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From India To North Korea, Via Japan: Curry's Global Journey

I hadn't been in Japan more than a few weeks before I was hooked on Japanese karē raisu, or curry rice. It was the rich, unmistakable smell that seeped under doorways and filled the undercover shopping markets of Osaka that first caught my attention.

I followed the scent down an alley and into a tiny eatery not large enough for more than a half-dozen customers. Behind the wooden counter perched two large vats — the source of the seductive aromas. In one, the potbellied chef told me, is spicy curry. In the other is sweet curry. Perhaps noticing my indecisiveness, he picked up two small, wooden bowls and dished out a ladle of spicy into one bowl and a ladle of sweet into the other. "Try," he commanded.

My taste buds burst into life. Obediently, I took a scoop of the sweet sauce. The velvety texture of the piping hot substance wrapped itself around my tongue and left me wanting more. But I hadn't finished. Unapologetically licking my spoon clean, I plunged it into the spicy sauce and into my mouth. This time my tongue burned.

"Is it too much for you?" the smirking chef asked, almost gleefully. "No, no," I replied, sucking air into my mouth and reaching for a glass of water. "It just took me by surprise." Without asking, the chef took a larger bowl and filled it with sweet curry, beef and potatoes. So began my love affair with Japanese karē raisu.

At that time, I was carrying out research in Japan on Osaka's incipient North Korean community. That evening, when I met my North Korean friends for our customary pork barbecue and beer in Korea town, I recounted my midday culinary adventure.

"Oh, yes," they agreed. "Japanese curry is good. But until you've eaten it on a snowy Pyongyang day, you haven't lived."

And there it was. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know: How did curry, ostensibly a product of the Indian subcontinent, make its way onto tables in the most isolated nation on the planet?

The story of curry is emblematic of the early days of colonialism, and the beginnings of what we now simply refer to as globalization. Academics claim that people may have been eating curries as far back as 2,500 B.C., and that it has addictive properties.

The roots of the word "curry" are undecided, with some arguing that it comes from the Old English word "cury," first used in an English cookbook published in 1390. Ostensibly, "cury" referred to cuisine based on French cuire cooking — meaning to cook, boil or grill. The word gradually became associated with a stew. Others contend it is a derivative of the Tamil word kari, referring to a dish cooked with vegetables, meat and spices.

The "curry-flavored" powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747 in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. Her interpretation was more of a "gentle, aromatic stew" than a fiery vindaloo, but it featured curry powder as a key ingredient. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened Britain's first curry house, the Hindustan Coffee House. It was a massive failure, but in the years that followed, curry as an English dish re-emerged in restaurants across the United Kingdom. Curry gradually became an accepted part of every British pub menu, perhaps offering balance to an otherwise lackluster English diet.

Paneer curry. The "curry-flavored" powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England.
Divya Kudua / Flickr
Paneer curry. The "curry-flavored" powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England.

Anglicized interpretations of Indian cuisines were subsequently taken to Imperial Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy and other British subjects in the latter half of the 19th century. By the end of the century, the Japanese navy had adapted the British version of curry, just as the English had earlier Anglicized Indian curry.

In 1872, the first karē raisu recipe was published in a Japanese cookbook, and in 1877 a Tokyo restaurant first offered karē raisu on the menu. Just as it had done in England, curry rapidly became a staple of the Japanese diet. Today, Friday nights onboard the vessels of the Japanese navy are still curry nights. A website of the Japanese Self-Defence Force's "Family Page" lists its most popular curry dishes with recipes for the public to try. These mouthwatering recipes come with step-by-step cooking instructions and pictures of over 50 different curries popular on Japanese military bases.

In 1968, inspired by the Swedish army's "pouched sausages," Japan's Otsuka Foods Co. launched vacuum-sealed boil-in-a-bag curry. The convenience of these ready-to-eat treats appealed to thrifty students and overworked salarymen. Within a few years, Otsuka Foods' annual sales topped 100 million packets.

In the 1960s, the Japanese government pressured Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese — former subjects of the Japanese Empire — to self-deport. At the time, many Koreans in Japan considered North Korea a better option than the U.S.-backed Rhee government in South Korea. Curry followed tens of thousands of migrating Koreans to North Korea. Family who stayed behind in Japan sent tightly packed parcels crammed full of ready-made karē raisu to loved ones in North Korea.

The North Korean government prohibited repatriates from ever returning to Japan. Immigrants from Japan struggled to survive the often-harsh conditions of North Korea. Access to imported karē raisu and other imported food products became a matter of life and death. They used karē raisu as a currency, trading it for local products — kimchi, rice and meat — and strategically gifting it to cadre of the Korean Workers' Party. The more industrious, daring individuals opened black market curry and noodle stalls operating out of their apartments.

Over dinner in Tokyo, my friend Hye-rim Ko, recently escaped from North Korea, explained that during this time, "We native North Koreans tried to mimic immigrants from Japan. We wanted to dress like them and eat the food they had. We were curious. What they ate was better than our food." "Native" North Koreans, like Hye-rim, had to rely on immigrants from Japan for a regular fix of curry.

Another friend, Sazuka Tanaka, was among those Japanese "repatriated" to North Korea in 1960. (She later escaped to the south.) In between mouthfuls of fried pork wrapped in perilla leaves, she told me, "I managed a small restaurant in a northern city of North Korea. We served karē raisu and other dishes from Japan. It was a hugely popular place to eat for North Koreans, and I became quite famous for my curry."

The tastes and smells of curry reminded immigrants from Japan of the home they'd left behind. More importantly, such dishes were a lifeline during the famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

In 2002 Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government reacted by imposing trade sanctions on the DPRK. These sanctions choked off the supply of Japanese curry to North Korea. Consequently, North Koreans living near the Sino-Korean border were forced to turn to China for imports of karē raisu. North Korean defectors I worked with assured me that "fake" karē raisu wasn't a patch on the real thing. They claimed that it "lacked flavor" and was "made with inferior ingredients."

Curry is a chameleon of a dish and a well-traveled one at that — from India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo and the NASA space program. In each place, people have adapted and blended it to local tastes, making it one of the world's most loved dishes. Perhaps this is why many of my friends and I feel such affection for it: Curry, like us, shifts and evolves through its journeys, the cultures it passes through, and the people who love and adopt it.

Markus Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the Australian National University, researching North Korean society and North Korean migration. In September he will take up a lectureship in the University of Sheffield's School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell.

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Markus Bell