Cuisine of the Middle Class

Hurry! Get your curry!

What do you think of when you hear the word “curry?” Ann Curry? Tim Curry? Curry with naan? I bet you weren’t aware that one of the staple dishes in Japan is curry. That’s right! I’m not talking about a stereotype here. Curry in Japan is a soul food – kids roll up their sleeves for it, adults sigh contentedly when they eat it, and foreigners even have their go-to chain restaurant for it.

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Katsu curry from a restaurant in my town. The curry itself was vegetable-less.

Let’s compare and contrast the curry you know vs. the curry you don’t know. Without the excruciating etymology and historical details, the table looks a little like this:

Indian Curry

Japanese Curry

Comes in a wet or dry form Less seasoned
Yogurt, coconut milk, cream No creams or milk
Goes back a couple of hundred years Brought by the English in the 1800s after the Japanese seclusion
Has sub-types depending on the region More of a stew
Originally a sauce to go with rice but became a stew with rice in it Invented in 1912 and uses onions, potatoes and carrots
Contains garam masala, ginger, chili and so forth 1923 saw the first Japanese curry powder and in 1954, the first sauce
Wasn’t originally spicy but due to ship routes, chili peppers were introduced Comes in a wide range of flavors and spice levels

Curry in Japan is a serious business. When I type “curry” into Google Maps, 20 restaurants in a few-mile-radius come up. They include both Japanese-style and Indian-style places. Even restaurants that have a main attraction like hamburg or pizza have curries or curry-flavored things 95% of the time.

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A box of curry roue. This one says “Vermont Curry.”

But I’m not here to discuss its popularity. I’m here to tell you how it’s a go-to for first time Japan-livers. It will be your best friend if you don’t know how to cook but can boil water. What’s wonderful about it is that it’s so versatile with no set filling recipe. Here’s what I throw in mine:

  • tiny bits of chicken
  • pumpkin or potatoes
  • carrots
  • daikon or kabu (i.e. radish, turnips)
  • mushrooms (sometimes)
  • green beans
  • peas
  • chigensai (called “baby napa” in English)
  • chrysanthemum sprouts (sometimes)

Do you see a pattern? Usually, I go for white-orange-green colors. As nutritionists will tell you, the more color you have, the better you’re eating. Seriously, curry will fill you up. In hotels, it’s even served for breakfast!

When you come to Japan, take a look around your local grocery and convenience stores. Oh! Before I go, here’s a word of warning if you can’t read Japanese. 甘口 (amaguchi, literally “sweet mouth”) means sweet or “no heat,” 中口 (chuguchi, “middle mouth”) means it’s hot and 辛口 (karaguchi, “spicy mouth”) means it will melt your face off. You can see these cute warning labels on the front of the package in the corner somewhere.

Happy eating!

P.S. If you ever get around to eating a dish called hayashi rice, you can find the roué in the curry aisle, but look hard! I almost missed it the first time I wanted it.

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Hayashi rice. I like to put scrambled egg on top of mine for added a breakfast benefit.

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