The history of this dish begins in an eatery located in the town of Kin in the northern part of the main island.
The restaurant Senri is a small business located just in front of one of the US military base gates, and as one would expect in any base towns, Senri often provided light meals for US soldiers and their friends. However, as the value of the yen inflated during the eighties, the soldiers’ purchasing power diminished significantly and they stopped eating at Senri so often. Senri’s manager decided they needed to create a menu of meals that were cheap but filling. The new menu included “Taco Rice,” a bowl of rice with various ingredients normally eaten in tacos sprinkled over the top. Tacos first became known in Okinawa through US soldiers who themselves had been born in Central America, and as Okinawans are wont to do, Senri’s cooks used these ingredients tēgē, adding them here and there. The new menu was a huge hit, and taco rice became a flagship dish not only for Senri but for the entire region, spreading out from the base in all directions.
I’m originally from Naha, so I initially learned about taco rice in 1990. The first time I heard the name, I had no idea what the dish might actually be. “Taco” is a homophone for the Japanese tako, octopus, so I imagined an unappetizing meal of sliced octopus over rice. Nobody in Naha knew what “taco rice” was. But my friend was from Kin, and he insisted the dish was delicious, even telling me, “Taco rice tastes like home and childhood.” He was so adamant that I let him drive me all the way from Naha to Kin. He said it was Senri’s taco rice or nothing, and moreover, he insisted we had to get it as takeout. He said he’d never forget how tasty taco rice was when eaten in a group right after rehearsal for the local play had finished. The restaurant didn’t even open until 5PM. But that taco rice, toppings piled on toppings until they mounded over the rim of the bowl, sure was good.
What interests me is taco rice’s regionality. This new menu was clearly born of central Okinawa’s food culture. Soon after I tried it, I started noticing taco rice here and there on the menu for university festivals, and around 1991, it started regularly appearing as a supermarket bento options all over Okinawa, but I never imagined that it would become available nationwide, as it did in 1994 when taco rice started being packaged in shelf-stable pouches. The maker was a company called Forever Industries, and in order to spread the wonders of taco rice to the masses, they had begun selling it as an elementary school lunch option in 1992.
This is how taco rice became one of 1990s Okinawa’s most representative items. However, the man who pioneered the dish at Senri doesn’t seem to pay much attention to taco rice’s amazing rise to fame. He’d probably just say it was a masterful representation of Okinawa’s chanpurū food culture.