How India Gave Japan Its Beloved Katsu Curry

How India Gave Japan Its Beloved Katsu Curry
Image Courtesy: Ang Sarap

Earlier this January, I was sharing a warm bowl of katsu curry with a rather lovely dinner conversation with my friend who happened to have lived in Japan for three months. As the conversation took a rather unexpected turn, we found ourselves discussing how the profile of the curry seemed oddly similar to the ‘maggi’ masala (excuse, our food transgression) just when I thought our food discussions couldn’t get any more interesting he ended up saying, “I hope you know many believe a British merchant got Indian spices to Japan and someone turned that ‘garam masala’ into some katsu curry.”

While the ‘garam masala’ I’m still not convinced about, I ended up digging deeper to find out whether this Japanese comfort food really owes its humble origins to India. As is with most things throughout history, it is disputable with many differing versions of the story. But the most popularly and widely known food tale of the Japanese katsu curry goes like this.

The dish is believed to be first brought to the shores of the country of Japan during the Meiji Restoration by the British from India. It was something that the British navy had themselves adopted as a good, easy and hearty meal for its sailors during long sea voyages. They would make these curries thicker than the ones back in India with addition of potatoes and meat at times.

In fact the advent of curry around the world is majorly a product of colonization. Colonization has not only played a critical role in transporting Indian food out of India, but it has also reclassified classic dishes as takes on their own cuisine. By the end of the 18th century, the British had officially formalized spice blends that would come to be known as curry powders to recreate their favorite dishes consistently in the absence of their cooks.

As the legend goes, a party of British sailors shipwrecked off the Japanese coast were rescued and with them, they had their rations which included curry powder. In search of a cheap and filling option for their own sailors; one that could be cooked and served in large batches at ease, the Japanese navy too adopted the curry giving it their own local twist of flavour. And with that, the British had unsuspectingly passed down the curry to the Japanese.

Whether the legend of the shipwrecked British sailors is true can not be confirmed, what is clear as day though is that British navy contact with the Japanese Imperial Navy gave birth to the Japanese curry.

The adopted curry now has a life of its own, owing to the various versions across the expanse of Japanese homes and restaurants, the most popular though remains the katsu curry (chicken cutlet).

In 1974, a coffee shop in Aichi, Japan started selling its own curry & rice, soon enough CoCo Ichibanya became a marvellous joint for all seeking a good bowl of katsu curry and it is now the world’s largest Japanese curry chain. Introducing even the Indians to a Japanese own spin on their classic curries.

No wonder it tasted like Maggi masala!

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