Image: 牛スジカレー by Burnworks – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
A fair few years ago now, I went on a short-term school exchange to Tokyo where I stayed with a Japanese family; went to a Japanese school; and fully immersed myself in the bright and captivating force of energy that is Japanese cuisine. Already a big fan of Japanese fare – and their unique style of curry in particular – I embraced Japanese food in a big way during my stay. I was spoiled with extravagant (by our Australian school lunch standards) 弁当 bento boxes, and tasted the most incredible ぎょうざ gyoza in my life – homemade with an addictive garlic and chili dipping sauce. I ate 肉まん (nikuman) pork buns that steamed in the cold night air, and got hooked on the sizzling Japanese pub grub of various things on sticks, from classic やき鳥 yakitori (delicate chicken kebabs), to ham-wrapped juicy tomato and grilled capsicum strips.
But there was a dish that I kept coming back to, no matter what other delicacies I tried. I soaked up Japanese curry カレーライス (karee raisu) – the delicious, semi-sweet mixture of hearty root vegetables, pickles and rice – wherever I could. I had it everywhere I went, from restaurants to カレーパン Karee-pan (literally curry-bread), a pocket of Japanese curry encased in dough and deep-fried, found in bakeries all over Japan. I loved it so much that my host mother even gave me two packets of Japanese curry mix as a parting gift.
Despite this somewhat overbearing passion, and having made packet-mix curry myself on occasion, it was only recently that I began to consider what is actually in this so-beloved concoction, as well as pausing to think of the origins of the dish. The curry is by no means spicy. Rather, it is often sweetened with apple and is just so intrinsically Japanese that it is difficult to trace its origins from mere taste, as you can with some foods. But then, the Japanese have always been excellent adaptors of external influences, be it culinary, linguistically or culturally. The half-frankfurt that sat confused in my breakfast soup of radish and miso soup can attest to that.
While we all know curry has its roots in India, Japanese curry is actually derived from British influences in powder-form, rather than in traditional spice variations. SBS Food posits that curry was introduced to Japan through the British Navy ‘during the 19th century, back when Britain ruled India’, with Japanese curries being ‘milder and thicker than their Indian counterparts, with many home cooks turning to pre-bought curry mixes’. In their book, Japanese Soul Cooking, Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat concur, also stating that curry was originally considered to be a European food, rather than an Asian one.
They go on to say that curry is still a mainstay in the Japanese Navy, where each ship has its own custom recipe for curry – some featuring such eyebrow-raising ingredients as tomato sauce, chocolate, and a shot of coffee – and the ships then compete with each other in ‘curry contests’. In typical cute Japanese fashion, there’s even an annual curry festival that takes place in a naval base near Toyko. With all of that in mind, it’s plain to see why this curry is a Japanese staple, and how I am one of many in my passion for this light and homely dish.