The Great Okinawan Taco Revolution

There is a strange, hilarious eccentricity in the food world of Okinawa that I have been fascinated by since the moment I arrived on the island. It is, can only be, the most bizarre anachronistic culinary  randomness one could imagine. The Okinawans love Mexican food.

Yup. That’s right. The people who brought you soba noodles and Agu pork have also created a whole sub-culture of esculence starting with the creation of “taco rice.” Essentially what they did is dump everything you would put in a taco shell onto a bed of rice and call it a day…or a feast. It is a cultural mainstay, a classic that is on every menu from street vendors to fine dining establishments. And every “King Taco” on the island claims they were the first to create this dish, much the way every Ray’s Pizza in Manhattan alleges they are the best and original.

One of the MANY King Tacos of Oki

Now, being from Arizona, and growing up with real Mexican food as, perhaps, my favorite genre of food from before I had baby teeth, I was sure that moving to Okinawa was going to be similar to living in London. If I wanted Mexican food I was gonna have to make it myself. Not the case, oh lordy no, not even by a long shot. I was stunned how many Mexican restaurants abounded, not to mention taco stands and street vendors. I couldn’t believe my luck! I get to live on a tropical Japanese island AND still get Mexican whenever I craved it? I had died and gone to my own brand of heaven!

Alas, it was a little more complicated than it seemed.

You see the “Great Taco Revolution,” as I call it, began slowly in the 60’s til it reached a fevered pitch in the early 80’s, when Okinawans who had fled to Mexico during or just after World War II, began returning, bringing with them a love for the cuisine of the country that had hosted them for so many years. But, like most Okinawans do, they had to make it their own and also, and I say this with love, muddled it up a bit. You will find that most tacos, particularly King Taco, and their competitor street vendors, have a hint of curry mixed in the meat, something that certainly makes it unique, but this ain’t my Great Grandma G.G.’s tamales, oh no. Of course this did not stop me from O.D.ing on them when we moved into our house, just a five minute walk from King Taco themselves.

Other restaurants like Obligato’s and Mike’s Tex Mex have come closer, much closer in fact. Mike’s, with their excellent guacamole and housebrand habanero sauce, was perfectly up to par with, say a slightly blander combo of Chipotle and Acapulco Cantina. I will go so far as to say that Mike’s has done me well, but the outrageous prices for condiments (and those of you know me, know I live for condiments) made it more of a “expensive dinner out” (think $20 a plate, $5 bucks for say, sour cream) which goes against everything Mexican food is and should be. Plus their salsa sucks. Yet, again, any port in a storm.

Well today, fellow foodies, I have found paradise in a tiny little eatery that is no bigger than my bedroom (kitchen and all) and is (squeee!) not far from said bedroom. I speak of the great (and skoshi) Tetera Cafe!

Tetera sits all bright and Mexi-ed out on a corner of a busy road near Futenma. You actually have to park in a field-like abandoned lot behind it as they have only two parking spaces and when you enter you can understand why. This place is tiny! But sometimes the best things come from small packages.

Jason getting us coffee at the beverage bar.

Tetera looks, from the interior, like Ugly Betty and some Otaku with an obsession for all things Mexico had carte blanche to have a go at the decorating. It was awesome in that odd, awkward, kitchy and random way that a lot of things can be here. Yet it wasn’t the decor that made me perk up and salivate. It was the smell. I felt like I had walked into my old babysitter/ second grandma’s kitchen and was 10 years old again. I expected her to come out from the tiny cramped kitchen making tortillas, when instead I was greeted by two (you guessed) otaku-looking young guys…making tortillas.

The menus weren’t in English but had pictures and we decided on Sets. I had the Chili con Carne set that came with a beef taco, beef enchilada and Spanish dirty rice.

Chili con Carne Set! YUM!

Jason ordered the Chicken Quesadilla Set, and a pork empanada on the side.  I was, a little nervous, to be honest. I really wanted to write a good review today, yet I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. But then…..they brought out A WHOLE TRAY OF CONDIMENTS! Two different kinds of salsa, a white peppery, cheesy dressing of some sort a kind of brown oily, sticky pepper sauce that tasted a little like mole, and a Tupperware of  homegrown Jalapenos pickled in, get this, RICE WINE VINEGAR! Yeah, it truly blew my mind.

In my element: condiments!

The meals were just what I have been missing, although strange and unique, the flavors were authentic yet original. And amazingly everything was locally grown and organic! The taco shell was obviously handmade and fried moments before and was light and crispy. The enchiladas were perfectly placed in corn tortillas…which is a thing I have. Gotta be corn. But what REALLY got me was the pork empanadas. Let’s face it, the Okinawans know how to cook pig. These were savory and sweet and scrumptiously sexy. Everything was divine. If I had one critique it would be that the beef was slightly over seasoned, but hey, there was no curry so I was happy as Larry.

I can’t explain what it means to me to have found this little hole in the wall. It’s a taste of my history, my legacy. No I am not Mexican but I might as well be. My step-family is Mexican. I was actually surrounded by Mexican friends and their culture since I was born. I take Mexican food very seriously and personally, and have found over time that, more often than not, it is up to me to provide this amazing comfort food to me, husband, my family, and my friends. El Chapparell, my first Mexican restaurant when I was 2 weeks old, this will never be. Nothing will ever compare to Karichimaka, in Tuscon where I have been going with my Grammie for 20 years. But Tetera, you are fulfilling to the belly and the heart and I salute you!

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About tashierags

I love food. I love eating it, I love playing with it, I love growing it, I love having it served to me, I love traveling to discover it and I love all the things that go with it, like wine and conversation, ambiance and entertainment, relaxation, divine inspiration and laughter. I will never be a professional chef. I like to like the act of cooking too much to be angry about having to make it for people I don't know, on a schedule, with the pressure to succeed. I am much happier learning, taking risks, exploring and taking my time in the process. So instead I make it for the people I love. I share it with the people of my choosing and give it as a gift. Lately, it seemed that I was having so many requests and conversations about the food I make and the restaurants I visit that I thought that a blog might be a cool way to discuss the art, luxury, necessity, irreverence, beauty, rebelliousness and spirituality of the thing that keeps us alive and happy.....food.
This entry was posted in Arizona, Comfort Food, Karichimaka Tuscon, Mexican Food, Okinawa, Okinawan Cuisine, Pork, Tetera. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Great Okinawan Taco Revolution

  1. Connie Lewis says:

    What a great blog! Both entertaining and informative. Here is a tidbit for you regarding the morphing of Mexican food (from Ben): The fajita: Interesting to see how the fajita became strips of beef in a sizzling skillet of pepper and onions in the U.S. from a side of beef over a spit in Mexico. If neighboring nations can do that, I can just imagine what has happened to some of the Okinawan fare! Both Ben and I love your blog…keep it up! ❤

    • tashierags says:

      I am fascinated by the melding of cuisines. It is so prominent here. Like Sakini says in “Teahouse,” “History of Okinawa reveal distinguished record of conquerors. We have honor to be subjugated in 14th century by Chinese pirates. In 16th century by English missionaries. In eighteenth century by Japanese warlords. And in 20th century by American Marines. Okinawa very fortunate. Culture brought to us….not have to leave home for it.”

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