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!
Chanpuru – a (vegetarian) stir fry
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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