Japanese curry or kare (カレー) is one of Japan’s most beloved dishes: 92% of Japanese give it the thumbs up, and on average eat it more than once a week. It’s no surprise considering it’s a regular fixture of school lunches, and is even part of the official menu of the armed forces (the Japanese navy apparently have curry for Friday lunch.)
Rawr, get in my mouth now!
There are many variations on kare as we know it today, but the textbook description is basically this: it’s a mild pork, beef, or chicken dish with carrots, onions, and potatoes, smothered in a thick sauce of pure awesomeness. This version is known as kare raisu, or simply kare. Add a breaded, deep-fried cutlet or katsu to it becomes katsu kare.
Well, technicalities aside, kare is commonly served over rice with a side of pickles, and, as indicative of its non-Japanese origins, is usually eaten with a spoon.
Kare: From Indian To British To Japanese
There isn’t one single factor solely responsible for the rise of kare, but the most important one has got to be the British.
At its height, the British Empire included a sizable chunk of the Asian continent, including India. By the time the Meiji Restoration rolled around, the British had already adapted Indian curries to suit their palate – and this Anglicized curry had become a regular meal for the British navy.
The Japanese navy has released several cookbooks that include kare. One of the recipes is demonstrated here.
The Japanese navy decided to copy their British counterparts, and began serving curry as well. Not without adding their own little twist of course: they added roux to their curry, because a thicker, harder-to-spill sauce was just that much more uniform-friendly in rough seas. The fact that the wheat in the roux provided some much-needed vitamin B1 also helped some. Et voila! The kare was born.
How Did Kare Get So Popular?
Nowadays, curry’s popularity rivals that of ramen, thanks to the availability of relatively cheap, instant curry bases — hell yeah no more sweating over a hot stove for hours! You can even find them outside of Japan quite easily these days — even if it’s just an international food section in your local supermarket, I’m willing to bet there’s at least a House or S&B curry base available.
Left: at the supermarket down the road; Right: that ain’t chocolate, that’s what instant curry base looks like out of the box.
House and S&B are, as you’ve probably guessed, the big players when it comes to instant curry bases. Heck, they’ve got an 85% market share between them! This wasn’t always the case, of course. Back in the day, the British Crosse & Blackwell or C&B brand was the one to beat.
C&B were bought out by Nestle; if you squint you can make out the Nestle logo on the C&B tin. Not the big cheese anymore!
Until the 1930s, the gold standard for curry powder was the British C&B brand, which was imported and therefore expensive. Some crooks, smelling an opportunity too good to pass up, refilled empty C&B tins with el cheapo curry powders by local producers like House and S&B, and sold them at C&B prices.
When the British found out, they were furious! The whole thing escalated into an international scandal, which was awful for diplomacy but great for House and S&B. The Japanese realized they couldn’t actually taste the difference between the expensive stuff and the cheap stuff – so why keep paying top yen for C&B?
After that, well, House and C&B’s explosive growth was pretty much inevitable – and thank goodness for that! The first instant curry base by S&B came on the market in 1954, and the rest is history. Even more awesome? House is set to make history too, and is going to provide a special curry for the astronauts on the International Space Station.
Get Your Kare On
In terms of popularity, the number one spot of course goes to the classic curry with rice variant, which I described earlier. However, the Japanese have also come up with all sorts of ways to get their kare fix.
Let’s start with some lesser known curry and rice combos. First off the bat, a Kitakyushu specialty, yaki kare: rice topped with curry, cheese, maybe a raw egg, and the whole thing baked in the oven. Then there’s dorai kare, which, depending on who you talk to, is simply a dry minced-meat curry served with rice, or a pilaf, or curry-flavoured fried rice. Take your pick.
Then there’s the kare and noodles combo. There’s curry udon and curry nanban, which is simply udon or soba noodles served with a soup spiked with curry powder and kare roux. There’s curry ramen, which is a similar sort of dish, except it includes the classic ramen toppings of nori and chashu pork. Oh and curry pasta, mustn’t forget curry pasta.
Kare of course also goes really well with bready things. There’s the anime favourite, kare pan: basically a bun filled with curry, then breaded and deep-fried, or baked. Then there’s the steamed bun version, kare man and curry pie, which isn’t exactly bready… but meh, close enough.
If your tastes lean towards the finer things in life, there are also regional specialty kares. There are fruity curries: apple and nashi pear curries from Nagano and Shimane. Black pork curry from Kagoshima. Whale curry from Wakayama, natto curry from Ibaraki… the list goes on and on.
The Japanese are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to kare.
Well, all those food pictures have made me hungry, so I’m going to go find something to eat.
But before you go, what types of curry foods have you tried? Have you been lucky enough to try some specialty curries? Care to recommend any hole-in-the-wall places that serve awesome kare? Let us know in the comments!