It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Japanese curry saved my life. After relocating to Japan in the late 1990s, I found myself underemployed, surrounded by unfamiliar foodstuffs and suffering from a near-total lack of cooking skills. Yet I managed to fill up at the cafeteria of a local university, where, among trays of noodles and cauldrons of miso soup, ladles of savory brown curry were served for ¥350 a pop. From then on, my only problem was placing an order with the white-masked servers, who tended to mistake my pronunciation of korokke karē (curry with potato croquettes) as kara-age karē (curry with deep-fried chicken balls).
No matter. Brimming with pork, potatoes and carrots, “curry rice” packed enough calories and carbs to get me through the day. I later learned that generations of Japanese students have fueled themselves up in the same way — the dish is a mainstay of cafeteria lunches from primary school to graduate school, and it’s a popular item in corporate canteens and run-of-the-mill soba noodle shops as well.
This phenomenon is baffling to many foreigners, who complain that Japanese curry lacks the enchanting spiciness of its Southeast Asian counterparts or the aromatic richness of dishes from India. To its critics, curry rice represents the worst of Japanese cuisine: nutritionally challenged, depressingly bland and deficient in nuance.
Yet foreigners have no one but themselves — or, rather, their ancestors — to blame. According to an account compiled by leading food manufacturer House Corp., British traders introduced curry powder to Japan at the start of the Meiji Era (1867-1912). Local cooks were initially put off by the exotic flavors but, impressed by how nicely curry could be paired with white rice, they adapted the recipe with new spice blends and the addition of familiar meats and vegetables.
Two subsequent events cemented curry’s place in the pantheon of Japanese cuisine: in the early 20th century, military commanders adopted curry powder as part of the general rations for soldiers and sailors; and in the postwar era, food companies figured out a way to mass produce a solid roux, which became a staple in households around the country.
Perhaps because curry is a relative newcomer to the Japanese culinary scene, chefs here have never been shy about using it in ways that outsiders consider horrifying (see sidebar). Injected into donuts or mixed with shirasu anchovies, curry is like a blank canvas that can be filled in with Dada-like glee. More recently, the success of authentic restaurants from India, Pakistan and even Africa suggests that the local appetite for curry is maturing, or at least becoming more open.
Diners interested in getting a true taste of Japanese-style curry should head to the Kanda area of Tokyo, where they’ll find hundreds of restaurants specializing in the dish, including nationally prominent chains such as Gogo Curry and CoCo Ichibanya. (A couple of the best places are listed in the sidebar.) This clustering makes sense, as the area is home to several universities. As the website of the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau explains, curry is catnip to Japanese college students because it “requires only a spoon and can be enjoyed while reading.”
In recognition of Kanda’s contributions to culinary vitality, officials in Chiyoda Ward have organized an annual celebration called the Kanda Curry Grand Prix. The 2013 edition, held earlier this month, drew thousands of participants and featured curries from 52 restaurants, a dozen of which were selected for the competition portion of the event. Top honors went to Hinoya, a seven-seat shack that sits under the Yamanote Line tracks near Kanda Station.
But whither the future of Japanese curry? It might be said that appreciation of the dish peaked in the early 2000s, when several well-known chefs hit the market with branded curry products, and the Curry Museum opened its doors in Yokohama. The museum featured seven restaurants and themed attractions tracing the dish’s history in Japan, yet a lack of attendance prompted it to close in 2007. Since then, the organizers have taken their efforts online, establishing a group called the Curry Sogo Kenkyujo (Curry General Research Center) to combat the “anxiety” that curry enthusiasts have been feeling about the long-term viability of the dish.
These fears seem misguided. Curry is such a part of the shared cultural experience that it will forever represent a taste of youth to the vast majority of Japanese — and to at least one grateful, underfed foreigner.
House Corp.’s history of Japanese curry can be found at tinyurl.com/lfj29r7. For more information about the Kanda Curry Grand Prix, visit www.kanda-curry.com. The Curry Sogo Kenkyujo homepage is at www.currysoken.jp. Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.
A curry sampler
With a history dating to 1910, Jiyuken in Osaka’s Namba district (www.jiyuken.co.jp) is generally considered to be the oldest curry restaurant in Japan; in the Kanda area of Tokyo, Kyoeido (www.kyoueidoo.com) began serving its signature pork curry in 1924 and is still popular today. The winner of this year’s Kanda Curry Grand Prix, Hinoya (www.hinoya.info), specializes in curry topped with a raw egg. For more extreme takes on the dish, check out the bread flavored with curried anchovies at Simon’s on the Shonan coast of Kanagawa (www.simons.jp) or curry yakisoba (fried noodles), a specialty of the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. High rollers should head to Shiseido Parlor in Ginza, where the seafood curry costs a cool ¥10,000 (parlour.shiseido.co.jp).