After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.
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After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.
During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.
Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.
Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankosho” or Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.
1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.
2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.
3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.
4. Add salt to taste.
5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.
It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.
In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).
A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.
Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book “The Japanese Kitchen.”
- ¼ cup canola oil
- Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
- 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 2½ cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
- Sea salt
- About ¼ cup apricot jam
- About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
- Half lemon
- Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)
- Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
- Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours — longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
- Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
- Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
- Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.
Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo