Thursday, February 12, 2009

West meets East and then travels West again

The following is from a photo-essay first posted on JPG Magazine website 10 September, 2008.

Okinawa Island is home to about a million people. Add about 30,000 American GIs and add to that their families, then add a few more American civilian base workers and then to top it all off, throw in about 6 million tourists annually and you've got a lot of people to feed and a diverse palate to satisfy.

The American population on the island peaked during the Vietnam conflict and there were plenty of hungry GI's to feed. Some folks wanted to experiment and try the local cuisine. Others preferred a taste from home. Some enterprising Okinawan businessman met the need by combining Mexican style Tacos, which had already been introduced to Okinawa and was wildly popular with the American GI's, with the Japanese staple of Rice. It was a match made in Heaven! It's safe to say it probably made them very rich too.
Over the years people experimented with the basic dish and came up with some interesting variations. One such variation was to take the popular taco rice cheese and send it back across the international date line for a little more westernization. By replacing the rice with a humongous hamburger burger bun, the Taco Cheese Burger was born. Though not really a "burger" in the traditional sense, this little experiment is extremely popular, not only with the many GI's who frequent the haunts near the U.S. bases, but a favorite with the many tourists who visit this island paradise each year. Looks like they got another hit on their hands!

This particular photo-essay came about after my friend and I finished doing a photo shoot on a hot summer's day. We were near his home base in Kin Cho or Kin Town near the massive U.S. Marine Corps Base at Camp Hansen.

The place we stopped at is called "King Tacos" and its one of the more successful chains of that sort. Though the taste is not anywhere reminiscent of anything you're likely to find at a Taco Bell or any of the more familiar chains, it is tasty enough.

It's very typical in Japanese culture to take something foreign, adopt it, change it just a little and as such, make it part of Japanese culture. Such is the case with American cuisine.

For anyone coming to Okinawa, and that includes any of our many Japanese friends reading this with the help of the translation widget, Be advised that Kin town has sort of a "Dodge City" and Wild West" reputation. While there is the large "entertainment district" of bars and restaurants that cater to the many GI's in the area, let me just deflate that bubble just a little bit. That reputation is a remnant of days long past. While there are still a few shenanigans that take place, the old town aint what it used to be.

These days Kin is but a shadow of it's former glory, or should I say infamy. Most days its a sleepy outpost with a host of shuttered storefronts and businesses barely able to survive. That is in a way why the King Tacos restaurant is sort of an abberation. This little business is thriving while others are barely scraping by and an even larger number are closed down completely. Drive past the area on any day of the week and while most of the other businesses will be closed, this one is open for business and usually packed with customers. That in itself is enough to make one want to stop in and try to figure out why.

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