Visit Okinawa and Try a Bowl of Okinawa Soba!
“This is soba?” a question usually accompanied with a puzzled look – This was the most common reaction made by my visitors when they tried Okinawa soba for the first time. Staring at the thick yellow noodles, most people struggled with their understanding of traditional Japanese soba, the buckwheat noodles consumed in mainland Japan, and the so-called Okinawa soba.
Despite sharing the name “soba” with Japanese buckwheat noodles, Okinawa soba, made of wheat flour, looks and tastes vastly different from the Japanese soba that most people are familiar with. The differences resulted in some problems when Okinawa was reverted back to Japan in 1972. Based on Japan’s Fair Trade Commission’s regulations, soba noodles should contain at least 30 percent buckwheat. In 1976, the Fair Trade Commission tried to make Okinawa rename its beloved dish as it did not fulfill the “soba” requirement. Okinawan representatives fought to protect their traditional cuisine and negotiated with the Japanese government. Finally, on 17 of October 1978, the Okinawans were victorious and the name “Okinawa soba’ was officially accepted. This significant day was declared “Okinawa Soba Day” and commemorated in Okinawa every year. On ‘Okinawa Soba Day”, many soba shops organise Okinawa soba-related celebratory events that offer special promotions.
When I tried Okinawa soba for the first time, I was surprised by how the yellow noodles resemble the Chinese noodles I eat back in Singapore. There were no clear records explaining the history of Okinawa soba. According to some sources, Okinawa soba was consumed by the royalty during the Ryukyu kingdom period. In the late Meiji period, there were records of shops selling “shina soba” or yellow noodles. During the Taisho period, Okinawa soba was sold in more shops. After the war, due to the increased supply of wheat rations by the military, Okinawa soba became a common dish.
The most popular type of Okinawa soba is served with thick yellow noodles swimming in pork or bonito broth. The piping hot bowl of noodles is accompanied with the main cast – either juicy pieces of stewed pork belly (san mai niku/三枚肉) or pork spare ribs (soki/ソーキ). Other toppings such as fish cake, green onions and pickled ginger usually play important supporting roles.
Most Okinawans like to enhance the flavor of their soba by adding a few drops of koregusu (コーレーグース). Made by soaking hot chill peppers in awamori (an alcoholic beverage indigenous to Okinawa), koregusu is a popular condiment used to season many Okinawan dishes.
The key ingredient of Okinawa soba is not just the noodles or the broth but the heart. The kindness of the Okinawan people who serve me bowls of soba is an essential part of the gastronomical experience. “Choo kukuru ru dee ichi” is a famous Okinawan proverb that means: “The heart is the most essential human quality.” The best Okinawa soba is a bowl served with overflowing Okinawan’s hospitality and sincerity.