This is Part 16 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
For 500 years, “Maeda” was the most famous name in Ishikawa Prefecture. Nowadays, it’s “Matsui.” The Maeda were a daimyo family who ruled by the sword; Matsui was a baseball player who ruled with a bat.
Ishikawa is a broad swath of coastline on the Sea of Japan. Covering 4,185 square kilometers, it is about the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. The Noto Peninsula accounts for about half of its land area.
The Maedas built a castle in the city of Kanazawa, in the mainland part of Ishikawa, in 1583. According to a prefectural website, they were one of the most powerful families in Japan, second only to the Tokugawas who ruled the nation from Edo.
When I visited Kanazawa a few years ago, the wealth and power of the Maeda family remained evident not only in their sprawling castle, but also in Kenrokuen, the vast and magnificent garden they had built in the 1700s. One of its most fascinating features is Japan’s oldest fountain. Set in the center of a pond, it shoots a jet of water 3.5 meters into the air, powered simply by having its water supply piped in underground from a different pond at a higher elevation.
I thought I could see why the Maedas had been so prosperous. First, Tokyo (as Edo is called nowadays) is separated from Kanazawa by row after row of mountains, which would have made it difficult for the Maedas and the Tokugawas to molest one another militarily. Secondly, there was a lot of nice-looking farmland along the coast. And the coast itself – its length multiplied by the peninsula – means plenty of seafood is always nearby. The area seemed to have other natural resources as well: The name “Kanazawa” means “gold marsh,” and the manufacture of gold leaf is an old traditional industry there.
During my visit, I ate some spectacular multicourse seafood dinners at my hotel – including an unforgettable baked apple stuffed with crabmeat – and I bought some pound cake topped with gold leaf as omiyage to share with my coworkers back in Tokyo. This is not as extravagant as it sounds: With the gold leaf being just 0.0001 millimeters thick, it cost only slightly more than any other pound cake. Unfortunately, the leaf was so delicate, and the cake so moist, that most of the gold wound up smeared across the inside of the box by the time I got it to the office.
Such tourist fare is all well and good, but if you really want to understand a place, it helps to sample its home cooking. And that’s where Matsui comes in.
Professional baseball player Hideki Matsui was born in 1974 in the town of Negari,* now part of the city of Nomi, Ishikawa Prefecture. Most mothers want their sons to grow up to be big and strong, but few succeed as dramatically Mrs. Matsui did. As a kid, he was already such a powerful right-handed hitter that the other boys wouldn’t play with him unless he switched to batting left-handed. He did – and still went on to become one of the top batters in the world.
There must have been something in his mom’s cooking. Maybe it was her curry.
Matsui became a star while still a Kanazawa high school student, attracting national attention in 1992 with a record-tying seven RBIs in his first game at the Koshien national baseball tournament. Japan baseball authority Jim Allen** describes the repercussions in an article here. Matsui went on to become a star of the Yomiuri Giants and the New York Yankees before ending his career in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. A Tokyo Dome ceremony to mark his retirement was attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Throughout his career, Matsui bore the nickname “Godzilla,” which most fans associated with the power he brought to the plate. (Allen reports that in earlier days the nickname referred to his “coarse complexion.”) At some games, the Blue Oyster Cult song “[Go Go] Godzilla” would play as Matsui stepped up to the plate. This was doubly appropriate since the number he played under, 55, can be pronounced “go-go” in Japanese.
Now that Godzilla is retired, he has taken to hawking a brand of curry called “Matsui-ke Hiden no Kare,” or the Matsui family’s secret curry. Dressed in a jacket and tie, Matsui is shown holding a bat on the front of the box, which bears the slogan, “The ‘Mom’ flavor Hideki Matsui was raised on, re-created.” On the back of the box, a more casually dressed Matsui holds a spoon and declares, “The flavor of this curry is exactly like my Mom’s flavor I was accustomed to when since back when I was a kid.” Further text on the back says the contents are “just like” the stuff that “the first World Series MVP from Asia” grew up on.
The wording makes it pretty clear that this is not really Matsui’s mother’s recipe, but just a reasonable commercial approximation. That makes me feel a little better about liking only one of the two varieties it comes in.
In a clever bit of marketing, there is garlic-free “renshu-chu” curry for “during training” and also “shiai-mae” curry, which is loaded with garlic, for “before the game.”
Both come in a brown sauce so thick as to be almost pasty, not soaking into the rice at all. In that regard, these are the most typical Japanese curries I have tasted for this series. Both included soft potatoes, softer carrots, and a few random bits of meat sliced only a little thicker than gold leaf. Both are billed as “medium spicy,” but the training curry tasted pretty mild to me. It would have been right at home in an institutional cafeteria.
However, the sharp smell of the pre-game garlic curry told me it was going to be something special. And sure enough, it had a fantastically strong garlic flavor. It actually created a slight burning sensation on my tongue. I was very impressed.
Matsui hit 507 home runs in his pro career. I have hit only one home run in my life – and that was 20 years ago in a softball game. After eating Matsui’s curry, I doubt that my batting prowess has improved. But it did give me something in common with the original Godzilla: incredibly powerful breath.
*The mayor of Negari at that time was Shigeki Mori, who was in office from 1953 to 1989. Mori’s father had been the mayor before him, and his son Yoshiro Mori went on to become prime minister from 2000 to 2001. The Maedas may be gone, but dynastic politics is alive and well.