What is Japan’s national dish? I am sure that many foreign people would answer sukiyaki – it has certainly been perceived as such for as long as I can remember. Then again, if a national dish was determined by its global popularity, sushi would top many people’s lists. The same might also be said for sashimi and tempura.
But in terms of popularity with Japanese people, and of the sheer quantities consumed and prevalence of eateries, a good argument can be made for curry as Japan’s national dish. Okay, that is a bit of a stretch perhaps, but curry – or more correctly, curry rice (kare raisu) – is certainly one of Japan’s favourite dishes, if not the most popular.
Curry is Everywhere in Japan
Ask any Japanese kid what their favourite dish is and they will probably say curry rice. Many young adults might give the same answer. Most households have curry rice at least once a week, often using leftover sauce to flavour udon noodles the following day. Being easy to prepare, it is the dish of choice for outdoor communal gatherings and school camping trips, and every tourist destination and coach park seems to have a curry rice restaurant.
Japanese curry is typically served in a dish with a small ladle, and a dish or plate of sticky, steamed rice on the side – hence the name, curry rice. You ladle the curry onto the rice little by little as you eat with a spoon, not chopsticks. At home, it is more usual for the rice and curry to be served on the same plate – everyone has their own way of serving and eating curry rice. The most common accompaniment is a sweet red pickle called hukuzinzuke.
I mentioned using curry sauce with udon noodles, and this is available at many restaurants too as kare udon. Furthermore, curry often accompanies breaded pork cutlets (kare katsu) or chicken cutlets (tori katsu kare) with rice. These can also be served with udon noodles instead of rice as kare katsu udon and tori katsu kare udon respectively. But do not be confused by all those names; Japanese restaurants often have realistic wax models of their dishes in the window, so just point out what you want to the waiter.
What is in a Japanese Curry?
When I first encountered Japanese curry, I was struck by how smooth the sauce was compared to the courser texture of Indian curries, with a consistency and sheen similar to demi-glace sauce. In some ways, the flavour reminded me a little of the curry sauces I’d bought from Chinese takeaway restaurants in the UK. The quantity and variety of vegetables in the curry also surprised me.
The most commonly used meat in curry rice is beef, with chicken, pork and some seafoods also popular choices. Actually, there are few things the Japanese haven’t tried to curry at one time or another, but we will come on to some of those later.
The vegetable content is typically provided by onion, carrot and potato, though just about any other vegetable can be used. I often use aubergine, pumpkin or sweet potato in mine, whilst hard tofu can give a curry a kind of faux-paneer quality.
How is Japanese Curry Different to Indian Curry?
Even a hot Japanese curry is far milder than Indian or Thai curries, and quite sweet. Many curries use grated apple as a sweetener, but various other fruits can be used, such as dates, banana or nashi (Japanese pears). Some people use honey, or even chocolate, which also darkens the sauce, and I sometimes use grated cheese or sour cream. There are no set rules for making curry rice, and everyone has their own way of modifying the flavour.
Unlike most Indian curry recipes, the traditional method for making Japanese curry is to fry the spices in oil and add flour to make a roux which is then used to thicken and spice a pan of stewed meat and vegetables. No doubt there are chefs at curry houses still using this method, but these days, most people use pre-formed blocks of paste that are simply stirred into the pot once the meat and vegetables are cooked. The spices themselves may vary slightly by manufacturer, but are pretty much the same as those in the average masala powder.
Hukuzinzuke is typically made with 7 vegetables, predominantly thin slivers of carrot, ginger and lotus root (which gives it a slight crispness) pickled in soy and sugar. The red hue is just colouring, as far as I can tell, so the ‘no added ingredients’ variety I get from my supermarket is actually brown.
Legend has it that curry was introduced to Japan by the British at the port of Yokosuka in the late 19th Century. But don’t start waving your Union Jack around just yet, because it wasn’t curry, so much as a method of using the spices that the British brought.
Apparently, Royal Navy cooks would use curry spices picked up in India to preserve meat and add occasional zest to the otherwise bland and repetitive stews Jolly Jack Tar had to endure on long sea voyages.
According to the story, a meal aboard a Royal Navy ship on a courtesy call at Yokosuka so impressed the captain’s Japanese Imperial Navy guests, they eagerly took the idea back to their own ship’s cook. He then adapted the recipe and the famous Yokosuka Navy Curry was born, and is still traditionally served aboard SDF Navy vessels on Fridays.
Pretty soon, this new taste sensation jumped ship, making Yokosuka the Curry Town of Japan, and Yokosuka beef curry a household name. That part’s true at least; to this day, Yokosuka town abounds with curry houses.
Hukuzinzuke pickle has its own place in history too. The pickle is thought to have been first produced by Noda Seizaemon at his pickle shop, Shuetsu, in Tokyo some 150 years ago. Apparently, his marketing claimed the pickle could be combined with rice as a complete meal, not requiring other ingredients, perhaps as an economy for housewives. Eventually, it was adopted by the armed forces, which is one way it came to be used with curry rice… aboard Imperial Navy Ships!
The origin of the name, hukuzinzuke, is open to debate. Some say it was named for the 7 Gods of good fortune (Shichihukuzin), one God for each of the 7 ingredients. Others believe it was so named because Noda’s shop was close to a statue of Benten, one of those 7 lucky Gods. Whatever the truth of this, few in Japan would consider a curry rice complete without hukuzinzuke.
Yokosuka is rightly famous for its beef curry but, as I said, beef is the most popular choice nationwide. Probably most of the beef that finds its way into curry houses and family kitchens is imported from Australia or the US; domestic beef, though widely accepted as the best in the world, tends to be very expensive, and some might think it sacrilege to put it in a curry.
Even so, Matsusaka beef curry from Mie prefecture is highly regarded. One of the most famous beef types of Japan, Matsusaka beef, with its high fat-to-meat ratio, comes from kuroge washu (Japanese black haired) cattle. It makes a delicious melt-in-the-mouth curry, but isn’t easy to find outside of Matsusaka.
Pork, on the other hand, is plentiful and fairly cheap in Japan, even the prime varieties. Kagoshima prefecture is well-known across Japan for its kurobuta (black pork), and this finds its way into all kinds of dishes, including the breaded cutlets and curries that are often served together. Slow cooked for tenderness, Kagoshima kurobuta curry is one of the great Japanese curries. And, in case you were wondering, it is not the pork itself that is black, but the pig it comes from!
In fruit growing areas like Nagano and Shimane prefectures, pigs and cattle are often fed with apples or nashi pears, which sweetens and flavours the meat used in curries. The fruit is also used to flavour the sauce, of course.
Chicken is probably the curry choice of most children in Japan, and there are mild chicken kids’ curries widely available at supermarkets and family restaurants, suitable even for toddlers. Personally, I’ve always found the chicken curries for adults rather disappointing, unless I’ve made it myself; but then, I’m not keen on the thigh and skin that predominates in restaurant curries.
However, the Cochin chicken curry I tried in Nagoya was amazing. Cross-bred from local owari chicken and cochin chicken from China in the 19th Century, its rich flavour and reddish meat is found in a variety of local dishes and seemed particularly well-suited to curry.
Visitors to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido can sample the venison. Sika deer curry has been eaten on Hokkaido for many years, and with the deer population getting too large for the environment to sustain, culled deer meat is back on the menu and more affordable.
I haven’t seen too many seafood curries on my Japanese travels, though I sometimes use white fish, such as cod or shrimp in curries at home. Perhaps it doesn’t appeal to the Japanese love of fresh, preferably raw, or whole grilled fish to think of currying it.
However, in Chiba prefecture, which has long been at the center of the mackerel fishing and canning industry, saba (mackerel) curry can be found at some specialist restaurants. I’m not sure I’d want to try it myself, but its combination of strong, fatty flavors may appeal to some. There used to be a canned mackerel curry, but whether that’s still the case is anyone’s guess.
I’m a great fan of hotate (scallops), either raw or grilled with butter. Aomori prefecture is known for good hotate, and there’s a local hotate curry that I’d quite like to try.
Remember I said there are few things the Japanese haven’t tried to curry? Well, here are a few that may or may not appeal to the Western palate or sensibilities, such as Okinawa’s goya (bitter melon), that makes a truly awful curry with a flavour not unlike ear wax! Unusual meats that have had the curry treatment include wild boar, bear, monkey and sea lion. But if you think that’s bad, I doubt that many outside Japan would want to try Wakayama’s kujira (whale meat) curry – probably few Japanese would go out of their way to eat it either.
Wakayama’s only other claim to curry fame was a multiple murder back in 1998, when four people died after eating a communal curry laced with arsenic. A local woman was charged with their murder, as well as other poisonings from the previous 10 years, and eventually convicted. Despite her claims of innocence, and several appeals, she remains on death row awaiting execution. The whalers have all gone free though!