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Act 1: The stage is set
Curry is a cuisine many get passionate about. It is widely acknowledged however, that as a catch-all categorisation, it is imperfect when referring to the multitudinous regional variations of disparate dishes of the Asian subcontinent. Perhaps this is even truer in South-East Asia where the colours associated with curry dishes are more indicative of their make up than the term by which we classify them. Japan is an exception to this rule and, disregarding tiny elements of flair, curry as a dish, in its naturalised form is remarkably standard. It is thick, fragrantly aromatic, lightly sweet and a literally warming “soul food” (in the Japanese sense – comfort food).
Over at Serious Eats they take the position that Japanese curry “might well be considered one of the country’s national dishes,” which many might debate, myself included (just for fun). That said, I do not believe it would be too bold to conjecture that curry is, probably by quite some margin, the nation’s favourite “yōshoku”, western food adopted and adapted for the Japanese palate. The reason I feel comfortable calling it “western” is not because Japan is the east of the East whereby literally the rest of the world could be considered the West. But because, like everyone else I have spoken to on the subject, I am quite willing to accept that Japanese curry is a derivative form of British Curry, itself a derivative cuisine, in the form of flour thickened stew heavily flavoured with blended spice. Even in a roux, that some may say sets apart Japanese curry, the thickener is flour. Note that the aforementioned British Curry is used in a more traditional sense and without passing comment on modern dishes like Tikka Masala or Balti.
Over at the BBC, they decided to throw a curve-ball from the outset by playfully pointing out that if one was to look for the word curry in British cooking you could point to the late 14th Century where cury was Anglicised to replace the French cuire (to cook). Thankfully, they do go on to see common sense and admit that this red herring is almost universally disregarded for the widely-accepted explanation that the Tamil word kari (meaning sauce) was employed and exported by early imperialists in Southern India. The earliest published Anglo curry recipes are from the mid 18th Century. Back in India, spice blends were being adapted as new imported ingredients became available, such as chillies from Central America and South-East Asian cloves. Jump forward to Meiji era Japan (1868-1912) and the British Royal Navy were taking curry with them wherever they were next seeking to drop anchor.
Act 2: The plot thickens
Happily enough, I bought into this version of events until I read the boldface claim that the first Japanese person to eat curry was not until 1871. This seems altogether too recent to my mind. The appeal of the narrative is obvious. Yamakawa Kenjiro, a 16-year-old would-be scholar from a noble samurai family sets forth and eats curry aboard a naval vessel bound for the new world, en route to becoming the first Japanese graduate of Yale. Later going on to be a noted physicist and historian and one of the most important educational forces of his generation, it is, all in all, a very ennobling association. At the same time though, it just seems too perfect, like the-made-for-TV-movie follow-up to the Suntory whiskey story.
It is with one foot firmly on both sides of the fence that I state that it is plausible that the honourable Yamakawa-san very well may have been the first notable Japanese national to be recorded as having eaten Victorian-era imported British Navy style curry, but beyond that qualification-laden sentence, I’m afraid I cannot see myself conceding that he was the first to eat curry… EVER. Without doubt, from this point on, the popularity of curry increased, from first appearing on Tokyo menus in 1877, then snowballing to ubiquity in restaurants and pre-made packet mixes alike within a century. My argument isn’t that the form that went on to become popular curry was introduced earlier, it is rather that, even if only a logical inference, with pre-colonial contact between India and Japan, there must be have someone who ate some form of curry, even if only using that term in the very broadest sense.
Indirectly, through Korea and China, Japan has had contact with India since the loving arms of Buddhism, that wrapped North and South around Asia, reconnected here. Buddhism has been practised in Japan since at least the 6th Century, though I am not trying to imply that curry came as part of the package. By the 12th Century students from every corner of Asia, including Japan, were enrolled at the great Buddhist university at Nalanda, near the present day India borders with Nepal. Surviving nearly into the 13th century, Nalanda University acted as one of the academic hubs of the Buddhist world for 700 years and declined around the time that Oxford in England was starting out and a full half-millennium before Yale was even established. All that said, there is a likelihood that students of Nalanda would have been expected to observe an austere diet and may not have eaten curry in their time in India. Moreover on their return, they would have likely lived in monasteries and may not have had opportunity to pass on any foreign food experiences.
Act 3: The spice of life
At it’s most basic, curry is a melange of spices, whether dried or fresh, with ingredients that can be unique, but more often are common to other curry dishes, where the spice take precedence in the flavour and the proportions of which make all the difference to the final outcome. That attempt at a definition was a mouthful, as is good curry. Andrew Lawler over at Slate, writes that a “proto-curry” of turmeric, ginger and garlic can be traced back 4,000 years to India’s ancient Indus Valley civilisation. What this shows is that, along with the long history of spices such as these used in Vedic culture for religious purposes and in Ayurvedic medicine, they were also being eaten together. This is evidenced by remains in cooking pots and traces on human teeth. Unsurprisingly, turmeric, ginger and garlic are all also common ingredients in Japanese curry.
As it turns out, Japan is actually one of the largest consumers of turmeric in the world. I would love for this to be because of the amount of “Indian saffron” being used in curry, but I suspect this has more to do with the modern interest in its efficacy in the guise of pseudo-scientific snake-oil hangover cures. For the record, I am not doubting the medicinal benefits of turmeric, but you can probably save some money and get the same effects by adding a teaspoon next time you brew up some chai.
As a spice, outside of curry cookery, turmeric has been in Japan a very long time. In her tracing of “the golden spice” Iris Benzie shows that from its native India, turmeric had made its way to China by the 8th Century. From there, in Japan it first shows up midway through the Heian Period (794 – 1185), but was not cultivated domestically until the ascension of Edo in the Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868). [A period discussed at length in my last column]
Act 4: Our hero emerges
If you’re at all a fan of kabuki theatre, you may have come across the name Tenjiku Tokubei, where he is a recurring magician character. Tenjiku is, in fact, an old-fashioned Japanese term for India. Japan was the “sun country” from whence the hinomaru or “circle of the sun” arose, China, the “central country” and India the “centre of heaven,” so named because of it being the birthplace of the Buddha. Tenjiku “India” Tokubei as it turns out was a historical figure that travelled widely during the first thirty years of the Tokugawa period, before the Shogunate mandated sakoku lock-down deemed that Japan should cloister itself away from the outside forces for fear of colonial and religious ambition from without. Far from being a holy man or magician, the man, who would in fact go on to be a monk in his later life, got his nickname after he published an account of the travels of his youth aboard the “red seal” armed merchant ships that performed the only sanctioned international trade of the period (whose letters patent held the Shogun’s red seal).
In this era, the travel narrative became a popular literary subject and Tokubei became known as somewhat of a Japanese Marco Polo after garnering fame from his memoir titled Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari (Sea Travels to India). In his early years, he had also journeyed extensively around South-East Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam, but most famous was his trading trip to India, that saw him there for over a year. What is notable about Tokubei’s travels is that he spent such a long period of time on the ground in India, 13 months or thereabouts, that he could take notes on the multiple rice harvests of the year, along with buying and eating local produce such as coconuts, which he quite succinctly equates to being yashi palms. Unfortunately, Tokubei does not specifically write about eating curry in India. That said, in trading with locals in local goods and consuming local delicacies, I feel strongly that it is almost a certainty that we could point to him as being the new (or old) poster boy for curry in Japan, pre-dating the current version of events by a quarter of a millennium with an allegory more historically poignant than that currently on offer.
Epilogue: A tribute
While there are plenty of juicy details to sink your teeth into in Tenjiku’s travels, what it is lacking is a representative dish. So, inspired by my adventures in the Mariana Trench of curry research, I’ve experimented with an emblematic curry dish myself. For it to truly work, it needs to be thick like a Japanese curry, but not have the flour of a British curry, or a roux for that matter. For this purpose a traditional saag (palak) spinach curry would be perfect, where the blended leaf itself thickens the dish. For flavouring the Indic “three sisters” of turmeric, ginger and garlic are a good base. To enhance these, some garam masala adds our spiced background. Where saag would usually use cream, I suggest a little “yashi” coconut and we have ourselves a sauce, along with a nod to other forms of green curry from Southeast Asia. For a touch of both old and new Japanese influences, a little miso in place of stock and the not so secret Japanese curry trick for smooth sweetness, a dash of chocolate.
Being that beef is taboo in India, noted by Tokubei, and that meat on the whole likely made its way into curry through Muslim accretion, pork also seems like the wrong choice for this dish, despite it being common in curry in Japan. For a saag classic, you might try a traditional version of a modern trend and incorporate cheese. It is common to offer cheese as a “topping” for Hokkaido style Soup Curry, which is unrelated to, but delicious in the same vein as paneer (Indian fresh cheese). If you do make paneer, I beseech you to not waste the whey that is a by-product. Whey chapattis are some of the best I have eaten, the lactose in which makes them far softer than when made with plain water. Saag, like Japanese curry is genuinely versatile enough that any of these could work. Today though, let’s take it in another direction and sail with the winds of our nautical theme.
Tokai Red Seal Saag
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh garlic
- 1 tbsp peeled and chopped fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp turmeric powder (or fresh)
- 1 tbsp garam masala paste (or powder)
- 1 tbsp white miso paste
- 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
- ½ cup lukewarm water (plus extra by feel)
- 1 tbsp powdered coconut milk powder
- 6 cups washed and chopped spinach (or mixed greens)
- 10g white chocolate (optional, but worth adding)
- 16 large prawns (shelled and de-veined)
- 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp paprika powder
- 1 tbsp butter (or ghee)
- A little extra salt to taste
- 1 bulb garlic, thinly sliced (optional)
- 4 tbsp sweet red fukujinzuke pickles
For the sauce: In a small saucepan, heat oil and sauté garlic and ginger over a medium-high heat until fragrant. Add turmeric and garam masala and sauté for a further minute. Mix water with fish sauce, miso paste and coconut powder. Use this wet mixture to deglaze spices and add greens to wilt. Just spinach will do, though I like the idea that any cooking greens can be used to make saag. Pictured is a mixture of spinach, Japanese mustard spinach komatsuna and some leftover mizuna I had from a salad earlier in the week. Stir together and reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes until greens are darkened and soft. If the mixture appears dry add a little more water a teaspoon at a time to keep moist. With an immersion blender, pulse into a thick green sauce paste. Stir through the broken white chocolate. Cover to keep warm.
For the prawns: Mix together flour, paprika and chilli in a bowl and coat prawns. Over a medium-high heat in a small frypan, fry prawns in butter and optional sliced garlic, seasoning lightly with salt. Arrange fukujinzuke pickles on a warmed serving plate to form a circle and top with four prawns per person. The paprika and chilli are meant to intensify the red in the prawns though, if you prefer, they could be fried un-floured, or taken one step farther and deep-fried crumbed or in a tempura batter.
For plating: Next to the prawns, add a spoon on the curry to the plate and, with a silicon pastry brush, swipe a circle around the plate if you like the effect. Swipes were en vogue, then out, but with our subject matter, I find it quite fitting. Serve with rice cooked with a little butter and turmeric (a teaspoon per cup is plenty, but how much rice you want is up to you). I have not listed the small edible chrysanthemums or kogiku I plucked the petals from for the final garnish as an ingredient above. This is mainly because they are not more than an affectation. In terms of color, they do link the main dish to the turmeric rice. If you do go looking for them, they can be found in the vegetable section of large supermarkets. I had some fun thinking about poetic ways they could be used to tie the throne of Japan into our tale, but in the end, I just liked the way they looked and, with our eyes eating first, that could be seen as important.
“An Introduction to Karē-Raisu, Japanese Curry Rice” www.seriouseats.com
“Curry Story” www.sbfoods.co.jp
“Curry: Where did it come from?” www.bbc.co.uk
“Indus Civilization food: how scientists are figuring out what curry was like” www.slate.com
“Turmeric: the Golden Spice” Iris Benzie www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
“Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” Tenjiku Tokubei http://kindai.ndl.go.jp
Translation of “Tenjiku Tokai Monogatari” in “Literary Subjects Adrift: a cultural history of early modern Japanese castaway narratives” Michael S. Woods
Simon is a New Zealander who kept the good times going after finishing his five years as a JET in the far northeast of Hokkaido. As a culinary school graduate and chef, he has worked in the UK and NZ, though he rediscovered his passion for food in Japan's intimate eateries.