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Let This Warm, Spicy Beef Bowl Wake Up Your Palate

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Fusion food, to me, sounds like a throwback to outrageous dining trends from the 1980s. It's almost used as an insult now, as if it can't be good, thanks to ill-conceived mash-ups of foods that just don't pair well together, the creation of dishes for the sake of novelty—rather than flavor—and, as Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee writes over at Munchies, chefs presenting this style of cooking as new when immigrant cooks have been merging global cuisine for decades.

Pulling together attributes from two separate, distinct cuisines and marrying them in one dish has the potential to be brilliant; that's the case with Okinawan taco rice (also called takoraisu). This dish isn't particularly well-known outside of Japan, but I'm hoping it catches on elsewhere—and soon—because it is my dream comfort food. It has all the textural contrast of a steaming bowl of bibimbap, with hot and cold elements and plenty of boldness. You get crunch from the shredded lettuce, gingery spice from the salsa, hot spice from the chile in the beef, and creamy warmth from the cooked rice.

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Comfort, meet bowl.
Comfort, meet bowl. Photo by Posie Harwood

The dish was created by local Okinawan chefs in the 1980s, who thought to fold in popular Tex-Mex flavors into basic Japanese ingredients in order to appeal to the American military members stationed on the island. The blend of Mexican and Japanese flavors might seem misplaced, but they're not; ginger, soy, miso, and mirin blend perfectly with cumin, paprika, and tomato.

Taco rice starts with a base of sticky rice (although you can use any type you like). It's topped with seasoned ground beef, redolent with coriander, cumin, paprika, and garlic. After cooking the beef with the Mexican spices, you'll add in soy sauce and miso and cook it down into an umami-rich saucy thickness. Then, pile on the garnishes: shredded mild white cheese (mozzarella is good), shredded lettuce (iceberg for crunch, just roll with it), and a quick "salsa" made of fresh chopped tomatoes with ginger, soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar). The resulting bowl is so huggable and spicy and warm all at once, you'll have a new favorite go-to dinner.

A few bits of advice: Leftover rice works wonders here. If you want to customize your bowl, by all means, do so. Shred any vegetables you have on hand and toss them in, too. Swap out the iceberg for shredded romaine or kale. Use cheddar cheese or another mild, hard cheese. If you're extra hungry, top the bowl with sliced avocado or an egg.

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Okinawan Taco Rice Bowls

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Serves 4

For the taco bowls

  • 2 cups short-grain sushi rice or arborio rice
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar or a mild white cheese like Gruyère, asiago, or mozzarella)
  • 2 cups shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sweet miso paste, dissolved in 1/2 cup water

For the salsa

  • 3/4 cup diced fresh tomatoes
  • 50 milliliters rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1 small red chili, minced (optional, only if you like heat!)
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Tags: rice bowls