The Mysteries of “Okinawa Soba”, a Regional Ramen from Japan!
Oct 15, 2021 - 5 min read
In recent years, the ever-growing popularity of Japanese style ramen and the robust flavors of Tonkotsu and Shoyu, to name a few, have opened the door for other traditional Japanese noodles like Udon and Soba to gain popularity in the United States. However, there are many more unique noodles (and with them, cultures) specific to Japan that are still widely unknown overseas. Today, we would like to introduce one such noodle dish. Originally from the southernmost prefecture of Japan, “Okinawa Soba” carries a distinct taste with a rich culture.
- What is Okinawa Soba?
- History of Okinawa Soba
- Why is October 17th “Okinawa Soba Day”?
- The Differences Between “Okinawa Soba” and “Soki Soba”
- Was Lye Used in the Past? How to Make Okinawa Soba Noodles
- Seasoning your Okinawa Soba with “Kōrēgusu”
- Restaurants that Serve Okinawa Soba in the United States
- Make Okinawa Soba at Home!
■What is Okinawa Soba?
Though its name implies that it’s a type of traditional soba, Okinawa soba more closely resembles ramen. It’s made by kneading kansui (a type of alkaline water) into wheat flour (like ramen), whereas traditional soba uses buckwheat flour in its recipe. The shape of the noodles varies depending on the area they are served in, but they are broadly divided into “flat noodles,” “curly thick noodles,” and “thin noodles,” and are characterized by their chewy texture and firmness. One leading difference that Okinawa soba has with ramen, is that after the noodles are boiled, they are drizzled with oil. Originally, this process preserved the noodles before the invention of refrigerators. Though an unnecessary step nowadays, it’s still followed to create a taste unique to Okinawa.
The soup base is flavored with pork bones and dried bonito flakes, and the ratio determines whether the taste is rich or light.
The following are typical ingredients:
- Sanmainiku (pork ribs with skin slowly simmered in sugar and soy sauce)
- Ginger (red ginger)
- Kamaboko (Japanese fish cake)
- Shima negi (a type of Scallion)
Due to the fact that Okinawa is an island, its food and culture were rarely influenced by mainland Japan, which is why Okinawa soba’s unique taste has been handed down for generations by the people of Okinawa with few modifications. In recent years, Okinawa soba has become well-known throughout Japan, along with “Goya Chanpuru (Stir-Fried Bitter Melon)” and “Umi Budo (sea grapes)”. It’s now common to find them on Okinawan restaurant menus in mainland Japan.
■History of Okinawa Soba
Today, there are more than 300 specialty stores offering Okinawa soba. In the Okinawa prefecture alone, the noodle is consumed an average of 150,000 meals a day. Although a beloved dish by the Okinawan people, Okinawa soba used to not be very common. Its recipe can be traced back 450 to 500 years ago, to the royal cuisine of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Ryukyu Kingdom existed primarily throughout the islands of Okinawa prefecture from the 15th to the 19th century. At the time, the islands were actively in trade with China, and it’s believed that the Chinese noodle culture eventually reached the shores of Okinawa. However, noodles were traditionally served as a court dish, and rarely eaten by ordinary citizens. Over time, the number of restaurants offering Okinawa soba increased and citizens began to enjoy the dish after the latter half of the Meiji era (1868 – 1912). Back then, Okinawa soba was soy sauce based, but evolved throughout the generations to the dish we know today—pork bone and bonito broth.
■Why is October 17th “Okinawa Soba Day”?
October 17th is officially known as “Okinawa Soba Day” and commemorates the day in which Okinawa soba was recognized by the government. The story of this important event starts in 1976, when the Fair Trade Commission in Japan notified the Okinawa Raw Noodles Cooperative that “Okinawa soba does not use buckwheat flour at all, so it should not be labeled as ‘soba’”. In order to protect the name that has been passed down for centuries and loved by the locals, Kenichi Doi, who was chairman of the Okinawa Raw Noodle Cooperative at the time, initiated a movement to keep the name “soba” in the dish. Due to his efforts, the Japan Fair Trade Commission recognized the name “Okinawa Soba” on October 17th, 1978. Thus, Okinawa Soba Day was established by the Okinawa Raw Noodle Cooperative.
■The Differences Between “Okinawa Soba” and “Soki Soba”
Some readers may have heard of and/or tried Soki Soba and may be confused by the differences between that and Okinawa soba.
Soki soba is quite similar to Okinawa soba in that it has the Okinawa soba broth and noodles as the base. The difference is that Okinawa soba generally uses Sanmainiku (pork ribs with skin slowly simmered in sugar and soy sauce) as the main ingredient whereas Soki soba uses spareribs or soki. Soki soba has two distinctions: Hon soki, which is served with hard bones (that cannot be eaten) and Nankotsu soki, which is served with soft bones (that can be eaten). Both are carefully simmered in sugar and soy sauce, going well with the light Okinawa soba broth.
There are many other variations of Okinawa soba, such as “Tebichi soba” that uses pig knuckle, “Nakami soba” that uses pork offal, and “yushi tofu soba” that uses local tofu in Okinawa. These variations all fall under the name “Okinawa soba”.
■Was Lye Used in the Past? How to Make Okinawa Soba Noodles
Today, Okinawa soba noodles are made with wheat flour, salt water, and kansui. Many people may not be familiar with kansui, but it’s an aqueous alkaline salt solution used to manufacture Chinese noodles, etc., and is mixed with wheat flour to provide a unique and smooth texture. Kansui also gives Chinese noodles their distinct yellowish color.
In the past, when it was difficult to obtain kansui, the supernatant liquid (lye) was used instead. This water is mixed with the ash from burning Okinawan trees such as banyan tree (called gajumaru in Okinawa). Like kansui, this lye also contains an alkaline component, and also gives the noodles a unique and smooth texture.
There are also Okinawa soba restaurants that stick to these traditional manufacturing methods, and the Okinawa soba offered at such restaurants is called “Mokkai soba.”
■Seasoning your Okinawa Soba with “Kōrēgusu”
In any Okinawa soba shop in Okinawa, you’ll find chili sauce on the tables. This is called Kōrēgusu, which is made by immersing shima tōgarashi (Okinawa chili pepper) in awamori (distilled sake from Okinawa). It’s difficult to find in the U.S., but if you manage to get your hands on some, it’s recommended to taste the broth first before adding any seasoning. From there, you can add some extra flavor.
■Restaurants that Serve Okinawa Soba in the United States
Okinawa soba is already popular in Japan, but unfortunately, its recognition in the United States is still small compared to other types of ramens such as tonkotsu. However, if you enjoy ramen and want to experience a new flavor, Okinawa soba is well worth a try.
There are not many restaurants in the United States that offer authentic Okinawa soba, but we’d like to recommend a few that do. If you are visiting the area or live nearby, please check these restaurants out:
#1. Izakaya Habuya Okinawan Dining
14215 Red Hill Avenue
Tustin, California 92780
#2. Utage Restaurant & Lounge
1286 Kalani Street, B102
Honolulu, HI 96817
86 E 3rd St # 2,
New York, NY 10003
■Make Okinawa Soba at Home!
As mentioned previously, there are not many restaurants in the United States that offer Okinawa soba. But we can easily recreate Okinawa soba at home! Just follow the link below to our recipe using our Myojo USA Okinawa Soba. Although the ingredients listed are based off of the traditional Okinawan style soba, if you aren’t able to find them, try arranging the toppings into your own style! Enjoy this refreshing and unique combination of pork bone bonito soup and flat chewy noodles!
Click here for the Okinawa Soba recipe:
Click here for details on Myojo USA Okinawa Soba
Click here to find out where to buy Myojo USA Okinawa Soba
Okinawa soba is not well known in the United States yet, but the combination of the lightly seasoned soup and thick chewy noodles is distinct from other ramen dishes. This is a perfect flavor for ramen lovers looking to try a new taste in the US. Interested in Okinawa soba after reading this article? Take a visit to the Okinawan restaurants listed above and/or try our simple recipe at home!