In 2003, Arne and I visited Japan. I’ve been something of a Japanophile since I was a little girl and my birth father was stationed in Japan. I didn’t visit him there, but he sent back trinkets that were my greatest childhood treasures. I was also able to study the Japanese language in both elementary and high school. (If you need someone to count to 100 or say “Water, please” in Japanese, I’m your girl. For more advanced lexicography you should probably ask someone else.)
So this trip to Japan was a lifelong dream – which didn’t turn out to mean everything about it was easy. The language barrier was a much bigger hurdle than I expected; English-language signage was very rare, and despite the assurances of one of my guidebooks, no place we visited boasted an English menu. I only remember about a third of one of the three alphabets used in Japan, which is useless. It’s like trying to read American street signs when you’ve only mastered the letters E, M, and Q.
This made our first attempt to eat in Tokyo a nightmare. Jet-lagged, hungry, and massively intimidated (this was my first international trip), we wandered the streets for a while, smelling fantastic food but with no idea how to get hold of any. Desperate, we retreated to our hotel restaurant, which did have an English-language menu.
We had also somehow gained the impression that almost all Japanese businesses only accepted cash. (This, it turns out, is completely false.) We didn’t have a lot of cash. So we ordered the cheapest thing on the menu – curry rice.
This turned out to be a wonderful choice. The curry was served – incongruously, it seemed to us, but delightfully – in a silver gravy boat to pour over plain white rice. (This is common practice in Japan.) Like the serving style, the flavor of curry rice is deliciously homey; thick, rich, mild curry sauce over comforting white rice, like beef stew over mashed potatoes.
Most Americans have never heard of Japanese curry, and are surprised at the very idea. It’s certainly different from Indian or Thai curries. The spices, though rich, are very mild; even the “extra hot” barely tingles the tongue of this adoptive New Mexican. Though it’s available in restaurants, it seems to me more of a home dish, something a busy mom would serve, than the artfully arranged meals most of us think of when Japanese food comes up.
We ate a lot of tasty things in Japan, including some of those artful arrangements, but it was the slightly exotic yet fundamentally reassuring curry rice that I kept thinking about when we were home again. Fortunately, it’s incredibly easy to make. You can make it from scratch, but I never have. I go to Ta Lin supermarket and buy bars of Japanese curry roux, which come out of the package looking like waxy chocolate bars. Break them into chunks and melt in hot water, and voila! Curry!
There are two brands of Japanese curry that are widely available in the U.S. Though I am tremendously amused by the name Vermont Curry, I prefer its competitor, Golden Curry. Either one is delicious – buy what you can find. You may not need to make a special trip to an Asian grocery; check well-stocked supermarkets. I even found both brands on the Wal-Mart website.
Though the box instructions specify meat, I often substitute more vegetables or even firm tofu for a vegetarian version. I’ve tried all sorts of vegetables – as you can see, my last batch used carrots, zucchini, and cauliflower – and anything you would put in a stew works great.
Just before you get to work on the curry, start the rice. You want short-grain white rice, which cooks up a little sticky and is preferred in both Japan and Korea. Here’s how I cook it: Place 1.5 cups short-grain rice (Kokuho Rose and Calrose are two very good brands, or buy it in bulk at natural foods stores) in a strainer and rinse until the runoff looks clear. Place in a pot that’s taller than it is wide, with a tight-fitting lid, and add 2 cups water and a pinch of salt. Place over high heat until it comes to a boil; stir, cover, and turn the heat to very low (not the lowest your stove can go, but just barely over that). Steam for 15 minutes without lifting the lid. At 15 minutes, give a quick stir and taste the rice. It should be just barely done or slightly underdone. If it’s chalky or crunchy, steam another 2 or 3 minutes, adding another tablespoon or two of water if the pot is dry.
At this point, remove from the heat, with the lid on, and leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. This is the key! If your rice is slightly underdone and you keep cooking it, you’ll burn it or make it mushy or both. Steaming off the heat gently finishes the cooking without ruining the rice. It will stay warm in the pot for at least an additional 15 minutes. I find that this gives a nice window for me to complete the meal without worrying about how to get everything done on time.
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