Yesterday was a day for curry rice. By “curry rice,” of course, I mean “karee raisu,” the delicious Japanese concoction made from curry bullion paste. The paste blends with the ingredients of your choice to create a thick aromatic stew at once sweet and savory.
I’ve had a long history with curry rice.
So, let’s back up.
My first experience with curry was in India when I was a small girl. I lived in Benares (now Varanasi) for a year while my father conducted research at Benares Hindu University.
That year I was exposed to all kinds of curries—or what we called curries—creamy stews richly seasoned with cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, peppercorns, cardamom, mustard seeds, and nutmeg. The tastes exploded joyfully in my inexperienced palate. Even a whiff of these dishes now sends me back to that magical childhood moment.
Almost as memorable as the flavors was the exciting opportunity to eat with my hands. (Well, technically, “hand,” though I was too clumsy and culturally unaware to know I was only supposed to use my right hand!) I still remember sitting cross-legged on the mud-packed floor of an acquaintance’s house tearing pieces of chapati bread with the tips of my fingers, dipping it in the dishes, and carrying the delicious mixture to my mouth.
Japanese curry is different. It is eaten with cutlery, more often a spoon than a fork, and while seated at a table.
Although available in almost any diner in Japan, along with spaghetti and omuraisu (a concoction of rice wrapped in an omelet and doused with a ribbon of ketchup), curry is not indigenous to Japan.
It was initially brought in by British sailors who used “curry powder” to flavor their stews as they sailed about colonizing. It was then popularized in the early 20th century by the Nakamura-ya bakery. (The owners were friends with a renegade Indian freedom fighter who shared his culinary secrets in exchange for lodgings.)
Now the thick golden sauce, accompanying rice and noodles alike, is de rigueur on camping trips, appears regularly in school cafeterias, and appeals to most as an inexpensive comfort food.
It was certainly a comfort food to me. My mother often made curry rice when I lived with her in Fukuoka in 1976. Once you buy the bullion brick, it’s simple to fix. Just sauté whatever ingredients you have and stir the bullion bits in to boiling water until it dissolves and voila! You have a mouth-watering meal.
Mother had her own way with curry, perhaps inspired by the festive silver platters arrayed with tiny dishes she sampled in India. She dressed the main dish with smaller sides of shredded coconut, chopped pineapple, raisins, cashews, often sliced bananas.
After pouring a few spoonfuls of curry over sticky white rice, you could then garnish your dish with any of the condiments you desired. Coconuts and raisins added sweetness, cashews lent salt. Mixing all together created a magnificent taste tableau.
Curry night was always special, and Mother often made it on the weekend, the fragrance of the curry wafting through the house hours before and lingering hours after the meal, continually tempting my appetite.
Years later in 1984, when I conducted research at the Library of Modern Japanese Literature in Tokyo, I found my appetite similarly seduced.
The library maintained a small café where lunch was offered from noon until two o’clock. The café proprietress always served curry rice. She had other offerings, such as a “mixed sandwich”—thinly sliced cucumbers, eggs, and pink lunch meat on crust-free white bread spread with a modest layer of mayonnaise—and assorted drinks.
I would order the sandwich on occasion, just to be different. But usually I had the curry rice.
Nearly every day.
As soon as I reached the library in the morning, I could smell the lunchtime preparations. Sitting in the reading room trying to concentrate on my research, I would grow more and more distracted by the smell. Is it lunchtime yet? I’d check my watch every few minutes. Maybe now?
Occasionally I would grow exasperated by my demanding appetite. “How can you be hungry already?” I would whine. I tried to stall the growling in my stomach by launching ultimatums. “Finish three more pages, first, and then you can go.”
But the curry fragrance was persistent. Even when I knew I wasn’t hungry, I could not resist rushing to the café as soon as the noon bell struck.
The lunch special was only ¥300 (about $2.00) and that included a cup of tea or coffee. The proprietress was generous with her servings: a round white plate piled high with rice, several spoonfuls of curry stew on the side. She garnished the plate with bright red fukujinzuke pickles—a delectable mélange of pickled radish, cucumber, lotus root, and eggplant spiced with ginger and shiso. (The red was provided by food coloring).
The pickles, if properly apportioned, offered a crunchy sweet tang to each mouthful of curry. Occasionally she substituted the fukujinzuke with rakkyou-zuke or pickled shallots, which were tasty but not as much as the tart crunch of red-food-colored pickles.
I would carefully work my spoon across my plate so that I would have a similar amount of curry and rice with each mouthful. Inevitably, I ended up with more rice than curry though, which was always a bit of a letdown for my mouth. Even so, I never left so much as a grain of rice.
When I was finished, I placed my cutlery on my spic-and-span plate and carried it back to the counter, where I then paid. And back I went to my research.
I wish I could say I returned fully sated. Something about the curry always left me wanting more. To make matters worse, sitting in the reading room with my stomach nearly full of curry, and continuing to breathe in the aromatic odors from the café, I found it hard to stay awake.
It’s a wonder I managed to get any research done that year.
For some it may be a wonder that I still enjoy curry rice, after a year of eating it on a nearly daily basis. But, as with the tomato soup I ate regularly while living in the dormitory at Columbia University, I find comfort in the routine of the same beloved dish over and again.
I still enjoy curry rice today and make it much as my mother did.
As I sat in my study working through the day’s tasks, I mentally checked the ingredients in my kitchen: potatoes, onions, cauliflower, carrots. I have what I need to make curry rice! Wait? Peas? I jogged to the freezer to confirm. Yes!
I could hardly concentrate on the work I was scheduled to do—grading papers, drafting letters, etc—so focused was I on preparing the curry.
I was reminded of those moments in the Library of Modern Japanese Literature, checking my watching and waiting, waiting for the café to open.
I couldn’t wait any longer. At three thirty in the afternoon I started my preparations.
I sautéed the potatoes, onions, and cauliflower first. The carrots came next, and then the bullion of curry paste. While it simmered in the water I added, I prepared a bowl of raita—with cucumber, cumin, and yogurt—and placed bright red fukujinzuke I had bought at the local Korean Grocery in one small bowl and peanuts in another, my nod to Mother’s practice.
Before serving I added the peas.
By 4:30 it was ready to eat. Too early for dinner?
I poured myself a nice rosé and sat down to a feast of memories.