Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Japanese wordplay: A&W

August 25, 2014

In Okinawa last year, I had lunch at an A&W root beer and hamburger shop. The placemat on my tray gave a brief history of the company, which has its origins in California and is named for founder Roy Allen and early co-owner Frank Wright.

Okinawa got its first A&W in 1963, and in the 1970s the company ran a radio ad campaign with a little gag that could only work in Japanese.

AW 001

According to the placemat, the ads connected A&W with the phrase あなたとわたしのドライブイン (Anata to Watashi no doraibuin). As any beginning student of Japanese knows, “anata to watashi” means “you and me,” so あなたとわたしのドライブイン was “our drive-in.”

Around Japan in 47 Curries: Mrs. Matsui’s Ishikawa Slugger Sauce

November 13, 2013

This is Part 16 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Ishikawa map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

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.

AAAA castle

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.

AAAA fountain

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.

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

Your blogger, shopping for gold cake

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.

Hideki Matsui  Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

Hideki Matsui
Photo by Keith Allison via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Matsui curry 001

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.

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*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.

**If you like that, go listen to Japan Baseball Weekly, a podcast that Allen and fellow expert John E. Gibson produce together here.  Yes, that’s a plug. Go listen.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Nagano souvenirs

October 28, 2013
Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture

This is Part 15 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Late October has been pleasantly cool in Tokyo this year. This comes as a relief after a scorching summer of record-breaking heat — including temperatures above 30 C (86 F) well into October.

In August, I dealt with this by doing what heat-averse Tokyoites have done for many years. I escaped to Nagano Prefecture for a weekend.

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Though it is nearly on the same latitude as Tokyo, Nagano’s elevation is much higher, making it a natural summer retreat. It’s also known for skiing; the Winter Olympics were held there in 1998.

The most popular summer resort area is Karuizawa, where then Crown Prince Akihito first met his future wife, now Empress Michiko, while playing tennis in 1957. It’s also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to go to relax in the 1970s.

But on my own latest trip to Nagano, I visited a less crowded destination: the Kamikochi valley.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

There is no rail service to Kamikochi, so getting there requires a long drive by bus or car from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a city famous for its “black crow” castle.

From there, you drive upstream along the Azusa River as it snakes ever higher into the mountains. Visitors pass several dams owned by TEPCO, even driving over the top of one of them, and go through more tunnels than I could count.

Finally, there comes a point at which you can drive no further. The road goes on, but private cars are prohibited. To preserve the beauty and tranquility of the valley, only buses and taxis are allowed to drive beyond a certain point, and there’s a long stretch of the valley even beyond that, which can only be accessed by hikers. There are a number of campgrounds and small hotels scattered along the river, most of them well hidden by the trees. Here’s what it looks like…

AAA rocks

AAA cloud

AAA forest light

AAA water

In addition to such soothing scenes, the air was clean and refreshing, and the place was nearly silent. Too cool for the shrilling cicadas that occupied Tokyo at the time, the valley had a low-key soundtrack dominated by the river gurgling over rocks and the susurration of the wind in the trees, punctuated only by the occasional quack of a river duck.

It also had a souvenir shop where I bought two different Nagano curries.

Nagano meat curries 001

Like neighboring Yamanashi, Nagano is a big producer of fruit. The prefecture is especially proud of its apples, which are often used (usually in pureed form) to sweeten curries. But instead of apple curry, I bought some beef curry made with the meat of apple-fed cows. While I was at it, I also got some curry made with yeast-fed Nagano pork.

curry NaganoThe beef curry came in a dark sauce with a ketchuppy demiglace flavor that was slightly spicy, slightly sweet and not terribly interesting. The pork curry was much better, although not spicy at all. It had a very umami flavor and a luscious creamy fatty mouthfeel. A big chunk of soft fat undoubtedly contributed to that effect, but there was only a little actual meat. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything special about the meat in either of these curries. Still, of the two, the pork is the one I’d be happier to eat again.

By the way, if you’d like to see a little more of Kamikochi, check out the post about the valley’s Myojin-ike pond over at The Lobster Dance.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Yamanashi fruit

September 16, 2013

Yamanashi fruit 001

This is Part 14 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

If you climbed the southern slope of Mt. Fuji, you’d be in coastal Shizuoka Prefecture, home to the sardine curry I blogged about earlier. Then, if you descended the northern slope of Mt. Fuji, you’d be in landlocked Yamanashi Prefecture, where you could sample curry made with fruit.

Yamanashi map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Yamanashi map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Yamanashi, west of Tokyo, is a mountainous prefecture. In addition to half of Mt. Fuji, it is home to a dozen peaks more than 2,500 meters tall. Many Japanese people find the pronunciation of its name mildly amusing because “Yama nashi” sounds like a patently untrue statement: “There are no mountains.”

The name is written with the kanji characters 山梨, which mean “mountain pear.” This too is rather odd. Although Yamanashi is famous for fruit, nashi pears are not one of its top crops. (According to the prefectural government, the name’s origins are unknown.)

Grapes and wine are Yamanashi’s most famous products. The cultivation of grapes dates back about 1,300 years, apparently beginning with a monk who had a vision of Buddha holding a bunch of them. Wine production didn’t get started until the 1868-1912 Meiji era, but there are now more than 80 wineries in the prefecture, making about 40 percent of Japan’s domestic wine.

In 2007, the prefecture was No. 1 in grape production, at 51,400 tons, well ahead of second-place Nagano with 30,700. It was also first in peaches (54,100 tons, ahead of then second-place Fukushima at 27,800) and plums (6,660, ahead of second-place Wakayama at 3,280).

While driving through Yamanashi Prefecture a couple of weeks ago, I picked up some grape and peach curries at a highway rest stop. Here they are side by side in one bowl after I brought them home:

Mboth

They both had a low-to-medium level of spiciness, along with a weak sweet flavor. The sweetness was slightly more noticeable in the grape curry than the peach. The peach curry contained one impressively large chunk of fruit along with smaller fragments.

Mpeachy

As big as the peach piece looked, it was so thoroughly cooked that it dissolved to nothingness the instant I put it in my mouth. Neither it nor the curry it was in tasted particularly fruity. (Last week’s Tottori nashi pear curry was a big winner in that regard.)

Mgrapement

The grape curry was slightly sweeter, and it contained two whole grapes. Because they were still in their skins, they held their shape and texture much better than the peach did. This added some textural variety, but in terms of flavor neither of these curries was especially exciting or interesting.

Japanese wordplay: Sweet snack

September 14, 2013

AAA P1

This photo shows the lid of a container of Japanese junk food whose name is a delightfully awful pun. Do you get it?

If not, here are some clues.

First, sugar is a major ingredient. It is represented in Japanese by the character 糖 tou, which is prominently featured on the label. This character never appears on its own (as far as I know). But it is part of many common compound words. For example:

砂糖 satou (literally, sand sugar) is ordinary table sugar.
乳糖 nyutou (milk sugar) is lactose.
果糖 katou (fruit sugar) is fructose.
黒糖 kokutou (black sugar) is an extra-dark brown sugar commonly associated with Okinawa.
花林糖 karintou (flower woods sugar) is a poetically named fried snack, more commonly written かりんとう and usually flavored with black or brown sugar. (It’s not the snack shown in the photo, however.)
If you eat too much sugar, you may end up with 糖尿病 tounyoubyou (sugar urine disease), or diabetes. So you might want to look for products that are labeled 低糖 teitou (reduced sugar).

I think that’s enough talk about sugar for now. So, let’s turn to another common junk food ingredient: potatoes.

The basic Japanese word for potato is 芋 imo, often written as いも or イモ. This word can stand on its own, but also appears in a variety of compounds. For example:

里芋 sato imo (village potato) is a taro.
サツマイモ satsuma imo is a sweet potato. It is named after a place – the Satsuma domain in southern Kyushu, where it was first commonly grown.
ジャガイモ jaga imo is a common white potato. It is said to be named after a place even further south – Java – apparently because it first arrived in Japan aboard Dutch ships that sailed via Indonesia.
長芋 nagaimo (long potato) is a Japanese root vegetable similar to jicama in terms of its pale, bland and crunchy flesh, although its shape is long rather than round and its juice is viscous.

However, there is also a Japanese word for potato that comes from English: ポテト poteto. At any casual dining establishment in Japan, you are likely to find ポテトフライ poteto-furai, or French fries, somewhere on the menu.

AAA P2

And now you can see that the snack in the photo does resemble French fries. And its punny name is … PoteTOU.

Get it now?

The full wording on the lid reads: “A marvelous meeting of sweet and salty flavors: PoteTOU. A potato sweet that tastes like black sugar karintou.”

I bought this product because I found the name irresistible. But I only ate a couple of pieces because I don’t want to get 糖尿病.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Tottori nashi pear

September 7, 2013
This is what a nashi pear looks like. (The one shown here is from Chiba Prefecture.),

Here is what a nashi pear looks like. (This one is from Chiba Prefecture.)

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.

ghost-dvd-cover-artA 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.

600px-Map_of_Japan_with_highlight_on_31_Tottori_prefecture_svg

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tottori nashi 001And 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.

Nashiplatemarked

Around Japan in 47 curries: Kumamoto horse meat

August 3, 2013

This is Part 11 of a 47-part series of almost-weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

So hungry you could eat a horse? Then you should visit Kumamoto Prefecture, where horse meat is a well-known feature of the local culture.

This makes Kumamoto distinctive, since meat of any kind has played only a small role in the history of Japanese cuisine. In fact, eating it was usually taboo.

If you squint just right, this horse looks kind of like a cow. (JD Lamb photo via Wikimedia Commons)

If you squint just right, this horse looks kind of like a cow. (JD Lamb photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In her fascinating book “Modern Japanese Cuisine,” historian Katarzyna J. Cwiertka writes, “The first decree prohibiting meat eating in Japan was issued in AD 675.” Today it is commonly believed that such rules were based on Buddhist beliefs, but Cwiertka argues that the real purpose was to protect big livestock – horses and cattle – needed for plowing and transportation. Once the ban was in place, Buddhism may have reinforced it, but it seems to have applied mainly to domestic animals rather than wild game.

But even game carried a whiff of the unsavory. During the Edo period (1603-1868), there were “beast restaurants” that served meat for “medicinal” purposes. Cwiertka writes, “The fact that euphemisms were used when referring to various types of meat indicates that the aura of defilement was associated with the game stew served there. Sakura (cherry) signified horsemeat, momiji (maple) venison and botan (peony) wild boar, the last also being known as ‘mountain whale’ (yamakujira).”

Kumamoto map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Kumamoto map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

How, when and why eating horse meat took particular root in Kumamoto is unclear, but one theory (described in an article by Jesse Veverka) holds that Kato Kiyomasa, daimyo of what is now Kumamoto prefecture, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, sanctioned it in response to a war-induced famine in the 1590s.

Nowadays, horse accounts for almost exactly one percent of Japan’s annual meat production. Of approximately 500,000 tons of meat produced domestically each year since 2009, about 5,000 tons comes from horses. Japan imports horse meat, too – roughly 1,360 tons in the first four months of 2013, compared to about 45,800 tons of beef imported in the same period, according to agriculture ministry statistics.

That’s a lot of meat, and there are a lot of ways to serve it.

In her handy reference book and dining guide “Food Sake Tokyo,” Yukari Sakamoto writes about horse meat, “The lean meat of the neck is eaten braised or ground; the tender parts like the fillet are eaten rare; the back leg, rich in fat and collagen, is slow-cooked for a long time so that it becomes tender. The liver, sliced thinly, is sometimes eaten raw.” She goes on to describe additional preparations, such as sashimi-style raw horse (basashi), grilled horse and a shabu-shabu-style hot pot dish called hari hari nabe.

I’ve eaten basashi at izakayas a few times over the years, dipping slices of the meat in soy sauce with grated ginger. Perhaps I haven’t gone to the right places, but I’ve found the meat to be overly chewy and not memorably flavorful. It’s not at all unpleasant, but it struck me as being in the category of things one eats just to say one has eaten them.

Kumamoto horse curry marked

However, the horse meat curry I tried a few days ago was much nicer than that. It included chunks of what I would consider good stew meat – soft and just slightly stringy, easy to break up with the edge of a spoon. Some of the meat had little bits of tendon attached, with the collagen softened by long cooking. (I was content with the quantitiy of meat I got, but it was nothing like the generous mountain shown in the photo on the box.)

It was a rather mild curry, but the spiciness was dialed down without being replaced by the overt sweetness that often characterizes mild curries in Japan. The sauce reminded me of what you might get if you made a standard brown gravy with meat drippings, thickened it with more than the usual amount of flour and then added just a dash or two of cayenne pepper or chili powder.

Horse curry box 001When I checked the ingredient list, sugar was more prominent than I had expected. But then, sugar is in everything these days. Otherwise, the main ingredients bore out my first impressions. The top nine were horse meat, fat (beef and pork), flour, sugar, starch, salt, curry powder, fond de veau (veal stock), and sautéed onions.

In addition to the main meat, there were a several other umami ingredients such as tomato sauce, cheese and pork bouillon. There were also a few surprise items such as banana, honey, peanut butter and cocoa.

This was a nice curry. I enjoyed it without finding it particularly exciting. I think my timing may have been off. If I had eaten this horse meat curry on a cold winter night instead of a hot summer day, I’m sure I would have found it immensely satisfying.

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.

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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.

600px-Map_of_Japan_with_highlight_on_45_Miyazaki_prefecture_svg

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…