Curry’s Great Transnational Journey from India to Japan and North Korea

Guest contributor: Markus Bell, Australian National University

I hadn’t been in Japan more than a few weeks before I was hooked on Japanese karē raisu (curryrice/カレーライス). It was the rich, unmistakable smell that seeped under doorways and filled the undercover shopping markets of Osaka that first caught my attention.

I followed the scent down an alley and into a tiny eatery not large enough for more than half a dozen customers. Behind the wooden counter perched two large vats – the source of the seductive aromas. In one, the potbellied chef told me, is spicy curry. In the other is sweet curry. Perhaps noticing my indecisiveness he picked up two small, wooden bowls and dished out a ladle of spicy into one bowl and a ladle of sweet into the other. “Try,” he commanded.

Curry in a pot, Kyoto

Curry in a pot, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

Marking the beginnings of a ritual that I would repeat many times over the years, my tastebuds burst into life. Obediently, I took a scoop of the sweet sauce. The velvety texture of the piping hot substance wrapped itself around my tongue and left me wanting more. But I hadn’t finished. Unapologetically licking my spoon clean, I plunged it into the spicy sauce and into my mouth. This time my tongue burnt.

“Is it too much for you?” The smirking chef asked, almost gleefully. “No, no.” I replied, sucking air into my mouth and reaching for a glass of water. “It just took me by surprise.” Without asking, the chef took a larger bowl and filled it with sweet curry, beef, and potatoes. So began my love affair with Japanese karē raisu.

At that time I was carrying out research in Japan on Osaka’s incipient North Korean community. That evening, when I met my North Korean friends for our customary pork barbeque and beer in Korea town, I recounted my midday culinary adventure. “Oh yes,” they agreed. “Japanese curry is good. But until you’ve eaten it on a snowy Pyongyang day, you haven’t lived.”

And there it was. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know: How did curry, ostensibly a product of the Indian Subcontinent, make its way onto tables in the most isolated nation on the planet?

Curryrice with side of miso soup, Kyoto

Curry with a side of miso soup, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

The story of curry is emblematic of the early days of colonialism, and the beginnings of what we now simply refer to as globalization. Academics claim that people may have been eating curries as far back as 2,500BCE, and that it has addictive properties.

The roots of the word “Curry” are undecided, with some arguing that it comes from the Old English word “Cury,” ostensibly first used in an English cookbook published in 1390. Others contending it is a derivative of the Tamil word, ‘Kari’ (கறி), referring to a dish cooked with vegetables, meat and spices.

The “curry-flavoured” powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747 in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. Her interpretation was more of a “gentle, aromatic stew” than a fiery vindaloo, but it featured curry powder as a key ingredient. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened Britain’s first curry house, the “Hindustan Coffee House”: it was a massive failure, but in the years that followed curry as an English dish re-emerged in restaurants across the United Kingdom. Curry gradually became an accepted part of every British pub menu, perhaps offering balance to an otherwise lackluster English diet.

Anglicized interpretations of Indian cuisines were subsequently taken to Imperial Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first British subjects the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his “Black Ships” at Kurihama in 1853. By the late 19th century, the Japanese navy had adapted the British version of curry, just as the English had earlier Anglicized Indian curry.

In 1872, the first karē raisu recipe was published in a Japanese cookbook, and in 1877 a Tokyo restaurant first offered karē raisu on the menu. Just as it had done in England, curry rapidly became a staple of the Japanese diet. Today, Friday nights on-board the vessels of the Japanese navy are still curry nights. A website of the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s “Family Page” lists its most popular curry dishes with recipes for the public to try. These mouth-watering recipes come with step-by-step cooking instructions and pictures of over fifty different curries popular on Japanese military bases.

In 1968, inspired by the Swedish army’s “pouched sausages,” Otsuka Foods Co. launched vacuum-sealed boil-in-a-bag curry. The convenience of these ready-to-eat treats appealed to thrifty students and overworked salarymen. Within a few years Otsuka Foods’ annual sales topped 100 million packets.

In the 1960s, when the Japanese government pressured Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese – former subjects of the Japanese Empire to self-deport, curry also followed tens of thousands of repatriating Koreans to North Korea. Family who stayed behind in Japan sent tightly packed parcels crammed full of ready-made karē raisu to loved ones in North Korea.

The North Korean government prohibited repatriates from ever returning to Japan. Immigrants from Japan struggled to survive the often-harsh conditions of North Korea. Access to imported karē raisu and other imported food products became a matter of life and death. They used karē raisu as a currency, trading it for local products – kimchee, rice, and meat – and strategically gifting it to cadre of the Korean Workers’ Party. The more industrious, daring individuals opened black market curry and noodle stalls operating out of their apartments.

Over dinner, my friend Hye-rim Ko, recently escaped from North Korea, explained that during this time, “We native North Koreans tried to mimic immigrants from Japan. We wanted to dress like them and eat the food they had. We were curious. What they ate was better than our food.” “Native” North Koreans, like Hye-rim, had to rely on immigrants from Japan for a regular fix of curry.

In between mouthfuls of fried pork wrapped in perilla leaves, another friend, Sazuka Tanaka, who migrated to North Korea in 1960 told me, “I managed a small restaurant in a northern city of North Korea. We served karē raisu and other dishes from Japan. It was a hugely popular place to eat for North Koreans and I became quite famous for my curry.”

The tastes and smells of curry reminded immigrants from Japan of the home they’d left behind. More importantly, such dishes were a lifeline during the famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

In 2002 Kim Jong-Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government reacted by imposing trade sanctions on the DPRK. These sanctions choked off the supply of curry to North Korea. Consequently, North Koreans living near the Sino-Korean border were forced to import a Chinese version of karē raisu. North Korean defectors I worked with assured me that “fake” karē raisu wasn’t a patch on the real thing. They claimed that it “lacked flavor” and was “made with inferior ingredients.”

Curry is a chameleon of a dish and a well traveled one at that. From India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo, and the NASA space program; in each place it’s traveled to people have adapted and blended it to local tastes, making it one of the world’s most loved cuisines. Perhaps this is why many of my friends and I feel such affection for it: curry, like us, shifts and evolves through its travels, the cultures it passes through, and the people who love and adopt it.

Markus Bell is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University’s anthropology department, researching on North Korean society and North Korean migration. From September 2016 he will take up a lectureship in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell 

5 Comments

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, cuisine, curry, food, food history, hunger, Japan, korea, North Korea, restaurants

5 responses to “Curry’s Great Transnational Journey from India to Japan and North Korea

  1. I always wondered, Thanks for doing the research!

  2. Tracie

    Wonderful. After living in Japan for 10 years I was also addicted to Japanese curry. Now we make it at home, but it had developed its own Kansas City style in our kitchen.

    I had many North Korean friends in Japan who had stayed behind. Thank you for providing a look at the other side, those who had gone back.

  3. Officers of the RN were ‘Anglo-Indian’? please point to a source for this, particularly in regard to the RN in Japan.
    ‘From India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo’ by this you appear to imply that curry arrived in Korea before it arrived in Japan. Interesting, but other than hearsay, what evidence have you that this was actually the case?

    • Hi Joel,
      Thanks for your questions.

      Please refer to ‘Curry: A tale of Cooks and Conquerors,’ for further information on Anglo-Indian curry and the importance of the British merchant navy in transporting these dishes around the world. In particular, please refer to pages 252-253.

      In regards to your second comment. As the article discusses, curry moved from India to the UK, on to Japan and then on to North (and South) Korea. The wording in the final paragraph is a little awkward and I see how you got that impression.

      Best.

  4. Preetha Thomas

    Fascinating! I always wondered, and am amazed at how old the history of curry in Japan is! I look forward to following you on Twitter.

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