This is Part 1 of a 47-part series of weekly blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Yokosuka, in Kanagawa Prefecture, is the perfect spot for a naval base. It occupies most of the Miura Peninsula, which forms a natural breakwater protecting the mouth of Tokyo Bay. The establishment of an Imperial Japanese Navy base there in the late 19th century gave Yokosuka an unexpected connection to the nation’s culinary history.
In its early days, the navy was plagued by the painful and often fatal disease beriberi. Food historian Katarzyna J. Cwiertka writes in her excellent book “Modern Japanese Cuisine” that 12 percent of all Japanese sailors were found to be suffering from the condition in 1883. A high-ranking navy doctor named Kanehiro Takagi was aware that beriberi was rare in Western navies, whose sailors more often ate meat. He theorized that a high-protein diet might improve sailors’ health. Efforts were begun to Westernize navy meals by including more meat, and curry was one of the dishes used for that purpose. It became a staple of Japanese navy cooking.
Today, we know that beriberi is caused by a lack of vitamin B, which is associated with the heavy use of nutrient-poor white rice. But Takagi’s theory was a good one for its time, Cwiertka writes, because the concept of vitamins was not scientifically understood until the 1920s.
Meanwhile, curry’s prominence in military cooking in an era of large-scale conscription, and the influence of military cuisine on other forms of institutional food – most notably school lunches – helped make curry a de facto national dish.
The varieties of curry now available in Japan are beyond counting. For a series of weekly blog posts beginning today, I plan to eat one type of curry from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. From within each prefecture, I will have many to choose from. (I’m open to recommendations.)
Not surprisingly, a number of curries are marketed with naval themes. One of these is Yokosuka Navy Curry, which I have chosen to represent Kanagawa Prefecture in my “Around Japan in 47 Curries” project. According to the label, this particular curry is based on the dish served at the city’s popular Wood Island restaurant. I purchased a single-serving package of it for 580 yen at Japan Food Market, a temporary-looking shop in the Koshigaya Laketown Mall in Saitama Prefecture.
Unfortunately, I found it rather bland. The chunks of beef it included seemed to be mostly fat. As a snooty 21st-century gourmet, I was not too impressed. But if I were a malnourished 19th-century draftee, I’m sure I would have gobbled it with gusto.
And with 46 curries to go, I’m sure there are some good ones out there.