The U.S. military is, in some ways, responsible for taco rice.
Since World War II, American military bases across East Asia and the Pacific have been a source of controversy and tension. They’ve also had a strong cultural—and particularly culinary—influence on the region. From the 1940s onward, the military shipped boatloads of SPAM, an American product, to feed soldiers stationed in South Korea, Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Consequently, SPAM became important to the cuisines of these countries; it’s often combined with more traditional, local ingredients.
Taco rice has a similar story. Although it’s a distinctly Japanese dish, taco rice resembles Americanized Mexican food. A bed of steamed white rice is topped with taco-seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, shredded lettuce, and chopped tomatoes. The result is essentially Taco Bell served Japanese-style.
This culinary remix came about due to the massive presence of Americans on the island of Okinawa. The island, which is not much larger than New York City in size, is home to 32 bases of the U.S. Armed Forces, which occupy about a quarter of its land.
To cater to the Americans on the island, local chef Matsuzo Gibo began selling tacos at his two restaurants. In 1984, he discovered that by serving the ingredients over rice, he could create a fusion dish that appealed to both Americans and Okinawans. Or at least that’s one version of the story—the military publication Stripes has covered the dispute over who invented taco rice, and some versions trace taco rice back to the 1960s.
Either way, the dish was a huge success, and today taco rice is a staple of Okinawan cuisine and eaten around Japan. KFC and Taco Bell have served the dish in Tokyo, and Yoshinoya, the international chain of beef bowl restaurants, has incorporated the dish into its menu.