Taste of Japan: Story behind Okinawa's ‘A-lunch’

Taste of Japan: Story behind Okinawa's ‘A-lunch’

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

Yoshoku, or Western dishes, came to Okinawa decades after hitting Japan’s mainland.

The adoption of the Western cuisine was accelerated when the island became more exposed to American food after the battle of Okinawa.

Since then, Okinawan yoshoku has taken an interesting path on the island.

How it started

“A-lunch” is one example of the localization of western food on the island. This assortment of food such as hamburger, fried chicken, or spaghetti on a plate is a very common menu item at local diners. The dish has often been spotlighted by the Japanese media, which is intrigued by its volume and the fact that it is an all-day lunch menu item.

“’A-lunch’ started around 1956 by a chef who came back to Okinawa after training in New York. He opened an eatery called ‘New York Restaurant’ on Park Avenue, then known as Business Center Street (BC Street), in Koza area near Kadena Air Base,” said Chairperson Koji Toyama of Okinawa city’s cooperative association of restaurants, who organizes “Annual Koza A-lunch Championship.”

“I heard that the menu item was first targeted to taxi drivers, who were one of the wealthiest on the island back then. The one-plate dish with so much food was a symbol of luxury for others who were still struggling to feed themselves. Just like the Japanese grading system of ‘sho, chiku, bai (pine, bamboo and plum),’ three levels were set as ‘A, B, C’ lunch. When I was a kid, A-lunch was something I yearned for because I could have only C-lunch,” said Toyama.

In the early days, chefs who had worked on-base restaurants came to join New York restaurant, helping the place expand to 8 branches. And many other restaurants followed to introduce the dish.

A-lunch is special

Now, with all branches of New York Restaurant having been closed, the true original A-lunch is gone, but there are some restaurants which have been serving A-lunch just as it was in its early days. Highway Drive-in Restaurant is one such long-standing place where you can try the same taste people enjoyed decades ago.

“We have been serving A-lunch since my restaurant debuted in 1972,” said Choichi Nakasome, the 55-year-old owner of Highway Drive-in Restaurant. “When my father took over the place from its previous owner, he came up with his own recipe for A-lunch after trying the menu item at other restaurants. Since then, we haven’t made any changes to the recipe.”

Highway Drive-in restaurant’s A-lunch comes with hamburger, scrambled egg and deep fried pork, which Nakasone described as the standard trio for A-lunch; along with chicken, sausage, salad, and soup and rice.

Nakasone humbly described his A-lunch by saying, “There is nothing special about our A-lunch. But when you come right down to it, our all-homemade style is the reason that our customers have come back for the last 45 years. Although A-lunch looks simple, each restaurant has something to make it taste unique. So does my restaurant. I can say with confidence that our homemade deep fried pork and hamburger remains the standard for customers.”

The restaurant owner admitted that, these days, many customer tend to order ‘C-’ or “B-lunch,” instead of A-lunch probably because the exceptional volume of A-lunch looks like too much. But A-lunch is still loved by many customers as a dish for special occasions, like payday.

At Highway Drive-in Restaurant, A-lunch is still the top item, which coincides the words of Toyama, who said, “Although A-lunch may be described as just collection of standard food, it is the face of a restaurant. It is a collection of food that each restaurant most proudly presents.”

Ongoing evolution

According to Toyama, there are more than 50 restaurants that serve up A-lunch in Okinawa city alone. In addition, many other restaurants on the island serve similar menu items by different names such as ‘special lunch.’ As the dish became more common on the island, its variety increased too, likely due to the added competition according to Toyama.

“In the annual competition, we see A-lunch with various food such as steak or ribs or stew. Mixing many kinds of food on a plate was the Okinawan way of adopting American food. It was a way of champroo, which means mixing things up in Okinawan dialect. And the fact that it originated in Koza matters. I want to further develop the food as the signature food of Koza,” said Toyama.

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