Topping the list of bestselling Okinawan souvenirs is chinsuko. These delicate biscuits (not to mention, ergonomically shaped with ridges on the sides so they don't slip away) have a mild texture and flavor not too different from shortbread. The name chinsuko can be understood as "expensive, rare or precious confectionary," possibly originating from history in which only royalty and aristocrats of the Ryukyu Kindgom enjoyed it. Nowadays, just about anyone can buy a box of this traditional sweet, but chinsuko still retains its luxurious element. Just one bite of this delectable combination of sugar, flour, and lard and you will understand why. Now chinsuko comes in many flavors but if you have to buy just one box for budget reasons, it has to be Miyakojima Yukishio chinsuko. Yukishio (literally, snow salt) is harvested from picturesque Miyako Island, a gorgeous place for scuba diving. Salt water filters slowly through limestone, which crystalizes into a superfine powder. If it's possible for salt to have a bit of sweetness to it, then you have an idea of what yukishio tastes like. Add this lovely snow salt into an already delicious biscuit and you have just created heaven in a bite.
Beni imo Tart
Beni-imo is Okinawa's purple sweet potato, promoted as one of Okinawa's superfoods for its high anthocyanin levels (an antioxidant that protects against free radicals and cell damage). Beni-imo has a slight zest to it, compared to milder tasting orange and yellow sweet potatoes. In Okinawa, you can find many things beni-imo flavored (and deep purple colored) -- beni-imo chinsuko (see above), beni-imo sata andagi (see below), beni-imo soft cream, beni-imo soba, beni-imo bubble milk tea, and beni-imo KitKat. But the iconic beni-imo souvenir would have to be beni-imo tarts. To begin, these tarts are simply aesthetically exquisite. The boat-shaped crust, and the elegant ripples of beni-imo filling will always remind you of Okinawa's awesome beaches.
Kokutou (Okinawan Brown Sugar)
Not all sugars are created equal. Okinawa's specialty brown sugar, called kokutou (the kanji 黒糖 translates to black sugar) is made by boiling down pure sugar cane juice over many hours until it hardens into a solid mass. The resulting retail product usually comes in smaller chunks of sugary goodness. Due to the growing popularity of kokutou especially in natural health food circles, some unscrupulous companies market kokutou-looking sugar actually made from processed white and brown sugars hardened with coagulating agents, colored with caramel and blended with artificial or chemical flavors. If it's too cheap, it's probably not the real deal. Kokutou has an earthy sweetness smiliar to molasses. Its taste is much more complex than ordinary sugar, with hints of saltiness, bitterness, and wholesomeness. Kokutou is essential to Okinawan cuisine, particularly rafute (see below). I used to think sugar is sugar and that I could use any sugar I had for nikujaga (a favorite easy home cooked dish of meat and potatoes). And then, one day, I replaced my usual granulated sugar with kokutou and I was surprised by the deep flavors that it brought out in my usual nikujaga. Kokutou is my now my go-to sugar.
Canned Rafute (Okinawan Glazed Pork)
Rafute is the glorious result of Chinese influence in Okinawa. A glazed pork dish similar to many versions of braised pork belly dishes in many parts of China, rafute is made by stewing pork belly in awamori (Okinawan alcohol), kokutou (Okinawan brown sugar, see above), and soy sauce. It was a palace staple in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and considered to promote longevity (think collagen, not cholesterol!). It is relatively easy to make rafute at home, if you have the ingredients but it takes at least 4 hours to convert that hunk of pork belly into meat so tender it literally melts in your mouth. If you don't have the time or the patience, canned rafute is for you, ready to eat after a quick heating. Great with steaming plain rice.
Okinawan Shio Senbei
You probably are familiar with senbei, Japanese rice crackers which come in various shapes, sizes and flavors. Okinawan shio senbei or salt crackers, however, are made from wheat flour, not rice, and are simply seasoned with salt. A traditional Okinawan snack, its shape, taste, and texture has not changed much over the years. I love munching on these crackers by themselves. They're lighter than potato chips and have a simple flavor. Local Okinawan folks love to top their shio senbei with chocolate sauce, or heat it up with a blob of margarine or jam (quick breakfast!). I haven't tried it the Okinawan way though... I munched through a whole pack of shio senbei just as it is.
Orion Beer Nuts
With its distinctive navy blue logo, Orion (pronounced o-ree-on) is the official beer of Okinawa . As the fifth largest brewery in Japan, the company holds only 1% of the total Japanese beer market. But in Okinawa where it was founded and where headquarters are located, Orion is the leading beer brand, controlling 60% of the beer market. Good beer comes from good water and Orion proudly crafts its beer with spring water sourced from the mountains behind its brewery. Beer is best paired with snacks, and nuts are classic. Combine the best of both worlds with Orion Beer Nuts, a peanut snack covered with a crunchy batter made with beer yeast and one of three flavors: almond cheese, tacos island chili pepper, and turmeric curry, all in one delicious bag. It's impossible to stop snacking on these nuts, so it's great to know that they are not fried.
Sata Andagi (Okinawan donuts)
If you strolled along Naha's Heiwa-dori, you would have seen stacks of deep fried dough, a deliciously sweet aroma wafting out of the shop. This is sata andagi (derived from sata for sugar, anda for oil, and agi for fry), Okinawa's traditional confectionary, made from flour, sugar and eggs, formed into a ball and deep fried. Sata andagi making techniques reflect the Chinese influence on Okinawan culture and cuisine. The best sata andagi should be crispy on the outside, soft, light, moist and cake-like on the inside, and not oily. So while it is possible to buy packaged sata andagi, the best ones are freshly made and eaten at the shop. Some shops offer coconut, black sesame or kinako (roasted soybean flour) topped sata andagi. They go wonderfully with tea.
Jushi (Okinawan Seasoned Rice)
This delicious sounding name refers to Okinawan style takikomi gohan (typical Japanese seasoned rice dish mixed with vegetables and some protein). Jushi typically contains hijiki seaweed (the black stuff), carrots, shiitake mushrooms, pork and cooked in pork broth. It is often served with Okinawan soba at most shokudo (or cafes). A popular home staple because it is really easy to make, each family usually has their own jushi recipe. Jushi has such mass appeal that convenience stores sell jushi onigiri. To bring jushi back with you, look for boxes of jushi no moto which is prepackaged, precooked jushi mix. Just put rice, water and the contents of the jushi no moto into your rice cooker, press the cook button, and you're done!
Okinawan Fu (Dry Gluten)
If there is one representative dish of Okinawan cuisine, it would have to be chanpuru, a stir fry dish consisting of a mix of vegetables typically including gōyā (bitter gourd or bitter melon) and bean sprouts. It might feature diced Spam (which you will see peddled everywhere, thanks to the influence of the US Navy). But a local favorite is chanpuru made with fu, dried gluten. Fu is a wonderful ingredient as it tends to absorb flavors and has a substantial meat-like texture to it. Plus, it's so light and easy to carry back home with you! To prepare fu, simply soak it in water until soft (about 20 minutes), squeeze out and discard the water. Slice the fu to desired size, then soak in lightly beaten egg for about 10 minutes. Pan fry fu-egg mix first in oil and set aside. It's now ready to be included in your chanpuru.
Beside the jushi onigiri (see jushi above), you will most likely find abura miso onigiri as well. Most people are familiar with miso, fermented soybean paste essential in making miso soup. Abura miso (literally, oil miso) is miso cooked with sugar and pork and is absolutely delicious eaten with rice. You can easily take home this Okinawan flavor by buying a tub or packet of abura miso (take care to put it into your check in luggage -- it may not be accepted as carry on). It also makes a great dip for vegetable sticks.