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3 Dishes for adventurous eaters in Okinawa

3 Dishes for adventurous eaters in Okinawa

International Road (国際通り Kokusai dōri), lined with palm trees. (Image credit: 663highland / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

   

Sitting in an unfamiliar restaurant, in a strange land with a menu written in a language you do not understand; you are presented with a dish of unfamiliar ingredients prepared in some unknown way. Would you eat the dish? 

    

For me, yes. Always and forever, I have been an advocate for adventurous eating and culinary curiosity. If a dish sounds utterly insane, over-the-top, or unbelievably strange; I am the first one in line. Of course, I was not always like this. Once upon a time, I was a timid traveller and eater but that all changed when I travelled to Okinawa in my 20s. 

     
Okinawa Prefecture (沖縄県 Okinawa-ken) is the southernmost chain of Japanese islands neighbouring Taiwan featuring unique architecture, food and its own, sadly disappearing, dialect. These islands are home to a wonderful mixture of Japanese and indigenous cultures. As a result, the fantastic dishes there deserve some recognition and if your minds and stomachs are willing, I will be your guide.

  

Sea grapes

A gift from the sea. (Image credit: 663highland / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

      

Never has a name more accurately described a dish than with Japanese sea grapes (海ぶどう umibudō). As if the sea decided that we humans deserve a treat every once-in-a-while, caviar-like pearls dot each length of stem. There is a grape-like pop as you chew, and a rush of deep ocean goodness bursts from each bubble. Dipped in a little Japanese ponzu sauce (ポン酢 ponzu), this sweet, sour, and salty seaweed dish is a favourite beer snack.

     

Pig’s ears

An unexpected delight. (Image credit: CC-SA-1.0)

     

Some dishes truly encompass what it means to cook well and pig’s ears (ミミガー mimiga) is one such example. Pig’s ears are torched and simmered long and low until the tough ears become tender and delicious. The prepared ears are then thinly sliced and often served with a ponzu sauce, a peanut sauce or even a sweetened vinegar sauce. Slightly crunchy on the inside, and satisfyingly fatty in the best possible way, these little bites are the best example of skilled cooks taking something otherwise undesirable and turning it into a staple regional specialty.

  

Goat sashimi

Unbelievably fresh.  (Image credit: Eugene Lee)

   

The humble goat is a common ingredient in many cultures, but I was totally unaware it was also served in the Okinawan islands. What preparation could be more Japanese than serving it sashimi style? Goat sashimi (八木刺身 yagi-sashimi) is very mild in flavour with no gameyness to speak of. Compared to other meats served sashimi-style, goat has a much firmer chew and the skin provides a bit of cartilage-like texture. Typically served with lemon and ginger, the dish is quite light and refreshing. Although not as powerful in flavour as one might expect, the mildness and a firm bite of this sashimi is a wonderful palate cleanser.

     

Land of the rising sun indeed. (Image credit: Haruka Lee)

       

One of the best aspects of Okinawan food is the total transparency about their dishes. Goat sashimi, pig’s ears, and sea grapes; what you order is unadorned with niceties, there is no attempt to hide the subject of the dish. So often unconventional foods are brushed off with remarks like “tastes like chicken” in order to make something seem tamer and more palatable. However, I think it is a disservice to blandify dishes to make them more desirable. To those who are looking for new, exciting flavours and textures, I hope you try these fantastic Okinawan treats. Hopefully, the dishes presented here are proof that food in Okinawa is a magical experience of, formerly, unknown delights.

    

Header image credit: Eugene Lee

   

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