Why Japan’s Famous Curry is Actually a Western Import

Curry holds an interesting place in Japanese cuisine. Though quintessentially Indian in origin, it arrived in Japan by way of the British Empire. This winding path from South Asia to East Asia reveals an unexpected cultural exchange.

Curry’s Popularity Spreads from India

Curry began its global spread from the Indian subcontinent. There, intricate blends of spices and herbs created flavorful curry dishes and built tradition over centuries. During the era of European colonialism, the British developed a taste for Indian curry. They brought it back to the British Isles, where it became immensely popular by the 19th century.

The British also exported their love of curry to other parts of their empire. One such place was Japan, which opened up after centuries of isolation in the mid-1800s.

Meiji Japan Imports British Culture

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration ushered imperial rule back to Japan. This ended the Tokugawa shogunate’s national policy of sakoku, or isolationism. With sakoku lifted, Japan underwent rapid modernization and Westernization. The influx of foreign goods, technologies, and ideas transformed Japanese economy and culture.

Among the British imports arriving on Japan’s shores was curry powder. Though from India originally, the Japanese viewed it as an exotic “Western” food. The British likely introduced commercial blends with spices derived from Indian flavors.

Navy Promotes Curry as Quintessential Comfort Food

Curry quickly spread through Japan and by the late 1800s was widely embraced by the Japanese navy. High in nutritional value and easy to make in large batches, curry became standard fare to feed naval troops.

The navy popularized curry throughout the country. It especially took hold as a hearty comfort food. Curry with rice remains a beloved staple of home cooking today. This is thanks in part to those navy canteens introducing the dish over a century ago.

Evolution into Japanese-Style Curry

Over time, the imported curry adapted to local tastes in Japan. It morphed into a thicker, stew-like dish less spicy than Indian curries. Uniquely Japanese spices like apples and honey mellowed flavors. Standard ingredients include onions, carrots, potatoes, and meats.

This curry evolved into its own cuisine called curry rice or “kare raisu.” For many Japanese, the mash-up of curry with sticky white rice represents the perfect balanced meal.

Lasting Popularity of Cross-Cultural Cuisine

Today, the curry market in Japan is valued at over $5 billion annually. The country has embraced curry as its own national dish, though its origins lie a continent away. This reveals the lasting impact of historical cross-cultural exchange.

A food journeying from India to Japan by way of Britain created lasting appetites. This winding path of curry captures the story of globalization in cuisines worldwide. Through unexpected connections, foods adopt new identities far from their places of origin. But their roots continue to reveal surprises about how cultures can intertwine.

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