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The Japanese Table

The Japanese Spirit of Curry

by Takashi Morieda

In Japan there is one food that has attained the same revered status as the ubiquitous hamburger in the U.S., the ever-popular fish and chips in Britain and well-loved kimchi in Korea—but don't look to sushi, tempura or noodles. Would you believe . . . curry?

Judging by sales figures of instant curry roux, pouch-packed and frozen preparations, per capita consumption of Japanese curry and other curry-related foods is even higher than that of “typical” Japanese cuisine such as sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. Estimates suggest that the Japanese consume curry at least once a week; and surveys have revealed that, until recently, curry was the consistent favorite among children. (Today sushi holds that position, probably because it is now more accessible at cheap revolving-counter shops.) Yet curry continues to rank second and is considered one of the most popular foods among both children and adults.

Spices of the East

Japanese curry is usually eaten with rice, but other dishes such as kare-pan (deep-fried curry-filled bun) are also popular. One style of traditional Japanese noodles is made with curry-flavored soup. Another common dish is katsu-kare deep-fried pork cutlet on rice topped with curry sauce. Japanese curry featuring beef as well as pork is also popular—two varieties that would be unimaginable in curry´s Indian homeland, where cattle are considered sacred and pigs impure. Such differences may come as less of a surprise when we learn that the curry enjoyed by Japanese today came to Japan via Great Britain, rather than India.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans voyaged to Asia in search of spices. Interest was centered on the spices themselves rather than the food; early accounts reflect mainly on the spiciness of Asian cuisine. That attitude changed toward the end of the eighteenth century when Britain colonized India, starting in the Bengal region. The colonial administration began to embrace the local dishes, and gradually Indian food was introduced in the U.K. where it became quite popular as an exotic, albeit locally adapted, cuisine. Curry was mainly a type of sauce used for meat dishes; in Bengal, a rice-growing region, it was usually eaten with rice, and this custom was carried to Britain as well, although the rice was eaten there as a side dish, as were potatoes.

People unfamiliar with the blending of spices common to Indian cooking found the original recipe for curry difficult to master. In Britain therefore, a ready-made “curry powder” consisting of several spices was marketed, apparently inspired by garam masala, a mixture of ground Indian spices. This powder made it easy to prepare curry, and was later introduced to Japan along with other Western foods following the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The Japanese took a greater liking to curry than to many of the other foods introduced from abroad. Meat dishes were unfamiliar to most Japanese—until the advent of Westernization, consumption of the meat of four-legged animals had been discouraged under the influence of Buddhism. A beefsteak, which seemed to be virtually dripping with blood in the eyes of most Japanese of that time, was therefore not particularly appetizing. Beef camouflaged in a spice-flavored curry sauce, however, was far more palatable. And spices were not new to the Japanese. They had long been used in herbal medicines throughout Asia, so Japanese were not averse to the spicy flavors. But best of all, curry was eaten with rice, the staple of the nation´s diet.

Thus, ironically, the curry adopted by the British for its exotic Oriental flavor became popular among Japanese, who considered it representative of Western cuisine. At first, curry was served British-style, mainly in restaurants. Gradually, following various adaptations, the standard recipe for today´s curry became established: a stew of potatoes, carrots, onions and meat, flavored with a flour-thickened, curry-based sauce.

As a convenient blend of meat, vegetables and rice that can be eaten all at once from one dish, curry was a common feature on the menus of schools and the military. When curry powder began to be manufactured domestically, the dish became even more widely available, and during the early twentieth century it gradually made its way into the home.

Convenient Curry

Following the Second World War and into the late 1950s, instant ramen hit the market along with ready-made curry roux. Instant ramen is generally regarded as a snack, but Japanese-style curry and rice is a solid meal in itself. Although not as quickly prepared as instant ramen, Japanese curry is fast and convenient: typical ingridients include water (at a larger proportion than classic Indian curries), sautéed meat and vegetables, and curry roux.

The curry concept was introduced into the home around the same time that electric appliances appeared there, and was welcomed as another way to lighten household chores. Instant curry roux helped integrate curry into the common diet: not only did it immediately become a favorite meal of children, it could be prepared quickly by even the busiest housewife. It could be served to the whole family sitting down to eat together, and could be reheated for husbands coming home late from overtime work.

During the rapid economic growth of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Japanese household changed dramatically. Young people left their hometowns and moved to big cities where they could find better-paying jobs. Today, the number of people who now live—and dine—alone is increasing. Japanese curry and rice have come to satisfy this new trend: there is an endless selection of easy to prepare retort pouches and frozen curries now on the market.

Once when asked, the present Emperor of Japan reportedly replied that curry is his favorite food—perhaps a reaction to the sumptuous meals invariably served during his tours around the country. It seems somehow fitting that the Emperor, symbol of the Japanese nation, prefers curry—thus confirming its place as one the most authentic and best-loved Japanese dishes.

Author's Profile

Born in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in 1955, Takashi Morieda holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Tokyo's International Christian University. He is a well-known photographer and specialist in food culture, as well as a pioneer in research of curries and Southeast Asian cuisine. Morieda is also the author of some 20 food-related books, and a volume of his photographs spanning a 20-year period has recently been published.