Curry and rice: the comfort food for millions of people throughout the world, but particularly in Asia where they originated from. India has their sweet butter chicken, fiery vindaloo, and everything in between. Thai curries are collectively referred to as ‘kaeng’, which boasts curry-world stars such as Thai green curry (kaeng khiao wan), Jungle curry (kaeng pa), and Masamam (kaeng matsaman). And of course the one simply can’t talk about curries without thinking of Laksa, the famous curry from Penang, Malaysia.
In Japan, their curry is generically known as karee-raisu （カレーライス）. It is a amalgamation of the words for curry (カレー karee) and rice (ライス raisu) as the curries are, for the most part, always served with rice. Japanese curry is sweeter, milder and thicker than similar looking curries from India, Thailand and other countries. The sweetness in particular is a defining attribute. This comes from slow-cooking lots of onions until they caramelise and release their natural sugars; and also the addition of apple and other sweet-flavoured seasonings (eg: ketchup, chunou sauce (中濃ソース)). In regards to the viscosity of Japanese curry, it would be more similar to a stew with curry flavours than a traditional Indian curry.
Karee-raisu is so popular among the Japanese, and consumed regularly through all stages of life, that some Japanese people grow up thinking it is a Japanese dish. Of course karee-raisu falls under youshoku (洋食・ようしょく Western dishes adapted to the Japanese palate). You will find some form of curry in almost every family and department store restaurants. There are restaurants devoted only to curry, and any major supermarket will have an aisle full of boxed curry mix, curry roux, and instant curry. It is fierce competition among manufacturers. Popular brands include Vermont Curry, Golden Curry, and S&B. S&B produces the most popular brand of Japanese curry powder, while Vermont Curry introduced the sweeter-style curry into Japan (see ‘History of Karee-Raisu‘ for more).
It isn’t hard to see why the Japanese love their version of curry so much. It’s sweet and mild profile appeals to a larger demographic, and for those who like more heat, it is easily adaptable; the ingredients are cheap and commonplace; the entire cooking process can be done in one pot; it can feed many mouths; different ingredients can be added to suit different palates without irrevocably changing the nature of the dish; and it is even better the next day. Add in modern conveniences in the form of curry roux blocks, curry powder, instant curry mix, and pre-prepared karee-raisu at a local konbini, and it’s no wonder it is considered one of two of Japan’s national dishes (the other is ramen).
History of Karee-Raisu
A popular theory is that curry was introduced into Japan by the British troops during the 19th century, as it was a cheap and nutritious way to feed the masses. While the exact date is unknown, I would guess that it occurred sometime after 14 October, 1854, and this was the date the the Japanese and the British signed the first limited Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty. In 1855, the French-British navy made a stop in Hakodate while on their way to search for the Russian fleet during the Crimean War. This does support the theory of British troops introducing curry into Japan. In addition, the earliest known recorded recipe for curry appeared in 1872 (called raisu-karii （ライスカリー）at that time), and it started appearing in Tokyo restaurants as early as 1877. And of course this aligns with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan’s national seclusion was abolished and Western culture was hailed.
Back then karee-raisu (the name changed from raisu-karii in the early 1900s) was very similar to Indian and British-Indian style curries. Like anything Western in those times, curry was expensive, exotic, and eaten only by the upper class. It was only prepared from scratch, with a proper curry sauce, and thus was a dish that required the skills of a professional chef to make. In addition, only imported British Crosse & Blackwell (C&B) curry powder was used to make ‘true’ curry. It was considered far superior to domestic curry powders and was something only the rich could afford.
However, curry fell from its lofty heights after the Great Curry Scandal in 1931. Dealers who previously got away with selling locally made curry powder as the more expensive C&B kind were caught out. The population then realised that they couldn’t tell the difference between the two. This gave domestic curry powder manufacturers a huge boost and consequently paved the way for curry to be an affordable, commonplace dish.
Curry’s popularity soared nationwide when manufacturers created instant curry mixes, and the solid curry blocks in 1954. In 1963, the House Foods company introduced a new flavour in their Vermont Curry brand. This curry mix contained apples and honey, meaning it was milder and sweeter. Children adored it, and it changed the perception that curry was too spicy for them. Ever since then, curry has been popular with children and was the most popular item on national school lunch menus for over 30 years. This was also the time that Japanese curry developed its distinctive characteristic for being sweeter. Also in 1963, manufacturers released a ready-to-eat curry in a vacuum-sealed pouch that only required hot water to prepare it (much like instant ramen). Of course this was a huge hit with students pressed for both money and time, and is a common staple in their diets.
Basic Method of Preparation
The simplicity of making a curry is why it is so easily adaptable. The basic steps are:
- Sear you choice of meat and set aside
- Slowly sauté a heap of sliced onions until they reduce and caramelise
- Add the curry powder, seasonings, liquid and the previously seared meat. Let simmer for a while to allow the flavours to develop
- Add any hard vegetables about 20-30 minutes before the end of the cooking process
- Make a roux and incorporate into the curry
Any meat can be used, but beef is the most popular and the most traditional. This is because beef symbolises the Meiji Restoration – the opening of Japan to Western culture. The use of a roux to thicken the curry was adopted fairly early since it reliably thickens the curry without making it lumpy. The dairy in the roux also contributes to the smooth mouthfeel.
Many of the Western elements can be found in the seasonings and ingredients used to give flavour to the curry. It’s common to see ingredients such as ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, cocoa powder, and honey in recipes. Also garam masala (a Indian ground spice blend) makes a good substitute if you don’t have the Japanese curry powder on hand.
Although Japanese curries are sweeter, they can still pack quite a punch. Curries in Japan come in three basic levels of spiciness:
- Amakuchi （甘口・あまくち）: lit: ‘sweet mouth’ – mild and sweet
- Chuukara （中辛・ちゅうから）: medium spicy
- Karakuchi （辛口・からくち）: lit: ‘spicy mouth’ – hot and spicy
So feel free to adjust the level of spiciness to suit your preferences.
Being as inventive as they are, the Japanese have incorporated curry into many other delicious forms. These include:
- Karee-udon （カレーうどん）: udon noodles topped with curry
- Karee-nanban （カレー南蛮）: soba noodles in a curry flavoured broth
- Karee-pan （カレーパン）: a bun stuffed with curry, crumbed in panko, and deep fried
- Katsu-karee （カツカレー）: curry served with breaded, fried pork cutlet
- Dorai-karee （ドライカレー）: lit: ‘dry curry’ – this can either be curry flavoured fried rice, or a drier curry served with rice
- Maze-karee （混ぜカレー）: curry and rice served already mixed together. This dish was made popular in the Jiyuuken （自由軒・じゆうけん） restaurant in Osaka (see ‘Jiyuuken – The Freedom House’ for more).
And as with many of their dishes, curry also has many regional and festive variations. Many of these are famous in their own rights, and many people, both locals and tourists alike, go to these areas just to try their curries.
Regional curries started appearing in the late 1990s in an attempt to increase tourism to those areas. Most were introduced as vacuum-packed curry sauces. What sets these curries apart is their use of a main ingredient famous in that particular area:
- Hokkaido: ezoshika-karee (蝦鹿カレー・えぞしかカレー) – deer curry
- Aomori prefecture: hotate-karee (帆立カレー・ほたてカレー) – scallop curry, and ringo-karee (林檎カレー・りんごカレー) – apple curry
- Nagano prefecture: ringo-karee (林檎カレー・りんごカレー) – apple curry
- Nito (in the Ibaraki prefecture): nattou-karee (納豆カレー・なっとカレー) – natto curry
- Wakayama prefecture: kujira-karee (鯨カレー・くじらカレー) – whale curry
- Hiroshima: kaki-karee (牡蠣カレー) – oyster curry
- Shimane prefecture: nashi-karee (梨カレー・なしカレー) – nashi curry
- Kagoshima prefecture: kurobuta-karee (黒豚カレー・くろぶたカレー) – black pork curry
- Okinawa: bitter gouya-karee (ゴーヤカレー) – melon curry
A special curry was made in the city of Tsuchiura (in the Ibaraki prefecture) to promote the landing of the Graf Zeppelin in 1929, called tsepperin-karee (ツェッペリンカレー).
A final interesting ‘variation’ is navy curry. Curry is intrinsically linked to the Japanese naval forces. On the Japan Maritime Self-Defense ships, it is a tradition to serve karee-raisu every Friday for dinner. This is a tradition carried over from the Imperial Navy days. Each ship boasts that their curry is the best amongst the fleet, and some of the recipes are on the JMSDF’s website. The city of Yokusuka created yokosuka-kaigun-karee (横須賀海軍カレー・よこすかかいぐんカレー Yokosuka Navy curry) to celebrate its naval heritage.
Jiyuuken – The Freedom House
Jiyuuken (自由軒・じゆうけん) is the oldest youshoku restaurant in Japan. It is located in the Sennichimae arcade in Nanba, Osaka. It was established in 1910. The owner named his restaurant after the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement (自由民権運動・じゆうみんけんうんどう), which was at the forefront of political movement during that time.
When Jiyuuken first opened, the owner found that it was difficult to keep the rice warm until it needed to be served (simply leaving the rice over the flame would render it hard and dry). To combat this, he mixed the curry sauce into the rice, creating maze-karee, (混ぜカレー lit: ‘mixed curry’). He added a raw egg on top and named his dish meibutsu-karee (名物カレー・めいぶつカレー lit: ‘speciality curry’). Indeed, because eggs were so expensive back then, and that before this no-one topped their curry with raw egg, it was a special kind of curry. It became popular within the local area and in some western prefectures, but hasn’t really permeated throughout Japan. Outside Osaka, raw egg curry is uncommon, but as establishments look towards differentiating themselves and as people are more adventurous with their food, this could very well change.
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