Blog - Curry Twist

Curry In Japan

When we planned our trip to Japan, we were looking forward to enjoying authentic Japanese cuisine during our travels, never anticipating that the most memorable dish we would encounter would be something quite familiar – curry! 

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We first discovered Japanese curry in the famous Nakamuraya restaurant, in Tokyo’s chic Shinjuku district, where chicken and seafood curries were prominently displayed on the menu. For Indian visitors like us, this was irresistible - we had to try them! The curry came in a sauceboat, accompanied by a plate of white rice, grated Parmesan cheese and little dishes of fukujinzuke, pickled vegetables. The flavors of the curry were distinctly Indian, which only deepened the mystery. There was nothing in the décor or name of the restaurant that hinted at an Indian connection, so why was a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo serving Indian food?

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Curry has become such an integral part of their cuisine that most Japanese are surprised to learn it did not originate in their homeland. Curry arrived in Japan in the late nineteenth century, when for the first time many Japanese began to travel to the west and were captivated by the culture and food they encountered. Most Japanese first tasted curry when travelling on British ships and associated this exotic dish with European rather than Indian cuisine.

The recipe for English curry followed a well-tested formula: meat and onions were fried in butter, curry powder and stock added, an apple thrown in for tartness, and the mixture slowly simmered. Japanese curry was similar, with soy sauce, honey and the all-important browned roux (made by combining flour, curry powder and butter) added in, making it uniquely Japanese. Cafés began to open in Tokyo serving coffee accompanied by pastries, pasta, and strangest of all – curry.

The Japanese love affair with curry intensified in modern times with the invention of ready-to-eat curry roux. A curry can be prepared in minutes by simmering meat or vegetables with this instant mix, making it the perfect comfort food to be enjoyed at home. The Japanese, delighted to find a dish that does not require elaborate preparation, eat curry at least once a week on average. Curry is now the most popular instant food in Japan, with grocery stores selling frozen, microwavable or vacuum-sealed versions. Children adore milder curries containing apples and honey, and these have become a favourite item on school lunch menus. Curry is eaten with rice – kareh raisu, over noodles - kareh udon, or stuffed in bread - kareh pan. National curry chains have carried the dish to every corner of Japan. Whale, scallops, oysters and venison are all served in curries and considered regional delicacies.

Travelling across Japan we enjoyed many memorable dishes: sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market; tempura in the Asakusa district; yakitori skewers at a centuries-old inn in Kyoto; a vegetarian feast consisting only of tofu prepared in a dozen different ways at a Buddhist temple. But after savouring these we always came back to curry, for it was not only a beloved flavour for us but also a little window into Japanese history.

Nakamuraya’s restaurant has a particularly fascinating past, for it first opened as a café and added curry to its menu when the owner’s daughter married an Indian revolutionary who had evaded British police and found refuge in Japan in 1915. Nakamuraya’s curry was an instant success and the elite of Tokyo flocked to the café to taste authentic Indian food. Newspaper reporters soon picked up the story and made the curry famous as the “taste of love and revolution”. Who can resist sampling that?

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This recipe, with its intriguing mix of ingredients and flavours is popularly served all over Japan. The unusual combination of apples with celery, carrot and potatoes is strangely comforting!

Japanese Chicken Curry

1 lb (about 8 ) boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
4 tbsp all purpose flour, divided
4 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
4 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
1 inch piece of ginger, grated or minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, sliced thin
Salt to taste
2 cups chicken broth, divided
¼ cup canned crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp each: garam masala, curry powder
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 apple, peeled and grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp honey

Combine chicken and 2 tbsp flour in large mixing bowl, tossing to coat pieces well with flour.
Warm 2 tbsp oil in deep non-stick skillet set over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. Brown chicken for 5 min until lightly golden. Transfer to bowl.
Add remaining 2 tbsp oil to same skillet. Add garlic and ginger, sauté for about 1 min until they brown lightly. Add the onions and sauté for about 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.

Add carrot, potato and celery, sauté 2 min. Add chicken, salt, 1 cup broth and tomatoes. Cover skillet, bring contents to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 min, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile make the roux. Warm butter in non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add remaining 2 tbsp flour. Stirring occasionally, cook until flour turns to a light golden colour, about 10 min. Add curry powder, garam masala and cayenne pepper, cook 2 min. Add remaining 1 cup broth, cook 1 min, stirring till roux thickens.

Add roux, apple, soy and honey to chicken in skillet, stirring to mix it in gently. Cover skillet and cook for 5 min for flavours to blend and apple to soften.

Serves four

Article originally printed in Vacations Magazine, Fall 2018

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Tempura In Tokyo

Tokyo is a food-lover's paradise, with more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Even if you do not dine at these rarefied heights, it is possible to eat very well without bankrupting yourself. From sushi restaurants to tempura, ramen, yakitori and little bento boxes sold at street corners, there is something to suit every budget and every taste.

Whether you eat in an upscale restaurant or a tiny sushi bar, you will find every dish made with the freshest ingredients, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. This  meticulous attention to detail is what makes eating in Japan such an  amazing experience.

One of the most interesting places to eat a quick, inexpensive lunch is in the food hall basements of Tokyo's many high end department stores. These places are huge and filled with a mind boggling array of stalls selling raw and prepared food.

It became obvious to us that people in Tokyo take  food very seriously when we wandered past a street corner with a huge chef looming majestically on one side and giant teacups adorning a building on the other side. We had reached the famous Kappabashi, a street that specializes in shops selling restaurant and kitchen supplies.

As we strolled down the street, we came across many stores selling anything and everything you could possibly want to equip your kitchen. There were kitchen supply stores, food stores, knife stores and even stores specializing in selling fake food replicas! How can anyone resist buying fake food?!

A short distance from Kappabashi we ate a truly memorable meal at an old, well known restaurant  called Sansado that specializes in tempura. There is always a long line of people waiting to get in, so by the time we were seated, we were quite hungry! Our meal consisted of many different kinds of tempura, some made with an assortment of vegetables and some with shrimp. Biting into the crisp, crunchy batter to the tender vegetables and shrimp inside was a sublime experience!

Tempura was introduced to Japan by seventeenth century Portuguese missionaries who traveled from their Indian colony in Goa. It is quite likely that they brought along with them Goan cooks who were used to cooking pakoras, the ever popular Indian snack. The name has Latin roots, where "tempora" refers to the period of Lent when Catholics gave up eating meat and had only fish or vegetables. Frying these in batter made Lent quite agreeable!

My tempura recipe returns to  its Indian origins by using chickpea flour in the batter, as is done in making pakoras. The chickpea flour imparts an earthy taste to the batter which is enhanced by the addition of cumin seeds. Egg yolk and baking powder ensure that the coating of batter remains crisp and does not absorb excess oil during deep frying.

Feel free to use an assortment of other vegetables such as sliced eggplant, okra, lotus root, sweet red pepper or whole hot green chillies, along with the cauliflower. Serve with mango or tamarind chutney.

Tempura

300gm cauliflower florets (about 3 cups ), cut into small bite sized pieces

1/2 cup each: all purpose flour, chickpea flour (besan)

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: baking powder, cumin seeds

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup cold water

2 cups oil for deep frying

Place cauliflower in large mixing bowl.

Combine all purpose flour, chickpea flour, salt, baking powder and cumin seeds in deep mixing bowl. Combine egg yolk and water in small bowl and and add to dry flour mixture. Mix gently until fairly smooth. Do not overmix.

Heat oil for deep frying in wok set over medium heat. Dip cauliflower pieces in batter and lower gently into hot oil. Do not over crowd the wok. Do this in batches. Fry cauliflower for about 5 min per side, turning once or until tender and golden. Drain on paper towels. Proceed similarly with remaining cauliflower.

Serves four

Japanese Chicken Curry In Tokyo

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Tokyo is a food-lover's delight. From its grand, five-star restaurants to humble vendors on every street corner, there is something for everyone to savour. When we set out on a trip to Japan we planned to seek out the finest sushi and sashimi. We found that, and much more, but nothing prepared us for the biggest  surprise of our travels - Japanese curry!

Curry is so popular in Japan that most people assume it has always been a part of Japanese cuisine. In fact it arrived in Japan in the late nineteenth century as it opened up to western influences. British ships sailing to Japan served curry on board and the Japanese saw it as an exotic, western dish. Cafes in Tokyo were soon serving curry, prepared in the English fashion: meat and onions were fried in butter, curry powder and stock added and the mixture simmered slowly.

The Japanese fondness for curry came as a surprise to a much earlier visitor from India, the young revolutionary Rash Behari Bose. He fled India, then a British colony,  after a failed attempt to assassinate the British viceroy and sought refuge in Japan in 1915. He was hidden by sympathetic Japanese nationalists in the Nakamuraya bakery run by Aizo and Koko Soma.  He fell in love with their daughter Toshiko and married her a few years later. Rash Behari Bose became a Japanese citizen and was involved in running the bakery as it expanded, opening several new branches and adding a café to its main location in Tokyo's Shinjuku district which was becoming a major shopping centre.

Bose was responsible for the biggest draw on the café menu – real Indian curry, which was something new in Japan. Bose personally supervised its preparation, selected the ingredients that went into it, and tasted it every morning before it was served. Introducing the Japanese to genuine Indian cuisine was part of the nationalist struggle for Bose, who dreamed of a day when Asians could experience each others' cultures without the exchange being mediated by westerners.

Nakamuraya’s curry was an instant success and the elite of Tokyo flocked to the café to taste authentic Indian food. Bose became a celebrity as newspaper reporters told of his struggles against imperialism and his romance with Toshiko. His curry became famous as the “taste of love and revolution”.

The Nakamuraya chain continues to flourish,  supplying packaged foods to grocery stores across Japan. The flagship restaurant still stands in its original location in Shinjuku and faded black-and-white photographs in its foyer commemorate the story of the Soma family and the Indian revolutionary they sheltered.  The most enduring monument to Rash Behari Bose is the curry served by Nakamuraya, still made according to his original recipe.  Try it if you are ever in Tokyo, for where else will you find a “taste of love and revolution” in a single spoon?

This recipe, with its intriguing mix of ingredients and flavours is popularly served all over Japan. The unusual combination of apples with celery, carrot and potatoes is strangely comforting!

Japanese Chicken Curry

1 lb (about 8 ) boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
4 tbsp all purpose flour, divided
4 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
4 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
1 inch piece of ginger, grated or minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, sliced thin
Salt to taste
2 cups chicken broth, divided
¼ cup canned crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp each: garam masala, curry powder
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
 1 apple, peeled and grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp honey

 
Combine chicken and 2 tbsp flour in large mixing bowl, tossing to coat pieces well with flour.
Warm 2 tbsp oil in deep non-stick skillet set over medium high heat. Add chicken pieces, shaking off excess flour. Brown chicken for 5 min until lightly golden. Transfer to bowl.
Add remaining 2 tbsp oil to same skillet. Add garlic and ginger, sauté for about 1 min until they brown lightly. Add the onions and sauté for about 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.
Add carrot, potato and celery, sauté 2 min. Add chicken, salt, 1 cup broth and tomatoes. Cover skillet, bring contents to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 min, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile make the roux. Warm butter in non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add remaining 2 tbsp flour. Stirring occasionally, cook until flour turns to a light golden colour, about 10 min. Add curry powder, garam masala and cayenne pepper, cook 2 min. Add remaining 1 cup broth, cook 1 min, stirring till roux thickens.
Add roux, apple, soy and honey to chicken in skillet, stirring to mix it in gently. Cover skillet and cook for 5 min for flavours to blend and apple to soften.
Serves four

 

Sushi In Tokyo

If you want to taste really fresh sushi, you have to go to the source - the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, which has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Japan.

The market opens well before dawn and restaurant chefs from across the city come to buy the catch as soon as it is brought off  the fishing boats. To see the live tuna auction you have to get in line before 6:00 am because only a handful of tourists are admitted. Being pretty jet lagged, we were up way before 6 am!

As you watch the fork lifts loaded with crates of fresh seafood careening wildly across the market in every direction, you quickly appreciate why they don't want too many visitors wandering around and getting in the way!

After touring the fish stalls in the market and marveling at the sheer variety of sea creatures available, you build up quite an appetite for breakfast. Luckily, one of the best sushi restaurants, Sushi Dai is right around the corner.

It is a tiny place with a small counter that accommodates only about 10 people at a time. When we got there, even at the early hour of 7 am, there was a lineup of about 50 people waiting to get in. I guess I wasn't the only one thinking sushi for breakfast is a good idea!  

Since very little English was spoken or understood, we placed ourselves in the hands of the chef, leaving it up to him to prepare whatever he thought best. We sipped on seafood miso soup, brimming with tiny scallop, shrimp, clams and other goodies while we waited for him to create our breakfast. Watching him speedily and effortlessly make sushi after sushi for the waiting clientele was a learning experience in itself!

We did not know quite what to expect but the sushi, the freshest imaginable, was fantastic. The chef kept a close eye on us to make sure that we ate it the right way. When I accidentally dropped my white albacore tuna sushi into the little bowl of soy, he was so horrified that he came around from behind his counter, confiscated my soy bowl, threw away my pricey tuna sushi and started me fresh with a new piece! I didn't dare dip any more sushi into soy after that!