Vegetarian food in Okinawa – a useful guide for vegetarian travellers

Great vegetarian food in Okinawa: Umibudou and shima tofu!

Over the years we have visited the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, several times and we love these tropical islands! They are a culinary heaven even though vegetarian food in Okinawa is not particularly famous.

Okinawa was an independent kingdom, the Ryukyu Kingdom, until as late as 1876. Therefore, throughout its history, the Ryukyu cuisine was influenced not only by Japan but also by China and South-East Asia. And finally, Okinawa was occupied by the US for over 20 years after World War II. That is why the food on Okinawa today is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Asian, and American cooking. Naturally pork and fish are main ingredients in the island kitchen.

But it is also possible to eat very well on the islands of Okinawa as a vegetarian. Some of the dishes are without meat anyway. Others can easily be adapted to vegetarian needs. Even in general, the Okinawan diet is very healthy and one of the reasons that people on Okinawa are extremely long-lived!

This post is about our favourite options for vegetarian food in Okinawa – read what there is to eat without meat!

There is also a lot of interesting sightseeing on Okinawa, like the strangely shaped Gusuku Castles.

Chanpuru – a (vegetarian) stir fry

Goya chanpuru, a typical vegetarian food in Okinawa

Chanpurus are a staple in the Okinawan kitchen. The word means “mix” in Malay, formerly the lingua franca of traders all over South East Asia. And the dish is easy and adaptable: You just mix vegetables, tofu, and meat, and fry them in a very hot wok.

As the Chanpuru is usually freshly prepared, you can always ask the restaurant staff to leave the meat out. In this case you would say “Niku-nashi de dekimasuka?” – Can you make it without meat? Funnily enough, we always get the answer: “Hai, pork-nuki de dekimasu.” This means actually “Yes, I can pick the pork out”, although the pork never enters the wok in the first place. Perhaps this is because staff actively remove the image of pork from their concept of the dish.

The most famous Chanpuru is Goya Chanpuru, a stir-fry with tofu, eggs and, most important, vibrant green bitter gourd (goya). Other variants of Chanpuru are Tofu Chanpuru with more tofu, and Fu Chanpuru. Fu is basically wheat gluten – and besides wheat gluten, a Fu Chanpuru again features tofu, onions, and eggs.

Island Tofu – shima tofu

vegetarian goya salad in Ishigaki, Okinawa

Japan is a country of delicious tofu, both soft and firm. And Okinawa is no exception, but the tropical islands have their own variety of tofu. The typical Okinawan Shima Tofu, or Island Tofu, is a bit firmer than is customary in Japan. This makes it easier to fry without falling apart. And you guessed it, Island Tofu is perfect for those Champuru stir-fries! It is also quite delicious in fresh salads with green algae, luscious tomatoes, and fresh Yuzu or Shikwasa dressing. The Shima Tofu is very rich in vitamin E and B.

A vegetarian Yushi tofu dish in Naha, Okinawa

A variety of the Shima Tofu is freshly-made Yushi-Tofu. This type of Tofu is softer because it is practically still in the process of curdling. Instead of going on to press all the water out you usually eat it immediately as a soup.

Tofuyoo is fermented Tofu, a (vegan) speciality of Okinawa

And then there’s Tofu Yo – an acquired taste. Tofu Yo is fermented tofu. In other words, it is old and rotten. And yes, it stinks. Tofu Yo is not for salads. You would eat it only in small quantities, usually to accompany some stronger alcohol such as awamori, the intense rice spirit on Okinawa. Chances are quite high that you do not like it.

Mozuku and Umibudou – seaweed from Okinawa

Umibudo Salad is a great vegetarian food in Okinawa

Due to the proximity to the sea, in addition to fish, seaweed is an important feature in Okinawan cuisine. The two seaweed varieties mainly produced on Okinawa are “Mozuku” and “Umibudou”. Compared to the fun and crispy nori that most people know from their sushi, mozuku consists of thin and slimy strings. It tastes rather salty, like other kinds of seaweed, but not everyone likes the slimy texture. It can be eaten salad-style with some dressing or as tempura with a deep-fried batter. On the contrary, Umibudo are universally loved, we notice. The “sea grapes” really look like tiny grapes, all juicy with small bubbles of salty water. They generate an interesting sensation in the mouth.

Vegetables

Shima rakyo served as Tempura in Okinawa

Besides the bitter gourd (goya) used in the Goya Chanperu, small island shallots called shima rakkyo are a vegetable that features on the menus on Okinawa. The small onion has a mild but clear taste. It can be eaten pickled as an accompaniment to alcohol or – again – deep-fried as tempura. 

Vegetarian American Fast food

Vegetarian Taco Rice in Naha, Okinawa

Taco Rice is perhaps the most famous Okinawan dish: Minced meat, shredded cheese, salad and tomatoes are served on a bed of rice and eaten with a spoon. The Okinawan version of Tacos does not need any beans. Allegedly the dish has been invented on the islands. While taco rice is not a vegetarian dish per se, the chance of finding a vegetarian version with soy protein in a health-oriented restaurant is quite good.

Another place we seek out every time we are on Okniawa mainland is JEF Burger (JEF standing for Japanese Excellent Food). JEF Burger is a classical American-style fast food place, mostly serving burgers. And they do serve a vegetarian burger as well, the famous Goya burger with a patty of egg and goya.

Island pancakes

Okinawan vegetarian pancakes at Emi no mise Restaurant in Ogimi, Okinawa Honto

Hirayachi means “baked flat” and it is actually a kind of savory pancake, similar to Korean Chijimi. It consists of flour, grated yams (which gives a slightly chewy texture), chives, and sometimes fish or octopus. As a vegetarian you can always ask to get one without fish and bonito flakes.

Chinbin is the sweet pancake version on Okinawa. It is a very simple fluffy crèpe only consisting of flour, water and dark sugar with quite a bit of baking powder. You eat them rolled up without any filling or topping. A great lunch snack!

Okinawan sweets

As vegetarians we quickly specialise in sweets! That’s because most sweets in most places are vegetarian anyway. In Okinawa, many sweets are made with the colourful purple sweet potatoes (beni-imo). Great stuff! You can make tartlets from these beni-imo, or milk shakes, ice cream, or even chewy  mochi-style dumplings. And everything looks gorgeous because of the purple colour.

Saata andagi, Okinawa-style doughnuts

Other typical sweets are frittered dough balls called sata andagi. We like the traditional slightly crunchy type, but in some places they are more fluffy, and sometimes they even come with ice cream. Ice cream is of course popular, too, in the subtropical heat of Okinawa! The local brand is Blue Seal, with enticing flavours such as Shikwasa (a citrus fruit) and, of course, beni-imo. Normal soft-ice, however, is often just flavoured by sprinkling flavoured local sea salt on top.

And then there’s chinsuke, a buttery local type of shortbread.

Fruits

Pineapples and other tropical fruit are always fresh and sweet on Okinawa

In summer fresh tropical fruits are ubiquitous on Okinawa! Depending on the season, we may be gorging ourselves on guavas or on fresh pineapples every day. The very small varieties like snack pine and peach pine are available in unmanned street stalls with an honour till. One pinapple has just the right size for the two of us!

And how about vegan food in Okinawa?

You may have guessed it already: While dairy products don’t feature large in the vegetarian food in Okinawa, eggs do. Many of the Chanpurus contain eggs, and so does the JEF burger. As in the rest of Japan, where vegan food can be tricky to come by, most sweets as well as the tempura batter are not vegan. The various pancakes will be possible in a vegan form, though, and of course some tofu dishes and all the fruit!

Which one of these specialities of Okinawa would you like to try? Let us know in the comments what you think of vegetarian food in Okinawa.

NB: We had no sponsoring to write this blog post and paid for all the food by ourselves. We also ate all the food mentioned in the post.

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17 Comments

  1. Love how colorful and beautifully presented everything is served. I think I’d try everything. Some even twice! I love the look of all the sweets. The crazier the color the more I’m interested :).

  2. We are sorry we missed Okinawa on our visit to Japan. We are not vegetarians but when we often find it hard to get veggies when we travel. So knowing where to find good vegetarian options would help with that. Great to see the tasty variety of vegetarian options you found in Okinawa. And hubby does love seaweed so would be looking for that. Deep fried goya might be my choice for a snack. I love how colourful the desserts are made with the purple sweet potatoes!

  3. The second picture with the bitter gourd reminded me of a veggie dish in Indonesia. After I read your explanation that Okinawa food was influenced by Southeast Asia, now I understand it. The sea grapes look intriguing although I’m not sure whether I will give it a try. The best part I think is all kinds of purple sweet potato desserts. They look delicious!

  4. I would be interested in trying the island tofu in Okinawa, especially that it is firmer than the usual type. I do like to eat tofu – but I have always preferred the extra firm one to the soft one, which I think has a very strange texture. I don’t know if I would dare to try the stinky tofu, I usually don’t like foods that smell bad. I am intrigued by the sea grapes, as well as the desserts made using purple sweet potato. I have never tried purple potatoes before.

  5. I had no idea Okinawa has so many vegetarian choices. From Taco Rice, tempura to sea grapes, also all the tofu dishes as Japan is a country of delicious tofu. And got to try Sweets made with purple sweet potatoes on my next visit there, also will try the Hirayachi pan cakes. Thanks!

  6. I am 90 percent vegetarian and don’t mind eating vegetarian food everyday! Okinawa sure has some yummy looking food. Goya Chanpuru looks like the perfect nutritious dish with protein and vegetables. I like the American version of the Oikinawan disn – meat, cheese, salad and tomatoes – that is so inviting. Sweet potato is famous today and is touted to be the secret of the longevity of Japanese. Must visit Okinawa in my next visit to Japan.

  7. You just tempted me to buy a ticket to Okinawa and try all those delicious food and not leave until I have tried them all. Yes even the fermented Tofu Yo ! It is incredible how imaginative the vegetarian dishes are available there. The sweets look equally good too.

  8. This is helpful. Happy to know that there are many vegetarian options available in Okinawa. The shima tofu looks really delicious. The seaweed is actually my favorite and I highly recommend this!

  9. Ooh! The savory pancakes look fun to eat. I’m not really a fan of tofu or seaweed, but the other dishes are delicious-looking. I’m a vegetarian, and sometimes good options are hard to find, so thank you for breaking this down!

  10. I’m really intregued by the mozuku. I bet thats delicious. I was never a fan of tofu but once had Yushi-Tofu cooked by a friend who’s family is from there and it was really tasty. Okinawa is fascinating isn’t it, their diet has had a lot of traction both in the press and in research. I teach some nutrition students and they often choose Okinawa diet and lifestyle as a topic for one of our assignments.

    1. Dear Nicole, yes the Okinawan diet has become famous throughout the world. I guess it is indeed a very healthy way of living – little fat and sugar, lots of vegetables, some tofu and fish.

  11. I’m so hungry after reading this! Japanese food is delicious anyway but everything you mentioned I would try in a heartbeat. I’m most keen to try the taco rice, the tofu and all of the sweets! Mochi is super delicious and those fluffy bites look so good. I’m not a vegetarian but I’d be more than happy to eat this in Okinawa.

    1. Dear Lisa, the Okinawan kitchen is really special – a mix of Japanese, American, Chinese and South-East Asian. And it features a lot of fruits and vegetables.

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