nutrients like calcium, iron, and potassium. It has all the makings of regular milk tea such as black tea leaves and whole milk, and the kokutō is added as a syrup, poured around the inside of the cup to resemble tiger stripes. In fact, it’s called tiger milk tea in some boba tea shops in the States. The addition of the kokutō syrup as a deep caramel toffee flavor to an already rich cup of milk tea.
Okinawa milk tea can be purchased as a powdered mix or you can opt to make your own at home from scratch. Kokutō is available at any supermarket in Okinawa but you may need to go to a specialty store if you’re outside of Okinawa.
About the author:
Samantha is currently a 5th-year JET in Okinawa, originally from Hawaii. She has been somewhat connected to Japanese culture her whole life despite being Chinese American. She's had the privilege of traveling to Japan and experiencing Japanese culture at a young age. She loves food and is always looking to try new places. When she is not working or out eating, she is an avid baker at home and has been known to feed her colleagues an excessive amount of baked goods.