Did curry come to Japan from India?

Everyone knows that curry’s routes lie in India, but there are very few people who have any idea about the daily eating habits of Indian people. For the past 10 years I have visited India every single year to seek out Indian dishes. People who know this about me always ask:

“Do Indian people eat curry every day?”

Is it true that Indian people eat curry every day?

Of course the answer to that is “YES.” However, as the “curry” that us Japanese imagine comes in an infinite number of varieties in India, I also include dishes that use spices and resemble the curries that we know in that. Some curries actually use spices that are so light that they could be used in baby food, thus it’s not an exaggeration to say that Indian people eat curry everyday.

Indian food cannot be summed up in one word. Their food culture has been formed by complex relationships between various elements, much like spice compounds. Take religion for an example. 70% of the Indian population conforms to Hinduism, in which cows are revered as gods, so they are not allowed to eat beef. There is also a perception that pigs are filthy, so followers of the second biggest religion in the country, Islam, cannot eat pork. This means that the meats eaten in India are mainly mutton and chicken.

However, there aren’t that many Indian people that eat meat in the first place and there is quite a large proportion of vegetarians there. There is a particular density of vegetarians in the western Indian province of Gujurat, where over 60% of people do not eat meat.

Indian vegetarians differ to those around the rest of the world. In fact, they are not vegetarians as part of any health regime or as an ideological or philosophical stance. Although there are institutional and religious factors to this vegetarianism, the main cause of it is poverty. In other words, people cannot afford the luxury of buying and preparing meat, partly because of an environment in which not every house has a refrigerator still and fresh meat is marinated in spices and yogurt, such as tandoori chicken, have been developed.

Although there are vegetarians in the Western world who don’t consume animal products, in India, only dairy is given special treatment. It all comes down to what can kill. Drinking milk will not kill. But eggs can, so they are not eaten. There are actually plenty of examples of milk being used in Indian cuisine. In fact, Indian cuisine could not exist without milk.

One great thing about Indian food is that flavors differ by region. In India, to put it simply, flavors differ between North, South, East, and West. Some says that each state has its own local foods. The staple food here also differs by region. In Northern India it’s bread, and in Southern and Eastern India it’s rice.

In Western India there are many dishes in which the sweetness is amplified through the use of jaggery sugar. One type of this food is somewhat similar in flavor to a certain homemade food in Japan. I can remember a simmered bean dish on a thali that I ate in the western state of Gujarat. It was so packed with sugar that I actually recoiled. On the other hand, a number of vegetable dishes there left me wide-eyes in their deliciousness.

The Bengali cuisine I ate in the large, East Indian city of Kolkata, was so good that I raved about how I couldn’t believe that there was food that delicious in India right at the restaurant.

Indian food and the Mughal Empire

In traditional Indian Ayurveda medicine, the human body is separated into several genres and food is strongly linked to health and physical wellness. For example, the effects of the existence of a purified butter known as ghee which doesn’t oxidize, or the effect of turmeric with combination of dairy products to make the absorption of curcumin components easier, have now been demonstrated from a Western medicine and molecular pathology point of view, but have been recommended in Ayurveda since ancient times. In other words, Indian cuisine hasn’t just been developed as a way to enjoy flavor, but also to promote wellness.

What made this Indian cuisine develop as a way to enjoy flavor is largely due to the Mughal Empire. In Islam there are the “6 pleasures.” These are food, alcohol, clothing, sex, scent, and sound. Out of these, the “most important and lofty” of these pleasures is said to be food.

The Mughal Empire, which was an enormous Muslim force, invaded India from Afghanistan at the beginning of the 16th century. The time of the Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century was considered to be the golden age of the empire and the whole country was under his rule, however the relationship with the Hindu’s soured and the empire weakened after invasions from European countries such as the UK and France in the 18th century. It eventually collapsed in 1858.

Under this rule, it wasn’t appropriate for the Emperor to eat the simple Indian cuisine of the indigenous people. They applied more luxurious and rich Muslim flavors to the cooking methods of Indian cuisine, developing it further. This is how Mughlai cuisine, which is well known throughout India, came about.

The history of Indian cuisine’s spread to Japan

The pioneers of Indian cuisine in Japan are “Shinjuku Nakamura-ya” and Ginza’s “Nile Restaurant.” Nakamura-ya first began serving Indian curry in Japan in 1927. The flavors handed down from Indian independence revolutionary, Rash Behari Bose, from Bengali region of East India were incorporated into the menu here, which is why Nakamura-ya’s curry is an East Indian curry.

Japan’s oldest Indian restaurant, the “Nile Restaurant”, which was founded in 1949, also has a profound connection to this event. This is because it is the restaurant of A.M. Nile, who was the interpreter and right-hand man of Rash Behari Bose. Nile was born in the South India state of Kerala. This is why Nile Restaurant’s curry is a South Indian curry. The later “Ajanta”, in Kudanshita, Tokyo, also served homemade South Indian curry.

This is where a question arises. Most of the Indian restaurants that pinned up the start of the Japanese Indian restaurant scene have their routes in North India. Combinations of fluffy naan bread, rich, creamy butter chicken, and fragrant tandoori chicken are not very popular in Eastern and Southern India. The reason that you see so much Mughlai cuisine, which was profoundly influenced by invading Muslims, and Northern Indian Punjabi cuisine is because of the roots of the Indian curry that was popular in Japan.

“Moti”, “Taj”, “Maharaja”, “Rajmahal”, and “Samrat” are examples of these restaurants. These restaurants all came into the game a little later, but from the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s they took Japan by storm. In other words, Nakamura-ya, Nile Restaurant, and Ajanta debuted a little too early. However, these restaurants continue to be supported as leading restaurants and are still getting the attention that they deserve….
So what’s important here is not how old the restaurants are, which ones are popular, or which ones are better. It’s about the time when they first came to Japan. It has now been almost 90 years since the first Indian curry came to Japan at Nakamura-ya, and the oldest Indian restaurant here, Nile Restaurant, was founded around 70 years ago. But it’s said that curries have been around in Japan since the Meiji Restoration (From 1868), which is almost 150 years ago…

Naturally when you subtract those 90 years from curry’s 150 year history, it does beg a question. The reality is that a period when Japanese people knew curry, but not Indian curry, lasted for 60 years. Isn’t that strange? That’s because even though the roots of curry lie in India, another curry reached Japan before Indian curry did. And that is the British curry. In other words, before curry came to Japan from India, it came to Japan from Britain.

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