Can Japanese curry win in a land of serious curry eaters?

Curry has, like many dishes that have traversed the globe, a storied past. Its origins are undisputed – South Asian, obviously – but its journeys away from home are more colourful and varied. While curry has been transported to other cultures via Indian traders and immigrants, Japan received curry through the British, specifically British-made curry powder.

Yes, curry powder is most likely a British invention. From the time it was introduced to the Japanese in the mid-nineteenth century, it has undergone many reinventions. Japanese curry today is a dish that is uniquely, well, Japanese. It is starchy, creamy and sweet, and has been elevated to the status of a national food.

Capitalising on the dish’s popularity, Curry House CoCo Ichibanya has the distinction of being the largest Japanese curry chain in the world, boasting a curry empire that has over 1,400 outlets.

The first outlet opened in 1978, fast establishing itself in the country as the go-to restaurant for quick and delicious curry rice.

The Wagyu Beef Steak Curry offers premium beef in rich curry.
The Wagyu Beef Steak Curry offers premium beef in rich curry.

Recently, the franchise added another link to its chain by setting up shop first in 1 Utama in Selangor. Its second outlet opens this month in Queensbay Mall, Penang.

The chain’s global success in Japanese curry is unrivalled, and owes much of its fortune to a customisable menu. Carefully crafted to suit just about every customer’s palate and appetite, it starts by offering various rice portions, from a light 150g to a heaping 550g (for industrial-sized stomachs).

You then have a choice of “spice adjustment”, so you can slide up the heat scale from a mild or original through five fiery levels to “crazy hot”.

If that’s not enough, you have your pick of 35 toppings, from the more basic Corn or Cheese to the extravagant Wagyu Beef Steak. To further amp up the heat factor, additional curry sauce is another option.

Any curry house worth its weight in chilli has its own special brand of the spicy stuff, and Coco Ichibanya is no different. The exact recipe for the name-making curry is a trade secret, churned out in batches in Japan then shipped to its outlets. We can reveal that the base of the curry is a yummy mix of star anise, cinnamon, garlic, and cumin, but unlike most Japanese curries, it is more savoury than sweet.

Hashed Beef Omelette Curry has a tangy BBQ flavour.
Hashed Beef Omelette Curry has a tangy BBQ flavour.

After sampling a selection of curry dishes, the Pork Cutlet Curry was deemed the unanimous favourite. Cooked tonkatsu style – breaded and fried – to perfection, the skin was crisp and crunchy, while the meat inside remained tender and firm. The spiciness was set at Level 2, officially classified as “Hot”. We found it didn’t bring the heat it promised, but perhaps that’s because Malaysian palates are accustomed to more fire.

Emboldened, we decided to have the Vegetable Curry at the “crazy hot” Level 5. A simple dish, the hearty stew packed with potatoes, carrots, and green beans will satisfy vegetarians. But we were more interested in the spiciest curry going.

Although not quite the blazing inferno we expected, it certainly reddened our cheeks and left us with damp brows. If you can smilingly tolerate the heat of cili padi, you should opt for this level – nothing lower will do. If you’re a lightweight in the department, hover around Levels 2 and 3. Go any higher and your tongue will be so soused with heat that you won’t be able to enjoy the taste of the food.

And there is much to enjoy.

The restaurant’s brightly lit interior is fuss-free and comfortably seats the lunch hour crowd.
The restaurant’s brightly lit interior is fuss-free and comfortably seats the lunch hour crowd.

The Wagyu Beef Steak Curry has our approval. Like many of the other dishes, it’s divided into neat halves on the plate: there is a lake of dark brown curry on one side and a bulwark of rice on the other. Running down the middle, the beef is well-seasoned and cooked to a slight redness. The tangy flavour of the curry brings out the richness of the meat.

Seafood lovers can go for the Clam Curry, which on its own is plain and simple, but with a few toppings tastes like a curried clam chowder. There’s also fish, shrimp, and squid curries.

Any of the curry with omelettes is a good choice. The omelettes come out light and fluffy, each encasing an island of sticky rice surrounded by a sea of thick, soupy curry.

A note about the rice: it’s imported from Japan, the type used for making sushi. Its glutinous texture is a great foil for the curry, easily sopping up the stew. In Japan, where CoCo Ichibanya’s patrons tend to eat on the go, this allows for convenient one-utensil meals.

The restaurant’s minimalist decor also underscores its convenience factor; the booths and tables are arranged to comfortably seat large lunchtime crowds. Everything is made for comfort, especially the food. So do pop in when you need to spice up your mood with good comfort food – you won’t leave disappointed.

¦ Curry House Coco Ichibanya is at LG333A Lower Ground Floor, 1 Utama LG 350, Lebuh Bandar Utama, Bandar Utama, 47800 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Phone (03) 7732-8937.

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