I have a severe weakness for Japanese curry. It’s the psychological equivalent of meatloaf for me. My mom used to make the gravy-like concoction from Vermont Curry mix, whose box boasts that there are hints of apples and honey in its honey-brown oily blocks of packed curry powder.
My mom would dissolve the blocks, add chopped chicken leg, cubed carrots, potatoes and onions, then leave the curry on the burner until it was time to eat, by which time the meat was soft and the the vegetables were slightly mushy. She’d then drown a plate of steamed short-grain white rice in the soupy mixture. It was my absolute favorite on rainy nights in Fremont after a long day of studying and adolescent dreariness. While I was in college, boil-in-bag Vermont curry would turn out to be a lifesaver. Sometimes it wasn’t even necessary to pour my meal into a bowl; in the embodiment of student convenience, I could eat it straight from the bag and throw it away. Look, no dishes!
More fanciful Japanese curry was initially a surprise to me. My first encounter with it took place during those college years at a restaurant called Hurry Curry on Sawtelle Ave in Los Angeles. Hurry Curry was pretty cool place for what I thought to be comfort food, but what intrigued me more than its red walls, jazzy music and black dress code for the wait staff was the menu. At the time, I had no clue that curry could come with anything other than chicken and cubed vegetables, but lo – here was something called katsu curry. Croquette curry. Squid curry? What? Every option came swimming with rice in a sea of brown sauce.
While the ingredients within each curry varied, the sauce was the same from dish to dish: slightly spicy, somewhat thick, without a hint of coconut or garam masala and served alongside a jar of bright red pickles. Hence began my strange addiction to fukujinzuke – I ended up working at Hurry Curry for a short while later in college, taking full advantage of the 50% staff discount and siphoning off pickles when no one was looking.
So, three years later in Tokyo, I felt a need to pay homage to the curry in its home country. I stopped by a stand near the Tsukiji fish market called Aigake Omori. It was on the fringe of the famous market, which is also choc-a-block with stalls selling goods as specialized as fish knives, dried fish flakes (bonito) and sweetened black beans. This stall’s hours are odd: It’s open from 5:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with only five stools for its customers. Those five spaces have been open since 1923, so Aigake Omori has clearly served its clientele – a mix of office types and workers from the market – well.
It felt like blasphemy to stop here rather than try some fresh sushi that day. Truth be told, the man behind the counter at Aigake Omori looked slightly confused that someone who was clearly a foreigner wanted curry rice out of a stew pot instead of a legendary sushi meal at any number of stalls down the road. His stand served cheap and cheerful comfort food, its main options being boiled beef and onions – similar to the kind served at Yoshinoya – or curry over rice.
The man behind the counter was slightly old and peered at us through his glasses, but flashed a devilish grin and adjusted his hat when I asked to take his photo. He dished up the order with relish and drowned the rice with curry ladled from the stew pot. I had wondered before what neat new ingredients I’d find in my curry when actually in Japan. In this place, a classic, I found only chicken bits and slightly smushy cooked vegetables. There was no need for anything more. I added some bright red pickles, thought of home, and dug in.