With the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, in the next few months advertisements and news about the Games will move Japan to the forefront of our collective consciousness. What a great opportunity to learn about this unique culture, especially its exceptional cuisine. I’ve twice been fortunate to spend several months in this fascinating country, and I’m excited to share my own “taste” of Japan with you.
What comes to mind when you think of Japanese food—sushi, miso soup, ramen? My husband and I enjoy trying every morsel we can wrangle with chopsticks, or slurp from bowls while in Japan. However, not all the dishes we love there are truly Japanese.
Outside Cultural Influences
The Japanese are very proud of their culture. Outside influences are apparent as soon you set foot in Japan. Instances abound in architecture, pop culture, dress, and language, to name just a few. Chopsticks (introduced by China centuries ago) come to mind, although Japanese chopsticks are noticeably shorter than Chinese.
Adopt or Adapt – To Chopstick, or Not
As with chopsticks, Japan has adopted or adapted aspects of foreign cuisine to suit their eating style, palate, and cooking techniques. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that terms were officially coined to distinguish Japanese food (washoku) from Western food (yōshoku).
This coincided with the very progressive Emperor Meiji’s opening of Japan up to the outside world during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The differentiation persists to this day. So, if you can’t eat it with chopsticks or drink it from a bowl, it’s not washoku. That’s not to say, however, the Japanese don’t thoroughly enjoy yōshoku!
Influence is also apparent in the Japanese language, including the language of food. Many commonly used words were borrowed from other languages—in particular, English. For example, the Japanese word for beer is bīru (pronounced “beed-uh”). Say “beed-uh” quickly, and it sounds pretty close to beer. Try jūsu (pronounced ”joos-uh”), Japanese for juice. Yet another is raisu (pronounced “rice-uh”), Japanese for rice.
Karē Raisu, Japanese for Curry Rice
You guessed it, Karē Raisu is Curry Rice. It’s been one of the most popular dishes in Japan for well over one hundred years. A flat bowl filled with half rice, half curry is the traditional presentation.
Karē Raisu is the closest to comfort food I’ve found so far in Japan. Not only is it tasty and satisfying, you’re allowed to eat it with a spoon. Karē Raisu is everywhere—from train stations to fine restaurants—in school lunches and on Japanese family tables. It’s so popular, many Japanese consider it a national dish.
Basic Karē Raisu is quick to prepare and requires few ingredients, making it very affordable. Simply dice up potato, onion, carrot, and your choice of meat or seafood, sauté in a little cooking oil, and add a Japanese curry mixture, either made from scratch or using packaged curry roux.
The British Navy first brought curry to Japan in the late 1800’s. It quickly became indispensable to the Japanese Navy due to its disease-fighting benefits. To this day, the Japanese consider curry a health food.
Japanese curry is milder and sweeter than curry from other regions. S&B was the first to market Japanese curry powder in the early 1900’s, and their iconic tins are still sold worldwide (available on Amazon). Closer inspection reveals a delicious blend of savory spices and herbs.
Scratch or Packaged Curry?
By the early 1950’s, S&B developed a packaged curry roux which has been a staple in the Japanese kitchen ever since. Although it’s possible to make Japanese curry from scratch. Here is one suggested recipe. But most Japanese prefer the time-saving packaged curry roux. The recipe’s right on the box.
Today there are many Japanese manufacturers of varieties of curry roux. The most well-known manufacturers are S&B and House Foods. You can often find S&B’s GOLDEN CURRY (available in mild, medium hot, and hot) in local supermarkets and on Amazon.
So now, I’m inviting you to whip up some Karē Raisu, grab a spoon—and while you’re at it, grab an ice-cold Japanese bīru (maybe Kirin or Sapporo). And then, join me as we virtually watch the Tokyo 2020 Olympics together next summer, along with millions of our Japanese friends. Go U.S.A! Go Japan!