To many people in Japan, summertime is synonymous
with hot and spicy food. Spices are believed to cool you down by making
you perspire, as well as stimulating an appetite dulled by the
sweltering weather. The quintessential spicy dish in Japan is curry,
which is so popular that it's regarded, along with ramen, as one of the
top two national dishes — ahead of sushi and miso soup.
The spice mix known as curry powder and curried
dishes were most likely introduced to Japan via the Anglo-Indian
officers of the royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire.
They were among the first Westerners the Japanese came into contact
with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his Black Ships at Kurihama
in 1853, opening the country to the world after hundreds of years of
isolation. Since this new dish came from the West, as far as these
Japanese travelers were concerned, it was classified as yōshoku (Western food).
Nowadays, yōshoku is a distinct type of cooking
that encompasses Western-style dishes that have been reinvented to suit
Japanese tastes and ingredients. Japanese curry is no exception: Bearing
only a passing resemblance to curried dishes from other regions such as
India, it has been changed and adapted so much that it now stands on
its own as something uniquely Japanese.
In fact, it's a home comfort that many can't
bear to be without. Before every Seattle Mariners home game, baseball
great Ichiro Suzuki eats the same curry, made by his wife, for lunch
(actually breakfast for him, since he "works" into the night). When this
was reported on NHK TV in 2009, it caused a short-lived fad for
breakfast curry around Japan.
The earliest recipes for raisu karī
(literally "rice curry") appeared in Japanese cookbooks in 1872. One of
these is very similar to curry recipes that appeared in British
cookbooks of the time, such as "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household
Management." It's a simple meat and vegetable broth thickened with a
spoonful of flour rather than roux, and contains chopped apple — as does
a Mrs. Beeton recipe for curried veal. It does include yuzu juice as an
ingredient, presumably in place of lemon, so adaptations were already
Roux (which is a sauce-thickener in French
cuisine) seems to have been adopted by Japanese curry chefs quite early
on, possibly because it thickens a sauce more smoothly and reliably
without making lumps.
Rice curry (initially pronounced as karī, and changed to karē
sometime around the turn of the 20th century for unknown reasons)
appeared on restaurant menus in Tokyo as early as 1877. At first, it was
considered to be quite exotic and expensive, like all Western food. Not
only was preparing a proper curry sauce a time-consuming affair
requiring the skills of a professional chef, but imported curry powder
from Britain — considered to be far superior to the domestic kind — was a
luxury only affordable by the rich.
This all changed after the great curry powder
scandal of 1931, when unscrupulous dealers were caught selling cheap
domestic curry powder as expensive Crosse & Blackwell powder from
England. This escalated to an international diplomatic incident, leading
to several arrests, but it ironically gave a big boost to domestic
curry-powder manufacturers such as S&B Foods, since people
discovered that they couldn't really taste the difference.
More and more inexpensive eateries started listing curry dishes on their menus, coming up with inventive items such as karē udon (udon noodles in curry-flavored soup), karē nanban (soba noodles in curry-flavored soup) and karē pan (dough stuffed with curry paste, breaded and deep-fried).
The biggest factor in spreading the
popularity of curry nationwide was the introduction of "instant" curry
mixes. The forerunners of present-day household names such as House
Foods and S&B started to distribute powdered curry mixes on a large
scale in the late 1920s. The solid-block type of curry mix that is most
popular today was first introduced in 1954; containing roux thickener
and various flavor enhancers such as vegetable or meat concentrate,
they've been a staple of Japanese home kitchens ever since.
These days, the curry-mix marketplace in Japan is
fiercely competitive. Besides the aforementioned big names, several
noteworthy yōshoku restaurants produce their own "gourmet" brands.
In 1963, House Foods introduced a curry mix
called Vermont Curry. Containing apple concentrate and honey, it was
much milder and sweeter than other mixes, and helped to change the
perception that curry was too spicy for children. karē raisu
(curry rice) has been a perennial kids' favorite ever since, and has
been the most popular dish on the national school lunch menu for at
least three decades.
It's also a versatile dish, resulting in all
sorts of variations. Emperor Akihito reportedly enjoys regional curries
during his visits around the country; and when famed TV comedian Tamori
revealed his own special curry recipe, it became popular in its own
Curry is also a staple of the armed forces in
Japan. It's a tradition to serve karē raisu for dinner every Friday on
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, a carryover from the Imperial
Navy days. Each JMSDF ship prides itself on having its own unique curry
recipe, some of which are featured on the JMSDF's official website.
Ready-to-eat curry sold in "retort"
(pressure-cooked and vacuum-sealed) bags that can be heated in hot water
were introduced in 1969, becoming an instant hit. They've been a staple
of a hungry student's diet along with cup ramen noodles ever since.
Curry packs were even introduced to the NASA space program's menu by
Japanese astronaut Mamoru Mohri in 1997. Since they need no
refrigeration, they're popular as emergency food rations too. Both Ezaki
Glico and House have recently introduced ready-to-eat curries that
don't need to be heated up to be tasty, as a response to the increased
demand for such items after the March 11 earthquake.
Indian, Thai and other south Asian
restaurants have proliferated in recent years, exposing Japan to many
other types of curry dishes. Japanese curry still holds a special place
in our hearts though. It's what we grew up with.
Ok, I'm hungry. I have a pack of SB curry roux that I haven't got a chance to cook. Maybe later :p