What is curry rice?
A national dish popular among men, women and children alike.
Curry rice is a dish that represents Japanese cuisine to the extent that it is referred to as a Japanese national dish. It is a dish that went through developments unique to Japan, where curry sauce is poured onto rice and eaten with a spoon.
Since it is a dish extremely popular among men, women and children alike, it is frequently made at home as a homemade dish. There are many Japanese people who will name curry rice as their mother’s signature homemade dish. This is why there are many curry products being sold, such as curry roux used for cooking at home and retort-pouched curries that can be eaten by simply heating them. Furthermore, there are many restaurants specializing in curries, and there are many opportunities where one can eat curries outside and not just in one’s own home. Curry House CoCo Ichibanya has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most number of stores for a curry chain restaurant (as of January 20, 2013).
“Curry rice” in Japan is different to curry with rice eaten in other parts of the world. However, “curry” in Japan will usually refer to “curry rice”.
The biggest feature of Japanese curry rice is its curry roux. Japanese curry roux is traditional European roux, made by frying flour and butter with olive oil, and diluting it with bouillon and milk. Since curry was introduced to Japan from Europe, curry that has been thickened with flour has become the standard, unlike the smooth Indian curries. In recent times, however, many different types of curry have been created. They have been made by using different curry roux and toppings, depending on people’s tastes.
Types of curries
1. Katsu curry
This is a dish served with tonkatsu (a Japanese dish where thickly cut pork is fried with cooking oil after being coated in batter) on top. It is said to be the first example of curry rice served with a topping.
This is the most common curry rice dish with a topping, and there are many eateries including curry specialty restaurants and tonkatsu specialty restaurants that have this on their menus.
The current style of katsu curry is said to have originated in 1948 from Grill Swiss, a western food restaurant located in Ginza, Chuo-ward, Tokyo.
Due to the play on words of ‘katsu’ from ‘tonkatsu’ and katsu, meaning “to win (in a battle)”, it is often eaten before exams, sports matches, elections, and other competitive situations for good luck.
2. Hamburger Curry
A dish served with a hamburger patty on top of curry rice. Along with katsu curry, it is a popular topping in Japan. Many curry rice specialty restaurants have it on their menus.
3. Dry curry
Dry curry is a curry variation in Japan. There are two different types of dry curry. A fried rice type with curry flavor and a ground meat type where curry sauce made with limited liquids and ground meat is poured over cooked rice (similar to the Indian dish keema curry). Café Haiti, a coffee store in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is famous for its ground beef dry curry.
4. Soup curry
This is a soupy and smooth curry, where flour has not been used to make it thick. Ingredients such as potatoes, carrots, onions and seafood are used. It is eaten by loosening the ingredients with the spoon. Unlike curry rice, the Hokkaido style of eating soup curry is to eat curry and rice separately, without pouring the curry onto rice. This dish was first made in Sapporo, Hokkaido around 1980. Soup curry made with various spices and plenty of Hokkaido ingredients was a huge hit, making soup curry known all over Japan. Presently, soup curry specialty restaurants exist throughout Japan, and is known nationwide as a major regional curry dish.
5. Curry don
This is a dish mainly served at udon and soba restaurants. In this dish, cooked rice is covered with a thick curry sauce called “curry nanban”, which is usually poured on udon to make curry udon. This curry sauce is made by mixing curry and starch into Japanese dashi soup, such as skipjacks. The ingredients used for this curry can vary greatly. For example, it could be simple, using only Japanese leeks and chicken. On the other hand, it could also include meat and vegetables, just like with regular curry.
6. Stone-roasted curry
A dish, in which rice cooked in a stone pot, just like with stone-roasted bibimbap, is served with curry.
Japanese curry comes from England, and not from India.
Curry rice is a dish that was introduced from India via England about 150 years ago.
With the opening of ports during the Edo era (1603-1868), foreign merchants started to live in Yokohama. It is said that curry rice came to be introduced to Japan with other western dishes during this period.
During the early Meiji era (1868-1912), curry rice was an extremely upper-class meal that could only be eaten in certain restaurants. Later on, recipes for curry started to appear in magazines. During the late Taisho era (1868-1912), soba restaurants for the common people began to serve curry nanban and curry don. Additionally, curry rice started to be served by inexpensive restaurants as a relatively cheap western dish, providing more opportunities for the general public to eat curry.
Although there is no specific method of eating curry rice, the vast majority of people eat it by placing both rice and curry sauce on their spoon. However, there are people who eat the dish by mixing the curry sauce and the rice together at the beginning. Additionally, there are times where the curry sauce and the rice are served separately and times when it is served with curry sauce already poured onto the rice. In the former cases, there are people who gradually pour the curry sauce onto rice and those who pour the curry sauce on all at once.
There are also people who eat curry rice by adding condiments such as Worcestershire sauce or mixing it with raw eggs.
In different regions of Japan, curry that uses a special product of each region is referred to as a “regional curry”. These started to be made from the late 1990s with the aim of promoting local products and tourism in the region.
1. Sendai gyutan (ox tongue) curry (Miyagi prefecture)
Ox tongue, which has become a local specialty of Sendai (a central city that represents the Tohoku region), is stewed until it becomes tender. Generous amounts are then added to a curry made with spices to make this luxurious dish.
2. Aigake curry (Akita prefecture)
A dish that combines both (“aigake”) the recreated old-style curry which was made as a household meal in the countryside during the 1955–1964 period and western curry that uses demiglace sauce, topped with onsen tamago (traditional Japanese boiled eggs). For garnish, pickles special to Akita, made by smoking daikon radishes called iburigakko, are added.
3. Yokosuka navy curry (Kanagawa prefecture)
At the time, the Japanese Navy adopted a dish that was easy to prepare and nutritionally balanced, which was the British Navy’s curry stew. Yokosuka navy curry is said to have been made by adding thickness to the British Navy’s dish, preparing it in a manner that suits Japanese people’s tastes, and adding rice. It is said to be the root of curry eaten in Japan. The Yokosuka Curry Festival is also held in Yokosuka, where activities such as eating different curries to compare their tastes are held.
4. Kanazawa curry (Ishikawa prefecture)
Kanazawa curry is characterized by its blackish, thick, rich curry sauce, made by adding caramel. It has a sweet rich flavor and is popular nationwide and not just within the local region. The Kanazawa style of eating this dish is to serve the curry on a stainless plate and eat it with a fork or a spork. It has its own unique features, where thinly sliced cabbage is always used as a garnish and the curry sauce is poured plentifully to the point that it completely covers the rice. Not only can this dish be eaten in eateries within the city, but it now can also be enjoyed outside of Ishikawa prefecture, due to retort-pouched curries being sold online.
Furthermore, a 10-yen curry is offered on September 25 every year at a restaurant called Matsumotoro in Hibiya Park, Tokyo as a charity event.
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- Neither dish is of Japanese origin but one can say that the curry rice and ramen have accomplished a unique development in Japan.
- Soba places that serve curry use curry roux in abundance, hence are considered a different category from the usual curry.
- Similar to the classic curry soba, curry udon is also popular as an instant product.