At this time of the year it seems inappropriate to talk about food that’s not chocolate — but word is getting out that women have begun to regard the giving and getting of chocolate on you-know-what-day as, like, totally kakkowarui (カッコわるい, uncool). Which is why I feel justified in shifting my consideration from cacao to a more important meal matter, namely that of Japanese karē (カレー, curry).
Karē is an entirely different concoction from the curry found elsewhere in the world. Imported from India in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), it was initially a staple dish in military school shokudō (食堂, cafeterias), where it was introduced due to it being easy to make, high in nutrition and served all in one shallow bowl.
The term “karē” evolved from the word karai (辛い, hot or spicy) and, conveniently enough, that sounded a lot like “curry” to the Japanese ear. Karē was enthusiastically embraced by the Imperial Japanese Army: It slashed time and energy spent feeding the troops by dispensing with the fussy rice-bowl paraphernalia of traditional Japanese fare. The custom of dunking the spoon used to eat it into a glass of water before serving was a military one meant to eliminate the need for napkins; the idea was to lift the spoon out of the glass, dig it into the karē bowl and shovel karē into the mouth in a nonstop and very efficient motion. As soon as the bowl contained no trace of karē, soldiers were expected to drain the glass in a single gulp and get back to soldiering.
Karē did for Japanese eating habits of the day what the steam engine did for industry. Kouritsu (効率, efficiency), kōsoku (高速, speed), sutamina (スタミナ, stamina): These maxims fit equally well both for meal times and the process of modernization of Japan.
What exactly did the first karē taste like? According to the literature of the period, it wasn’t exactly gourmet fare. Lacking the variety of spices used in real Indian curry, Japanese made do with what they could get. The result was a heavily Japanized version of the dish, stripped of its exoticism but somehow made safe with a weird (though friendly) familiarity. To give the karē mixture a semiplasticine texture for easy spooning, cooks added copious amounts of flour or corn starch. In lieu of cumin and turmeric, they turned to shōyu (醤油, soy sauce) and wakarashi (和からし, Japanese mustard). All this improvising unleashed a deluge of creativity: We now have karē-flavored cakes, noodles and dumplings, and, yes, even chocolate-flavored karē.
The dish was initially called raisu karē (ライスカレー, rice curry) mainly in Kobe and Osaka, where it originated. Then someone at an Osaka restaurant named Jiyuken (自由軒) got the bright idea to break a raw egg over the karē and rice and have customers mix the whole gooey package together with their spoons. Later, in the 1920s, a Japanese ocean liner served fukujinzuke (福神漬け, a kind of Japanese chutney) to first-class passengers as a karē side dish. By the time the shinchūun (進駐軍, Allied Occupation forces) arrived in Japan at the end of World War II — at which time designation of karē had once again become karē raisu — garishly red (chemically colored) fukujinzuke adorned the side of every curry bowl up and down the nation.
Since the 1950s, karē raisu has consistently been ranked among the three most popular dishes in Japan, testament to how few Japanese will say no to karē. Fewer still will say no to kyūshoku karē (給食カレー, school curry), which many of us privately consider the best karē ever. Kyūshoku karē is a wondrous concoction, with a taste somehow impossible to duplicate outside Japan’s school system — once, my brother caught flu but practically crawled to school so as not to miss the kyūshoku karē and the little glass container of yogurt dispensed with it for dessert. The karē scene has become more sophisticated, but the dish remains the national comfort food (and the No. 1 school-lunch item).
Most restaurants now take care to serve healthy, naturally colored fukujinzuke instead of the toxic red variety, along with pickled pearl onions and gherkins. And instead of using flour to get that creamy texture, chefs mix up a roux of olive oil, sugars and Indian spices. At home, however, ouchi karē (お家カレー, homemade curry) — usually assembled from store-bought roux, which comes in bars shaped like chocolate — remains largely unchanged.
Years ago, when my grandfather was alone at home, he’d break off bits of karē roux (at room temperature, it has the texture of chocolate truffle), skewer them on toothpicks and chew on them while sipping Scotch and listening to old vinyl records. How’s that for a Valentine’s Day alternative?