Curry’s secrets

History, culture, benefits, etc.

Introduction to the “Secrets of Curry” Exhibition in 2015, Heisei 27: This is a modified version of an article originally contributed by Mr. Takano, our association’s executive director, to the “Future Food Industry” in the July-August 2015 issue of the Food Industry Centre. 

Curry is a popular and well-loved dish in Japan, often eaten with rice. However, the key ingredients in curry powder such as spices and herbs originate from various foreign cuisines. Spices are known for enhancing the aroma, spiciness and colour of dishes, making them more enjoyable and flavourful. These spices have a long history of use, even in traditional herbal medicine, and they are believed to stimulate appetite among their other benefits.

In our culinary landscape today, we encounter a wide range of dishes linked to different regions and countries including Chinese, Western and Indian cuisines. With creative adaptations, you can enjoy a variety of curry-like dishes and ensure that you’ll not become bored of eating them.

But have you ever wondered where curry originated and how it was first eaten in Japan? Despite being considered a national favourite and a staple in school lunches, the deep-rooted connections between curry and Japanese culture and history, as well as the potential health benefits of the spices used in curry, are not widely known or explored.

The history of curry in Japan

Curry has an interesting history and was considered to represent Western cuisine and a taste of modernisation. While curry is a staple in Indian cuisine, it was British explorer Warren Hastings who, while working for the British East India Company, first introduced it to England in 1772. He brought back a mixture of powdered spices and rice, which was then refined and became a luxurious dish even served at the royal court. Just like for people of any era or culture, the desire for delicious food is universal.

Around 1800, companies like C&B began selling curry powder, so it became more available  to the general public. Curry powder’s long shelf life and ease of preparation made it ideal for use during long sea voyages, and it’s believed that Japanese people first encountered curry on board ships during overseas voyages or at the dining tables of British residents in Japan.

By 1870 (Meiji 3), British individuals had already introduced curry powder to Japan, making it one of the early arrivals in Japan as a part of Western cuisine. For Japanese people at that time, curry was indeed considered “Western cuisine” and represented a taste of modernisation. During the Meiji era, when Japan was undergoing rapid modernisation and Westernisation, many new foreign influences entered the country, and curry was one of them. It became a symbol of the desire for modernisation and adopting elements of Western culture.

Early Western-style dishes in Japan included omelettes, cutlets (katsu), beef steak (bifuteki), and curry. Among them, curry with pork cutlets (tonkatsu) was particularly popular and considered a masterclass in how to adapt Western culture to Japanese tastes. “Curry with tonkatsu” is an excellent example of how Western culinary influences were creatively adapted to suit Japanese preferences.

Japanese culture has a long history of not merely accepting foreign influences but also adapting and developing them in a unique way. One of the most iconic examples of this is the classic school cafeteria dish, “Katsu Curry” (カツカレー). Affordable, delicious and nutritious, curry has long been a source of energy for students and office workers, contributing to Japan’s economic development.

In the late Meiji period, curry was considered a high-end dish served in Western-style restaurants. However, by the end of the Meiji era, rice curry, curry udon and curry soba started appearing on cafeteria menus, making curry more accessible and contributing to its popularisation.

The catalyst for curry’s widespread adoption in Japan can be traced back to its use in the military due to its excellent nutritional content and suitability for mass consumption. After serving in the military, many individuals came back home with the knowledge of how to prepare curry, which contributed to its nationwide popularity. Young people who came from rural areas and experienced Western-style food in the military wanted to share that experience with their families.

Furthermore, the post-war school lunch programmes played a significant role in the widespread acceptance of curry as a national dish. These factors combined to establish curry as a staple in Japanese cuisine.

Popularisation of curry

There are various theories about the history of curry in Japan, so please consider this as a general overview.

・In 1863, Miyake Shu, who went to France as part of a Japanese diplomatic mission to Europe, saw curry onboard a ship, marking the first recorded encounter of a Japanese person with curry.

・Around the year 1870 (Meiji 3), curry powder arrived in Japan (C&B Company). From this point, Japanese people began their curious exploration of this mysterious food called curry. What’s in it? The newfound curiosity of the Japanese, liberated during the Meiji Restoration, turned towards things coming from abroad, things they had never seen before, and it’s believed that curry with its spices was one of them. The exploration and understanding of spices and cooking techniques would later have a significant impact on Japanese cuisine, incorporating Western influences into traditional Japanese food and eating habits.

・Meiji 6 (1873): Curry is served on Saturdays at the Army Cadet School (Could this be the beginning of school lunches?).

・Meiji 9 (1876): Dr. Clark recommends rice curry at the Sapporo Agricultural College (Japanese meals lack nutrition, but “rice curry” could be good if included in the menu every other day). It’s said that the term “rice curry” originated at this time. 

・Meiji 37 (1904): Curry udon is created, followed by “Curry Nanban” (1908), “Katsu Curry” (1918), and “Curry Bread” (1927).

・Around Meiji 38 (1905): Domestic curry powder is introduced.

・Meiji 41 (1908): Rice curry appears in Soseki Natsume’s novel “Sanshiro”, indicating its growing popularity.

・Late Meiji Period: Ingredients such as potatoes, onions, and carrots become standard in curry, but these vegetables became popular in Japan during the Meiji period. Globally, chilli peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are relatively new foods, which spread to Europe and Asia after Columbus’s discovery of the Americas.

・Showa 23 (1948): Curry is introduced in school lunches.

・Showa 25 (1950): Solid instant curry roux is released (until then, curry was made using curry powder or flaked curry roux).

 ・Showa 43 (1968): Retort curry is born.

The establishment of the All Japan Curry Industry Cooperative Association.

The birth and development of the All Japan Curry Industry Cooperative Association are closely related to the spread and history of curry as mentioned earlier. During the Meiji era, as Western cuisine spread, curry powder was an expensive imported item that was hard to come by, and counterfeit products also began to circulate. This led to the pioneers among our association members embarking on the challenge of manufacturing curry powder. In the late Meiji period, domestically produced curry powder was introduced and, thereafter, instant curry roux and various new curry products were invented one after another.

In the early Showa period, many pioneers entered the curry industry, leading to its initial prosperity. However, as securing raw materials became difficult, the National Organisation (National Association of Curry Industries) was formed in 1941. As military influence increased, regulations were imposed, the import of spices was restricted and it became necessary to obtain import permits. In 1944, the Japan Curry Industry Control Association was established, and various efforts were made collectively to deal with these challenges.

After World War II, in response to the widening of trade in spices and curry products following the lifting of trading restrictions, curry industry cooperative associations were established successively in the Kanto, Kansai and Chubu regions. They engaged in activities to promote curry such as the inclusion of curry dishes on school menus in 1948 (Showa 23), and achieved significant results.

In 1952 (Showa 27), the “National Curry Association” was established as an umbrella organisation encompassing these regional bodies. It also dealt with challenges posed by the entry of major food and confectionery companies into the industry.

During this period, excessive price competition and other significant issues requiring solutions emerged. Additionally, issues related to the Fair Trade Commission and antitrust laws needed to be addressed. Given the limitations of voluntary organisations to handle these challenges, there was a growing momentum for the formation of a comprehensive national organisation. In 1953 (Showa 28), the “National Association of Curry Industry Cooperatives” was established to address these issues. Furthermore, to prevent unfair trading practices, the “National Curry Unfair Trade Prevention Council” was also established. Since then, the curry cooperatives have been working in tandem with the Fair Trade Council to carry out their activities.

In 1961 (Showa 36), to further consolidate regional organisations, 35 curry manufacturing companies came together to establish the “All Japan Curry Industry Cooperative Association” as it exists today. It’s often said that members of the curry cooperative enjoy good relations, but curry powder and its raw ingredients are imported products, so they had to collaborate to overcome problems. In addition, they have a shared history of working together for the promotion of curry.

Membership of the cooperative is open to businesses engaged in the production of curry (curry powder, curry roux and cooked curry) and other spices. Currently, there are 22 member companies, and they welcome the participation of fellow industry members.

The cooperative’s objectives include furthering the spread and promotion of curry among the general public. They aim to achieve this by working to improve the quality of curry and ensuring a stable supply. Through the production and distribution of curry, they want to contribute to the realisation of a more abundant, safe and healthy consumer lifestyle aspired to by Japanese people. They also strive to contribute to the development of food culture worldwide.

The various benefits of curry

① Curry is an art form using spices and herbs.

Curry powder is a blend of 20-30 different spices and herbs. How many of them have you come across before? They are all on show at the “Secrets of Curry Exhibition”.

The secret ingredients that stimulate your appetite (flavour) include coriander with its slightly sweet scent, cardamom that evokes thoughts of tropical countries, distinctive-smelling cumin, as well as ingredients like fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, fenugreek, star anise, garlic, galangal, anise, dill, caraway, bay leaves, savory, oregano, rosemary, sage, marjoram, thyme, basil and orange peel. These spices create an inviting aroma that makes you want to eat more and also provide a boost of energy.

The secret ingredients that make you crave more because of their spiciness (pungency) include black pepper, chilli peppers, ginger and mustard. It’s fascinating how even during the hot summer months when you might lose your appetite, the stimulating effect of spices in curry makes you want to eat (originally, curry is a dish from tropical regions like India and Thailand). Moreover, black pepper and ginger have a warming effect on the body, making them suitable for winter.

Lastly, the secret ingredients that add a lovely colour (visual appeal) to curry include turmeric, which gives curry its distinctive yellow hue, red paprika, and golden saffron, among others. It’s quite colourful and luxurious, isn’t it?

② Curry is the “star pupil” of balanced meals.

It can incorporate a variety of ingredients, making it a well-balanced meal that includes “rice (staple food)”, “vegetables (side dish)” and “meat, fish or seafood (main dish)” all on one plate. Eating fruit or yoghurt for dessert after a curry can further enhance the meal’s balance. Furthermore, the process of heating curry to cook it, enhances the absorption of nutrients. Many curry spices are believed to have a range of health benefits, and their spiciness can help reduce the need for excessive salt, making it an excellent meal overall, even suitable for a low-sodium diet.

 ③ Let’s introduce some of the experiments and findings related to the benefits of curry, which are presented on the exhibition panels.

Stress Reduction: In an experiment conducted by neuroscientist Dr. Kenichiro Mogi, it was found that simply smelling the aroma of curry can reduce stress levels and alleviate self-perceived psychological stress.

Weight Management: Childhood obesity can have various causes including diet. Experiments comparing curry rice, which is a high-carbohydrate meal, with a high-fat meal of the same calorie content have shown that curry rice leads to higher post-meal energy expenditure and greater satiety.

Improvement in Cold Sensitivity: Eating curry containing spices can increase body temperature and promote sweating. It’s believed that this may be due to improved blood circulation from the effect of the spices.

Activation of Brain Cells: After eating curry rice, experiments have shown an increase in cerebral blood flow, which is sustained over time.

The day curry becomes a global cuisine

Curry is a versatile and nutrient-rich dish known for its balanced nutrition. The various spices used in its preparation are believed to have numerous health benefits, making it a popular choice for people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Moreover, its simple preparation makes it an ideal option for school lunches and helps reduce the workload for anyone engaged in household chores. The widespread availability of ready-made curry, such as retort curry, has made it suitable not only for family gatherings but also for quick and convenient meals for students and individuals. Considering these distinctive characteristics and its many advantages, it’s hoped that curry will become a favourite dish worldwide in the future. Currently, in Asia, it’s a staple for over a billion Indians, as well as for millions of Japanese, and it is also enjoyed in a variety of forms in countries like Thailand and Indonesia.

Recently, not only in Taiwan but also on the Chinese mainland, trendy Japanese curry restaurants have become popular destinations for dates. Even in China, where rice is a staple, it’s expected that curry will become a popular home-cooked meal in the future. In the wheat-rich northern regions of India, the consumption of curry and naan bread is spreading, similar to how bread-based meals have become prevalent in Europe and the United States. Curry is often listed as a top choice for foreign travellers visiting Japan who want to experience Japanese cuisine.

Curry can be adapted in various ways to suit different tastes and preferences. Toppings like fried eggs and tomatoes, as well as side dishes like fruit and yoghurt, can give it a Western touch. Adding pickles and blanched vegetables can give it a Japanese twist, and pairing it with dishes like mapo tofu can create a Chinese-inspired fusion. With a little creativity, curry can be transformed into a more luxurious and nutritionally balanced meal.

Just as traditional Japanese cuisine has been recognised as a cultural heritage, Japan has many wonderful culinary offerings that captivate people from around the world. Japanese cuisine is known for showcasing the natural flavours of its ingredients. It also incorporates spices and condiments like wasabi, which enhance the overall dining experience.

By coming together and sharing the spirit of “omotenashi” (Japanese hospitality), not only within Japan but also internationally, the culinary world can continue to evolve. It also contribute to the development of global food culture. As stated in the objectives of the Curry Association, ongoing efforts to support the advancement of worldwide dietary habits are crucial. Delicious food has the power to bring people together and promote peace around the world.