This was the most popular post I wrote in my first blog, which was about my cooking adventures while living in Kyoto right after finishing my bachelor’s degree and working first at Berlitz and then at Iori Machiya Co. with Alex Kerr. This post included my memories of a trip to Naha at Christmas as an undergraduate. It also mentions a café I loved that was closed when the old machiya it was in was torn down. Take a look at the deluge of comments this post got from former service members!
Lightly edited on January 31, 2022.
Kyoto, Japan Although I had never even heard of taco rice before I had it in Japan, this dish can easily cure the I-want-food-from-home syndrome [home being the US]. It is a concoction created on the southern Japanese archipelago of Okinawa, where a large population of American military personnel still controls half of the main island. I can just imagine a homesick US military person wanting some tacos, but not having the right ingredients for it, sticking the taco fillings on top of some rice, which like in all of Japan is abundant.
I remember the first time I had it on a trip to Okinawa over Christmas with three friends who were studying with me in Kyoto. On Christmas Eve, we arrived in Naha on a warm day and stretching our legs, found our stomachs to be in need of sustenance. On the main street of Naha, filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and obvious American influences, the first place we saw offering food was a small cafe or bar with a sign out front “Taco Rice.” After polling the group, we decided to go inside and ate a large hearty meal that was simple, delicious, and reminded us of home.
Recently, however, I rediscovered it in Kyoto in a cafe that is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, Sarasa on Tominokoji somewhere between Oike and Shijo. Their taco rice is much more delicately done than the simple one I remember having a few years ago in Naha. What I like most about their dish is the cheese baked over the rice and the chili powder dusting the top of the lettuce.
My variation is a close approximation of Sarasa‘s, with the addition of fried onions and garlic mixed into the steamed rice. The result is pure taco, with a subtle reminder that I’m still in Japan.