Posts Tagged ‘Around Japan in 47 curries’

Around Japan in 47 curries: Fukushima fire curry

August 24, 2017

This is Part 17 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Fukushima Prefecture has a long history of recovering from geological disasters. Some of those disasters can be remembered through local curries.

Since the latest and most terrible of these disasters – the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown and mass evacuation – I have visited the prefecture at least four times. No, I didn’t visit the ruined nuclear power plant. But as I will explain further down in this post, knowledge of its existence didn’t deter me from eating several local curries. Two of those curries are marketed with images of fire.

Ukiyo-e print by Tankei depicting the Eruption of Mount Bandai, 1888 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The first curry commemorates the July 15, 1888, eruption of Mt. Bandai, a volcano near the center of the 13,780-square-kilometer prefecture. The mountain had been a smooth, Fuji-like cone before it suddenly exploded due to a buildup of underground steam. The blast – which went largely sideways rather than up, similar to the explosion of Mt. St. Helens in the United States a century later  – left behind an irregularly shaped mountain with four separate peaks. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency,  the explosion could be heard from a distance of 50 to 100 kilometers, an avalanche of debris buried five towns and 11 villages, and ash fell from the sky along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, about 90 kilometers away. At least 461 people died.

Did I say there’s a curry that commemorates this event? Perhaps I should have said there’s a curry that cashes in on it. The design on the box of “Mt. Bandai Great Eruption Curry” is not exactly reverent. But I bought it in a souvenir shop at the foot of the still-active volcano. The people who live and work in such an area are entitled to a bit of gallows humor, especially more than a century later.

The back of the box includes warnings that children, pregnant women, and those with weak stomachs or high blood pressure should eat this lava-like curry with caution, if at all. So naturally, I was expecting something super-hot. As it says on the label: 超辛 chou-kara.

Unfortunately, all I can say about this curry is that it was hot. It wasn’t pleasantly peppery, like Kagawa Prefecture’s olive curry.  Nor was it masochistically thrilling, like Miyazaki Prefecture’s jet-fuel curry. It was just plain hot. I was disappointed by its lack of complexity, but if simple hotness is what you’re after, this curry is for you.

1024px-Map_of_Japan_with_highlight_on_07_Fukushima_prefecture.svg

By Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

The next disaster occurred in the late 1960s. The coal mining industry in Iwaki, a coastal city in the southeast corner of the prefecture, had gone into decline due to Japan’s growing use of oil. The local mining company tried to diversify into tourism. It created a hot spring resort called the Joban Hawaiian Center, now Spa Resort Hawaiians. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun interview with an executive of the resort, disaster ironically struck when the mine then hit an underground body of water and flooded, forcing it to shut down a decade ahead of schedule.

A major attraction of the resort was its hula dancing shows, put on by women from the miners’ families. Their story was even turned into a popular 2006 movie, “Hula Girls.”

Everyone knows about the third big disaster – or set of disasters – to hit Fukushima Prefecture. On March 11, 2011, a huge earthquake set off a massive tsunami that ravaged the coast, killed thousands of people, and damaged the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, leading to meltdowns in three of its reactors. The meltdowns prompted large-scale evacuations that themselves have been blamed for many additional deaths.

In addition to the cost in human lives, the tsunami devastated local economies up and down the coast – but especially in Fukushima, where fears of radiation kept tourists away and drove down sales of agricultural products.

About two years after the disaster, I made a minor contribution to the prefecture’s economic recovery by visiting Spa Resort Hawaiians. I soaked in a large rotenburo outdoor bath, I went down the many water slides again and again (a feat made possible by the lines still being so short at that time because people were staying away) and of course I took in the hula show. I was pleased to see that the hula girls are now joined by hula boys, who stunt-dance with flaming torches.

Finally, I bought omiyage souvenirs to bring back to Tokyo and share with my coworkers. This is standard etiquette for Japanese travelers, and omiyage is almost always some edible specialty from the place you visited. But would my coworkers want to eat food from Fukushima? And could I be sure that it was safe enough for me to offer it to them with a clear conscience? There was a lot of doubt in the air at that time, so I split the difference and picked up a couple of boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. They clearly weren’t made in Fukushima, but at least I was leaving some money in Fukushima to get them.

Since then, I have become much more sanguine about food from Fukushima. I’ve been following the news, and I have yet to read even one credible report of any dangerously radioactive food reaching the retail market. Not one. Moreover, Japan’s standards about radioactivity in food are now ridiculously strict.

The United States allows up to 1,200 becquerels of radioactive cesium in food. The European Union allows levels ranging from 400 to 1,250, depending on the food category. Japan allows just 10 to 100. This means that if a food item exceeded the Japanese limit by 500 percent, it would still be less than half as radioactive as some foods that would be perfectly legal to sell in the United States or Europe. (Details here.)

To look at it another way, the following chart from Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency shows that eating a whole kilogram of food with cesium at the 100-becquerel level would expose you to less than 2 percent of the radiation you’d get just by sitting in an airplane on a flight from Tokyo to New York.

Radiation chart

So, just as I am not afraid to eat spicy food, I am not afraid to eat food from Fukushima. When I came across some Hula Girl curry at a Fukushima antenna shop in Tokyo recently, I didn’t hesitate to buy it and try it.

I’m happy to report that the “fire beef” curry, with a torch-twirling hula boy in the corner of the box, is much more interesting to ingest than the Bandai lava curry. This curry is quite hot, but with more varied flavors also making themselves known. It’s tomatoey with faint hints of fruit. It’s hotness seemed jalapeno-esque, with a little sweetness to it, even though jalapenos are not on the ingredient list. The ingredients begin with beef (ground, rather than the chunks I’d hoped for, but it’s definitely in there), followed by onions, flour, curry roux, sugar, tomato paste, salt, curry powder, onion powder, beef extract, togarashi hot pepper, coconut milk powder, mango chutney, pineapple puree, garlic, and garam masala, ending with the usual inescapable colorings and such. Good stuff, over all.

Dancing with a flaming torch is scary. Eating Fukushima curry is not.

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: 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.

asdf1 001

 

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: Toyama water

July 8, 2013

This is Part 8 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

AA me on dam

The Kurobe River is short but steep. It runs only 85 kilometers from Mt. Washiba in Toyama Prefecture, but it falls nearly 3 kilometers over that distance. Where it empties into the Sea of Japan, it has created an alluvial fan where the town of Kurobe stands.

Some of this gushing water is destined for the curry pot.

Some of this gushing water is destined for the curry pot.

Because of its steep fall, the river was a good candidate for a hydroelectric project. The Kurobe Dam, Japan’s tallest at 186 meters, was built across it in a major postwar construction project from 1956 to 1963 that cost 171 lives in accidents.According to its official website, the dam now generates enough electricity to power a million households.

The dam is also a popular tourist site. Its visitors have included yours truly, seen a few years ago in the photo at the top of this entry. (Look at those little people on top of the dam in the background for scale.) Although the dam is in Toyama Prefecture, the usual way to reach it is to drive to Ogisawa Station in Nagano Prefecture and then catch an electric bus that takes you through the mountains and across the prefectural border via a 6.1-kilometer tunnel that was built to as an access route to the construction project.

AA bus in tunnel

Although most famous as the site of an engineering feat, the Kurobe River is also known for the quality of its water, especially the cold springs that bubble up in the coastal town of Kurobe after filtering through the alluvial fan. It’s called Kurobe Meisui—literally, Kurobe’s famous water.

I’ve never been to the town of Kurobe, so I’ve never tasted this water for myself. Until today, the closest I had ever come was drinking from a spring high above the river at the Kurobe dam. You could say that I drank a precursor of Kurobe Meisui.

AA water

Today, I tasted one of several varieties of Kurobe Meisui curry – a black “soup curry” made with the famous water. While standard Japanese curry is served on a plate with rice, soup curry is served in a bowl, with rice in a separate bowl. You eat the curry by dipping spoonfuls of rice in it. This curry certainly was soupy.

AA kurobe soup

In addition to the famous Kurobe water—clearly the dominant ingredient—this curry also contains about two small bites of chicken, fruits and vegetables minced too finely to distinguish (listed as onions, carrots, apples, ginger and garlic), tomato puree, flour, chutney, curry power, salt…

Toyama Meisui 001Ah, salt. This brings us to the fact that Kurobe Meisui is not the only famous water in Toyama Prefecture. In recent years the prefecture has also been promoting its “deep seawater,” piped up from beyond the continental shelf in Toyama Bay. If you’ve been following “Around Japan in 47 Curries,” you know that Tsuruga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture is Japan’s deepest at 2,500 meters, but the 1,000-meter depth of Toyama Bay is still impressive.

According to a Toyama prefectural government website:

“Three major positive characteristics of deep seawater are its low-temperature stability, inorganic nutrient richness, and purity. Its low-temperature stability aspect is utilized in the cultivation of cold water aquafarming. Through this, we have been able to significantly eliminate costs related to the conventional method of aquafarming, which required the cooling of surface seawater.
“Furthermore, deep seawater is receiving attention due to its balance of essential minerals including calcium and magnesium for use in health drinks and foods, pharmaceutical products, and other fields.”

Map showing Toyama by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Map showing Toyama by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

According to the label of my Toyama soup curry, the salt it contains is made from Toyama Bay deep seawater.

The ingredients continue with cumin, black pepper, butter, malt extract, bouillon, nam pla fish sauce, sugar, and the usual range of unpronounceables. Eating this curry created a moderate spicy burn that I could feel at the back of my throat as much as on my tongue. I broke out in a sweat while eating it, which might be due to its spiciness or due to the fact that it was fresh off the stove and I was eating it in July with the windows open.

In any case, its was spicy enough that I’m still not really sure what that pure Kurobe Meisui water is supposed to taste like.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Shizuoka sardine

July 1, 2013

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

SHIZZZ

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Iwashi boxAnyway, “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.

Iwashi curry marked

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.

Around Japan in 47 curries: Akita mushroom

June 22, 2013
Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

Map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons

This is Part 6 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Akita Prefecture has a quaint tradition of threatening children with knives. On New Year’s Eve, shaggy monsters called namahage stalk from house to house in twos and threes, brandishing giant knives and demanding to confront lazy kids, spoiled kids, and crybabies.

Akita is in northern Japan, where the winters are cold, and in the old days it must have been tempting to stay inside by the fire rather than going out to work in the woods or fields. Children who sat with their feet dangling into the irori—a traditional Japanese fireplace in the form of a pit in the middle of the floor—might end up with blisters on their soles. Namahage, whose name derives from “blister peeler,” see such blisters as a sign of laziness, and threaten to cut them off with their fearsome knives.

To see how scary namahage can be, watch this video I made of three such monsters who came down to visit Tokyo in 2011:

Fortunately for any children who are threatened by namahage, protective parents can appease the monsters by offering them a cup of sake and something to eat. Namahage are known to enjoy eating mochi, but in a pinch you might try offering them some Akita Prefecture curry instead.

The curry I just tried from that prefecture is made with chicken and mushrooms.

In contrast to last week’s sweet and oily (and delicious) chicken curry from Tokushima Prefecture, this chicken curry was more of what I consider typically Japanese, in that it was based on a thick dark gravy that was only mildly spicy. Also, it included only about two bites of chicken.

Akita curry 001 The mushrooms were its saving grace. There was a generous quantity of them, and their springy texture added a welcome spark of life to the heavy combination of thick sauce and sticky rice.

I would have identified the mushrooms as shimeji—a standard item at any Japanese supermarket—but the ingredient label described them more specifically as buna-shimeji, or beech shimeji. As far as I can tell, there is little or no botanical, mycological or culinary distinction between shimeji and buna-shimeji, but in the course of my investigation I learned that Akita and neighboring Aomori prefecture share the vast Shirakami-Sanchi beech forest, which has been declared a World Heritage site.

So it’s appropriate that I washed the curry down with some Buna no Mori (beech forest) beer, made with wild yeast originally collected in the forest. This 5-percent beer was slightly darker than a typical mass-produced Japanese lager, and had a flavor that was rich and strong. It went well with this curry. I think it would go well with almost anything.

If a namahage ever comes to your door, a bottle of this stuff might be enough to keep his knife away from your feet.

shimeji marked

Around Japan in 47 curries: Chiba mackerel curry

June 8, 2013

This is Part 4 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The first time I ever set foot in Japan was when I stepped off a plane at what is now Narita International Airport in the summer of 1989 to begin work as an English teacher on the JET Program.

Map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons

Map by Lincun for Wikimedia Commons

Narita’s official name back then was New Tokyo International Airport, but it was far outside of Tokyo, in the middle of northern Chiba Prefecture. I would spend the next two years living in the capital, Chiba City, writing countless letters back to America in which I explained that not only Tokyo’s main airport but also Tokyo Disneyland and the Tokyo Motor Show (then held at the Makuhari Messe), and various other things with “Tokyo” in their names, were all actually in Chiba.

But even if parts of Chiba were lost in the overflow of the Tokyo sprawl, it still had distinctive areas of its own. The southern half of the prefecture is the mountainous Boso Peninsula, which separates Tokyo Bay from the Pacific Ocean. North of the peninsula on the Pacific side is Kujukuri beach, a 66-kilometer stretch of smooth, flat sand that extends all the way to Choshi, an old fishing town on the Kanto region’s easternmost point of land. There, on a rocky bluff overlooking the sea, is Choshi’s main tourist attraction, a 31-meter-tall lighthouse built in the 1870s.

AA light

Like many towns in Japan, Choshi is suffering from demographic and economic decline. According to central government statistics cited by Wikipedia, its population dropped from 90,415 to 70,225 over the three decades to 2010. According to the city’s own website, the figure was 69,211 a year after that, with people in their 20s accounting for the overwhelmingly greatest share of population outflow over the past decade.

On a visit to Choshi last year, I noticed many businesses that appeared permanently shuttered, including a hotel just a block from the famous lighthouse. But Choshi does have a few things going for it. Two major soy sauce companies, Yamasa and Higeta, have factories there. And its history as a center of the fish cannery business led to the existence of this week’s curry: canned mackerel.

AA can

When I popped open the can, my nose was hit by a strong fishy odor that momentarily reminded me of cat food. This did not seem promising, but the smell disipated within a few seconds. By the time I heated it up in the microwave and poured it over some rice, there was nothing objectionable about it.

AA dish

You definitely need to like fish if you are going to eat this curry, but its flavor turned out to be surprisingly mild. It was absolutely packed with solid chunks of mackerel, with the skin still on. It was much meatier—and more of a meal—than most Japanese curries I have tasted up to now. It’s comes in a small, single-serving can (190 grams), but most of that can, by volume, is full of fish.

The first three ingredents are listed as “Vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, ginger), mackerel, curry powder…” If they hadn’t lumped the vegtables together as a single item, I’m sure that mackerel would have come first.

If you like seafood, try this curry and help a struggling town.