I had meant to try some signature Kyoto dishes, maybe saba zushi (mackerel sushi) or chazuke (rice toppings soused with green tea), but my senses got hijacked along the way. The perpetrator, as usual, was a curry rice shop.
I weighed the pros and cons of having curry again with all the rationality I could muster. Which wasn’t very much at the moment, thanks to that fragrance. I was really hungry, because it was three o’clock and I hadn’t had lunch yet. I was cold; it was a nippy spring day, clear but cold and windy. And I was — as usual — on a budget. I wanted food that was hot, filling, and would leave me more yen to buy strawberry cream KitKats for wifey. Curry rice it was, again.
Japanese curry is yet another of the foreign influences Japan has adopted and made it uniquely its own. It’s not a secondhand import, as the Japanese got it neither from India nor Southeast Asia, but a third-hand thing, adapted from the British. Japanese curry is sweet, as its sauce often contains apple or other fruit, relatively mild compared to Indian curry, and very creamy, thanks to being thickened with a buttery roux. The greatest difference between Japanese-style curries and Indian, though, is that instead of a stew Japanese curry is a sauce poured over meat or vegetables that have been cooked separately. This heavenly melange is then served on a big bed of rice, with enough extra curry sauce that I can take it like a soup.
The crowd favorite seemed to be katsu curry, breaded pork cutlets. The panko bread crumbs are perfect for absorbing the curry sauce, loading the already sinfully good pork cutlets with flavor. Beef katsu is also available, and amazingly tender. I also loved the karaage curry, made with fried chicken tidbits. Freed of traditional restraints, the Japanese have experimented endlessly with the curry sauce plus topping formula, resulting in odd but interesting offerings like cheese katsu curry, sausage curry, hamburg curry, and so on. (Want to find out what else they’ve got? Here’s a link to Coco Ichibanya’s menu.)
Japanese curry is one of the most easily available foods in Japan, purveyed by a bunch of large chain curry houses like Coco Ichibanya, C&C Curry Shop, Go! Go! Curry!, and San Marco, among others, along with smaller mom-and-pop houses. One big surprise in Tokyo’s Asakusa district was Carry Dish (they meant curry, but probably got led astray by the Japanese word for it being kare). My wife and I walked in one winter day anticipating some crisp curry katsu, but instead found that the chef was proudly Indian-trained and served real Indian curry! No problem: if there’s anything I’m addicted to worse than katsu curry, it’s lamb rogan josh.
Alas for the strawberry cream KitKats though — they ran out of stock in Osaka. I should’ve bought all I could in Kyoto.