Archive for July, 2013

Around Japan in 47 curries: Miyazaki air base curry

July 24, 2013

This is Part 10 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

asdf1 001


Curry may have come to Japan via its navy (as I explained in my first post in this series), but this week I focus on a different branch of the military: the air force.

Oops. Did I say Japan has an air force? Officially, it has no military at all. The Constitution forbids it. Articled 9, titled “Renunciation of War,” reads as follows:

 “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
 ” In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

This article, part of the American-drafted Japanese Constitution that came into effect in 1947, echoes the 1928 Kellog-Briand Pact and the 1945 United Nations Charter, both of which officially imposed a global ban on war. It’s a noble sentiment, but wars keep happening. Japan, however, has not been a combatant in any of them since its Constitution took effect.

On the other hand, Japan has built up plenty of “war potential” over the years. It may not have an army, navy or air force, but it does have a Ground Self-Defense Force, a Maritime Self-Defense Force and an Air Self-Defense Force. Together, these bodies have 248,000 active troops – more than Britain or France. NATO (of which Japan is not a member) may be the world’s best-known military alliance, but Japan has more submarines (18) and more combat aircraft (348) than any NATO member except the United States. The world’s four biggest defense spenders appear to be the United States, China, Britain and Japan. (All of this according to numbers in the 2013 World Almanac.)

As big as Japan’s military-which-isn’t-officially-a-military may be on a world scale, it’s still the little kid in its own neighborhood. All of its immediate neighbors – China, Russia, Taiwan and the two Koreas – have militaries that are far larger by many measurements. And not all of those neighbors are entirely friendly to Japan.

Therefore, some people – most notably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – would like to make Japan’s military stronger. (And some, again including Abe, would like to amend the Constitution to make that possible.) This month, the government released a white paper on defense in which it said, among other things, that the Self Defense Forces should develop amphibious assault capabilities similar to those of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Capturing islands may sound more like offense than defense, but China’s recently aggressive handling of territorial disputes with many of its neighbors – which includes staking a claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands – makes it easy to imagine a situation in which Japan wouldn’t exactly take islands, but might have to take them back. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, “torimodosu” (the Japanese word for “take back”) is a prominent feature of Abe’s political vocabulary. Listen to how often he uses it in this 2012 campaign ad:

Anyway, all of this military-political stuff leads up to the fact that there is an Air Self-Defense Force base in Miyazaki Prefecture, and they serve curry in the mess hall.


Miyazaki Prefecture (Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons)

To set the scene, Miyazaki is on the east coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. In recent years, this prefecture made national news quite often. Partly this was because a famous television comedian named Hideo Higashikokubaru was its governor from 2007 to 2011. And partly it was because during his term outbreaks of bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease led to strict quarantines and massive culls of chicken, cattle and pigs. Nearly 200,000 chickens and more than 200,000 head of livestock had to be killed and disposed of, in a severe blow to the prefecture’s farmers, especially those who produce Miyazaki’s famous beef.

But in addition to agriculture, Miyazaki’s economy also includes the activities of Nyutabaru Air Base. And those activities include making curry. This weekend I picked up some Nyutabaru Air Base curry at the Miyazaki antenna shop in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

The curry I tried came in two flavors: spicy beef and mild chicken. The beef has a photo of an F-4EJ Phantom jet on the box, while the chicken is adorned with a pair of F-15s. These planes, originally developed for the U.S. Air Force by McDonnell-Douglas, are built under license by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the ASDF.

As for the curry itself, it is made under the supervision of Nyutabaru Air Base’s kyuuyou kotai (which might be translated as “food service platoon”). According to the back of the boxes, mixing the spicy curry with the mild curry is a “trend” among base personnel.

One bite, and I could see why: They didn’t put curry powder on the beef – they doused it in jet fuel! Whooooo-ee! The beef curry was so spicy it instantly gave me hiccups. That almost never happens.

ASDF curry marked

The photo I took of the chicken and beef curries side by side in a bowl was not my most beautiful work. It was even less pretty after I mashed them together (following the trend), but at least I was able to get it down.

On carefully reading the ingredient labels, I realized that there was no jet fuel after all, just the usual vegetables, meat and curry roux. Even so, I can’t help wondering if the Nyutabaru Air Base pilots use this curry to haze new recruits. If I ever eat it again, I’m going to treat it like spicy chili and cool it down with a big dollop of sour cream.

Now, if someone could only figure out a way to air-drop a few tons of sour cream onto the Senkaku Islands…

Around Japan in 47 curries: Iwate cheese

July 15, 2013
Iwate map by Lincun, via Wikimedia Commons

Iwate map by Lincun, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Part 9 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Think of a place slightly larger than Maryland and slightly smaller than Swaziland.

One answer to that riddle is Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. It’s the nation’s second-biggest prefecture (after Hokkaido) at 15,278 square kilometers. Thirty of those square kilometers belong to Koiwai Farm, a gigantic privately owned ranch.

When I first came to Japan, I found some Koiwai cheese in a supermarket and mistook it for an American product. After all, Kiowa – as I initially misread the name – has an American ring. (The Kiowa are a Native American tribe.)

The Choshu Five in London, with Masaru Inoue at center (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Choshu Five in London, with Masaru Inoue at center (Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons)

However, I now know the history of Koiwai cheese – and its unusual name – goes all the way back to the adventures of the Choshu Five, a group of young men who secretly left Japan in 1863 to study in Britain. After their return, they became leading figures in the country’s rapid modernization. One of them, Masaru Inoue, is remembered as “the father of the Japanese railways.”

In 1888, Inoue visited Iwate to inspect the progress of railway construction there. According to the Koiwai website, the volcanic soil and barren-looking windswept terrain struck him as a promising area for ranching. With the support of Japan Railways Vice President Makoto Ono and Mitsubishi President Yanosuke Iwasaki, he did establish a ranch in Iwate in 1891. The name of the farm was written with the first characters in the names Ono, Iwasaki and Inoue, or O-Iwa-I. But the character for “O” in Ono can also be read “Ko,” so Oiwai became Koiwai.

Koiwai camembert 001Today, you can find Koiwai butter and cheese in many Tokyo-area supermarkets, although the company has a tiny market share compared to such modern-day dairy giants as Megmilk Snow Brand, Morinaga, Rokko Butter and Meiji Dairies.

On a recent visit to the Iwate Prefecture antenna store in Ginza, Tokyo, I found some Koiwai cheese curry for 630 a box.

Cheese curry marked

I tried two types, cream cheese and camembert cheese. Visually, they were both very similar, and they shared a very nice texture thanks to the presence of melted cheese (and also yogurt) as well as a generous amount of ground beef. The cream cheese curry was mild but tasty, while but the notably more pungent camembert curry had a deep, rich umami-ful flavor. I think it would have gone very well with some strong red wine, but this didn’t occur to me until after the fact.

No matter. The camembert curry is one I will almost definitely be trying again, so the wine can wait till next time. Wine and curry may be an unusual combination, but I imagine an adventurous innovator like Inoue would probably approve.

Salt candy: A Japanese summer survival tool

July 15, 2013

Salt candy marked

Today’s Tokyo area weather is bright and breezy and warm. It’s a pleasant contrast to earlier this month, when we were in the grip of an outright heat wave with temperatures often reaching the high 30s Celsius (in the 90s Fahrenheit) amid suffocating humidity. Nationwide, more than 2,500 people were hospitalized for heatstroke just in the first week of July, and there have even been a few deaths.

salty lycheeThe media have been full of warnings about keeping cool, drinking plenty of water, and making sure to get enough salt. With that in mind, I singlehandedly a large bag of potato chips between breakfast and lunch the other day, thinking all the while that there must be a better way to get some salt into my body.

salt kanji 001And perhaps there is. The photo above shows an array of salt candy at a Japanese convenience store. The word for salt is “shio,” and it is written with the kanji character shown on the left. See how many times you can spot it on the labels of the candies in the photos.

For the record, I bought a package of salty lychee and salty lime candies. They taste exactly as advertised. The ingredient list specified that the salt comes from Okinawa Prefecture.

Hmm. I wonder if there’s an Okinawa salt curry…

Around Japan in 47 Curries: Toyama water

July 8, 2013

This is Part 8 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

AA me on dam

The Kurobe River is short but steep. It runs only 85 kilometers from Mt. Washiba in Toyama Prefecture, but it falls nearly 3 kilometers over that distance. Where it empties into the Sea of Japan, it has created an alluvial fan where the town of Kurobe stands.

Some of this gushing water is destined for the curry pot.

Some of this gushing water is destined for the curry pot.

Because of its steep fall, the river was a good candidate for a hydroelectric project. The Kurobe Dam, Japan’s tallest at 186 meters, was built across it in a major postwar construction project from 1956 to 1963 that cost 171 lives in accidents.According to its official website, the dam now generates enough electricity to power a million households.

The dam is also a popular tourist site. Its visitors have included yours truly, seen a few years ago in the photo at the top of this entry. (Look at those little people on top of the dam in the background for scale.) Although the dam is in Toyama Prefecture, the usual way to reach it is to drive to Ogisawa Station in Nagano Prefecture and then catch an electric bus that takes you through the mountains and across the prefectural border via a 6.1-kilometer tunnel that was built to as an access route to the construction project.

AA bus in tunnel

Although most famous as the site of an engineering feat, the Kurobe River is also known for the quality of its water, especially the cold springs that bubble up in the coastal town of Kurobe after filtering through the alluvial fan. It’s called Kurobe Meisui—literally, Kurobe’s famous water.

I’ve never been to the town of Kurobe, so I’ve never tasted this water for myself. Until today, the closest I had ever come was drinking from a spring high above the river at the Kurobe dam. You could say that I drank a precursor of Kurobe Meisui.

AA water

Today, I tasted one of several varieties of Kurobe Meisui curry – a black “soup curry” made with the famous water. While standard Japanese curry is served on a plate with rice, soup curry is served in a bowl, with rice in a separate bowl. You eat the curry by dipping spoonfuls of rice in it. This curry certainly was soupy.

AA kurobe soup

In addition to the famous Kurobe water—clearly the dominant ingredient—this curry also contains about two small bites of chicken, fruits and vegetables minced too finely to distinguish (listed as onions, carrots, apples, ginger and garlic), tomato puree, flour, chutney, curry power, salt…

Toyama Meisui 001Ah, salt. This brings us to the fact that Kurobe Meisui is not the only famous water in Toyama Prefecture. In recent years the prefecture has also been promoting its “deep seawater,” piped up from beyond the continental shelf in Toyama Bay. If you’ve been following “Around Japan in 47 Curries,” you know that Tsuruga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture is Japan’s deepest at 2,500 meters, but the 1,000-meter depth of Toyama Bay is still impressive.

According to a Toyama prefectural government website:

“Three major positive characteristics of deep seawater are its low-temperature stability, inorganic nutrient richness, and purity. Its low-temperature stability aspect is utilized in the cultivation of cold water aquafarming. Through this, we have been able to significantly eliminate costs related to the conventional method of aquafarming, which required the cooling of surface seawater.
“Furthermore, deep seawater is receiving attention due to its balance of essential minerals including calcium and magnesium for use in health drinks and foods, pharmaceutical products, and other fields.”

Map showing Toyama by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Map showing Toyama by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

According to the label of my Toyama soup curry, the salt it contains is made from Toyama Bay deep seawater.

The ingredients continue with cumin, black pepper, butter, malt extract, bouillon, nam pla fish sauce, sugar, and the usual range of unpronounceables. Eating this curry created a moderate spicy burn that I could feel at the back of my throat as much as on my tongue. I broke out in a sweat while eating it, which might be due to its spiciness or due to the fact that it was fresh off the stove and I was eating it in July with the windows open.

In any case, its was spicy enough that I’m still not really sure what that pure Kurobe Meisui water is supposed to taste like.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Shizuoka sardine

July 1, 2013

This is Part 7 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.


Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Shizuoka Prefecture, southeast of Tokyo, includes Japan’s highest point (the 3,776-meter summit of Mt. Fuji) and its deepest bay (the 2,500-meter deep Suruga Bay), for a total altitude difference of 6.2 kilometers (just shy of four miles). And the Shizuoka curry I sampled this week had a very Japanese flavor: umami.

Not surprisingly for a place with such deep water so close to shore, seafood is a major industry in the prefecture. According to a government website:

“Shizuoka ranks seventh overall in fisheries production in Japan, but leads in a number of favorites. Shizuoka is tops in catches of bonito (skipjack tuna), mackerel, yellow-fin tuna, and cherry-colored shrimp…It also holds the top spot in farmed rainbow trout and jack mackerel and is in the top five for fishing of sardines, spiny lobsters, southern bluefin, bigeye, and albacore tuna.”

This week’s curry is Shizuoka sardine curry.

The first three listed ingredients are vegetables, lard and iwashi kezuribushi. Vegetables are further broken down into onions, potatoes and carrots. I wonder if they were lumped together as one item to keep lard from coming first.

Iwashi boxAnyway, “iwashi” is the Japanese word for sardine, and “kezuribushi” means the fish have been dried and then shaved into papery flakes. The process is similar to that used in making katsuobushi bonito flakes, which are often sprinkled over okonomiyaki as a condiment.

Katsuobushi and iwashi kezuribushi can be boiled to make dashi, a thin but umami-rich stock that is a basic element of Japanese cuisine. Dried kombu seaweed and dried shiitake mushrooms are also umami-ful ingredients that can be boiled to make to dashi.

In case the word umami is new to you, here’s the basic concept: Humans enjoy eating salty things because we need a certain amount of salt to live, and we enjoy sweet things because natural sweetness indicates that a food contains readily available energy. Similarly, the flavor known as umami is appealing because it indicates that a food is protein-rich. Meat, seafood and cheese all have their own special kinds of deliciousness that cannot be characterized as sweet, salty, sour or bitter. That category of flavor is called umami.

However, protein itself is not necessarily delicious. Proteins are complex molecules made up of simpler substances called amino acids. For our bodies to make use of proteins in food, the proteins must first be broken down into their constituent amino acids during digestion. If the foods we eat contain proteins that are already broken down into amino acids, our bodies are able to use them much more easily. Foods in which that has happened have a stronger and more appealing umami flavor.

For that reason, protein-rich foods like fish, meat, cheese or even soybeans usually taste much better after they go through processes that cause or accelerate the breakdown of proteins. Such processes include aging, fermenting, curing or even simple drying. And that is why dashi broth is made from dried mushrooms, dried seaweed or dried fish. The proteins have broken down, the amino acids have been set free, and the umami flavor has been ramped up.

Iwashi curry marked

This brings us back to the dried sardines in this week’s curry. According to text on the label, people in Shizuoka began using iwashi kezuribushi in an effort to give their curry some umami meatiness amid postwar meat shortages. The results were so tasty that 80 years later some of them are still doing it.

Having been dried, shaved into flakes, and then dissolved in a pot of curry, the sardines are not visible at all. The curry has a mild fish (but not fishy) flavor, and a thick, soft, creamy texture. (The lard might have something to do with that.)

It is not very spicy and not very exciting, and but even so its fatty mouthfeel and umami flavor made it thoroughly satisfying. This is the first curry I’ve found that I would categorize as comfort food.