A decade and a half ago, as I worked on the manuscript for Lonely Planet's 'World Food Guide Japan', I fired up my computer and typed these seemingly innocuous words: "Curry rice is the cheep and cheerful, can't-be-bothered-to-cook staple of winter school refectories, cut-price truck stops and humble shokudo eateries.
Known as kare-raisu, it is prepared in seconds by adding hot water to an instant sweet spicy roux, mixed with pre-cooked vegetables or beef served on rice. It is ubiquitous, the choice of flu-ridden children, and anyone in need of homely junk-food sustenance."
I couldn't have predicted the results. When I addressed a group of mature Japanese students and presented the text at a symposium on Japanese food a few months later there was outrage. "What do you mean junk?" "It's not junk food!" How dare you put our beloved kare-raisu in the same category as junk food?!"
Some curry rice is better than other curry rice. This school canteen version (Picture above) doesn't appear to have any visible ingredients. At least it was cheap.
The reactions were all good-natured, but clearly I had underestimated the emotive power behind such a humble dish. Perhaps I had hit a nerve? The Japanese clearly care about their curry rice far more than I had thought. Is it in reality a de facto national dish?
Certainly its popularity is undeniable. By the 1980s, each Japanese household was consuming almost 2kg of the curry rice mix per annul, an average of three curry rice meals per person per month - something in the region of 200 million dishes per year. Popular high street 'curry rice' franchise, Coco Ichibanya has domestic and international sales of 94 billion yen - about 845 million dollars - per year.
Since that 2002 article the varieties of curry rice has exploded exponentially as manufacturers added ingredients, flavors and delved into increasingly localized 'limited edition' varieties known as gotouchi kare or 'local' curry. In addition to 'vegetables and beef' expect to find chicken, amaebi shrimp, shellfish and xxx, and 'luxury' versions with ingredients such as 'Kobe Beef' and venison. The manufacturers go to ever more extreme lengths to outdo their competitors.
Amongst the 38 varieties on offer in my small local supermarket this week, one may find, in no special order: Hanshin Tigers baseball team curry rice, Hakodate (Hokkaido) and Azabu Juban (Tokyo) curry rice, Osaka Dai-ichi Hotel and Rihga Royal Hotels' chef's selections, and, Kanazawa's 'Go! Go!' curry rice. The latter has Godzilla on the cover. Lord knows what's in it.
On a regent visit to Sasebo, in Nagasaki prefecture, I stumbled across 'Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force curry rice, advertised with an image of an Aegis-equipped Kongo class destroyer. One can only assume it packs a considerable punch. Yokosuka Navy Curry (Kanazawa) and Maizuru Navy Curry (Kyoto) are other naval-themed varieties, and curry was the favorite repast of the 'Navy of the Greater Japanese Empire'. Kaigunkare navy curry retails emblazoned with the rather politically incorrect old imperial navy flag. It's fair to say it won't be a big seller in South-East Asia.
The maritime connection is actually quite appropriate. The first Japanese citizens to encounter curry were the 34 Satsuma clan officials dispatched to France on board the French warship Monsieur in 1863 to lobby Napoleon Ⅲ for their campaign against the British navy, who were pounding Kagoshima with canon in retaliation for the murder of British citizen Charles Richardson. En route they transferred to an Indian postal vessel and witnessed passengers preparing what they described as 'aromatic mud'.
It was during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) when Japan opened itself to the outside world and all things foreign, that curry began to really take off. It was served alongside plain white rice and termed, back then raisu-kare rice curry. The Fugetsudo Restaurant in Tokyo began serving it as a luxury item, along with other faddish Western items as steaks, omelets and pork cutlets. At the handsome price of 8 sen, it sold at eight times the cost of the most fancy Japanese dish on the Fugetsudo menu, mori soba buckwheat noodles.
Towards the middle of the second decade of the 20th century, popular women's magazine Nyokan started calling the dish kare-raisu, and the name has stuck ever since. Up until this point Japanese chefs had had depended on the 'British-style' curry powder retailed - at a premium - by the prestigious Crosse and Blackwell who remained fiercely protective of their powder's exact ingredients. However, in 1923, Japan's 'curry pioneer' Minejiro Yamazaki cracked the secret and began creating his own, domestically produced curry powder. The company he founded, S&B, is still a major force within the industry, and its iconic red and white tins are still found in supermarkets across the nation.
In June 2007, curry rice made the headlines when was nominated to accompany Japanese astronauts into space. 'Space Curry' - what else could it be called? - had become literally what its legion of devoted fans has always known it to be. Out of this world.
When to eat
Whenever the fancy takes you, morning or night, rain or shine. You might like to follow the Chinese model and eat the spiciest curry rice you can withstand during the hottest 'Dog Days' of summer in order to perspire and feel cooler, though it's good for keeping the winter cold at bay too.
Where to eat
A local shokudo neighborhood canteen, at home, in space. Anywhere and everywhere. 'Mother's curry' is famously the best.
Curry rice is classically accompanied either by bright red or orange fukushinzuke pickles, or rakkyo pickled onions, but, say the purists, never the twain. That said, when both are on offer, this writer usually surreptitiously avails himself to both.