When people outside Japan think about Japanese cuisine, Sushi probably comes to mind first, perhaps washed down with some delicious Miso soup. Asked to list Japanese foods, many people may even be able to come up with other famous Japanese dishes such as Ramen, Tempura, perhaps Udon. In truth though, Japanese cuisine is incredibly diverse, not only in terms of national dishes but on a local level too. In Japan every area, if not every village, has its own local delicacies, the kinds of dishes which in many other countries would likely have failed to survive modernisation, and that’s just traditional Japanese foods.
Bird Land Ginza (バードランド), Michelin rated yakitori grill restaurant.
Photo: Wally Gobetz on Flickr
Over the years Japanese people have travelled abroad extensively, many have also studied and worked outside Japan. When Japanese people are abroad they tend to love exploring exotic local cuisines and many have even taken apprenticeships in the restaurant and hospitality industries, often at some of the most prestigious colleges and restaurants in the world. When these intrepid individuals returned home they bring the expertise they gained with them and in many cases go on to further refine it. Newly minted chefs returning from abroad don’t have to settle for jobs in chain restaurants either, as Japan has the highest number of restaurants per capita in the world, the reason being a combination of the fact that Japanese people tend to buy or rent smaller houses and so consequently spend more money on eating out and the fact that commercial property prices in Japan are comparatively low and government tax and regulation relatively light. Therefore in Japan it is viable to open small, specialist restaurants; leading to more diversity and experimentation. Japan is therefore unique in the number and quality of restaurants, some big, many quite modest, as well as the diversity of culinary experiences they offer. Indeed Tokyo has more Michelin-star restaurants than anywhere else, 267 at the last count.
Photo : Norio NAKAYAMA on Flickr
So, taking all these facts into account, you may be surprised to hear that Japan’s favourite dish, by far, is…*drum roll* Curry with rice, Japanese Curry Rice to be precise and known in Japan as Karēraisu (カレーライス). Curry rice served in limitless variations, is regularly found by surveys to be the most popular dish both at home and at countless restaurants throughout Japan. To visitors from abroad it may be a surprising result, because Japan is not traditionally known for its spices, indeed traditionally, Japanese palates have preferred more delicate tastes and avoided very spicy food and it is worth noting that while Japanese Curry Rice is undoubtedly delicious, it’s not usually all that hot or spicy by western standards.
So how did Japan arrive at this state of affairs, where the de facto national dish is not Sushi as most would assume, but Curry?
If you ask most Japanese people about the origins of the nation’s favourite dish or how long it has been a staple of the dinner plate, you will, as with the origins of so many ‘traditions’ we take for granted, likely get a vague answer, usually just guesses. A popular and reasonable guess you might hear in Japan is that curry must have arrived along with the introduction of Buddhism from India in around 500 AD. However the truth is it arrived a lot more recently, indeed within the living memory of some Japan’s oldest residents, and in a far more indirect fashion.
Photo: きうこ on Flickr
The story begins thirty years after the rapid and almost entirely peaceful Meiji Restoration which saw Japan undergo sudden and rapid modernisation, having up until that point, been a relatively isolated land ruled by a Shogan and local samurai on behalf of the Emperor. In a very short passage of time Japan managed to transition into what was for the most part, a recognisably modern, westernised state. Japan had been so successful, in fact, that in 1902 Japan and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland signed the Anglo-Japanese alliance. The alliance was renewed several times lasting until 1921. During that time the UK worked closely with Japan, in particular there was considerable cooperation between the two countries’ respective navies.
A major part of Japan’s modernisation effort was to build up its military forces, primarily to prevent colonisation by the world’s major colonial powers, including Britain, France, America and particularly Russia, against whom Japan fought a decisive war prior to its alliance with Britain. In building up these forces Japan needed to recruit lots of young men. One major problem the Japanese military experienced though, was with recruits suffering from the disease Beriberi, which causes a variety of debilitating neurological disorders. A British trained Japanese naval doctor called Takaki Kanehiro was able to determine that the cause was a deficiency of vitamin B1 due to a diet of almost nothing but highly polished white rice the recruits tended to eat. The government needed to ensure recruits were receiving adequate vitamin B1 and the cheapest, most easily available source was wheat grain. However Japanese sailors from poor rural areas didn’t want to eat bread which they regarded as snack food or have cereals added to rice which was too reminiscent of food regarded to be the staple diet of rural peasant farmers they were familiar with back home. What the authorities needed was a way to disguise the presence of wheat in the rice.
Photo : Wikipedia Commons
At around the same time, Japanese naval officers were enjoying numerous liaison dinners with their British counterparts as the two navies improved relations and exchanged tactics and technological knowhow to strengthen their new alliance. One of the foods served aboard ship was a type of curry, a curry that the British had long ago adopted from India, which for more than a century had been a major British colony, and while most cultural flow resulted from the forced implementation of British education and administration systems, the British had conversely been the recipients of a number of Indian customs including elements of Indian cuisine, prime among which, was a taste for curry.
It wasn’t long before Japanese officers realised curry could be the answer they had been looking for and a variation on the British recipe was mixed with wheat and ultimately served with rice to the men. The men soon developed a taste for Curry Rice and when they eventually returned home they retained their affection for the dish which eventually spread throughout Japan leading to its popularity today.
Chicken Katsu Curry with Rice
Photo: Alpha on Flickr
Meanwhile in the UK, curry remains popular, but British taste has over the years changed to demand hotter and hotter dishes. So much so that most curry served in the UK is now far hotter than curries which are traditional to India and indeed several extremely hot dishes which developed in the UK like Vindaloo curry have even now been exported back to India.
If you are interested in comparing British curry, as it would have been served in the early 20th century and the modern Japanese curry you can experience when visiting Japan, you can find a recipe for old style British curry in the incredibly famous (and still in print) 1861 British cookbook: Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. The recipe for curry powder is at section 449 and makes a note that the recipe is based on one by Dr. Kitchener. William Kitchiner having been the author of The Cook’s Oracle which was published even earlier, in 1822.
Today it is easy to find hotter curries in the many Indian and Thai restaurants Japan offers as well as in many other types of bar and restaurants, many of which serve an eclectic selection of dishes from around the world, but for now, Japanese Curry Rice is still firmly the nation’s favourite and looks highly likely to remain so for many decades to come.