It’s only normal to think “I would love to be able to make this at home” when you come across a great tasting curry. When you think about the spread of curry, it has to be said that in addition to its growing prominence in the food service industry, its permeation into home cooking and dining rooms also played a major role.
When it came over from the UK, most people would have eaten the delicious curry rice in a restaurant or cafe. And I’m sure that many would have taken one bite and just wished that they could recreate the recipe at home.
Which provided a major opportunity for food manufacturers.
The curry powder that came before curry roux
Domestic manufacturers soon started to produce curry powder that imitated what was being imported, shortly followed by the even more flavorful curry flakes, and finally, by curry roux, casting a spell on dining rooms all across Japan. A product that would allow anyone to easily whip up delicious curries at home would have been truly groundbreaking at the time. But that’s how this delicious curry came to be found in homes all over the country.
There’s no doubt that that reason for the homemade curry fever that swept Japan was the emergence of curry powder. Curry powder is essential for a good curry. With just one shake, this powder added an authentic curry flavor, which would have been quite surprising to Japanese people back then.
The most famous curry powder that made its way over from the UK was the powder manufactured by C&B. This powder, that was developed by two Englishmen named Cross and Blackwell, found itself circulated around Japan in the blink of an eye. Of course its recipe was an industrial secret. Simply touted as “Made from a mystical oriental technique…” no one knew what this powder was actually made of. And since it was such a high price import, there were a lot of people who wanted to produce it independently domestically. And thus the race to uncover the secret recipe was on.
During the domestic development of curry powder, the one who made the most progress was a man named Minejiro Yamazaki. During a time in Japan when it was very difficult to obtain spices, Yamazaki would acquire individual spices from medicinal wholesalers and would experiment with different compounds all day long. These efforts have long been held as legend in the curry industry. Through countless failures, his warehouses became piled high with all sorts of spices. And then one day, in between these mountains of ingredients, YamZaki smelled the scent of curry. The blended spices had been left to mature and had finally started to release their scent and flavor.
As a result, the first completely domestically produced curry powder was born in 1923. In Japan, where no recipe existed, finding the perfect mix of individual spices rather than simply blending imported curry powders must have been a Herculean task. This led to the curry powder popularly known as “Akakan”. Yes, Minejiro Yamazaki is the founder of S&B Foods.
The several works that he left behind after his death remain invaluable to the curry and spice industries in Japan to this day. The 5 hard-cover volumes of “Koshinryo” seem to particularly exude Yamazaki’s tenacity, and there has never been a publication before or after that was packed with as much information and filled with so much text about spices. There isn’t a single person who would deny that Minejiro Yamazaki is the person who has contributed the most to Japan’s curry culture.
It’s not enough to simply blend a multitude of spices
This is how this curry powder, that was first made 70 years ago, came to be popular and used throughout Japan. It still even holds a monopoly share on curry powder for industrial use.and eventually we accepted curry made from Akakan curry powder as an icon of delicious curry making.
The recipe for Akakan curry powder has only been divulged to a select few, even within the S&B Foods company, and remains a top secret. I’ve heard that the documents are even secured in a safe.
However, there has been some dispute concerning the recipe. Akakan curry powder consists of over 30 kinds of spices. But it’s thought that making curry with upwards of 30 spices in not a smart way to make it. There are many delicious curries in India that are made with 10 spices or less.
Even the curry powder that was first made in the UK was made with less than 10 spices if you take a look at the recipes. So why is it only Japanese curry powder that contains over 30 different types? Does a curry like that really taste any good?
One time, I prepared 3 different types of homemade curry powder for a discussion event. I got members of the audience to do a blindfolded taste test on the 3 homemade powders as well as the Akakan curry powder. Out of the powders that I made, A contained 5 types of spices, B contained 10 types of spices, and C contained 15 types of spices. D was the Akakan powder which contains over 30 types of spices. I placed them all in the same type of container and then asked 60 people which they thought smelled the best.
The results was that 80% of people evenly preferred A and B. The curry powder blends that contained 5 and 10 spices were overwhelmingly the most popular. I don’t mean to make the opinion of 60 people into gospel, but you only have to look at the curries they make in India to realize that putting more spices in a curry doesn’t necessarily make it more delicious.
5 spices are enough to make a good curry?
The 5 types of spices that I used were turmeric, red chilli, cumin, coriander, and garam masala.Garam masala is typically made of 5-6, sometimes even 7-8 spices, though. Which, strictly speaking, means that this 5 spice blend is technically made of around 10 spices…
This mix of 5 spices is more than enough for a Japanese person to sniff and know that curry is in the air. For the past few years I have been holding a workshop titled “Making the Best Curry Powder of Your Life.” There, I prepare these 5 spices, and explain about the blending process, adding them one by one.
I pour the turmeric into an airtight container and then add the red chilli. At this point, it’s simply a mix of turmeric and chilli, so it doesn’t smell like curry at all. However, once the cumin is in there, most people can begin to smell the curry. Although there may be some who can’t quite pick up on the curry scent yet, once the 4th ingredient, coriander, has been added in, all anyone can think about is delicious curry. It’s almost as if the garam masala isn’t needed at all.
The reason that I have been able to run this spice blending workshop is because I had a teacher who knew a lot about spice blends in Indian cooking. For anyone who has that level of experience in Indian cuisine, it isn’t difficult to make a great tasting curry out of these few spices. So, unfortunately, I can’t boast too much about this.
A 4-piece band curry and an orchestra curry
The reason that Yamazaki ended up with a blend of 30 different spices through trial and error for a curry powder that should have only required around 5 is because of the absence of any Indian cookery teachers in Japan at the time to tell him otherwise. All that Yamazaki could do in the face of this lack of Indian instructors was to blend spices until he finally hit the right smell. It’s because of this trial and error that the blend ended up containing 30 different spices.
There’s no right or wrong in cooking, but there are winners and losers in trade. The matter of which spices make the best blend is only a matter of preferences, but the curry powder that people buy the most makes a winner. Which makes Akakan curry powder an undefeated champion.
The less spices that a curry powder blend contains, the more prominent the smells of individual spices become, adding a further dimension to the blend. In cookery, it’s said that it’s harder to subtract than to add. However, to popularize dishes among the masses, there is a tendency to believe that it’s better to add things. This is much like how the public likes blended whisky, but true enthusiasts tend to prefer single malts.
Maybe it’s better to treat the fragrances of spices like sounds made by musical instruments. In the jazz world, it’s easier for a single member’s personality to shine through in a trio or a quartet. However, it’s also easier for people to recognize mistakes. But in a big band comprised of 20 or more members, slight misses can be forgiven. As a whole, the band will still provide the listener with a good sound. So you should try to think of this issue in terms of a 4 person rock band versus a large, classical orchestra.
Both kinds of music are wonderful. Just like both types of curry powder are delicious. The reason that so many people backed the simple curry powder blends in my workshop is because sometimes there are a lot of people who happen to have that preference and because this is a workshop that curry enthusiasts tend to come to.
Akakan still holds its own
S&B Food’s Akakan, which uses over 30 types of spices, has held an incredible market share over countless decades. And us Japanese people have been brought up alongside that Akakan flavor for generations. Which means that this curry powder has endured a lot of taste testing. It also means that this big orchestra kind of curry is representative of the Japanese curry flavor. You’ll find no shortage of chefs in restaurants who say that they won’t be able to make their flavors if they don’t have any Akakan curry powder to hand.
The curry compound that Yamazaki has produced has come to symbolize delicious curry in Japan.This is where Japanese and Indian curry differs, and even if you were to look at all the curries from all over the world, there are no other dishes that can’t be made without mixing over 30 different spices. This results in Japanese curry having a very unique flavor.
So, just how much did this contribute to the birth of curry culture within Japan? Well, in all fields, there is usually a detailed manual to follow. Whether this is for products that you have bought for the first time, services that you are newly using, or recently introduced technology. However, because of the useful manual, people tend to stop thinking about it. There’s no need to think further by themselves. Just like Yamazaki, Japanese people have never had a manual for curry, so have been seriously grappling with it for a long time. This forced them to be creative. I actually think that it’s a good thing that teachers from India only came on to the scene in Japan a little later.