With its subtropical island setting and influences that include U.S. military presence for over 70 years, Okinawa offers a unique twist on Japanese cuisine. Wander around the island for a few days and you will encounter an uncommon set of ingredients and flavors such as goya (bitter melon), ube (purple yam) and beni-imo (sweet potato). And something called “taco rice.”
Here are 7 Okinawa food finds to enhance your trip to the quirky Japanese isle.
Bitter melon is a popular ingredient in Okinawan cuisine and a bitter melon stir-fry known as goya champuru is ubiquitous on the island. One of the recommended spots to try out goya champuru is Yuunangii, located in the Kokusai Dori district of Naha.
2. Blue Seal Ice Cream
Blue Seal’s motto is “Born in America, Raised in Okinawa.” The ice cream chain has been a fixture in the Okinawa food scene since opening on the island’s US military base in 1948.
Blue Seal has an arsenal of over 30 flavors, including uniquely Okinawan tastes like ube (purple yam) and beni-imo (sweet potato).
The Makiminato location features Blue Seal’s signature neon ice cream cone sign, and inside you can eat your ice cream at the counter next to this bespectacled US military officer.
3. Taco Rice Cafe
Taco rice is another Okinawan food specialty. It originated on the island in 1984 and is perpetually popular with the US military personnel stationed there and Okinawa locals. Taco rice could be considered a predecessor of the Chipotle burrito bowl, except it uses taco-style ground beef and hard shell taco pieces.
Charlie’s Tacos and King Tacos are two of the old-school taco rice establishments on the island, but you might also try the Taco Rice Cafe in the American Village, whose menu features numerous variations of this comfort food favorite.
4. Hamaya Soba
Soba is yet another dish that Okinawans have placed their own stamp on. In Okinawa, soba is prepared with wheat noodles rather than buckwheat, and the result is something more akin to traditional Japanese ramen or udon. There are further nuances to the broth and the toppings that I’ll let this Japan Times article on Okinawa soba explain; all I know is it definitely hits the spot.
Though you can grab a bowl pretty much anywhere on the island, I highly recommend Hamaya Soba in the seaside surf town of Chatan.
One of the most popular and unique dining experiences in Okinawa can be found at Ufuya, a restored traditional folk house in Nakayama. At Ufuya, you can have your lunch on a terrace in front of a waterfall like you’re on the set of a Japanese period drama. Peaceful and refreshing, it really does feel like you’ve stepped back into a different time for your meal.
Signature dishes on the Ufuya menu include a ginger Agu pork bowl and a tonkatsu pork cutlet set—both delicious.
If you save room for dessert, be sure to order up an Ufuya coffee cream puff.
6. Nago Pineapple Park
Down the road from Ufuya is Nago Pineapple Park, a theme park that celebrates all things pineapple (see also: the Dole Plantation in Hawaii). You can tour the fields in a pineapple-shaped golf cart, but if you’re really all about tasting the pineapple-infused treats, you can also cut straight to the souvenir shop for pineapple soft serve and pineapple sponge cake.
7. Beni-imo tarts from Okashi Goten
Beni-imo is a vibrantly purple sweet potato grown in Okinawa and you’ll likely see it pop up in all types of dessert treats around the island. Ice cream, cakes, shakes, breads, pies, and, finally, these beni-imo tarts that make a colorful gift to bring back home. Okashi Goten stores are a great place to pick up souvenir boxes of beni-imo tarts—there’s even a location at the airport.