A curry pouch revolution

As we can guess from the decline of the unifying force of curry in the home, sales of curry roux began to stall. As manufacturers have had to deal with price revisions due to factors such as price rises in ingredients, although the instant market has seen a slight increase, this does not mean that the amount of curry roux purchased has increased dramatically, and it isn’t thought that this will become the case in the future either.

The simple and convenient curry pouch

One product that has stood its ground in this market, however, is the curry pouch. Both units purchased and its market share have seen an increase. With the increase in nuclear families and women in the workplace, the amount of chances to sit down as a family for a meal decreased over time. Many families now eat at their own leisure and instead of reheating the same curry each time, it’s far easier to heat up a small pouch of curry for one. It’s fantastic for people who are always busy and on the go especially and works well with a modern dining style.

Soon it became more and more rare for people who live in the city to cook at home and there were both misgivings and anticipation of the forming of a society much like that of countries in South East Asia when people would head to work and get all of their food from outdoor food stands. In times like these, curry pouches were something that could be really depended on.

Pushed after Apollo 11 – Bon Curry

The first company to succeed in bringing out a curry pouch in Japan was Otsuka Foods. Thanks to a preservation method that used sterilization through pressurized heating techniques, these pouches could be transported at room temperature, and first went on the market in 1968. It was both a first in Japan and a first in the world. The curry was known as Bon Curry, well known for its commercial and tagline of “done in 3 minutes.”

What inspired the development of this curry was an article titled “US Army Natick Lab” in the American packaging magazine “Modern Packaging.” The article talked about how the Swedish army had started to use vacuum vinyl bags, which are good at preserving food, for transporting foodstuffs rather than heavy and harder to carry cans. Otsuka foods simply took in this information and went a step further. They then took the French word for “delicious” to come up with the name Bon Curry.

Pre-cooked curry could be kept at room temperature for up to 3 months and only needed 3 minutes to boil. The market was very sceptical about this, believing that it couldn’t be true. However, the year after the pouches went on sale, something brought these consumer critics to their senses. It was 1969 and Apollo 11 had just landed on the moon. As people all over the world went wild over the images from the moon, footage of the astronauts consuming food from these pouches was played again and again. All of a sudden doubtful consumers changed their minds about this kind of product and Bon Curry started to sell like hotcakes. By 1973, 5 years after it had first gone on sale, annual sales were already up to 100 million units.

To put it simply, Japanese curry pouches were developed based off army products and accepted because of space food.

Curry pouches mean that you can eat the kind of curry that you want

Since then, curry pouches have kept on evolving. Now you don’t have to boil them in a pan, you can cook more of them in the microwave. There hasn’t been a change in the 3 minute preparation time, but now that there is no need to boil water, the process has been further simplified. If you pair these curry pouches with some microwavable rice from the convenience store, you can eat curry rice on the go. Just like everything else, the world of curry pouches has also had to bow to pressure for further convenience through technological innovation.

The reason for such broad support of curry pouches isn’t just their convenience. Just like I touched upon when I wrote about curry roux, curry pouches can be subdivided into preferences. It’s not just that people in the same family are eating at different times nowadays, but they also have differences when it comes to their preferred kind of curry. If a family of three, a father, a mother, and a daughter eat curry, it can only be made of one type of curry roux that only one person prefers. As they all want to eat different kinds of curry, it would be better if they could all choose the flavour they like. Curry pouches are a product that caters for those needs.

A boom in curry pouches

I wonder how many different types of curry pouches are on sale in Japan right now? There is actually no way to accurately count this. However, I have been collecting curry pouch packets for the past 15 years. At last count I had over 1,000 types, but since then I have just not been able to count them. Since I had collected over 1,000 just over 10 years ago, I would estimate that I have over 2,500 packets now. Of course not all of those that I own are still on shelves, but even at a conservative estimate I would say that over 1,000 can still be bought in Japan.

The easiest way to show foreign people what’s unique about Japanese curry culture is perhaps to show them the variety of curry pouches on sale. I would probably be able to show them all of the different curries made out of all of the different ingredients available here at once with my collection and completely blow their minds.

All of the technology utilised by Otsuka Foods to produce curry pouches in 1968 soon spread to small and medium businesses and factories throughout Japan. There are now places in each region of Japan with the ability to produce even small lots of curry pouches. The smaller the lot, the higher price that you can sell it for. Although there are curry pouches that cost 800-900 yen each, if there is an environment in which you can easily develop new curry pouches and there is likely to be a demand, then this leads to an acceleration in the number of varieties available.

The reason that I collect curry packages is because I never get tired at looking at all the different designs. I like seeing who is using what ingredients and what flavours they have come up with. I want to see how many unique ideas there are. And I want to see what they’re trying to achieve. I look over all the packages wondering about all these different things. After I remove the contents I disassemble the boxes and store them flat.

Curry is not for curry’s sake

For a while I have been interested in a certain type of curry pouch, a product which has been gradually losing its identity as a food. These aren’t the curry pouches mass produced by manufacturers and sent out in droves to supermarkets, but specific regional curries made in limited quantities which not only want to be enjoyed as a food but also have another desire: to act as PR for local foods and locations.

There are many products that you can look at and see that the front of their packaging is basically one giant advert. Curries that use branded beef will often show pictures of meat full of specks of fat, curries that use local beer will often show images of a tasty-looking beer being poured into a glass, and curries that use locally famous produce will be covered in illustrations of gorgeous looking fruit. There are no pictures of actual curry at all.

This is because they have something that they want to show more than some delicious-looking curry. I’m really interested in this phenomenon that converts pouch curries into edible billboards. I wonder why it’s happening. It’s obviously because Japanese People love curry so much. I’m sure something like this must have been said at the Japanese Curry Pouch Development Conference:

“There aren’t any Japanese people who don’t like curry, are there?”
“No way, it’s our national dish.”
“Besides, whatever ingredients you use, you can’t mess it up.”
“Yeah, there’s no way to make a bad curry.”
“Shall we try making a curry pouch, then?”

Japan really does rely on the popularity of this dish called curry and the power to broaden the mind that it brings.

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