I knew I didn’t like curry because my mother told me so. Never mind that I had never eaten it, I knew it was bad because I knew it was bad.
But I didn’t come to Japan to eat at MacDonald’s, which, I’m ashamed to say, I occasionally do. Everything was game. Yakiniku for celebrations, Ramen after work, nabe for parties, soba for a light meal. Katsudon was tangy, udon surprisingly filling, and sushi…I love sushi.
Curry though, was not Japanese. It lived in a different drawer, compartmentalized into a different mesa. Curry lived in India, and didn’t enjoy the liberties I gave to anything stamped “Japanese.”
“Japanese curry is Japanese,” she informed me, grinning. “It’s kind of like English curry, you know? Vermont curry is my favorite.”
I was quite certain Vermont was not known for its curry. I had been there, and hadn’t seen any. Clearly, one of us didn’t know what they were talking about.
I’d made an jerk of myself on more than one occasion with what I thought I knew. I had since learned to lay down arms where cultures meet, lest it become a battleground.
Besides, she was offering to cook for me.
Curry was introduced to Japan, oddly enough, by the British. The common curry is curry powder mixed into vegetable stew. “English curry” was brought to Japan sometime after U.S. Admiral Perry and his “Black Ships” ended Japan’s seclusion policy at gunpoint, beginning the Meiji era.
The British East India Company had already conquered most of India at that point, and began trading curry in the new Japanese market. Importing foreign ingredients proved quite expensive for Japan though, so very gradually domestic brands took over.
Like the Matsumoto company, which began making a sweet curry targeting children. About this time a book named “A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health” was circulating, and the brand picked up on the state’s healthy image, hence “Vermont” curry.
Ever since, curry has exploded in popularity. The Japanese Navy serves it as its Friday menu. Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankee’s outfielder, eats his wife’s homemade curry every morning for breakfast.
And why not? It’s a Japanese incarnation of a westernized Indian dish, but while it’s simulacrum of simulacrum, “Japanese don’t make things, they make things better.” Curry powder was replaced by roux, making preparation extremely easy, and more often than not, home cooked curry tastes better than restaurant’s. You also get more vegetables. I make it at least once a week.
So though curry is not generally associated with Japan, in Japan, it is. I cooked it for my family when I went back to the states for a holiday. I cooked it for my George-Bush-is-Jesus daughter-of-a-Southern-Baptist-preacher mother. She liked it. And if she liked it, anyone will.
So, mother doesn’t always know best.
Bonus! All that said, Japanese curry is good, but Indian curry is amazing. The butter chicken at my local curry restaurant, aptly named “Taj Mahal,” is one of the best meals I’ve had in my life.
Indian curry, unlike Japanese, is served with naan, a kind of dipping bread. A plate of curry and naan (especially cheese naan) is very filling. While Indian curry is almost always served with naan, Japanese curry is usually served with rice. Both are little more than vehicles for the curry, but rice compliments Japanese curry, and naan, Indian.
If you see an Indian curry restaurant–there are many of them in Japan–check it out.
Here’s the basic curry recipe if you want to try it. You should. It’s easy and good.
A carrot or two.
A potato or two. (Or three or four if you’re using tiny Japanese ones)
Meat. (I prefer chicken, one breast will work fine. Don’t overdo it. The vegetables are the just as important as the meat. You want a good balance.)
Garlic (one minced clove)
Curry roux. (You can buy these at any supermarket in Japan. They have spice levels, and if it’s your first time, go with level 2. I prefer 3.)
Butter or oil
You’ll also need:
A deep pot
And whatever you need to cook the rice with. I use a rice cooker, though lately I’ve been lazy and just buying microwavable.
Peel the potatoes and carrots. (The carrots to get rid of the pesticides.)
Cut up the potatoes and carrots into slices. The carrots need to be pretty thin so they cook the same time as the potatoes.
Soak the potatoes in water while you prepare the rest. This helps release the starch, which helps them cook better.
Cut up the onion into small slivers. It’s just for taste. You don’t want chunks.
Mince one garlic clove.
Cut the meat into chunks. (Size isn’t too important as long as they are all about the same.)
Pour some oil into the pot and heat it up to medium/high heat.
Add the garlic, then the onion. Cook for about a minute, stirring, then add the meat. Cook until the meat is mostly done, remembering to keep stirring.
Add the carrots and potatoes. Add salt and pepper. Cook for a bit, stirring, until the meat fully or almost fully cooked.
Now add water until the water is even with the top of the ingredients. You may even want to go a little less, though you’ll have to stir more. This makes for a thicker curry, which I prefer. Add more water for a runnier curry, but this sucks in my opinion. More power to you if you like it though.
Cook until it boils. While it’s cooking, scoop off any scum that collects on the surface. It’s just fat and nasty that you don’t want to eat.
Once it boils, check to see if the carrots are soft yet. You can do this by seeing if you can push a chopstick through it without unreasonable resistance. (You don’t need to do this, and it actually takes a while, so just make sure to cook until the vegetables are not hard.)
Once it’s ready, turn off the stove. Now, add one pack of curry roux. Some like to add it cube by cube and stir in each individually, but I see no value in that and dump the whole thing in, man style.
Stir until the roux is dissolved. If it’s a good consistency, it’s ready to pour over the rice. If it’s too thin, let it simmer until it’s thicker. You’ll have to find what consistency you like through experience, but for me, thicker is better.
Question of the Day: Are you a curry fan? What ingredients do you like?