Okinawan regional cooking

It was only a century ago that the kingdom of Okinawa was incorporated into Japan, and the southern islands still maintain their own distinctive culture, language, and cuisine. Okinawan cooking tends toward stronger and spicier flavors than other Japanese food, and is more heavily influenced by Chinese cooking styles.

The food of Okinawa is very much a meat-based cuisine, and pork is the most popular. Every part of the pig is used, from pig'ss feet and pig's ears to pork tripe. Some Okinawan restaurants feature goat meat, which can even be served raw.

Other ingredients include native tropical vegetables and fruits. Goya, also known as bitter melon, is widely used, and it's common to see peanut tofu and pickled papaya and shallots on menus. Brown sugar and awamori (an Okinawan brandy-like liquor made from rice) are used in cooking along with soy sauce and miso (fermented soybeans). Kooreegusu is a condiment made from red peppers marinated in awamori.

Stir-frying is a common cooking method, and Okinawan chanpuru is basically a stir-fry using some combination of tofu, goya, leeks, and eggs plus other ingredients. Okinawan menus will usually have a number of chanpuru dishes listed.

Another typical dish is rafuti, pork stewed in miso, soy sauce, sugar, and awamori, which is very similar to a Chinese dish called kakuni. Toofuyoo is a strongly flavored, super-concentrated tofu concoction that's eaten in tiny bites as a snack while drinking - it's a bit like processed cheese that's been compressed until it's reached an incredibly dense state.

Okinawan soba is a soup dish made from wheat (not buckwheat) noodles served in hot broth with pork, fish cakes, onions, and other vegetables. A popular foreign-influenced dish is tako raisu - basically a taco that uses rice instead of a taco shell. And canned luncheon meat makes an appearance in many dishes.

Below are some menu items you might run across. Many menus list the Okinawan term first, followed by a Japanese explanation.

TIP: If you're new to Okinawan cuisine, be sure to try rafuti (stewed pork) and goya chanpuru (stir-fry with bitter melon). A couple of unusual treats for the adventurous diner are umi-budo, "sea grapes" with a pleasingly crunchy texture, and tofuyo (dried tofu fermented in awamori). And for the daredevils in the crowd - raw goat meat!
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