This is Part 13 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
One day in 1989, someone brought some nashi pears the office where I was working. They sliced them up and passed them around on little plates. I had just begun living in Japan and had never seen or heard of nashi. The first thing I noticed was that these pears weren’t pear-shaped. They were big and round. The second thing I noticed was that they were some of the most delicious fruit I had ever eaten.
The texture was remarkable. The pale flesh was about as hard as that of a Red Delicious apple, and even more crisp. But it was packed with a seemingly impossible volume of clear, sweet juice. How so much liquid could some out of something so solid was a wonderful paradox. And after eating it, my mouth felt clean and refreshed. I was blown away.
If only people in America knew about these, I thought, they would be hugely popular there.
A year later, in 1990, I went to the theater to see the movie “Ghost.” Patrick Swayze plays a murder victim, and Demi Moore plays his grieving girlfriend. The villain who arranged the murder wants to find out how much she knows, so he sets out to seduce her. In the most shocking scene I saw on film that year, the actor Tony Goldwyn pulled out a crumpled paper bag and presented Demi Moore with some delectable “Japanese apple pears” – a rare, expensive and little-known treat in America, a gift meant to show his generosity and savoir-faire.
I was aghast. My beloved nashi had been introduced to the American public at last – but as a tool of seduction in the hands of a cold-blooded killer. Oh, the injustice! They might as well have taken those pears, chopped them into tiny pieces and made them into curry!
Well, 23 years later, I have learned that someone did just that.
This week’s curry comes from Tottori Prefecture, which is perhaps most famous for sand. The Tottori Sakyu sand dunes, 16 kilometers long and two kilometers wide, are one of the weirder bits of Japan’s geography. They’re also the place where the famous 1964 movie “Woman in the Dunes” was filmed.
So far in this blog series, I have tasted curries made with cheese, olives, mackerel, strawberries and horse meat. Almost anything can be made into curry in Japan, and I’ll try almost any Japanese curry. But even in Tottori, there is no sand curry. Good thing, too, or I might feel obliged.
However, they do grow nashi pears there. In particular, they have one nashi tree with especially good pears that was found growing wild in 1904. It was named “Nijuu Seiki Nashi,” which literally means 20th-century pear. This tree and its many offspring produce pears that Tottori is quite proud of, as evidenced by this promotional website and the fact that they actually built a Tottori pear museum.
And of course, there is Tottori 20th-century pear curry. Nashi is the first listed ingredient, but a parenthetical note advises that only 60 percent of it is the 20th-century variety. This is followed by sautéed onions, curry roux, fond de veau and ground meat. It is labeled as being mild enough to eat for breakfast, and that is when I tried it. It was very nice.
The soft bits of minced fruit and firmer bits of well-cooked ground meat gave it an interesting pebbly texture that went well with tender grains of rice. I surmised that the meat might be pork, knowing how that particular meat is often prepared with fruit. But the ingredient list identified it as a beef-pork mixture. It was definitely sweet, but not in such a way that the flavor shouted, “Nashi!” If I’d been tasting this blind, I might have guessed it was made with green apples that had mellowed in cooking. On a more personal note, the particular sweetness of this curry brought up memories of being a little kid pulling out the insides of honeysuckle flowers to taste of the drop of nectar in each one.
It was a very pleasant breakfast indeed.