No 3. Okinawa Shaved Ice – Zenzai

Okinawa Shaved Ice Zenzai

When I think of a full course meal in Okinawa, here is what the menu would look like.

  • Appetizer: Muzuku seaweed, Sea Grapes and sashimi salad
  • Soup: Okinawa Style Miso Soup
  • Main: Okinawa Soba, Taco Rice, Aguu Pork Shabu Shabu
  • Dessert: Ice Zenzai

Okinawa used to be a tiny island with little natural resources. Why did China, which was a super empire 400 years ago, and Japan want the Ryukyu island (Okinawa’s used to be an independent country called Ryukyu) so much? How was the Ryukyu kingdom made a fortune from marine time trade? What were they trading with?

The answer lies on the bottom of the hills. On the field that captures a lot of sunlight and moisture from the never-ending sea breeze, there is something precious in those days, both to the Chinese and Japanese royalty – sugar cane.

Okinawa black sugar is super sweet, much sweeter than anything the royal family in China and Japan ever tasted. For example, chestnut used to be premium sweet treats in Japan only presented as one of the most valuable gifts the bride’s family from the groom’s family at a wedding.Chestnut. Do you consider chestnut as a sweet treat these days?

What does Okinawa black sugar have to do with the full course meal I mentioned at the beginning?

Okinawa Shaved Ice Zenzai. A summer treat.
Home made Okinawa Zenzai

Zenzai, as the No.1 most popular dessert for all ages in Okinawa, is made with red beans, black sugar syrup, and rice cake. Zenzai traditionally is served warm. If you order a Zenzai in mainland Japan or some family restaurants in Okinawa, you get a warm Zenzai.

Okinawa Zenzai means shaved ice with Zenzai on top. They are sold in many places, from the convenience store, roadside ice cream stand, to five-star hotels. If you want to try the most authentic Okinawa Zenzai, here is a secret to finding it.

Fresh Okinawa shaved ice with tropical fruit
Traditional Okinawa shaved ice (right) and summer special shaved ice with fresh fruit (left)

Shaved ice stands near schools and parks make the best Zenzai, must better than any five-star hotel.

Zenzai is soul food, grandma’s comfort food. Okinawans love Zenzai because it is the taste of their childhood. Making Zenzai is time-consuming work, but it is inexpensive. For most Okinawan kids, they eat Zenzai on the way back from school, or when they play in the park during the weekend.
Next time you see a Zenzai stand in the park, join the gang. Enjoy the best Okinawan desert under a banyan tree on a hot summer day.

How do you know someone is selling Zenzai?

Look for the shaped ice flag or the word ぜんざい.

Shaved ice flag in Japan

More from the Okinawa Bucket List

This is No.3 from our original Okinawa Bucket List. The bucket list collected 100 places to visit, unique experience, food to try, and items to collect while you are in Okinawa. The Okinawa Bucket List is free for everyone to download, print out, and share. You can get a copy of the bucket list by:

  1. Become a member of the Okinawa Bucket List Facebook group
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