My Mother, the Inventor of Okinawan Taco Rice
by Mamiko Kim
My mother would feel sheepish to know that I am writing about her. I can picture her now giving me a side glance before saying her usual 「言わなくても良い」(“You don’t need to say anything”). Over the years, her frame seems to have shrunk to reach just 5 feet, and her straight, shoulder-length hair that was once naturally and then later meticulously dyed raven black has now transitioned to a soft ivory. Yet, despite these outward changes, her inner mantra has always remained the same- to serve others generously and not boast about oneself.
So here I am bragging on her behalf. According to family lore, my mother is the inventor of Okinawa’s famous taco rice dish. My family feels well-founded in our claims, but before delving into our side of the story, I should first explain the official version of how taco rice was created and became a popular dish.
Official Origin Story of Taco Rice
In 1984, Matsuzo Gibo opened Parlor Senri, a sit-down restaurant located outside of Camp Hansen, an American military base, serving an array of dishes to American military members missing the taste of home. Recognizing that he was in a glamorous part of town and that his clientele craved something quick and inexpensive, he began experimenting with his menu. Originally, he substituted potatoes as the base of his tacos, removing the tortilla shell. This, however, proved to be too time consuming to make. He then swapped the potatoes out with white Japanese short-grain rice, which could be kept hot and prepared in advance. This, he found, was delicious.
At first, his new creation was snubbed by the Okinawan locals, but as more and more young servicemen began pouring into Gibo’s restaurant for this cheap, late-night meal, they began to take notice. Soon other restaurants also began adding taco rice to their menus.
Vloggers TabiEats get a taste of Matsuzo Gibo’s taco rice recipe at Taco King.
Gibo’s success allowed him to open his first King Taco fast-food restaurant in Kin, the same town where Parlor Senri was located. Eventually, he did so well that he was able to open 5 other locations. While Parlor Senri closed its doors in 2015, King Taco in Kin is still operating, and is open daily from 10:30 am- 1 pm. Additionally, dozens of other restaurants across Okinawa serve the dish. Most famously, Yoshinoya, a 14,000-strong chain restaurant known mostly for their beef bowls, has it as an item on their menu, but only in Okinawa. Even the U.S. fast-food restaurant KFC briefly served taco rice across Japan in the 1990s, furthering the dishes popularity and sealing its association with Okinawa nationally.
Kin has truly embraced its heritage as the birthplace of taco rice by calling itself the “Taco Rice Town.” In 2010, they gathered some 2,000 local volunteers in a challenge to make the largest taco rice. After negotiations with the Guinness World Record, who had to create a category to recognize the challenge, the townsfolk succeeded in cooking up a 1,645 pound (746 kg) world record meal of taco rice, consisting of 683 pounds of rice, 441 pounds of taco meat, 220 pounds of cheese, 195 pounds of lettuce, and 106 pounds of tomatoes.
My Mother’s Story
So how does my mother fit into this narrative? To fully understand, we have to go back to the start of my parents’ relationship. My father grew up in a small farming and manufacturing town in Washington state, and while my grandmother was known to be an adventurous cook, the area’s food scene lacked diversity. The one exception was tacos. When my father met my Japanese mother in college and began to talk more seriously of marriage, he likes to joke that his one condition was that they ate tacos at least once a week. Needless to say, my mother agreed, and they married in 1981. Whether he meant it in jest or not, since the start of their marriage tacos have been a weekly dinner item, and with my father joining the military, taco seasoning was always readily available wherever they went.
However, while stationed in Okinawa in 1983, my sister was born, which brought an unexpected challenge. When my mother was introducing solid foods to her, she worried about whether the hard tortilla shells, which were the only kind sold at the time, would be much too dangerous for a baby to consume. After some thought, she substituted them with Japanese rice, which both baby and husband joyfully ate. With my brothers being born soon afterwards, this became the de facto way they ate tacos, which my mother had renamed taco rice. She even shared this new take on tacos with neighbors and friends and took the creation to potlucks for the local church congregation off-base. These friends and neighbors then began making taco rice in their own homes as well, and it became a community favorite.
A Surprising Coincidence
Shortly after, with a new military assignment, my parents moved away from Okinawa. They continued to thrive, had two more children (including yours truly), and kept their weekly tradition of eating taco rice on Sundays. As everyone grew older, my mother would comment on how much taco rice she would have to cook to keep up with demand. My brothers would heap their whole plates with rice, meat, and cheese during their teenage years, which us kids called taco mountains, as my mother insisted that they add more vegetables. My father retired from the military, and my parent’s time in Okinawa was a fond, but distant memory.
It wasn’t until one of my brothers went to Japan that we heard the news. Cooking for himself and a roommate, it came naturally for him to make a staple from home. When the roommate joined him at the table for a meal of taco rice, however, he turned to my brother in wonder and asked him how he knew about this dish. My brother, in shock, responded in kind, puzzled by how someone outside our family would know our mother’s cooking. Turns out this roommate was from Okinawa, and our humble family tradition had become a famous regional meal.
One of my favorite Japanese cooking bloggers shows how she makes taco rice. One big difference that we have in my family is in the assembly. We always put the cheese on the rice, not on top of the meat. This ensures that the cheese gets extra gooey and melty when sandwiched between the two warm components of the dish.
I don’t wish to downplay Matsuzo Gibo’s ingenuity or initiative in creating taco rice in his own right and for making it so widely popular. At the same time, it has been a bizarre feeling knowing that an entire Japanese region is enjoying something that is an embodiment to me of my mother’s love for our family. When I went to Okinawa several years ago, I was invited to dinner by some locals who had known my parents when they lived there. Perhaps fittingly, we ate a meal of taco rice, and they relayed to me how they had first heard of and eaten the dish when my mother had brought it to their community potluck. As we sat there talking, them reminiscing of times before and swapping stories, I looked across the table at their growing family. I felt the warmth of three generations of Okinawans, including grandparents, adult children, and babies, enjoying taco rice together. In that moment, it didn’t matter to me who had invented the dish or whether my mother was properly acknowledged. It just felt like home. I think my mom would agree, this is really what taco rice is about.