Monday, December 14, 2009

Curry Crazy

One of my cousins from Canada came to visit recently, an naturally I took him on a whirlwind eating tour of Hawaii.  As we were passing through McCully Shopping Center, to visit my favorite little plate lunch place, Regal Diner, my cousin noticed the name Curry House.  His first thought was that the place was an Indian restaurant.  I suppose this comment shouldn't have disoriented me as much as it did.   Indians are well known for their curry worldwide, and there is even a place downtown on Bishop St., next to Remington College called Komala Curry House, which I'm still very interested in trying one day.  But my immediate reaction to my cousin was that he was so strange.   After all, in Hawaii, the first curry that you think of is Japanese curry.   Curry House is of course a part of the multi-national Japanese chain, Curry House CoCo Ichibanya.

My reaction to my cousin just underscored the difference in viewpoint between us islanders and people from the mainland.   But in truth, in Hawaii we've got many different kinds of curry.   Of course we've got the Indian curry that my cousin initially thought of.  However, to me, Indian curry (really a masala or a vindaloo) isn't the best example of curry, because they use so many different spices in conjunction with their curry, that it kind of overwhelms the curry powder itself.   While the resulting dish is outrageously delicious, it doesn't allow the curry spice enough of the spotlight.    We've also got Thai curry, Vietnamese curry, and curries from other parts of Southeast Asia.   The Thais in fact have red curry, yellow curry, green curry, and others (my favorite being Panang curry), each with their own distinct flavor.   But again, this is not the best example of curry, because the predominant taste is that of the coconut milk, the thai basil, and the chili peppers that they use.  Again, while extraordinarily delicious, it doesn't give the curry spice the center stage.   For the true curry taste, you've got to look to our beloved perfectionists, the Japanese.  

Only the Japanese aesthetic is able to recognize and bring out the beauty of a stark, singular item, such as a single piece of sashimi atop a small mound of rice.   It is this aesthetic that recognizes the flavor of the curry powder itself, and allows it the opportunity to shine on its own.   In Hawaii, we've adopted Japanese style curry, as our own curry stew, the close cousin of our local style beef stew.  Essentially the same big cubes of beef, hunks of potato, carrot and onions in the a curry based gravy instead of a tomato based one, curry stew is a favorite on plate lunches across the islands.   Alternatively, replace the big hunks of beef with some hamburger, add some peas, and you've got the hamburger curry which is usually one of the best things to get from a lunchwagon.   But while our local style curry is extremely popular, it is sort of a milder version of the original Japanese curry.  

Special Mix (Teri Beef, Hamburger Steak, & Beef Curry) at Regal Diner
For the real curry taste, the prefection in a solitary flavor, you've got to have some of the authentic Japanese curry.  The Japanese love their curry, especially young kids and teenagers.   If you've ever watched the popular anime, Inu Yasha, there is a scene where Kagome first introduces curry to the titular half yokai, Inu Yasha, with great comedic effect.   In typical anime over-exaggeration, he runs around screaming trying to wipe the burning spices from is humourously extended tongue.   But the small scene is just an example of how common curry is in Japan.  You can make it at home, with pre-mixed packages of S&B Golden Curry, something which to me completely outclasses a Hamburger Helper meal.   But if you don't know what you're doing, and you want to taste the true essence of curry, done by the masters, the place you want to go is Curry House CoCo Ichibanya.

Corn Salad at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
When visiting Curry House, you really must begin your meal with a small salad.   Besides their extraordinary Japanese curry, Curry House is known for their two salad dressings.   Their creamy dressing is one of my favorite dressings in the world.   It is a sweet, creamy, slightly miso tasting, dressing.   Unlike vinegarettes which can be overpoweringly sour, or blue cheese or ranch dressings which can drown your vegetables in cream, the creamy dressing is light and sweet and seems to augment the natural sweetness of the crisp refreshing lettuce below.  You can even buy bottles of it to take home, but I just like having it as a cooling preamble to whet my appetite for the warm, yummy curry to follow.

Kids Curry at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
As I've mentioned before, curry is very popular with kids in Japan.   While my son has difficulty eating the overwhelming spices of Indian curry (which makes us wonder what Indian kids eat), he has no problem with the kids curry at Curry House.   The kids curry is remarkably mild, with lots of little fun, kid friendly sides.  While mild, it maintains just a hint of the curry flavor, enough for him to enjoy.

Mixed Vegetable Curry at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
My wife likes the vegetable curry at Curry House.  The wide assortment of vegetables, especially the hasu (or lotus root), makes for a great texture mix (nothing like horrible, textureless mix of frozen diced carrots, grean beans and corn that you get at most diners).  The sweetness of the vegetables also adds to the curry.   As my wife does also does not like a lot of spices, she greatly prefers the mild curry at Curry House to going to eat Indian curry.   However, even in their mild curry, you can taste the full flavor of the curry powder.  The gravy just seems to magnify the true curry taste, with the perfect Japanese rice gives it a warm soft body to enjoy.

Chicken Katsu Curry at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
For me, nothing will do except the spicy curry.   Although it's spicier, the spices do not at all overwhelm the taste of the curry powder.   In fact, it's not really spicy at all to me, it's just enough to give the curry powder a little kick in beginning, something that wakes up your taste buds so that they recognize the lingering curry powder taste to follow.  In Hawaii, the combination of curry and chicken katsu has become extremely popular, from plate lunches to real Japanese food.  Curry House naturally does it the best.   There is just something about the crunchy, fried, batter of the chicken katsu as it is just on the point of softening in the warm curry gravy (it's similar to putting crunchy cereal in milk).  Although it is a contrast, it seems so harmonious.  It's probably the reason that curry croquettes and curry doughnuts are so popular at Japanese bakeries, like St. Germain or Panya.  Even the plating at Curry House is perfect.  Unlike at certain plate lunch places where they just pour curry stew all over the chicken katsu, which eventually leaves it soggy if you're taking it out to eat, the katsu is positioned so as to maintain its crunchiness while just dipping its toes into the curry for artful aesthetics.   The curry to katsu ratio is then yours to control and enjoy.   It is a fantastic combination and my favorite dish at Curry House.

If you're feeling hungry, you can also order a slightly larger portion of rice with your curry (400g instead of 300g).   The fact that they measure the weight in grams of course throws us Americans off, but suffice it to say the 400g is nicely satisfying. I remember when Curry House first opened many years ago, they had one of those eating challenges (like the ones seen on Man vs. Food).  It was I think 1000g or something like that, which was roughly equivalent to a whole small pot of rice and curry.   I guess the local blalahs could eat much more than they were expecting, because they no longer offer the challenge.  It's too bad, because I do love their curry so, that I did want to try it one day.  It's probably for the best, and I'll always have my 97 second spaghetti eating days.

Calpico at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya
When eating Indian curry, my wife always has to cool her tongue with a yogurt based Indian lassi.   Although this isn't necessary while eating the mild curry at Curry House, there is a Japanese sweet yogurt drink that just goes great with their curry.   I, of course, am referring to Calpico.  There is just something about the mild, sweet, ever so slight tang, and milkiness of Calpico that reminds me of all the wonderful Japanese candy (like Fusen gum) that we used to have when we were kids.  The sweet taste of Calpico is almost comparable to ice cream sodas or New York egg cremes, but as its not carbonated its much easier and smoother to drink.   The sweet reminder of childhood, emphasizes how popular curry is with Japanese youngsters. 

Indian and Thai curries may be delicious and have worldwide notoriety, but for the ultimate, quintessential, true curry flavor, nothing beats Japanese-style curry.  As popular as it is with the youth of Japan, we're so lucky to grow up with and enjoy it here as well.

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