Nurtured in a warm and gentle climate, vigorously unique charms and a restfully slower pace of life
Located to the southwest of the Japanese Islands, floating between the mainland and Taiwan in the East China Sea, Okinawa Prefecture is comprised of some 160 islands, including the primary islands of Okinawa Honto (the main island and largest), Miyako-jima, Ishigaki-jima, and Iriomote-jima. 47 of these islands are inhabited.
With cooperation by: Total Wellness Project Okinawa (general incorporated association)
Okinawa Prefecture is distinguished by its warm and gentle subtropical climate, conditions that cannot be found in any other prefecture or administrative division in Japan. Okinawa is characterized by having little temperature variance, as even in deepest winter, the temperature rarely dips below 10 degrees Celsius, while conversely, there are over 100 days each year that exceed highs of 30 degrees Celsius. Blessed with such a temperate climate, Okinawa is a place filled with beautiful and uncommon charms—with lovely oceans offering views of expansive beaches, colorful fish, and coral reefs, flowers that bloom year-round, and unique wildlife. Time moves more slowly in this place, where each island has developed its own respective and distinct culture, and celebrates with festivals that come in many diverse forms. They serve not only as a source of enjoyment for the locals, but also as an attraction for visitors as well.
Having such a unique and individual history, in 2000, Okinawa Prefecture was honored with the registration of the “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu” as a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history and architecture of the ancient kingdom, as well as their people’s lifestyles and beliefs, continue to be passed on to current generations. The word “gusuku” means castle, and this cultural heritage is a distinguishing feature of Okinawa that reflects how these islands formed their own uniquely international culture, influenced by trade with not only Japan, but China, Korea, and various Southeast Asian countries. Furthermore, having been exposed to the cultures of various other countries, the cuisine of Okinawa gained its own unique flavor as well
Court cuisine and local food, the flavors and skills based on these two styles of cooking that continue to be passed down
The traditional food of Okinawa, a style that continues to develop and is passed down from generation to generation, is called “Ryukyu cuisine.” Its foundation can be found in two forms of cooking, “court cuisine,” and “local food.”
When Okinawa used to be the independent nation of the Ryukyu Kingdom, “court cuisine” was prepared for use in imperial events and ceremonies, or to entertain guests. Japanese and Chinese influence was significant, as can be seen from the relationship with China through their envoy system (called the Sappo) since the 15th century, as well as with Japan through its Satsuma zaiban bugyo (resident magistrate) system. The dishes and skills that comprise “court cuisine,” which had been developed as “utoimuchi” (hospitality) to welcome VIPs of various countries, had become refined as a form of ceremony, and is said to have become popular among the upper class following the Meiji period. An indispensible element of “court cuisine” is tundabun, a representative form of traditional Ryukyu lacquerware. These dishes come in various styles, such as square, hexagonal, octagonal, or circular, and serve as individual containers for appetizers, which surround a small plate in the center, forming a beautiful design of shapes and colors, filled with dishes that retain their flavor even when served cold. The term tundabun encompasses the food served within as well, which feature dishes such as “hana-ika” (flower squid), which are skillfully cut cuttlefish, pork loin steamed with a black sesame sauce, called “minudaru,” and “shishi kamaboko,” which are fishcakes formed from minced fish combined with meat.
“Local food” is, as the name suggests, cuisine that people eat throughout the course of their daily lives. In particular, traditional local cuisine is deeply rooted in the concept of “ishoku dogen”—a balanced diet leads to a healthy body—which originated in China. The thought process behind ishoku dogen is that food and medicine for curing diseases are intrinsically rooted in the same ingredients. In Okinawa, these are called “kusuimin” (food that acts as medicine) and “nuchigusui” (medicine of life). For example, “ikasumi-jiru,” a soup made from the ink of a squid, is used to treat blood rushing to the head, or headaches. “Hija-jiru,” made from simmered goat meat, is used to help women recover after giving birth, and because of its high nutritional value, is well regarded as a treatment for fatigue. The use of nutritional ingredients not commonly used in other prefectures, such as bitter gourd, sponge gourd, and taimo (a type of taro root)—foods that are available in the natural environments of subtropical climates and islands––has led to the development of Okinawa’s own unique cuisine. A major defining characteristic of Okinawan “local food” is the frequent use of bonito or pork broth. Bonito broth in Okinawa is the same as traditional bonito broth, made from boiling dried bonito in hot water. Pork broth is made using the meat and bones, and is often used in combination with bonito broth. Frequently used to make soups, the balance of bonito and pork broths to prepare the soup used in “Okinawa soba” is an individual decision for each household and restaurant, with the resulting flavor becoming the clinching factor. Furthermore, dried kombu (kelp) and dried squid are also often used in “local food,” but it is strongly implied that they are more often used as ingredients rather than as materials for the broth itself.
In contrast with “court cuisine” and “local food,” which form the basis of Ryukyu cuisine, there is “gyoji ryori” (event cuisine)—which is a different kind of tradition. In Okinawa, praying for a good harvest or a big catch at sea, and social events unique to Okinawa that are based on the concept of ancestor worship, as well as traditions inherited from China, are among the many diverse events that take place throughout the year. During such events, it’s a given that a large number of people—locals and relatives—will gather for the opportunity to drink sake and eat food together. Through such activities, people reinforce their alliances and bonds, and strengthen their relationships to the people and their land. For example, during the seimeisai (tomb sweeping festival), the Bon Festival of the lunar calendar, and memorial services that take place in grand style throughout each prefecture and region, food is served in stacks of lacquered boxes, filled with pork boneless ribs, kamaboko (boiled fish paste), kombu (kelp), and deep-fried tofu, and other dishes, for a total of 9 items arranged in mosaic patterns.
Such food culture has served as the source which forms the diverse culinary culture of today’s Okinawa. Here, we introduce Okinawa Prefecture by looking at Okinawa Honto (the main island) and its remote islands separately.
< Honto >
Pork dishes rooted in the concept of “irui horui”
There are 47 inhabited remote islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which all share in common Ryukyu cuisine, a style of cooking that is rooted in Okinawa Honto.
An often-used ingredient is pork, which is eaten so thoroughly that there are traditional idioms bandied about, such as, “we eat every last part, except for its cries,” or “we begin with pork, and end with pork.” For example, a frequently enjoyed portion is skin-on boneless rib, which may be prepared as “rafute,” slowly simmered in sugar, soy sauce, and awamori (an indigenous alcoholic beverage distilled like shochu), or “inamudochi,” prepared with miso and plenty of side ingredients as well. In addition, there is “nakami-jiru” (innards soup), a soup made with the offals, and “ashi tibichi” (soup of pigs foot), a slowly simmered dish of pork feet with kombu and daikon radish, etc. And then there is “chi irichi” (blood stir-fried and boiled in sauce), made by stir-frying blood with root vegetables and dry ingredients and then boiled in a liquid sauce. The custom of eating every single part of the pig, from its skin to its innards, treating every portion as precious, is based on the concept of “irui horui.” This is a Chinese philosophy of medicinal cooking, which espouses that if one is afflicted with pain or disease in a certain part of their body, they can be cured by eating the equivalent portion of the pig. While pork dishes are eaten as part of everyday life, they also serve as a prominent aspect of New Year’s cuisine. They feature so strongly that New Year’s in Okinawa is often called “Pork New Year’s,” and celebrated by eating soups such as “inamudochi,” “nakami-jiru,” or “soki-jiru.” In ancient times, the tradition was for poor people to celebrate the New Year by slaughtering and dressing a domesticated pig during New Year’s Eve.
In Okinawa Prefecture, pork is the most often enjoyed meat, but goat meat is also eaten, prepared as sashimi (eaten raw), or as soup. The soup is called “hija jiru,” with every meaty portion and innard except for the hooves and horns thrown into a large pot and slowly simmered. Customarily eaten in large groups of people, it is often served during celebrations, pep rallies, and ceremonies to commemorate the raising of a framework for a new house or building. Meanwhile, beef is served as “gyu-jiru” (beef soup), a local dish simmered slowly with “chidekuni,” also called “shima-ninjin” (island carrots), which are in season in the winters.
In addition, the culture of tofu dishes is also unique. Tofu produced in Okinawa Prefecture is called “shima dofu,” made by soaking soybeans in water, and then crushed, strained, and simmered, with bittern added and then hardened into momen tofu (firm tofu). Within the prefecture, shima dofu is commonly sold while warm, and because it does not crumble easily, is a valued ingredient in fried dishes such as chanpuru (Okinawan stir fried dishes). A variation is called “yushi dofu,” which is made by adding bittern to start the hardening process, but is not placed into a mold. Tofu is often used in everyday local cooking in Okinawa Prefecture, but “jimami dofu” is used for “gyoji ryori,” such as events and celebrations. This is a fine dish, made by straining peanut juice with sweet potato starch dissolved in water, kneaded together and then hardened. Back in the days when peanuts were a rare and precious delicacy, it was eaten on special days as a type of vegetarian dish. “Shima dofu” and “jimami dofu” continue to be popular items of local Okinawan cuisine, and recently can be found sold outside of the prefecture as well.
< Remote Islands >
The culinary customs of the remote islands, which reflect each respective island’s festivals and cultures
While based on the Ryukyu cuisine eaten on Okinawa Honto, each remote island has produced its own unique flavor.
For example, in the Yaeyama Islands, there is a unique traditional dish called “iragimun.” It uses unripened green papaya (which is also called “yasai papaya,” and eaten throughout every region of Okinawa Prefecture), made with broth extracted from scalded pork, and then simmered with that pork meat and papaya in miso, resulting in a familial taste. This dish is said to have been made with homegrown ingredients, such as papayas that are regularly found growing in the backyards and corners of houses in the Yaeyama Islands, and miso, which every household used to make by hand.
The island of Taketomishima, which retains the classically old townscapes of Okinawa Prefecture, is one of several islands visited by throngs of tourists who come to see its unspoilt landscapes, dotted with red tile roofed houses and shisas (Okinawan lion statues) which guard the rooftops. The island’s biggest festival is the “Tanadui Festival,” which has a 600 year history, and attracts visitors from within and outside the island. This festival takes place in September and October of Japan’s old lunar calendar, for a period of 9 days beginning with the day of the Wood Monkey, and every festival participant is fed with preserved food prepared just for this occasion. The days before and after traditional performing arts of consecration are performed are especially busy, during which “iyachi” is eaten. “Iyachi” is a traditional preserved food made by mixing glutinous millet and adzuki beans with glutinous rice, and then cooked. In ancient times, when sweet potatoes were a staple of daily diets, “iyachi” was a special treat that the islanders could eat during the festival. Even now, “iyachi” is an indispensible part of the “Tanadui Festival,” and not only continues to be eaten, but is passed down to future generations through seminars and events on the island that teach the art of preparing this dish.
Likewise, there are dishes that have undergone changes in taste compared to how they are prepared on the Honto, and have become beloved here. One of those is “gyu-jiru,” made by simmering shima-ninjin and beef in bonito broth, and finished as a clear soup with salt and soy sauce. In Miyako-jima, with its beaches of fine white sand and beautiful, emerald green oceans, this dish is distinguished by preparing it with miso. Some restaurants in Miyako-jima serve “gyu-jiru” made with Miyako beef, a rare and highly valuable breed.