Naha’s food scene encompasses both the region’s unique traditional cuisine, vastly different to that of the Japanese mainland, and modern favorites, such as taco rice, born out of the American presence on the Okinawan islands. The city is also home to a fast-growing number of vegetarian, vegan, and organic eateries. This is the result of increasing health consciousness among Okinawans: already famed worldwide for their long lifespans, with many attributing this to the local diet.
Souki Soba at Maruyasu Soba
The Okinawan take on noodles in soup broth, known as souki soba, is a hearty, meat-heavy dish. Chewy flour noodles are served in a rich pork and dashi (fish stock)-based soup, together with sliced green onion and chunky pork ribs. Souki soba is garnished to taste with beni shoga (red pickled ginger), and at the counter bar-style Maruyasu Soba you can also add koregusu, a condiment made with chili pepper-infused awamori liquor.
Goya Tempura at Itomanya
Goya, or bitter gourd, is a relative of the melon that is indigenous to the region. Featuring prominently in Okinawan cooking and packed with vitamins, it is said to preserve stamina in the humid summer and these days is deemed a ‘superfood’ by nutritionists. At Itomanya, an izakaya restaurant in Naha’s Mihara district, you can sample Okinawa’s emblematic vegetable sliced and cooked in light and crispy tempura batter.
Travelers venturing into Okinawa’s deep countryside are advised to keep one eye out for a deadly snake called the habu, but in Naha you’re far more likely to encounter one of the venomous reptiles preserved at the bottom of a bottle of habushu. This potent alcoholic tipple is a variant of popular local drink awamori, and is said to pack a double-punch: firstly for its intoxicating effects; secondly (for men) habu-shu is believed to encourage stamina in the bedroom. Habu-shu is not cheap, but then making it involves catching a live snake, starving it for several months, and finally pickling it in alcohol for upwards of six months. Find habu-shu in Okinawan restaurants and Sakaya (liquor stores).
Ecaqi's Roast Beef and Egg Donburi
Ecaqi is a cosy Western-style dining bar, with a warmly-lit interior decked out with antiques, located in Naha’s central Makishi district close to always-thronging Kokusai Dori street. Here the signature dish is a donburi rice bowl topped with succulent roast beef, egg, and white onion. This is a recipe guaranteed to line your insides ready for full-on partying,
Blue Seal Ice Cream
Blue Seal ice cream is everywhere you go in Okinawa: much loved by locals, it’s a product that is deeply intertwined with the islands’ postwar history. Established after WWII for the enjoyment of US servicemen and their families living on Okinawa’s bases, for two decades Blue Seal remained an exotic and elusive treat for locals themselves. In the 1960s however the brand became available on the mass market, and was eagerly adopted as an Okinawan icon. Cafes and stands all over Naha offer over 30 flavors including sweet potato and Shiiquasa, a local citrus fruit.
Hirayachi (Okinawan Okonimiyaki) at Itomanya
Okinawan cooking boasts more than its fair share of comfort food recipes. Among them is Hirayachi, a simple, savory and relatively light Okonimiyaki -like dish made with eggs, flour, green onions. Often eaten with Worcester Sauce, hirayachi is a great vegetarian option among a cuisine rich in meat and seafood.
Fish Soup at Itomanya
Another noteworthy Itomanya dish is its hearty fish soup. Making great use of fresh local catches, its ingredients vary by season, and is rounded out with generous slices of Daikon (radish).
Vegan Lunch Sets at Mana
Mana, in Naha’s Tsuboya district, is a cool, hipster-style vegan cafe specializing in brown rice-based dishes made with organic, fertilizer and pesticide-free local ingredients. Delicious lunch sets include a deep-fried soy gluten that is very close to chicken in texture, with cakes, scones and millet cookies also offered.
Vegetarian dishes at Ukishima Garden
Ukishima Garden is another dedicated organic and vegetarian eatery, offering more of a fully-fledged restaurant menu, Okinawa Organic Vegan Tasting Course (Dinner, from 4,200 yen～). Nirai course (5,200 yen) includes millet hamburg steak dressed with black carrot sauce, while lunch set options include a vegetarian version of the ‘Okinawan-Mexican’ taco rice dish, as well as seasonal dishes such as deep fried cassava.