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The Oyama Curry Challenge

April 26, 2012

Well, another fun and crazy week of teaching has come and gone, and the second week is almost finished, but that is not the focus of today’s blog post. Today I would like to write about what I have dubbed as the Oyama Curry Challenge. On the evening of Thursday, April 18th, I received a text message from my friend Eric asking what I was doing Friday night. When I responded that I had no plans, he invited me to join an excursion to Oyama (about twenty minutes away by train from Koga-shi) that he, Rob, and Courteney were taking to a curry restaurant. He and Rob had decided to take the restaurant’s curry eating challenge and invited Courteney and I to go along. At first I thought he wanted me to also take the challenge, but the boys just wanted a friendly audience to cheer them on. So, Friday evening I met Eric and Courteney at the train station and we rode over to Oyama. Rob met us at the station there, since it would be faster for him to bike to Oyama from his place rather than bike to Koga Station and then ride the train to Oyama, and it took us about fifteen minutes to walk to the restaurant.

Before we get to the good part of the story, I think a history lesson is in order regarding Japanese curry. Contrary to what you would think, curry is considered a Western-style meal rather than an Eastern style. This is because Japan didn’t get its curry recipe from India, but from the British! Going back to 1600, the British established the East India Trading Company and began founding colonies. During this time, European powers like France and the Netherlands expanded eastward and the amount of trade increased. In this context many of the British brought Indian food back to Britain, where it spread around the country. Although the British loved curry, they weren’t able to recreate it perfectly with the correct ratio of spices and so they invented curry powder. Now they could cook curries with ease! When this was combined with ‘roux’ from western cuisine, a thicker form of curry was born.

The agreed upon story is that curry was spread to Japan from the west at the end of the Edo period after the trade ban was lifted. Around that time, a large troop of British Marines settled in Yokosuka (near Yokohama) and were often served curry soup infused by Indian spices. There was no milk available in Japan which was often used in soup recipes so the curry spices added a good flavour, as well as to help preserve the soup longer in a hot climate. Also, after 200 years of seclusion the whole nation was eager to absorb “western culture,” and food was no exception. Curry became one of the first “European foods,” to spread amongst the commoners.

In the 1910s a Japanese medical doctor working for the Japanese Marines was committed to improve the health condition of the crews. He researched the catering services within the British Navy and came across the curry soup. He suggested a recipe of カレーライス (kare raisu)– or curry rice, in English — using well balanced ingredients like meat, vegetables and soup thickened with flour (which makes it easier to eat with rice) and served it to more than 45.000 Marines across Japan. In 1923, Minejiro Yamazaki (founder of S&B Foods Inc.) was determined to develop a Japanese curry powder. After much trial and error, he finally succeeded in his goal. Today, curry is one of the most common meals in Japanese homes. Research shows that the average Japanese person consumes about 62 dishes of curry per year, which means that most people in Japan eat it more than once a week!

Okay, where was I? Oh yes, walking to the restaurant. The restaurant was the strangest juxtaposition of cultures that I had ever seen. It was an American Southwestern-styled restaurant, complete with adobe-esque seating, country music, and a wrought iron cactus on one of the walls. However, it also had Indian batik cloths with elephants on them inside all of the silverware baskets. Now, I understand the thinking behind the Indian items, but why the American Southwest? It’s so confusing. What makes this restaurant so popular is the curry challenge it offers, where you are given 1.5 kilos (about 3.3 pounds) of curry and rice as well as a timer. You must eat every single bite within twenty minutes, or pay the 2500 yen it’s worth (about $31, as of April 26th).

Regular spoon versus curry challenge spoon

The woman who took our orders seemed surprised and impressed that the boys were ordering the challenge, and asked us to wait a moment. She went back to the kitchen, and quickly came back saying that they’d need to cook more rice, which would take about forty minutes. Since Courteney and I weren’t attempting the challenge, we were able to order our meals and finish them off long before the boys received their food. We definitely enjoyed leisurely eating our dinner while Eric and Rob mentally prepared for their oncoming feat.

Game Faces.

The boys’ patience was finally rewarded when one of the owners came out carrying one of the platters for the curry challenge and our waitress carrying the second one. You could see the steam coming off the food! Then the timer came out, and the boys were on their way!

The boys pose with their curry while one of the owners rounds the corner with the timer.

No words can really describe what Courteney and I watched, so hopefully these pictures will show the progression that we witnessed! They do say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Eric and Rob dig in while the family near us watch out of the corners of their eyes.

Eating, eating. Rob went for the strategy of mixing his curry with the rice.

What isn’t shown is that they had to start eating back when the food was piping hot, so there was a lot of pained noises and, “Hot! Hot!”

Uncertainty begins to creep in on their faces.

Eating is tiring work. 10 minutes left!

And time is up! Unfortunately, neither of them was able to complete his curry on time and had to pay for the meal.

Better luck next time, Rob!

It was a rather depressing walk back to the train station, but the boys started discussing strategies for the next time they try the challenge, so maybe sometime in the future I’ll have a post with happier results!

Speaking of posts, I’d like to take this moment to introduce a new segment to this blog! I decided to write Q&A posts every so often, answering questions you have for me that you leave in the comments! Once I have enough questions (about three to five) I’ll write a post answering them and put it up! The questions can cover just about anything — what it’s like teaching English in elementary school, what it’s like living in Japan, you get the picture! So start thinking of things you want to ask!

This weekend is the beginning of Golden Week, which is a bunch of consecutive holidays that happen at the beginning of May. So, I have Monday off, school on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then the rest of the week off! Hopefully something fun will happen so I can write about it! So stay tuned for a Golden Week post.

History of Curry Sources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_curry

http://www.sb-worldwide.com/curry/history.html

http://www.cheftaro.com/foodamentals/history-japanese-curry

http://www.kikkoman.co.uk/japanese_curry.php

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