Think of Japanese food and you'll probably have images of exquisitely arranged sushi and sashimi dancing in your head... but in reality, the most popular Japanese dish in Japan itself is none other than the humble curry rice, known as karee raisu in Japanese. All cheap shokudou eateries offer curry rice, often as the cheapest (and most filling) dish. Poor and/or culinarily incompetent students buy little aluminum bags of precooked curry at 100-yen shops for reheating in the microwave, especially the legendary Bon Curry Gold, guaranteed to contain no more and no less than one (1) chunk of beef slightly smaller than the tip of your pinky in each bag. Housewives whip up large pots of the stuff to feed the family. Curry is a standby at Japanese festivals large and small, and not even a rash of poisonings in 1998, with the murderer slipping cyanide into the curry pot in what turned out to be an attempt to collect the life insurance on hubby, managed to get the Japanese to kick the habit. After the runaway success of the Yokohama Ramen Museum, a similar Yokohama Curry Museum opened to celebrate the beloved dish and its history.

While obviously not a purely native dish, being imported from India by traders, curry started to become popular in the Meiji era and quickly mutated into a distinctive Japanese version. The sauce is usually very brown and very thick, with very little in the way of meat or vegetables to relieve the monotony, especially in the cheaper varieties. (Also note that, despite the name, Japanese curry rice is curry served with rice, not rice flavored with curry.) Conventionally sorted out into amakuchi (甘口, mild), chuukara (中辛, medium hot) and karakuchi (辛口, hot), not even the "hot" variety will break a sweat for most Western tastes (much less Indian ones!). Indian restaurants and other purveyors of "real" curry often go out of their way to note that they are selling karii (or some such), not karee...

Japanese curry is nearly always prepared by using a commercial curry roux, and in fact I have yet to find a decent recipe for making your own so I won't attempt that here. Curry roux can be found in any Japanese shop, popular (and largely indistinguishable) brands include Golden Curry, Java Curry and the perplexingly named Vermont Curry. Once you get your hands on some, here's what to do with it:



  1. Dice the onions finely and cut the vegetables into small cubes (although eggplant is often just sliced)
  2. Fry onions, meat and vegetables in a large pot until the meat is browned.
  3. Add water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes, skimming off any scum that floats to the top.
  4. Lower heat, add curry roux and stir well. Simmer for another 10 minutes until mixture thickens.

Serves 4-6 people. The traditional accompaniments are sticky Japanese rice and the pickle known as shichifukujinzuke (七福人漬) or simply karee-yô tsukemono (カレー用漬物, "pickle for curry"). Note that curry is one of the few Japanese dishes eaten with a spoon, not chopsticks.

Another interesting (to say the least) thing to do with karee sauce is to drop a large spoonful into an ordinary bowl of udon noodles in tsuyu soy-and-fish broth, instantly transforming it into karee udon. This is, or at least can be, considerably better than you would think! And if you want even more calories in your dish, you can slip a deep-fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu) between the rice and the curry, transforming it into katsu karee.

Claims that Japanese curry originated in India only tell half the story. Anyone who has had Japanese curry rice can tell you that it doesn't have the consistancy of "traditional curry" like you might find in India and other parts of southern Asia. It's more of a thick, brownish gravy with a slight kick of spice. The other major country with this style of curry is, of course, England, where it is a popular pub food.

So how did these two nations on opposite sides of the world end up with the same style of curry?

As it happens, Japan decided that they needed to build a proper navy. Rather than waste time trying to figure out what makes a good navy, they decided to find a good navy and copy it. This lead them to the British Empire. The Land of the Rising Sun copied the ships of Land on Which the Sun Never Set, right down to the menu of the mess hall, which meant, you guessed it, English curry.

From there, Japanese karee raisu attained huge popularity, and can now be found anywhere with a significant Japanese population. Hawaii in particular has been taken with the flavors and textures, and have added their own local spin to this Indo-Eur-Asian taste.

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