When imagining Japanese cuisine, dishes such as tempura or sushi probably come to mind. However in a 2007 poll conducted by The NHK Cultural Research Institute, curry was voted more popular than such mainstays as tempura, soba, udon and sukiyaki. A separate poll conducted by the Japan Sports Promotional Agency asked children to rank their favorite food and curry came in 2nd place, just after sushi. Domestic sales of curry roux alone accounted for 82.7 billion yen in 2007. While it might seem strange that curry-rice is considered by many to be Japanese food, one taste is enough to realize it is a dish truly unique to Japan. But just how Japanese is this curry, and why is it so different from the curry found in India or southeast Asia?

For starters, Japanese curry didn’t come from India, at least not directly. Curry was introduced to Japan by the British during the Meiji period (1868–1912). At that time, India was under British rule, and curry had become enormously popular in Britain. The dish that would later evolve into modern Japanese curry was actually a type of stew seasoned with curry powder, which was popular in the British Royal Navy. This explains the thick, stew-like consistency of Japanese curry compared to its thinner, Indian and southeast Asian counterparts. This also accounts for the more traditionally European ingredients such as beef, carrots and onions which are not as common in Indian curries.

Since Japanese curry has always been most popularly served over rice, it was not common to include potatoes in the curry as this would be too much starch. The idea of adding potatoes was introduced by US Colonel William S. Clark who was the president and adviser of Sapporo Agricultural College, which is now Hokkaido University. Because of severe rice shortages in the late 1870’s, Clark suggested to add potatoes. If you are not sure who William Clark is, perhaps you’ve heard the popular phrase “Boys, be ambitious!” – this was actually coined by him during his presidency at Sapporo Agricultural College.

As curry steadily grew more popular over the years, it began to evolve and become more Japanized. For example the inclusion of fried pork cutlet, curry udon, curry pastries (カレーパン) and garnishing with pickles are all uniquely Japanese curry traditions. More recent trends such as “dry curry” and “soup curry” are even further removed from their British, and yet more distant Indian roots. Although Indian restaurants have been popular since the 1990s, the fare at such establishments is called “Indian curry” by Japanese people, a telling sign of just how Japanese local curry has become.