It’s easy to forget that Okinawa is closer to Hong Kong than it is to Tokyo.
Okinawan food and drink reflects not only the geography of the area, being terrestrial yet of the sea, but also the rich, often contested history of the islands as an outpost of empire. From Thai rice-distilled spirit to porcine pleasures, and vegetable-forward diets known to promote longevity, this underexplored cuisine builds flavour and vibrancy with local goods and global influences.
Here are our top picks for the best places to go to sample the produce, cuisine, and spirits of Okinawa in Hong Kong.
Opened in 2017 by Hong Konger Sharon Chan and her husband Kinjo-san, who hails from Okinawa, Kinjo’s Izakaya is one of the most underrated lunch spots in Central. This casual and cozy izakaya, buzzing by day and night alike, offers a range of donburi and grilled skewers rooted in Okinawan cuisine. Kinjo’s serves a worthy rendition of goya champuru or stir fried balsam pear. By far the most iconic of Okinawan fare, champuru, from the Malay and Indonesian word ‘campur,’ means ‘mixed’. The dish features julienned bitter melon tossed with egg, springy tofu, and sliced pork. Other favourites include the tsukune smeared in shiso and plum, fluffy egg roll swirled with nutrient-dense aosa nori or sea lettuce, and grilled onigiri — crowned, in classic fashion, with a pat of butter.
Kinjo’s Izakaya, 27 Elgin St, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2362 9992
For an education in awamori, an age-old Okinawan distilled rice wine, this secluded izakaya, Ku-suya Rakuen, is the place to go. Unique to Okinawa and difficult to acquire off the islands, awamori is completely different to the familiar sake and shochu. Instead, awamori is made from long-grain Thai rice, which is inoculated with black koji indigenous to the prefecture. Sampled neat or in a cocktail, poured into one of Ku-suya Rakuen’s handmade Ryukyu glasses, the beverages go well with a series of small plates, including umibudou or sea grapes. Heaped on a rubble of ice, they explode in the mouth in a wash of salt and mineral. The jimami-doufu, made from sweet potato starch and peanuts, is also a delicious option and resembles a boule of burrata, but cuts like boiled egg white and tastes refreshing. Meanwhile mimiga or steamed pig’s ear is the platonic ideal of the beer snack: crunch and cartilage you want to keep reaching for long after you’re full.
Ku-suya Rakuen, 12/F, Circle Tower, No. 28 Tung Lung Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, +852 3580 8858
The menu at Tsim Sha Tsui’s EN is similar to what you’ll encounter at Ku-suya Rakuen. However, what sets EN apart is not just their broader selection of seafood, but the all-you-can-eat shabu shabu featuring snow crab, top-grade wagyu from Miyazaki, and well-marbled aguu pork sourced from Okinawa. Known as Okinawa’s ‘phantom pig’, aguu-buta comes from a rare breed of pig said to be genetically linked to boars from today’s Vietnam. The meat is said to have a more favourable nutritional profile as well, containing less cholesterol, more vitamin B1 and a greater concentration of umami-creating components.
En, 1/F, Golden Dragon Centre, 38-40 Cameron Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong, +852 3428 2500
Wagyu 88 in Causeway Bay is the first overseas branch of the Okinawa-originated steakhouse chain, Steakhouse 88. In Hong Kong, however, the restaurant is operated by En group, and focuses on yakiniku in addition to a lesser known style of sushi: nikuzushi. Nikuzushi swaps out the fresh catch for delicately seared, melt-in-your-mouth meats. At Wagyu 88, round out your carnivorous feast with a side of shima rakkyo or island shallots, and crisp-skinned gyoza bursting with aguu pork, the sweet yield of Okinawa’s prized black-haired pig.
Wagyu 88, 13/F, Circle Tower, 28 Tang Lung Street Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, +852 3105 3129
Japanese techniques and ingredients have had a massive influence on the evolution story of contemporary European cuisine. Still, diners may be surprised to find the flavours of Ryukyu at Somm, a restaurant by sommeliers located on the 7th floor of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. In a menu where wine and sake takes centrestage, the house signature at Somm pays homage to rafute, an Okinawan dish of pork belly slow-simmered in soy sauce, black sugar and awamori. Plated with barbecue sauce and tender Hakata cabbage, the pork belly is sourced straight from Okinawa. For a not-too-sweet dessert at the end of your French neo-bistro brunch: the banana pancakes with toasted pecan and yuzu come with kurozato syrup, a dark, molasses-like drizzle made using raw Okinawan black sugar.
Somm, No.15 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong, 7/F, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, +852 2186 6971
Header image courtesy of En