Seven years ago, I bit into a delicate variety of seaweed called umi-budō, or “sea grapes.” I remember sampling a few dishes at Unjami, an Okinawan-style izakaya off Nakano Broadway in Tokyo (5-55-1 Nakano, Nakano-ku, Tokyo; 03-5345-5836), but the umi-budō stood out as something special. These tiny, grape-like beads are eaten fresh with vinegar sauce, and are unforgettable once you’ve had them.
So, on a recent business trip to Okinawa, I made it my goal to savor this delicacy on its island of origin. Ryukyu Dining Yamoriya in Nago (5-14-24 Agarie, Nago-shi, Okinawa; 0980-52-3008) did not disappoint. Superbly crisp, the little translucent green beads tasted as fresh as I’d hoped. The refined taste and delicate popping sensation confirmed my love for this treat.
Umi-budō have a shelf-life of only around a week, which is perhaps one reason you won’t find them in regular Tokyo supermarkets. At the airport in Naha they are available in souvenir boxes for around ¥500 to ¥1,000 (labeled as “green caviar,” though I much prefer the plant-friendly term “sea grapes”). I’ve since learned that you can buy them at Washita Shop in Ginza (1-3-9 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3535-6991; www.washita.co.jp/info/shop/ginza), and they are indeed staples at other Okinawan izakaya around the capital, such as Ryukyu Sakaba Gachimaya in Ebisu (1-13-3, Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6415-3708).
While I was admittedly fixated on the umi-budō during my trip, it would be neglectful to not mention a couple of other unique island dishes that are a delight for vegetarian taste buds.
Jimami-dōfu is a sweet, nutty tofu dish that isn’t actually made from the usual soybean curd, but rather from peanut extract and potato starch. Dressed in a sweet, syrupy soy sauce, jimami-dōfu is incredibly smooth. It reminded me a bit of annin-dōfu, the slippery, gelatinous, almond-flavored Chinese pudding, but with a creamier consistency.
Tōfu-yō is also in the tofu category, though if you eat this without warning you’re in for a surprise, as this is nothing at all like its namesake. I first had this at Ryukyu Sakaba Gachimaya, and was taken aback by its diminutive size. This dish is served as a single cube no more than a centimeter or two across, but comes with several toothpicks implying everyone can share it. I was advised to scrape off only a tiny corner of it with my toothpick and enjoy it in small doses.
There is a reason for this, as tōfu-yō packs a very tangy punch. The texture is cheesy, the taste something like sweetened pureed natto, if there ever were such a thing. In fact it’s not far from what it is: a condensed tofu fermented with red yeast and awamori (Okinawan sake), which give it the deep red color and tang.
The sharp pungency may take some getting used to, but it’s a unique dish I would have again. Now I just need another excuse to go to Okinawa so I can try it at the source, and pick up yet more umi-budō on the way home.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.facebook.com/anandajacobs.