450 years of history that shaped the Okinawan culture
Okinawa was once under a monarchy called theRyukyu Kingdom that lasted for 450 years. The kingdom prospered amongst trade with China, Japan, and southeast Asia as it became the hub for international communities.
Food for the exceptional hospitality and the well-being
Okinawa’s food culture was heavily influenced by its counterpart, China, during theRyukyu period. While mainland Japan traditionally opposed meat consumption, Chinese food culture influenced Okinawa’s high consumption of pork. Locally grown vegetables, seaweeds, and soybeans were also commonly consumed. These ingredients were often deep-fried, simmered, or stir-fried, while serving raw food was avoided due to spoilage.
Two Okinawa food categories introduced during the Ryukyu period
Kyu-tei Ryouri (The Royal Cuisine)
Served only to the nobles of theShuri castle and guests such as from China and Japan. Prepared in a scarlet red box called “tundabun” which often contained various rectangular, hexagonal, or octagonal shaped boxes with small compartments to elegantly place side dishes. Cuisines from local Okinawa, China, and Japan were combined to show hospitality to the guest by featuring familiar tastes. These included fried taro (taimo), white fish tempura, steamed pork with sesame sauce, fried tofu with scallions, burdock wrapped pork, blended fish and pork cakes, and squid colored like a red flower.
Shomin Ryouri (The Common Cuisine)
Consumed by the general public, this was more frugal in appearance compared to theKyu-tei Ryouri.It incorporated locally harvested ingredients and wisdom from everyday life. Also called“kusuimun” or“nuchigusui”in Okinawan dialect, it referred to food as medicine to fight off illness.
Popular Okinawan dishes that have been passed down from Shomin Ryouri
Made from flour instead of buckwheat, it has a texture similar to udon or ramen noodles. The warm broth is made from pork/chicken bone marrow or bonito, giving it a surprisingly light and refreshing taste. It is often served with some type of cooked pork, such as stewed spare ribs calledsoki soba, with a sprinkle of scallions and red-pickled ginger.
An easy, delicious, and healthy meal that includes stir-fried tofu, bitter gourd (goya), eggs, and pork (either thin-sliced pork belly or Spam). It is seasoned simply with a dried bonito stock powder and a hint of soy sauce. Okinawa’s tofu is firmer than those found on the mainland, making it a suitable ingredient for stir-fried meals. “Chanpuru” in Okinawa dialect means “mixed up together.” It is a versatile dish withgoya being replaced by other vegetables such as pickled mustard leaves, sponge gourd, and green papaya.
A skin-on braised pork belly stewed in soy sauce, brown sugar, bonito broth, and Okinawa’s distilled liquor calledawamori. It was first introduced from China to theRyukyu royals, then introduced to the public. It is unusual to find skin-on pork belly outside of Okinawa, making this delicate dish a must-have during any visit.
Sometimes served during religious services, it is made from the squeezed juice of peanuts (ji-ma-mi) and sweet potato starch. Sweet potatoes are abundant in Okinawa and often found in various meals. The tofu has a sweet, nutty flavor and smooth, springy texture, similar to desserts such aspanna cotta.
I instantly seek Okinawan food on days when I’m overwhelmed as it brings me back to the memories of the positive outlook and hospitality I received from the Okinawan people. If anything, it is Okinawa’s beautiful nature and climate that nourishes the food and the soul.
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.