Okinawa has cultivated its own food culture since ancient times and is full of restaurants, izakayas, and sweets shops where you can enjoy foods from the tropical sea and fertile land. If you fancy trying Okinawan cuisine with Awamori and Kusu (aged Awamori), head to the Urizun izakaya. The day after, perhaps you'll be in the mood to try a reinvigorating Shimadofu (island tofu) dish at Shima-chan Shokudo. For a standard lunch of Okinawan soba, the traditional recipes at Kishimoto Shokudo are well worth a look. Okinawa is also dotted with famous taco rice and hamburger shops that give a real sense of the island's American culture. When out walking, take a break to enjoy the sweet side of Okinawa with Okinawa Zenzai (red bean soup) and Chimpin (dried citrus peel). Here we take a tour of restaurants in Okinawa that are popular with the locals, including a medicinal restaurant of island vegetables and wild grasses, a restaurant where you can enjoy Okinawan branded pork, and a restaurant specialising in rare local fresh fish.

    1

    Old sake and Ryukyu cuisine Urizun (Awamori/Okinawan cuisine)

    Okinawa's Awamori drink is a part of the islands' cultural heritage that has been passed down for more than 600 years. If you fancy trying this tipple, the first place to visit is Urizun, which was started in 1972 by bringing together all 57 of Okinawa's Awamori distilleries in one location. All the Awamori from all the factories in the prefecture are here, including drinks from remote islands, and on top of that Urizun has its own Kusu drink, which is Awamori that has been aged by leaving it to lie. There's delicious food on offer too, with various dishes that go well with Awamori, ranging from Okinawan home-cooked classics to imperial cuisine and creative cookery. The most popular dish is the Okinawan Durtan croquette made with taimo, which is a local Okinawan variety of taro. Rafute is an Okinawan-style stew (kakuni) made by boiling pork ribs in a generous amount of Awamori. Tofuyo, Okinawan-style fermented tofu, is another mouthwatering delicacy to enjoy while drinking Awamori. But if all this choice has you at a loss, go for the Urizun set meal option and you'll be guaranteed a sublime taste of Okinawa.

    Location: 388-5 Asato, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture 902-0067, Japan

    Open: Daily from 5.30 pm to midnight

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    2

    Shima-chan restaurant (Yushi tofu)

    If you're a tofu fan, Shima-chan Shokudo is the place to be for lunch. Yushidofu is freshly made at the tofu shop behind the cafeteria. A local Okinawan dish with a slightly salty taste, this is a fluffy tofu that has not been put into a mold and hardened. It's delicious to eat as it is, but you can also try it with soy sauce or miso flavours. The Yushidofu set meal is a bargain. It's pretty filling, too, with Okinawan-style seasoned and cooked rice, Okara Inari (Inarizushi made with tofu dregs that are unique to tofu shops), salad and Jimami tofu all included. The restaurant closes as soon as the tofu runs out, so make sure you get here nice and early.

    Location: 2-3-12 Yogi, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture 902-0076, Japan

    Open: Weekdays from 11.30 am to 6 pm. Saturdays from 11.30 am to 5 pm. Closed on Wednesdays, Sundays and public holidays.

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    3

    King Tacos (taco rice/fast food)

    Taco rice is an Okinawan fast food created in 1984 at the Parlor Senri restaurant. It started with taco meat being served on top of rice. The King Tacos restaurant chain preserves the taste of the original taco rice. The chain has many branches throughout Okinawa Prefecture, but the original Kin Main Store, located in Kin Town, where there's a strong sense of American culture, is particularly popular and is always serving plenty of customers. If it's your first time here, the "taco rice cheese vegetable" option with cheese, tomatoes and lettuce is a great place to start. The portions are so huge that they have a hard time getting the lid to close on the takeaway pack. With taco meat and cheese, crispy vegetables and spicy salsa sauce, this is a meal that keeps you hooked until the very last bite.

    Location: Kin Main Store: 4244-4 Kin, Kin Town, Kunigami District, Okinawa Prefecture 904-1201, Japan Please check the official website of each branch.

    Open: Daily from 10.30 am to 1 pm

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    photo by whity (CC BY 2.0) modified

    4

    Kishimoto Shokudo (Okinawan soba)

    Okinawa soba is the definitive Okinawan noodle dish. There are all kinds of restaurants, izakayaz and noodle shops offering various styles of Okinawa soba. For a standard lunch of Okinawan soba, the traditional recipes at Kishimoto Shokudo are well worth a look. Located in Motobu-cho, home to the Churaumi Aquarium, this long-running eatery has been in business for over 110 years. The menu is very simple: large and small portions of Kishimoto soba, and Juicy (Okinawan rice porridge). The soba is served in a light soy sauce-flavoured soup with bonito broth, flat noodles and thick boneless ribs, with kamaboko and island onion as toppings. The handmade Juicy is full of flavour and quickly sells out. To avoid the queues for lunch, try to arrive when the restaurant opens at 11 am.

    Location: 5 Toguchi, Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0214, Japan

    Open: Thursday–Tuesday from 11 am to 5.30 pm (closed on Wednesdays)

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    photo by ayustety (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    5

    Tsurukamedo Zenzai (sweet shop)

    Zenzai is typically a warm or hot food as far as the people in Honshu are concerned, but here in tropical Okinawa it's a chilled food with shaved ice. Tsurukamedo Zenzai, which stands next to the world heritage site of the Zakimi Castle Ruins in Yomitan Village, is a popular shop that often sells 300 cups of zenzai in a single day. The simple set menu of Ryukyu zenzai is made by putting handmade rice flour dumplings with red kidney beans that are sweetly boiled with brown sugar, before heaping fluffy ice on top. The flavour becomes more intense as you scoop away at the mountain of shaved ice. Zenzai with purple yam and brown sugar, a colourful local speciality that uses purple yam powder, is a real gem. Accented with a syrup of brown sugar and ginger, it's incredibly moreish.

    Location: 248-1 Zakimi, Yomitan Village, Nakagami District, Okinawa Prefecture 904-0301, Japan

    Open: Thursday–Tuesday from 10 am to 5 pm (closed on Wednesdays)

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    photo by Chris 73 (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    6

    Café Garamanjaku (island vegetables and wild grass medicinal dishes)

    The secret to the longevity of Okinawans is the traditional Okinawan food. Café Garamanjaku is a restaurant that offers medicinal foods with a focus on island vegetables and wild grasses. The garden, set in an old traditional house with a red tiled roof, is typical of Okinawa, is full of wild grasses that can also be used as ingredients. The Garaman Set Meal is a great way to sample a wide variety of colourful wild grass and vegetable dishes put together using more than 50 kinds of ingredients. The 5-colour rice cooked using natural colours such as indigo and turmeric is a marvel. Dishes such as sautéed, thinly sliced island carrots, bitter gourd boiled in soy sauce and brown sugar, and Umukuji Okinawan doughnuts fried with crushed purple yam and golden yam, are all served with seasoning as simple as salt, miso, and soy sauce. Oh and make sure you wash it all down with a glass of Puple Yam Miki, a fermented wild grass smoothie. Wow!

    Location: 10507-4 Kin, Kin Town, Okinawa Prefecture 904-1201, Japan

    Open: Saturday–Monday from noon to 3.30 pm (closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays)

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    7

    Itoman Gyomin Shokudo (Okinawan fresh fish dishes)

    Most visitors to the island country of Okinawa are looking forward to trying the fresh local seafood. Itoman Gyomin Shokudo in Itoman, known as the city of fishermen, is a popular restaurant where you can enjoy freshly caught fish from the nearby port. The speciality of this restaurant is a set meal of freshly caught, butter-grilled fish, which is mainly made with fish that are procured on the same day. You can choose from three types of butter: sea lettuce butter, Okinawan-style fermented tofu butter, and turmeric butter. As for the fish, try one of the local Okinawan varieties such as Bitaro (bluestripe snapper), Meebai (a type of grouper), and Akamachi (queen snapper). The pale Okinawan fish fried in plenty of butter makes for an exquisite dish with rice. For the sashimi served as a starter, try the Sichuan pepper-rich "numbness soy sauce" (its name hints at the level of spice you can expect!). And there's no better way to finish off than with some jasmine tea pudding and warm zenzai.

    Location: 4-17 Nishizakicho, Itoman City, Okinawa Prefecture 901-0306, Japan

    Open: Wednesday–Monday from 11.30 am to 3 pm, and 6 pm to 10 pm (closed on Tuesdays)

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    8

    Yachimun Cafe Shisaen (Mori Café)

    For pure relaxation, it's hard to beat a coffee shop situated in the quiet of the mountains in the central part of Okinawa Island. From the open windows upstairs at Yachimun Cafe Shisaen you can see the forest of Yanbaru between the Okinawan lion statues (Shisa) on the rooftop. If you're hungry, order some Hirayachi. These are Okinawan-style pancakes baked with flour dough using leeks and green onions. For sweet snacks, there's the popular Okinawan traditional brown sugar crepe known as Chinpin (or Pawpaw). This is a perfect match for the home-roasted coffee made using the spring water from the park. On hot days, the "Ultra Fresh Citrus Juice" using seasonal citrus fruits such as locally produced Okinawan lime and tankan is the perfect tonic.

    Location: 1439 Izumi, Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0221, Japan

    Open: Wednesday–Sunday from 11 am to 7 pm (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)

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    photo by Amy Nakazawa (CC BY 2.0) modified

    9

    Shimabuta-Shichirinyaki Manmi (Yanbaru Shimabuta)

    Okinawa is so full of pork cuisine that it's said the Okinawans eat everything but the squeal. Yanbaru Shimabuta, which is a cross between the purebred native Agu and the Kurobuta (Berkshire) pig, is a brand that produces pork with a slightly sweet fat. Shimabuta-Shichirinyaki Manmi is a restaurant where you can grill 16 kinds of Yanbaru Shimabuta on a charcoal-fired shichirin grill. As well as ribs and shoulder roast, there's melt-in-the-mouth fatty pork, the less fatty umami hit of pig's head, and chewy rectum (yes, you read that right). All of these delicacies can be enjoyed with a special kombu sauce or some rosemary herb salt. Of course if you want to eat healthily, you should probably order the salad of seasonal vegetables and Shimadofu, which are part of the bounty of the Yambaru area, to go alongside all that pork.

    Location: 251 Isagawa, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan

    Open: Daily from 5 pm to 11 pm

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    photo by mypicture (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    10

    Jef (Okinawan hamburger shop)

    Given the fact that Okinawa is home to a US military base, it should be no surprise that there are many famous American gourmet hamburger joints on the island. The locals particularly love the Jef burger restaurant, which has 3 branches on the main island of Okinawa. One distinctively Okinawan menu option is the "Nuyaru Burger". This delicious burger combines sliced bitter gourd and eggs with pork luncheon meat in a bun. Or if you want to share with children or friends, try the set of 3 mini burgers. Fried chicken made in-store with meat from Okinawan chicks and onigiri (rice balls) with oil miso are some of the popular side dishes on offer. There's even a drive-in if you want to quickly grab something to eat without stopping your sightseeing. The Tomigusuku store is 15 minutes from the airport, so you can always stop by again before returning to catch your flight.

    Location: Tomigusuku store: 66-1 Tagami, Tomigusuku City, Okinawa Prefecture 901-0324, Japan Sunrise Naha store: 1-1-5 Tsuboya, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture 902-0065, Japan Yonabaru store: 467 Ueyonabaru, Yonabaru Town, Okinawa Prefecture 901-1302, Japan

    Open: Tomigusuku store: daily from 6.30 am to 1 am. Sunrise Naha store: daily from 9 am to 6 pm. Yonabaru store: 24/7

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