Oct 24, 2020

Japanese Curry and an Indian Love Story!

The famous Japanese curry chain Coco Ichibanya opened its first restaurant in Gurugram, India a few months ago. A foreign company opening a curry joint in India may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle except that Japanese curry is not like anything that we eat in India.

When my Japanese friends ask me for the recipe of Indian curry, I honestly don’t know what to tell them. Do I tell them the recipe for lentils or a mixed vegetable or do I tell them how to make sambhar, or maybe a fish or chicken curry? The truth is, India does not have something called Indian curry. What we do have is a whole range of dishes with an astounding variety of ingredients and taste. It is said that in India, every 100 kms or so, the local dish changes.

To the Japanese, who have spent all their lives in a homogenous country with one language, one culture and food habits that are more or less consistent across the island it is extremely difficult to comprehend the vast diversity of food that we have in India.  

 So, what exactly is Japanese curry?

 Japanese curry is orangish-brown in color, thick in texture and has a taste that veers towards sweet rather than spicy or tangy. There is no taste of fresh spices or condiments. When you make Japanese curry, there is no sound of jeera popping in the ghee, no heavenly aroma of fresh ginger, onion and tomato and green chilies sizzling in ghee or oil. Japanese curry is simply a blend of few basic spices, thickened using flour or potatoes. Most of the time the curry paste also contains chopped apples – hence the slightly sweet taste.

The supermarket here is full of packs of ready to eat curry. There are boxes selling curry paste that you can add to your meat or vegetables and even pre-cooked packs of chicken or beef curry.

The most common and famous curry dish in Japan is Kare – Raisu or curry rice. Which is nothing but a plate half filled with rice and half with a brownish curry with some meat or very thick pieces of potato and carrot and beans nestled in it.

Over the years, curry has become as popular as ramen or sushi in Japan,may be even more. Research indicates that the average Japanese household has curry at least once a week. The Japanese have become so enamored with curry that they now even have a curry ramen or soba –usually eaten in autumn and winter when the weather turns cooler because curry is supposed to have heat-inducing properties.

The Japanese also eat curry bread which is nothing but curry flavored dough made into buns filled with vegetables or meat.

image - wikipedia

Since the Japanese are used to the taste of this curry, most Indian restaurants also tend to offer a curry that is similar to the taste of the Japanese curry. Luckily over time, the number of Indian restaurants have grown and now they serve curries slightly closer to the Indian taste but still nothing like what you eat in India or even in other foreign countries like UK and Canada.

 There are many versions of how curry was introduced in Japan. The most popular version is that it was introduced by the British sailors in the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) who brought it with them from the then British occupied India. Over time, the original version was modified by them till nothing remained of the original taste.

The British soldiers may be responsible for getting curry into Japan, but there is a much more fascinating story of how the Indian version was introduced here. Surprisingly, that story has to do with our freedom struggle.

Almost every Indian knows Rash Behari Bose – the freedom fighter who founded the Indian National Army. But not many know of his Japan connection.  Ras Behari Bose fled to Japan to escape the British after his attempt to assassinate Lord Hardinge, the then viceroy on India. Once he reached Japan he took refuge with a Japanese family sympathetic towards the Indian freedom movement. He continued to support the Indian freedom movement from Japan and eventually with the help of the Japanese authorities founded the Indian National Army that was later taken over by Subhas Chandra Bose.

But there is another interesting and romantic angle to the story of Rash Behari Bose. He fell in love and later married the daughter of the Nakamura family he took refuge with. 

But a few years later tragedy struck and his wife passed away suddenly. His in-laws owned a Bakery and in 1925, he along with his Father in law decided to introduce authentic Indian curry to japan. He personally selected the ingredients and decided on the cooking Style. Japan’s first Indo curry (Indian curry) restaurant was opened behind the bakery. 

This restaurant still exists in Shinjuku area of Tokyo. I have eaten there, and if not 100 percent authentic, the Nakamura curry is closest to the Indian taste. Even now packets of this curry are sold under the brand name “Nakamura Curry”

 The only time I ate curry in Japan was when I was taken to a restaurant by a well-meaning Japanese who felt I must be missing the Indian food and eating curry would make me happy. I could barely choke down that thick sweet curry and have not really stepped into a curry restaurant since. I stick to other authentic Japanese dishes like sushi and ramen and leave the Japanese to gush over their curry rice. I feel the most sorry for the unsuspecting Indian software engineer, who comes to Japan and missing the ghar ka khana makes a beeline for the curry shop. What a shock he is in for.

To my friends in India all I want to say is - If you do want to try the Japanese curry in there – go with an open mind. Because what the Japanese have done to our food is exactly what we have done to Chinese food – turned it into something unique and entirely different from the original version.


  1. Will definitely visit the place (if I go to Tokyo) and taste the Nakamura curry.

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