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.)
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.
Today, 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.
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.