How Curry Became a Popular Japanese Comfort Meal

10 min read | Culture

curry rice with katsu

Brief History of Japanese Curry

Curry, originally from the sub-continent, took the long way around to finally arrive in Japan via Europe, and the Japanese considered curry to be a Western dish! Over a relatively short period of time it became a beloved staple of the Japanese diet, consistently ranking No.1 or No.2 among children’s favorite foods, and among the Best 10 for adults. It is the comfort food Japanese just can’t do without.

Order Delivery

You’re in Tokyo and it’s lunchtime. An acquaintance suggests Italian, French, Brazilian, but you feel like something Japanese. You head out to the street, anticipating a plethora of sushi restaurants, but what catches your eye are signs for curry rice! Signs on the street, menus posted on almost all kinds of eatery storefronts, not only curry specialty places or train station cafes, but small mom-and-pop stores, large family restaurants, coffee shops, even udon and ramen shops, places where you might not even expect it, all advertising curry, curry, curry! You think, “Now wait a minute…isn’t curry…Indian?”

Well, you’re partially right. Curry, originally from the sub-continent, took the long way around to finally arrive in Japan via Europe, and the Japanese considered curry to be a Western dish! Over a relatively short period of time it became a beloved staple of the Japanese diet, consistently ranking No.1 or No.2 among children’s favorite foods, and among the Best 10 for adults. It is the comfort food Japanese just can’t do without. Let’s find out how that happened.

curry spices in different containers

Origin of Curry Powder

The word “curry” is derived from a word in Tamil, a language spoken in the south of India, Sri Lanka and Singapore, which means something like soup, or sauce. In 1563, a Portuguese book written about Indian medicinal plants states that: “…they prepare a dish called “caril” that is made with chicken or other meat, stewed with an abundance of spices.” This is purported to be the first mention of curry in European literature.

Near the end of the 18th century, an employee of the British East India Company (opened in India by the British in 1600) brought back to England a mixture of spices (garam masala) that were commonly used in Indian cuisine. These rare and exotic spices enchanted the English and were used in cuisine prepared for the royal and upper classes. The English company C&B created a curry powder (a blend of spices) which was a way for people to easily cook Indian style food in their homes without having to obtain and prepare their own spices. Curry powder was strictly a British invention; it did not exist in India at that time. A type of beef stew, seasoned with curry powder and eaten with bread became a fixture on the people’s dinner table, and from there it spread throughout the world.

small white ramekin with curry

From England to Japan

From England, curry came to Japan at the end of the 1800s when the ports re-opened after 200 years of isolation. The opening of Japan saw foreign merchants making their homes in port towns, and the Japanese who had access to these homes, such as tradesmen or maids, took note of the western foods being served, curry among them. It was at this time that Japan started importing C&B curry powder.

But it was the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) that was the real impetus for curry finding its way into the homes and hearts of the general population. The Imperial Japanese Navy, based in Yokosuka, saw curry as an ideal meal for the troops; it was nutritious, as it contained meat and vegetables, and was easy to make in large quantities. A recipe was invented, thickening the curry sauce with flour so that it was suitable for eating with the soft and moist Japanese rice, coating the grains instead of being absorbed by them. Sailors, many of whom might otherwise have had no chance at becoming acquainted with western cuisine, ate it, loved it, and told their friends and families about it. This kick-started the curry rice boom that spread like wildfire all over Japan.

Development of Instant Curry Roux

In 1926, Urakamishoten, known today as House Foods, developed and began selling a canned powdered form of instant curry roux called “Home Curry”. This was the first instant curry roux. After WWII, with the advent of instant curry roux sold in block form by several different companies, curry rice became a staple on school lunch menus. Along with the general dissemination of television around the 1960s, advertisements of curry by various companies were spread nationwide, and this, as well as a dramatic increase in supermarkets, pushed curry rice to heights of unparalleled popularity as home cooked comfort food.

In 1969 the first retort pouch was developed in Japan. Up until that time, curry rice was a “home cooked dish” necessitating that the person who prepared it had to spend a certain amount of time buying, preparing then cooking the ingredients, but with all of the curry ingredients precooked in a retort pouch, all one had to do was prepare rice, and you had an easy meal that could be enjoyed at a moment’s notice by simply placing the pouch in boiling water for 3 minutes. The retort pouch became a hit item among consumers, and exponentially accelerated the ever growing enthusiasm for curry among the Japanese. It is said that curry sauce in retort pouches is the largest single category of vacuum sealed foods in Japan.

house curry powder in 1926

Image from House Foods Group

curry udon with katsu

Japanese-style Curry and Curry Dishes

When we imagine the typical plate of curry rice in Japan, we think of big chunks of tasty vegetables such as potatoes and carrots mixed in a thick sauce with onions and cubes of meat, often accompanied by pickled vegetables such as fukujinzuke or rakkyo on the side. This, however, is strictly Japanese style curry rice. The earliest version of curry served in Japan was English style, soupier than today’s standards, and with onion as the only vegetable. Back then, onions were not commonplace in Japan, so green onions were substituted.

Nowadays, all manner of seafood and vegetables are making appearances in curry rice. Current food trends in Japan see more ethnic curries, focusing on specific regions in India, as well as “healthy” curries, namely ones with lots of vegetables, less oil and flour, and with the vegetables prominently placed on the side or on top, instead of mixed in with the roux like the classic Japanese style. Regional versions also abound, and these may play a not-so-small part in boosting local tourism, considering how much the Japanese love their curry!

Curry innovations include the ubiquitous curry udon, the ever-gaining-in-popularity curry ramen, and even curry nabe! Don’t forget curry pan, either! This delicious deep fried bread stuffed with curry is no new innovation, however—curry pan was invented in 1927 in downtown Tokyo, and now you can find it in every bakery across Japan, usually holding the top seller position!

What was once considered English cuisine by the Japanese has been deliciously altered to create the distinctive dish we know as Japanese curry rice. Even as we pick up our spoons and start sampling the tremendous variety of curries currently waiting for us, we can anticipate even more new and exciting curry food trends in the years to come! Now, who’s hungry?