Japan's Yokohama Curry Museum

by AFP/Ryan Nakashima, Mar 29, 2004 | Destinations: Japan / Yokohama

Yokohama, Japan, March 26, 2004 - Anyone savoring the image of Japan as the land of plain white rice and delicate side dishes is in for a culinary shock at the Yokohama Curry Museum, where distinctly Japanese variations like beer or fugu blowfish curry can be sampled.

The first Japanese person to encounter curry in 1863 called it "a food for dirty people", but now the spicy staple from the Indian subcontinent has become part and parcel of the national cuisine.

Since the refurbishment earlier this month of this "museum" -- actually more like a commercially run food theme park -- hungry consumers have been flocking in, with some 150,000 expected in the first full month after reopening.

One display explains that the museum is located in this port city south of Tokyo because, after centuries of Japan's self-imposed isolation, it was the point of entry for many foreign influences in the late 1800s, including curry brought in by Western traders and diplomats.

One can find traditional Indian curry in Japan, but homegrown adaptations such as "karei raisu" (curry rice) made with dashi broth of kelp and bonito flakes and dogtooth violet starch are the norm.

"Our concept is to introduce the curries from around Japan to the people of the Tokyo region," said museum marketing manager Takahisa Inoue, who scours 1,000 Japanese eateries every year for a flavor worthy of display.

The new edible exhibits include "art" curry served inside a French baguette loaf, curried yakisoba (fried noodles), Hokkaido-style soup curry and Chinese dumplings with curry inside.

Hideko Banno, 56, a first-time visitor, opted for a plate of "omu-raisu" (omelette-rice) curry, which held a hot surprise in an eggy envelope surrounded by a sweeter sauce.

"It's mysterious," she said. "When you eat the curry inside, you break out into a sweat but then are saved by the sweet curry on the outside."

"This is very mellow," said accounting student Kumiko Nishino, 23, trying a Japanese-style dish made of fried tofu, soy beans, soy milk, sesame seeds and potherb mustard leaves.

"The smell of sesame is really fragrant," she said. "The soy milk makes the taste very rounded."

And while the professionally made dishes at the museum's 11 foodstalls might raise the eyebrows of curry aficionados, those made by the patrons themselves are just as unorthodox.

Most Japanese households make curry using processed cubes, an industry that began with House Foods Corp.'s mild "Vermont Curry" in 1963. The market now sells some 100,000 tons, or 65 billion yen (607 million dollars) worth annually, a company spokesman said.

"It suited Japanese tastes," Rintaro Yokoyama said of the Vermont brand, which still makes up a third of the market. "Until then, curry was very hot and not suited to children. With Vermont Curry, everyone in a household could enjoy it."

A standard feature of most supermarkets in Japan, the cubes form a paste when mixed with water, fried vegetables and meats, and is the quintessence of curry to a generation of young children raised on the dish.

"The first time I made curry, I was five," said museum patron and recent university graduate Ryo Okazaki, 23. "We made curry in a lesson where we learned how to use a knife."

Mushed apples or carrots, garlic, ketchup, raw eggs and yogurt ranked as some of the favourite add-ins to homemade curry of some Japanese museum-goers interviewed.

"The kids don't think my curry has carrots in it. I grind them up so they can't tell," said museum visitor Banno.

Chef Yuji Takahashi's fried-egg topped yakisoba curry would perhaps claim the weirdest label, if there was one. But he said his serious bid to acquire the museum's "Curry Palace" accolade, which requires heaping sales and sizzling reviews, is not about prestige.

"If the customers say it tastes good, that's all that matters."

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