Okinawa Taco Rice (タコライス)
Although Japan has a relatively homogenous population, its food culture is a melting pot of culinary traditions from around the world. Taco Rice is an amalgamation of Texmex-style tacos and Japanese rice bowls, first created as a cheap yet satisfying meal for hungry US Marines based in Okinawa. It not only melds two form factors, but it also uses a mashup of ingredients like chili powder and ketchup with soy sauce and sake. It may sound odd at first, but trust me, it tastes sublime!
Why This Recipe Works?
- Seasoning the taco meat with ketchup, sake, and soy sauce creates a savory-sweet balance that pairs well with plain white rice.
- Leaving the taco meat a little saucy allows the juices to percolate down into the rice.
- Layering the meat on the rice seasons the rice, and layering the cheese on the meat allows the cheese to melt. Putting the lettuce around the edges of the plate keeps it from wilting.
Ingredients for Taco Rice
- Ground meat – I used lean ground beef for my Taco Rice, but ground chicken or pork will work, or you can even make this plant-based (see the FAQ below for more thoughts on that).
- Chili powder – Chili powder is a blend of chili peppers with spices like cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. You can check out my chili powder recipe for more details.
- Aromatics – Sauteing a combination of onions and garlic adds depth and flavor to the meat.
- Soy Sauce – Because the taco meat needs to season the plain rice below it, the meat is well seasoned with soy sauce and salt. The soy sauce adds umami and gives it an earthy flavor that pairs beautifully with the rice.
- Ketchup – Japanese food is about balancing the tastes of salt, sweet, and umami, and the ketchup contributes a mild sweetness to the taco meat.
- Sake – Sake contains many naturally occurring amino acids, which create the taste of umami. That’s why sake is frequently used as an ingedient in Japanese cuisine. As it cooks, the alcohol burns off, leaving behind the umami and a mild sweetness. You can learn more about why sake is used in food here.
- Toppings – The original taco rice was topped with meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. Toppings are a matter of personal preference, and for me, I like adding some cilantro for flavor and crushed tortilla chips for texture. Other topping ideas include pico de gallo, guacamole, or sour cream.
How to Make Taco Rice
Because making the taco meat goes so quickly, I usually like to whisk the ketchup, sake, soy sauce, and salt together in a small bowl first.
Then you want to saute the onions and garlic in a frying pan until they are tender and starting to brown. If you are making this plant-based, I recommend spending a little more time getting the onions fully caramelized to maximize their flavor.
Next, add the ground meat and use a spatula or wooden paddle to crumble it up. I like to add the chili powder when the meat is halfway cooked, so it has a chance to toast, releasing its aromatic oils.
When the meat is almost fully cooked, you can pour in the sauce mixture you made earlier and cook it with the meat until it’s your desired consistency. I like my taco meat a little on the saucy side so the sauce can season the rice underneath.
To assemble the Taco rice, put down a layer of rice on a plate and surround it with a ring of lettuce. Then you want to layer the hot taco meat and cheese on top of the rice. To finish it off, you can garnish the plate with tomatoes, cilantro, and crumbled tortilla chips.
Other Rice Bowl Recipes
Taco Rice is a rice plate created in Okinawa, Japan, that melds the fillings for Texmex tacos with Japanese-style donburi (rice bowls). Topped with taco meat seasoned with chili powder, soy sauce, and ketchup, it also has layers of cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Taco Rice was invented by Gibo Matsuzo, the owner of Parlor Senri. It was a restaurant near the gate of Camp Hansen, a United States Marine Corps base in Okinawa, Japan. Although Parlor Senri has since shut its door, an affiliated chain called King Taco spread its popularity around Okinawa. These days, it’s become one of the most famous dishes from Okinawa and is enjoyed around Japan.
Taco rice is a 5-syllable phrase that is pronounced as follows:
ta like tarp
co like corner
ra like the “ra” sound does not exist in the English language and the best way to make it is to say the word “romp” with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
i like even
su like soup
You can make this plant-based by substituting the ground meat and cheese. You can use any plant-based meat crumbles like TVP or frozen and thawed tofu. To make up for the lack of umami-producing compounds in plant-based proteins, I recommend taking some extra time to caramelize the onions and garlic fully. You can also add some powdered vegetable bouillon or konbu powder to bump up the umami further. For the cheese, I recommend using my vegan parmesan.
For taco meat
onion 1 small, finely diced
garlic 1 large clove, minced
- 2 teaspoons
For taco rice
servings cooked Japanese short-grain rice
tomatoes 2-3 small tomatoes, diced
lettuce 3 large leaves shredded
cheddar cheese grated
Cilantro for garnish
Tortilla chips for garnish
Make the sauce for the taco meat by whisking together the ketchup, sake, soy sauce, and salt.
In a frying pan over medium-heat heat, add the vegetable oil, onions, and garlic and saute until they’re soft and start to brown around the edges (about 5 minutes).
Add the ground meat and crumble it using the side of a spatula.
When the meat is halfway cooked, sprinkle on the chili powder and continue breaking up the meat as it cooks.
When the meat is almost done, pour the sauce over the meat and continue cooking until the mixture is saucy but no longer watery.
To assemble the taco rice, put some rice on a plate and surround the rice with a ring of shredded lettuce.
Top the rice with taco meat and cheese.
Garnish with tomatoes, cilantro, and crushed tortilla chips.