Food in Okinawa is a strange thing. Sure, there’s plenty of it to go around. There are affordable places and fancy places and a myriad of influences from around the world (most notably the U.S. and mainland Japan, but also Europe, China, India, and Southeast Asia – just to name a few). Then there’s Okinawa’s own, distinct and rich culinary tradition. But parts of Okinawa can feel like something of a tourist backwater. The food scene here in Onna does not rival that of Tokyo, Fukuoka, or even Naha. Add to that the fact that the island as a whole is more suburb than city, and that businesses tend to run on flexible “island time,” and finding remarkable restaurants can be hard work. But these restaurants do exist! And all signs point to a growing food scene fueled by the same motivations reshaping food culture in my native U.S.—a quest for quality over convenience and the recognition that food is a socio-cultural experience, not just caloric intake.
I knew I had become irreversibly hipster about three weeks into life at OIST when I finally found a craft coffee-quality latte and felt whole for the first time since I left Boston. I’m not particularly proud of that fact, but I can say I know what I like. No matter what you like, if you drink coffee you know how important it can be. I’ve had a lot of fun finding different types of high quality cafés on the island, so next time you’re out and about check out one of my favorites (and let me know what else you find)!
Zhyvago Coffee Works & Timeless Chocolate
Nothing says “hipster” like Zhyvago Coffee Works (they have decorative bicycles and everything). I was a bit worried American Village would ruin the café ambience, but sipping a latte or eating tiramisu while looking out over the ocean makes for an absolutely perfect Sunday afternoon. Before opening his shop, Zhyvago’s owner Kentaro trained with one of the biggest names in the American craft coffee movement, Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland Oregon (keep an eye out for a bag of their coffee beans on display in the café!). Stumptown basically reinvented coffee in America, popularizing single origin, small batch roasted coffees with complex flavors. Honestly, I’ve found the espresso at Zhyvago a little hit or miss, but I am completely sold on their upstairs neighbor, Timeless Chocolate.
Timeless has its own links to the American craft chocolate industry (this time out of San Francisco) and, in addition to hand crafted single origin bars and free cacao bean samples, they offer beautiful confections. It’s also the first place I’ve experienced cacao pulp juice—sweet and refreshing. Timeless serves all their products on dramatic plates and cups made by local artisans. If you get the chocolate bar sampler, try tasting chocolate like the “pros” do:
(1) look at the surface of the chocolate before eating—it should be shiny, signifying a proper temper (that the cocoa mass and cocoa butter are well mixed);
(2) smell the chocolate: you can rub your fingers on a piece to release more aromas—floral, spicy, caramel, fruit, smoke—which often varies by origin;
(3) break the chocolate before biting it—the best chocolates have an audible “snap” to them (though Timeless’s coarser grind makes it a bit soft on the break);
(4) place a piece of chocolate on your tongue and let it melt, rather than chewing it up right away, and pay attention to how the flavor changes.
Ploughman’s Lunch Bakery
I came to Okinawa excited for the ocean, but the island also offers beautiful hills and forests. Driving up the narrow, winding street that leads to Ploughman’s Lunch Bakery, you almost forget you’re near the ocean, not deep in the hills of some tropical mountain range. Park on the road a bit passed the café and you have a lovely walk with a view of inland Okinawa. The bakery itself is cozy and secluded—the perfect place to meet a few friends for a casual coffee or lunch. Ploughman’s Lunch makes all their own breads, serves excellent pour over coffee, and has a small selection of sandwiches and a seasonal soup. I found it a bit odd that everything was either vegan or contained raw ham, but it does capture both sides of foodie extremism. There are tables for groups, or a bar at the window where you can sit with a book and look out at the (rather overgrown but still lovely) garden.
Mame Pore Pore Coffee Roasters
I first met Mame Pore Pore Coffee Roasters at OIST Open Campus 2015. It was like coming home. Their stall had pour over coffee, cold brew coffee, espresso, aeropress, and even cascara—“coffee cherry tea” made from coffee berries. I think I had at least three coffees in two hours. Since then they’ve brought their mobile booth to various other events around the island, but their home base is in Awase. A tiny, cluttered shop with just four seats in one corner, the quality of their coffee makes it well worth the drive. If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch them roasting their own beans while you’re there. They sell a wide variety of coffee origins and roasts—and any bag of beans comes with a free coffee.
Not to be confused with the Niceness down in Naha, the new Nago location is airy and spacious. With a great place to lounge in the afternoon, Niceness has a fully vegan menu (although if you’re not vegan they will offer you honey to go with your scones). In addition to vegan curry plates, they offer excellent pour over coffee, a small selection of vegan baked goods, and the occasional live music act. Niceness is quite well networked in the Okinawa food scene, and while you drink your coffee you can browse through pamphlets from their friends in the industry across the island—a great place to plan your next foodie adventure!
Images courtesy of Rob Campbell
Rob Campbell is a PhD student in the class of 2015, and has been pointed out to others as the “foodie hipster student” on campus. Before coming to OIST he spent two years working in Boston’s food industry, where he specialized in tea and dabbled in chocolate, coffee, honey, wine, cider, cheese, and beer (not all at once, you philistines!).