After Hours: Makishi Public Market in Naha
Let me cut to the chase: Sea snake tastes quite a bit like bland beef jerky.
I finally got around to having the local delicacy, served up in a soup with tofu, greens and pig knuckles, after living for a couple of years on Okinawa. I have an adventurous appetite, and sea snake soup is about as Okinawan as snake-infused awamori alcohol. Still, I took my time tracking it down because, well, it is made with sea snake.
To finally find the soup — and some other authentic yet challenging local dishes — I went to the seafood and meat stalls and Okinawan-style restaurants of the Makishi Public Market off Kokusai Street in bustling downtown Naha. The indoor market is nestled at the center of Kokusai’s arcade, a roofed mall with stalls selling local fruit, cane sugar, fritter donuts, clothing and souvenirs.
Inside, aquariums and ice chests are packed with turquoise parrot fish, big-eyed blowfish, grouper, giant sea snails, slipper lobsters and a variety of other creatures captured in local waters. The tiger shrimps sold at the market are the size of small lobsters — up to about a foot long — and are among the largest in the world.
Any of the seafood can be bought and taken home or sent upstairs to be cooked at one of the market’s restaurants for a 500-yen (about $5) charge. It feels a bit like choosing your dinner from the local aquarium’s exhibit tanks.
Half the market’s ground floor is dedicated to local pork and regional beef. Okinawans are big pork eaters — simmered pork belly is among the island’s most popular dishes — and the market offers a wide variety of high-quality cuts. Again for the more adventurous, pig’s feet and complete masks of pig face skin including the eye holes, mouth and ears are vacuum-packed for eating.
Butchers also sell cuts of Australian beef as well as some Wagyu, a genetic variety of beef that is highly marbled with fat, unique to Japan and sold at premium prices. It’s often difficult to find high-quality cuts of Wagyu on Okinawa, though highly marbled Wagyu steaks can be found at Makishi.
After grocery shopping, visitors can go to the market’s second floor for a meal at one of the many restaurants that offer Okinawan fare, such as sea snake, goat, sea grapes and taco rice, and Japanese staples, such as yakisoba (fried noodles), sushi and gyoza (dumplings).
Dishes start at about 400 yen and can cost as much as 2,500 yen or more. The menus for the various eateries appear voluminous but offer many of the same foods and often have English translations.
In some cases, the price of dishes seemed closely related to how exotic the food must seem to visitors. The Kokusai area is a main tourism attraction for many of the 5.5 million American, Chinese and other tourists who come to Okinawa each year.
Sea snake soup is among the market’s most expensive dishes at 2,300 yen. After ordering it, I decided to mix some local cuisine with more traditional Japanese choices by ordering squid ink yakisoba and goat meat gyoza.
My Chinese waitress brought the steaming bowl of soup topped with three partially coiled lumps of black sea snake. The snake was cooked in a salty broth with two pig’s feet, triangles of tofu, leafy greens and seaweed. It appeared not to have been skinned or gutted. I called the waitress back for advice on how best to eat it but she only said, “Just bite into it.” Looking at the spine, ribs and organs, I got the feeling she had never eaten sea snake.
Instead, I used my chopsticks to peel off the soft black skin and strips of thin, dark brown meat along the snake’s sides. The meat tasted strangely dry despite the broth and was also stringy like strips of beef jerky. From my point of view, most of the three lumps of snake were inedible — bones and unknown organs. The tofu was, well, very much like tofu, and the greens were surprisingly bitter. I powered through and can now say I ate sea snake soup.
Some of the best curry I have eaten in Japan was made with squid ink — so good I often think about it. Like the curry, the ink had turned my plate of yakisoba jet black. It looked like my noodles had been caught in an oil spill. It was so dark and thick that I could not make out any of the dish’s ingredients other than soba and squid. My wooden chopsticks and my teeth quickly turned black, too. The ink was somewhat overpowering, making the yakisoba bitter. For that dish, the ink seemed to be more a distraction than an enhancement to the flavor.
I had better luck with the goat meat gyoza (I changed my mind at the last moment before ordering raw cuts of goat sashimi). Okinawans are also big goat eaters, unlike mainland Japanese, and like it especially in soup, which is said to actually smell like a goat. In a blind taste test I probably would not be able to tell the difference between goat and the typical pork meat dumplings. The market’s goat gyoza was moist, meaty and had a rich garlic taste, just what you should expect from a decent gyoza.
I could eat the gyoza and yakisoba again. However, now that I have my sea snake badge, I’ll probably just go with the taco rice next time I head to Makishi.
MAKISHI PUBLIC MARKET
Address: Matsuo 2-10-1, Naha, Okinawa
Times: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Restaurants from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Costs: Vary widely for seafood and meat. Restaurant dishes generally range between 400 and 800 yen (about $4 to $8)
Food: Fresh seafood, beef, pork and Okinawan specialty dishes.