Okinawan Taco Rice is a surprisingly delicious fusion of Tex-Mex and Japanese cuisines with flavorful taco fixings served on a bed of hot Japanese white rice. It‘s a satisfying, unique comfort food that‘s quick to make for a weeknight dinner!
Taco Rice (タコライス) is one of my son’s favorite dishes and he requests this recipe from time to time. It’s so easy to make and it’s a perfect weeknight meal. You can prepare taco meat and toppings ahead of time and assemble them right before you are ready to eat.
Table of Contents
What’s Taco Rice?
Taco Rice is an Okinawan dish in which the ingredients of a Tex-Mex taco—ground beef, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes – are served on a bed of steamed rice and served with fresh salsa on top.
This fusion dish was first created in 1984 by a Japanese restaurant owner, Matsuzo Gibo, who wanted to create an affordable yet fulfilling meal that can be made quickly and enjoyed by the young American military. His restaurant, King Tacos, was nearby the American military base and he thought combining tacos, which were already popular among the American military, and a Japanese staple dish, steamed rice would be a winning team. True enough, a simple twist to something familiar not only opened the door of his restaurant to more American customers, but it had also created quite a sensation on the island that the locals quickly embraced.
It may not be a classic Okinawan dish like Rafute, Sata Andagi, or Okinawa Soba, but Taco Rice encapsulates the spirit of the island where cultures are constantly evolving and influencing each other. Now a new Okinawa specialty food, you can find taco rice being served on family dinner tables throughout the prefecture.
How To Make Taco Rice
The Ingredients You’ll Need
- Ground beef (or your choice of protein) – ground beef is the original meat for taco rice.
- Red onion
- Iceberg lettuce
- Mexican-style shredded cheese
- Cooked Japanese short-grain rice
- Taco seasonings: Chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper, dried oregano, paprika, ground cumin, kosher salt, black pepper
- Simple salsa: Tomato, cilantro, and lemon
The Cooking Process
- Make homemade taco seasonings by mixing all the spices.
- Cut all the fresh produce such as garlic, red onion, iceberg lettuce, tomato, cilantro, and lemon.
- Cook the taco meat by sauteeing garlic, red onion, and ground beef. Season the beef with homemade taco seasonings.
- Assemble taco rice. First, put steamed rice on a plate or bowl, then add taco meat on top, then sprinkle lettuce, cheese, and salsa on top.
Homemade Taco Seasonings
If you look up a Taco Rice recipe in Japanese online, you will notice that a lot of recipes use soy sauce, Tonkatsu sauce, curry powder, or ketchup. In Okinawa, you can get a packet of taco seasoning easily since the American military base is there. But on mainland Japan, taco seasoning is not easy to find. I think that’s why taco meat is always seasoned with some common Japanese condiments that are available in a Japanese kitchen.
For my recipe, I followed this taco seasoning recipe online to make my taco meat as I have all the seasonings at home. If you don’t want to get individual bottles of spices just to make this recipe, consider getting a packet of taco seasoning for a quick fix. But these spices are fairly common and you either already have them or will be using them in other recipes. So it is a good investment too!
Taco Rice Variations
I keep my toppings fairly simple, but this fusion rice bowl dish is open for customization. Feel free to dress them up with whatever you have in hand, such as avocado slices, crumbled feta, or pickled jalapeno. Just don’t forget to finish it off with plenty of bright, fresh cilantro and tomatoes!
Okinawa Taco Rice
For the Salsa
- ½ red onion (divided; one-quarter for the salsa and three-quarters for the taco meat)
- ½ tomato (or 1 small tomato)
- 5 sprigs cilantro (coriander)
- ½ lemon
For the Taco Meat
- 2 leaves iceberg lettuce
- 3 cups cooked Japanese short-grain rice
- ½ cup Mexican-style shredded cheese
For the Taco Seasoning (makes about 2½ Tbsp)
- 1 Tbsp chili powder
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- ¼ tsp onion powder
- ¼ tsp crushed red pepper (red pepper flakes)
- ¼ tsp dried oregano
- ½ tsp paprika
- 1½ tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
To Make the Taco Seasoning
- In a mason jar (or a plastic bag), combine all the ingredients for the taco seasoning: 1 Tbsp chili powder, ¼ tsp garlic powder, ¼ tsp onion powder, ¼ tsp crushed red pepper (red pepper flakes), ¼ tsp dried oregano, ½ tsp paprika, 1½ tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Shake well to mix together.
To Prepare the Ingredients
- Mince 1 clove garlic and set aside; we will use this for stir-frying the meat.
- Mince ½ red onion (we call this cutting technique mijingiri in Japanese). Lay one half on an onion flat side down on the cutting board. With the knife tip pointing toward the root end, make ⅛-inch vertical slices to within ½ inch of the root end. Then, with the knife edge toward the root end, make ⅛-inch horizontal slices, again keeping the root intact. Finally, make perpendicular cuts down through the vertical slices you made. If you need to chop the onions finer, run your knife through them using a rocking motion. Hold down the tip of the knife; otherwise, the onions will go flying around the room.
- Cut 2 leaves iceberg lettuce into thin strips. Set aside for serving.
To Make the Salsa
- Cut ½ tomato (or 1 small tomato) into small cubes.
- Chop 5 sprigs cilantro (coriander) into small pieces.
- Combine one-quarter of the chopped red onion, the tomato, and the cilantro in a medium bowl and squeeze the juice of ½ lemon into the bowl. Mix well together. Set aside.
To Cook the Taco Meat
- Heat a large frying pan over medium heat. When it‘s hot, add 1 Tbsp neutral oil and the minced garlic. Cook the garlic until fragrant. Then, add the remaining three-quarters of the chopped red onion and sauté until coated with oil.
- Add ½ lb ground beef and cook, breaking it into small pieces using a spatula.
- Add 4 tsp taco seasoning (roughly 2 tsp for every ¼ lb of meat) and combine well with the meat. When the ground beef is cooked through, turn off the heat.
To Assemble the Taco Rice
- Divide 3 cups cooked Japanese short-grain rice among individual serving plates or bowls. Put the taco meat on the rice. Then, top with ½ cup Mexican-style shredded cheese, the lettuce, and the tomato salsa, to your liking. Serve with extra salsa and enjoy!
- You can keep the leftover Taco Rice in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and in the freezer for up to a month (remove the lettuce and tomatoes before freezing). Put any leftover taco seasoning in a jar and store in a cool, dark place.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 6, 2018, and republished with additional content on July 19, 2023.