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