Japanese curry has always been one of the great family meals, a wintertime staple that reaches its height on Boxing Day when we add the leftovers from Christmas dinner—filet of beef with a burgundy mushroom gravy—into the bubbling sauce. Passing around the pickled scallions and ginger, the customary garnishes that balance the stew’s richness with an acidic bite, our full stock pot disappears much too quickly.
When I was twelve we moved to Yokohama, the port city south of Tokyo where curry was first introduced to the Japanese by British sailors. It was just my parents and I; my siblings had graduated from college and were living in New York, while we spent nearly a month in the strangely named Hotel New Grand, waiting for our furniture to arrive from the US. Living in a hotel room, without the comfort of even a kitchen, only intensified my homesickness. We took most of our meals wandering through the hotel’s many themed restaurants, from a British pub to a traditional Japanese ryokan. The Japanese have developed a Michael-Cimino-esque approach to world cuisine. A French bistro isn’t just about serving French food, but airlifting an entire experience—the kind of napkins, the local spring water, the waiters’ uniforms. Thus were the restaurants of the Hotel New Grand, uncanny replicas of Rome, Paris, London, Kyoto.
The least disorienting of these was a small restaurant modeled, in their words, on “1950s West Coast North America coffee shops.” To me, the paper place mats and upturned juice glasses recalled the type of diner I remembered from New Jersey, and they served curry, which I ordered, hoping for a familiar taste. The taste was chicken instead of beef, missing the richness of the red wine and the homemade touch. I think I started to cry, retreating to the warm memories of childhood. My waitress, an older-sister-type in her 20s, asked me what was wrong. I explained to her the tradition, the beef and mushroom technique. The next day I returned to the cafe, without much of an appetite, drinking a soda and staring out the window. There was a particular smell, triggering an obtuse memory which did not become clear until I turned around to see the waitress holding a plate of curry with beef and mushrooms over rice, the smell of red wine drifting in. The tears were different this time.
She told me she understood the feeling. Curry is one of those sentimental dishes which are immortalized by childhood experience and I was not alone in my attachment. Each home cook blends spices, searching for a certain taste. Curry has traveled well for this very reason; it is an idea rather than a thing, a simple broth thickened with a spiced roux, absorbing local flavors from around the world. The Japanese have, for their part, created thousands of varieties: Berkshire pork from Kagoshima, mackerel from Chiba, apples from Nagano. In contrast, supermarket brands with their instant mixes promote an idea of standardized curry, some abstracted regionless recipe. Curry is too cosmopolitan to settle for just one kind, and the ingredients are only an invitation to explore.
It released me in a way, curing my homesickness. It was then that I realized the pointlessness of recipes. I felt free to explore new tastes of Yokohama, stopping back at the cafe from time to time for curry.
When I moved to Chicago I imagined a new style of curry, an idea kept in the back of my head as I walked around. It began on Devon Avenue, where I found a high quality garam masala which would add depth to the flavor of the Japanese SB curry spices. Then came a visit to Harold’s, the legendary Chicago soul food chain, which in its country wisdom still uses tallow to fry the best chicken I’ve ever had. In Japan, one of the classic combinations is curry served with the fried pork tonkatsu, and instantly I knew that Harold’s chicken would be the perfect substitute.
Of course, it’s not Christmas curry, but I’ve come to appreciate the ways in which fortune conspires to bring new things together, to broaden our traditions and create new memories alongside the old.
Harold’s Chicago Curry
1 cup Japanese short grain rice, cooked according to package directions
3 cups chicken stock
3 tsp salt
1 large onion
3 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
2 tbsp SB curry powder
2 tbsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (1 tsp for spicy)
1 tbsp tomato paste
roasted vegetables of your choice
shoga (pickled ginger)
rakkyo (pickled scallions)
To make the roux, melt the butter over low heat in a stock pot or dutch oven, and add the flour and spices, whisking well. Add the tomato paste and continue to whisk until the mixture is crumbly.
In another pan, saute the onions in oil over medium heat. When browned, add to the heated chicken stock. After 30 minutes, strain the stock and discard the onions, which will make for a velvety sauce. Slowly pour the chicken stock into the roux while whisking and continue to whisk until smooth. Add salt, to taste, and adjust the seasonings now if you wish. Curry is best on the second day so, if possible, make this the night before.
To serve, ladle the sauce generously over a scoop of rice and top with fried chicken and roasted vegetables. Garnish with shoga and rakkyo.