Sea Snake Soup: The Ryukyu Delicacy Irabu
A dish fit for a king
Here's a meal that even the most dedicated fans of Okinawa and its cuisine may not have tried: Irabu-jiru, a piping-hot soup topped with generous chunks of black irabu—Chinese sea snake.
Irabu has long been thought to have restorative properties in Okinawa. Some families had a policy of eating it at least twice a year, in winter and summer. The dish was originally served at court in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, particularly when foreign dignitaries were visiting.
Based on bonito and pork broth, the soup is also very lightly salted. But after those comes a rich, full flavor with a character all its own—the irabu. The meat itself is tender, with a mouthfeel something like filleted herring.
Kudakajima and the Yaeyama Islands in particular are known for their irabu. The snakes are dried and smoked for storage after they are caught, which is why they are so black.
Some restaurants on Kudakajima and elsewhere still serve irabu, but the best irabu available these days is in a restaurant called Kana, in Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa—about 40 minutes' drive from Naha. Kana comes recommended even by Kayoko Matsumoto, master of traditional Ryukyu cuisine and head of the Matsumoto Cooking School.
Next page: "Squeezing out every last drop of umami"