Ask the average person to guess Japan’s national dish and they’ll likely hazard sushi or soba. But an equally fair contender for the title is curry. The Japanese Navy even has a “Curry Friday” tradition where all navy canteens offer curry and rice as a Friday staple.
Curry in Japan bears only a superficial resemblance to its Indian ancestor. It is more glutinous and is usually mixed with wheat flour. It’s also sweeter, and often includes ingredients like apple and honey.
History of the dish
In Japan, the dish dates to the 1870s when naval officers of the British Royal Navy who had picked up the curry habit in India passed it on to Japanese colleagues. The earliest recipes for raisu karī (rice curry) in Japanese cookbooks were lifted from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, in which the ingredients included curry powder, flour and sour apples. Since the dish came from Britain as far as the Japanese were concerned, curry rice was classified as “western” food.
There is, however, one restaurant in Tokyo that has historically prided itself in serving “authentic India curry” — no wheat, no apples, and no holds barred on the chilli: Nakamuraya. How this came to be involves a rip-roaring yarn featuring a revolutionary fugitive from India, a love affair, and one of Japan’s leading bakeries.
The Indian, Rash Behari Bose, is even better known in Japan than his namesake and fellow nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose. Born in 1886, Bose worked at the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, but he was aflame with anti-colonial ideas acquired during the agitation against the Partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1912, he became involved in an assassination attempt of the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge. As the colonial authorities closed in on him, he fled to Japan in 1915. He made his way first to Kobe under the name of P.S. Thakore, pretending to be a relative of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore whom Bose had read was planning a trip to Japan.
From Kobe he immediately set out for Tokyo. Eventually, he made the acquaintance of Japanese pan-Asianists who were sympathetic to the cause of Indian independence, notably, a right-wing politician, Mitsuru Toyama.
Toyama introduced Bose to the Soma family, owners of a well-known bakery called Nakamuraya. Facing extradition to British India, Bose hid at the Soma bakery for months during which time the family’s eldest daughter Toshiko acted as his interpreter. Eventually, on Toyama’s request, the two got married in 1918, a move that allowed Bose to move around Tokyo without attracting as much suspicion, and paved the way for his acquiring Japanese citizenship in 1923. The couple had two children before Toshiko died from pneumonia in 1925.
A lasting contribution
In subsequent years, Bose continued to lobby for support for the Indian national movement in Japan via writings and lectures. But his most lasting contribution in introducing India to Japan was in launching “authentic” Indian curry at a new Nakamuraya café in 1927. According to Bose of Nakamuraya, by Professor Takeshi Nakajima, Bose wanted to prove that the curry the Japanese were used to was a colonial invention. Getting his recipe on the Nakamuraya menu was therefore “part of his anti-colonial struggle, by trying to win back India’s food culture from British hands.” The curry was a hit, even though it was priced eight times higher than the average raisu karī.
Following a bout of ill health, Bose died in 1945 aged 58, but in Japan his legend lives on through the curry that Nakamuraya continues to serve. It remains their most popular item. Since 2001, the company also sells ready-to-eat packaged curries using the original Bose recipe to convenience stores. These accounted for almost half the sales value of the 2.6 billion yen that the Nakamuraya Processed Foods division made in 2016.
On a recent Monday, the Nakamuraya café in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood was buzzing with lunchtime customers. Almost every table had a serving of ‘Genuine Indian-style Curry’. I sat down for a serving. The verdict? The curry passed the flavour test — full-bodied spice and pleasing consistency. However, it was served in a sauce boat, betraying the British-origins of curry in Japan. But the steady gaze of a dhoti-clad Bose along with a kimono-clad Toshiko from a photograph hung at the restaurant entrance suggested that quibbles are best ignored.