Curry has me in its heady grip, and as I was curious to see its permutations as it made its way around the world. I touched on some of the varieties that could be found in India, how the English stamped their influence on curries by adding a few of their own, such as Balti, and how the addition of curry powder to a dish does not an authentic curry make. But stopping here is a bit like a television show cliffhanger, what happens after the hero plunges over the waterfall in his barrel? So many unanswered questions – does he he survive? Is he reunited with the heroine?
One of the intriguing things about curries is that while some ingredients are ubiquitous, each successive culture tweaks the recipes to increase its appeal to their own tastes and account for their available food, so that they are not the same. Its like a craving for grilled food, if I’m hankering for a steak, a saté is not going to cut it, and if I’m craving Panang curry, a batch of steaming hot Chinese curry studded with all sorts of goodies just will not do, and vice versa. So how did curry get to these far flung countries, and what genius tweaking did they make to adopt it as their own. Curry’s influence on Asian cultures is no small thing, and Japan in particular appears to be a bit obsessed.
Curry came to Japan who got it from the British so a fairly straight forward route: India → Britain → Japan when Japan, in the Meiji era (1869–1913), ended its policy of national self-isolation (Sakoku). No contact with the outside world on penalty of death. Given that the Japanese received curry via the British, to the Japanese, its considered a Western dish, although like most first encounter, this one got off to a rough start, calling curry “food for a dirty people”, but like so many foods (chocolate being a prime example) it was “do as I do, not as I say”. How popular is it? According to a dated resource (1999 – The Japanese Forestry and Fishery Ministry), the average Japanese, regardless of age, consumes curry more than 64 times a year. [Other sources only gave larger numbers – 84 times a year to 125 times a year, regardless the exact amount it is considered the most popular food in Japan]
Yokohama’ Curry Museum is dedicated to this spicy treat. Yokohama was selected as the site as it was a point of entry and one of the first places that the Japanese first sampled this spicy delicacy. They even offer a few versions of this curry that are probably unique to Japan – blow fish and beer curries are options.
In the Navy
Japan’s love affair with curry is attributed to its adoption by the Japanese Army and Navy as a convenient field and naval canteen dish, which allowed conscripts from the remotest corner of the country to sample curry. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force continues to serve curry on Fridays for lunch to maintain this tradition and many ships have their own unique recipes. The original recipe for curry served on those ships was more closer in style to the British curry that the British navy served and the Japanese naval emulated.
The reason is a bit more complicated than they sampled something that tasted good. Back in the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867) many people suffered from beriberi (an illness caused by a Vitamin B deficiency that caused inflammation of the nerves and heart failure) The reason is that the people had a diet that consisted mainly of polished white rice. For the Japanese troops and navy this illness was particularly devastating as the solders lost the will to fight, and the illness resulted in more deaths than the battles fought. The addition of the curry sauce to the rice offered the nutrients that were previously lacking in their diet.
However, they soon set out to improve upon this concoction. How? First, the British navy, who they emulated, commonly ate their curry with bread (often stale given the conditions) this style was not well received by the Japanese, and the substitution of rice for bread made for a substantial improvement. Another change involved the addition involved more vegetables and particularly flour which thickened the curry so it was not so prone to spill while on the open sea. Once this recipe was brought home by the sailors, people were quick to appreciate its appeal, it was a tasty dish that only got better as a leftover.
What Makes Up a Japanese Curry?
A typical Japanese curry might contain onions, carrots, potatoes, and sometimes celery, and a meat that is cooked in a large pot. Sometimes grated apples or honey are added for additional sweetness (a common characteristic of Japanese curry) and other vegetables are sometimes used instead. Regional differences can come into play, in northern and eastern Japan, around Tokyo, pork reigns supreme, while beef is more common in western Japan, including Osaka, and in Okinawa chicken is preferred. A few other optional ingredients may include garlic, ketchup, raw eggs, and yogurt. Another difference is the addition of pickled vegetables fukujinzule that are served as an accompaniment, maybe similar to a chutney? According to Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors part of curry’s appeal is that precisely because it can look like a “sloppy brown” mess, it is exempt from gochiso, the culinary laws of purity and perfection. A perfect version of comfort food, eaten Western style with a spoon and poured over rice “warm, sustaining, and without the need for ceremony.”
- karē-raisu (curry rice) – sometimes made with a dashi broth of kelp and bonito flakes
- katsu-karē (“cutlet curry”) is curry rice topped with a breaded pork cutlet (tonkats). Korokke (potato croquettes) are also a common topping.
- karē udon (thick wheat (udon) noodles in curry flavoured soup) and karē-pan “curry bread” — deep fried battered bread pocket with curry in the middle are also popular.
- dorai karē – curry-flavored fried rice, or curry rice with a drier, mince meat curry sauce.
- maze karē – curry rice, served with the sauce and rice already mixed.
- karē don – curry sauce, thickened and flavored with mentsuyu or hondashi and served on top of a bowl of rice, to give the curry a Japanese flavor.
- aigake – rice served with curry sauce and hayashi sauce (fried beef and onion, cooked with red wine and demi-glace).
- yaki karē – curry rice, topped with a raw egg and baked in an oven. Originally from Kitakyushu.
- ishiyaki karē – curry sauce with rice served in a heated stone bowl, similar to dolsot bibimbap.
- sūpu karē– soup curry: a watery, broth-like curry sauce served with chunky ingredients such as a chicken leg and coarsely-cut vegetables. Popular in Hokkaidō.
- curried yakisoba (fried noodles)
- omu-raisu (omelette-rice) curry, an eggy envelope surrounded by a sweeter sauce.
Regional curries include: (source: wikipedia)
- Hokkaidō Sika Deer curry (ezoshika karē) from Hokkaidō
- Scallop curry (hotate karē) from Aomori
- Mackerel curry (saba karē) from Chiba
- Apple curry (ringo karē) from Nagano
- Nagoya Kōchin Chicken curry (Nagoya kōchin chikin karē) from Aichi
- Matsusaka beef curry (Matsusaka gyū karē) from Mie
- Oyster curry (kaki karē) from Hiroshima
- Nashi pear curry (nashi karē) from Shimane
- Bitter melon curry (gōyā karē) from Okinawa
Other curry items
- curry flavored soda (just not sure about this one?)
- curried doughnuts
- curry pizza
Home made style
Homemade is often not from scratch as many Japanese households make curry using processed cubes, most commonly of the brand “Vermont Curry”. Japanese curry’s are generally sweeter than Indian or other styles of curry because of the addition of apples or other fruit, and I’ve never found one as hot as some of the Indian curries I’ve sampled. Another differentiator is that a Japanese curry is thickened by a roux (remember that addition of flour?)
Interested in Japanese Curry?
3 c chicken stock
1 T vegetable oil
1 # boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1″ chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T butter
1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
1 medium yellow onion (1⁄2 minced, 1⁄2 cut into 1″ pieces)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 T flour
2 T curry powder, preferably S&B brand
2 T crushed tomatoes (or tomato paste)
1 dried bay leaf
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut crosswise into 1⁄2″ rounds
1 medium russet potato, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks
1 small apple peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
1 tsp honey
1 T soy sauce
Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a medium pot over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper to taste, add to the skillet, and cook, stirring frequently, until deep golden brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the chicken to a plate, and set aside.
Return the skillet to medium-high heat and melt the butter. Add the ginger, chopped onions, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently to scrape up any browned bits, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is evenly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and tomatoes, stir to combine, and remove the skillet from the heat. Add 1⁄2 cup of hot chicken stock and whisk vigorously to combine, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of skillet. Whisk the curry mixture into the pot of simmering stock, followed by the reserved chicken meat, onion pieces, bay leaf, carrots, and potatoes. Bring the curry to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.
Add the apples, honey, soy sauce, and salt to taste to the curry and stir to combine. Cook the curry, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat, until the flavors meld, ~ 5 minutes more. Serve with rice.