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. 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 guy 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.
Taco Rice (タコライス)
2 large servings
1 cup of rice, cooked in 2 cups water
1/2 fresh onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
7 oz. minced chicken (or pork or beef)
3 tbs pureed tomato sauce (or maybe 1 tbs tomato paste?)
2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp coriander
1/2 cup water
1 cup cheese (1/2 cup per serving, adjust to taste)
4 broad leaves red leaf lettuce, chopped
lemon juice (a few drops from half a lemon)
chili powder to taste
Heat the olive oil in a fry pan and add the garlic and onion. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir continuously for 1 or 2 minutes, until the onions are barely soft. Mix the onions, garlic, and the tomato pieces gently into the white rice with slicing motions instead of mashing motions.
Heat a little more olive oil in the pan and add the meat. While cooking, break the meat into small chunks. Once the meat is cooked, add the tomato sauce, chili powder, coriander, water, salt and pepper. Let this simmer until the water reduces and the meat is thoroughly coated in flavors.
Place the rice in an oven-proof bowl and top with cheese. Place it in an oven at 375 degrees for 5 minutes until the cheese is thoroughly melted. Top the bowl with the meat mixture and lettuce. Over the lettuce squeeze a few drops lemon juice and dust with chili powder. Top with a few pieces of tomato and serve.
Although this is rice, it is most commonly eaten with a large spoon and therefore makes a perfect meal in front of the TV (not that I'm advocating it, but when you live alone…)