During the hot summer months, there are certain foods that you start to crave: something light maybe, or something to cool your body down. One of the often-craved summer foods in Japan is curry and rice, just called “curry rice” (カレーライス) in Japanese. “But why curry?” you may ask, “that’s neither light nor cool!” In Japan there is a concept called natsu curry (夏カレー), or summer curry. During the hot, humid summer, your appetite is often lower than normal, so you’re unable to eat as much food, and therefore consume fewer nutrients in a day than you normally would. The mix of spices in curry is said to awaken your appetite and help give you the genki (元気), or energetic, feeling to get through the day.
The British navy brought curry to Japan in the early 1900s, just after the signing of the Anglo-Japanese alliance at the end of the Meiji era. Because of this, Japanese curry shares more similarities with British curry than with the original Indian curry. Like British curry, Japanese curry is more mild in spice than Indian curry and also has a sweeter flavor with a thicker texture. Japanese curry differs from British curry, however, by being even thicker and being served alongside rice instead of bread.
At the time of curry’s introduction to Japan, plain white rice was a dish reserved for wealthy families, as most common households had to mix grains with rice in order to add more nutrients to the meal. The Japanese military served plain rice to the soldiers and many people from less wealthy households joined the army. To those soldiers, to be able to eat plain rice in the army was like a dream, and it made the majority of their meals. Because of this plain rice diet, many soldiers began to develop beri-beri, which is a disease caused by deficiency of vitamin B1. A navy surgeon recommended that the navy change their food to introduce the vitamin in their diet, but a major suggestion was mixing grains with rice, which was largely unpopular among the soldiers who had come from poorer households. The navy then began serving curry, cooked with wheat (which contains vitamin B1) with plain rice.
Soldiers coming home from service would introduce the meals to their families. At first it was made from wheat and curry powder as it had been in the navy. The dish really took off in popularity among Japanese citizens, however, shortly after World War II, when instant curry blocks were invented. The blocks were easy to cook and store and became a huge hit in common Japanese households.
The main way to serve curry in Japan is almost similar to a stew; the curry roux is cooked with vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions, and sometimes a meat, like pork, chicken, or beef. The curry is then served with plain rice, usually plated with rice on one half and the curry on the other. Pickles such as fukujizuke (福神漬) or rakkyou (ラッキョウ) can be used as garnish. While this is most similar to the way it was served in the navy, the introduction to common Japanese households also brought forth a wide range of different ways to cook with curry. There’s tonkatsu (豚カツ) curry rice, which is similar to the original except with the addition of a fried pork cutlet placed on top of the rice and covered in the curry sauce. Noodle dishes also flourished after the introduction of curry to Japanese cuisine, the most popular being curry udon and curry ramen, both of which are served in a curry flavored broth. There’s even curry pan (カレーパン), which is a roll with curry sauce baked in the middle.
If you want to eat curry as soon as you can, you can buy instant curry packages: packages with the curry sauce and often multiple vegetables and even pre-cooked meat, which is ready to heat, then eat. If you want to make your own curry at home, however, the first thing you need to decide is if you want to use curry powder or the curry roux blocks. If you choose the blocks, there is then the choice between which block you want to use. The first choice to narrow your options down will be which brand you choose. Brand differences include the richness of the broth and whether it’s sweeter or more savory. Some brands even have a fruity or cheesy taste added to them to give them depth. Once you’ve decided on the type of flavor you’d like, the next option is the heat level. While most Japanese curry will still be less spicy than most Indian curries, there is still a range of spice levels you can choose from: mild, medium hot, hot, and extra hot in some brands.
After choosing the perfect curry for you, it’s a very easy dish to make. Start by chopping any vegetables and meat that you plan to use in your curry, then sauté them in butter and oil until the meat browns and the onions (if you’re using them) soften. Directly after, add water to the mix and bring it to a boil. Once it’s reached boiling, lower the heat and allow it to simmer for around 20 minutes (longer if you want your meat to become more tender). Finally add a block of curry mix and stir for about 5 minutes or until the block has been completely melted down.
It only takes a little more time to make curry from powder if you want to cook it this way. Cooking curry from powder allows you to have even more control over the spice level or the sweetness of your curry sauce. To make the same amount of roux as is in a curry block, you need 3 tbsp of butter, 4 tbsps of flour, 1 tbsp of the curry powder and cayenne pepper to add heat if you wish. You can also add tonkatsu sauce to add umami to the mix. Melt the butter over medium low heat then add the flour and curry powder and stir until the mixture is thick. If you’re adding cayenne pepper or tonkatsu sauce, add them now and continue stirring over heat until the mixture begins to reach a crumbly texture. To add this to the vegetables just put in around 2 cups of water right when you’re ready to mix everything and whisk until the mixture is smooth and add to the vegetables as you would with a curry block.
At Asahi Imports we carry a huge selection of curry blocks for you to choose from. We also carry instant curry packets and curry powder as well as the pickles to garnish your curry rice with. Are you going to try to make your summer more genki by eating curry? What spice level are you going to try in an attempt to beat the heat of summer?
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