Curry is sometimes called a national food in Japan along with ramen noodles.
Heated battles over curry – sometimes called a national food in Japan, along with ramen noodles – are being fought in Tokyo. Curry restaurants go head to head, stores compete for popularity, and events to revitalise towns are actively organised.
In November 2013, at the “Kanda Curry Grand Prix” held in the Kanda district of Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, a mouth-watering aroma rose from a huge pot in which curry sauce was simmering, and dishes of curry with rice and naan bread were passed out to people lining up.
Near the event’s venue in Kanda, are many secondhand bookstores and sporting goods stores. Nowadays, the number of restaurants and stores with curry on their menus has increased to more than 300, which led to the area being dubbed a “curry town”.
People connected to the sports stores started the curry contest in 2011, hoping to boost customer traffic as the number of customers who visited the area to buy ski equipment was decreasing.
Masaru Hiura, 35, the owner of the Kanda outlet of curry restaurant Hinoya, took part in the 2013 contest, thinking, “I want to make it into the top spot this year.”
It is said that in Kanda, where many universities are located, curry has become popular as a casual dish because students can eat it holding a spoon in one hand and a book in the other. The area has many restaurants that are well-known among curry fans, such as “Kyoeido”, which was established in 1924 and is popular for its brown-black Sumatra curry; “Bondy” known for its European-style curry; “Ethiopia”, where customers can choose curry from 70 spiciness levels, and soup curry restaurant “Odori”.
There used to be only a few curry restaurants in Kanda, such as Kyoeido, and curry was a menu item casually ordered at cafes and diners at prices between ¥200 (RM6) and ¥500 (RM15). However, European curry at Bondy, which opened in 1978, was priced at ¥880 (RM27) at that time, and now is offered at ¥1,480 (RM45). Though the curry store had a hard time attracting customers at first, half a year later, it became a popular restaurant that constantly has a long line of customers.
Hajime Takayama, 67, who runs a secondhand bookstore and owns the building that houses the restaurant, said: “Bondy served authentic curry, the likes of which had never been tasted [around here]. Since then the number of curry restaurants started to increase.”
In the 1990s, more and more stores began selling curry partly due to a boom in ethnic curries such as Indian and Thai ones. At a B-class cuisine event at an autumn festival held in Chiyoda Ward in 2010, which led to the start of the curry grand prix, people rushed to the curry booths. Takuya Nakamata, 44, who was involved in the event, and is currently the director of the curry grand prix, was surprised at curry’s power to attract so many people.
Winning family recipe
Hiura, who ate and studied various types of curry, started Hinoya with his parents in 2011 in Yushima, in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. With popularity of curry growing, he opened the seven-seat Kanda outlet near Kanda Station half a year later.
His curry recipe was inspired by the flavour of the curry made by his grandmother, who died six years ago at the age of 79. Her curry features thick, old-fashioned sauce made with wheat flour. Hiura said: “The taste of my grandmother’s curry was familiar since my childhood, but when I ate curry dishes at various places, I realised my grandmother’s curry was the best. I wanted to try my curry in the battleground area and know how people would respond to it.”
However, at the grand prix in 2012, in which he took part for the first time, famous Indian curry restaurant “Mandara” won the grand prize and Hinoya finished in fourth place. Though Hiura repeatedly tried to improve his curry, he had difficulty creating his ideal flavour. When he happened to add a kind of spice which he had never used, the chef succeeded in making his curry overwhelmingly rich.
In the following year’s contest in 2013, Hinoya survived an online vote that chose 15 restaurants from a pool of 52 candidates to advance to the final round. Judging at the event was conducted by customers who could taste curries from any of the finalists at a festival venue. During the three-day event, about 2,500 people ate Hinoya’s curry. Hinoya topped the other stores, gaining about 2,400 votes for best restaurant by a margin of more than 700 votes.
“I was sure that people would appreciate my curry. I will keep improving the old-fashioned Japanese curry,” said Hiura.
The curry event had 51,000 visitors last year, and the Kanda area was full of life. The grand prix’s qualifying round this year started on Sept 1. – The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network