• The World Digested

Nostalgic for the Exotic


It is the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In Japan, it is the best of times – for curry – and it is the worst of times – for the economy. After the Bubble burst and the banks busted, inertia has claimed the land. Reluctantly awakened from a feverish dream, the nation finds itself aged and defeated; once for all, it has decided, enough was enough. It was tired – most notably the Treasury – and its citizens were exhausted, dozing left and right wherever and whenever. Just as in the Dickensian times, “things in general were settled for ever.” Aging – premature and otherwise – and senility have taken hold, and those temporarily spared ramble over to “power spots” – i.e. Ise Shrine – in order to derive cosmic energy or scramble to restaurants, seeking quantity to fill their hollow hearts.

Hard to imagine, but things were not always so stale. Japan was neither unified nor uniform, and warriors chopped off heads in the mountains and cast gutted enemies into the sea. However, 400 years ago, the history had shifted and the power coalesced: There was a daimyo[1] with a face of a monkey on the throne of Osaka Castle, who united Japan for the first time[2]; then there was a daimyo with a face of a raccoon, who patiently waited for the death of the simian daimyo and burn down the flamboyant Osaka Castle, then built his own in Edo. Edo became the capital, Tokyo.

In the year of Our Lord two thousands and sixteen, there are no more ferocious samurais nor the warrior business men of the 80’s or the 90’s; spiritual revelations are sought widely and discredited worldly. The once frugal citizens of Japan shifted their presbyopic gaze from the long lost Eden to the present, and they have finally succumbed to the guilty pleasure of living for the moment. Now that the nation is spending instead of saving, the people are consuming food as the most affordable and accessible form of luxury. Nonetheless, in the long post-Bubble Japan, there are no more champagne-popping dinners followed by more champagne-popping at Ginza clubs. When the economy was bubbling, it was all very well to dine on foie gras, truffles and caviars, but when it has become stymied and is likely to remain stymied for unspecific amount of time into the future, one has to economize.

Today the national diet is back to the basics – rice. What a blessing, that Japan still has the rice to fall back on, and incidentally, it is one of the very few self-sufficient food items still produced in Japan. However, the question is: eating rice with what? Although a couple of decades may have faded the memory of fine dining, the Japanese palates, having once tasted the forbidden fruits, can no longer be whole-heartedly satisfied with a simple bowl of white rice and a single pickled plum.

But, what are the alternatives to the French or Italian cuisines? People want something comforting and yet exciting, something different yet familiar. The answer had been right there all along: the curry-rice. Sure, the Japanese have always loved their curry: from the elementary school lunch to the office cafeteria, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” the Japanese would have their curry. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and S&B,[3] the Japanese eat curry 78 times per year, which is 1.5 times per week. Therefore, you should not be surprised to see Japanese families vigorously chopping and dropping potatoes and carrots into a boiling pot at campfires, instead of cozily roasting the marshmallows. There is no other nation – ex-India – which has such abiding love for the spicy mixture. All possible variations and combinations on curry have been tried. Take only the condiments: raw spices, mixed powder, curry granules, curry roux tablets and ready-to-eat vacuum packed curry occupy aisle after aisle of any supermarket.[4] Curry is found on the menu of every (try to find one without) family restaurant, served often enough at chintz-covered tea rooms and counter-intuitively at first- and second- and third-wave coffee shops (roasted coffee beans vs. tempered spices). Even some fancy French and Japanese restaurants and chic bars hide it on their “secret menu.” For the choice of carbohydrates, rice and naan for sure, but you can also have it with buttered toasts, soba and udon noodles, spaghetti and macaroni or, even stuffed into a fried bun for your portable convenience. Furthermore, if waistline is not particularly a concern, indulge and splurge on the toppings – pork cutlets, beef cutlets, fried shrimps – or spoil yourself with a piping hot curry pizza topped with a magma of melted cheese. These are not all. How about some curry-flavor potato chips or cup ramen and… Well, the point is made.

Despite the prevalence of curry, the flavor itself, had remained uniformly and staunchly continental based on the conventional flour-and-oil roux and the holy trinity of potatoes, carrots and onions. Yet, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there had always been a hidden, darker side underneath the Japanese calm demeanor. Gradually, a subset of underground sub-food-culture began chanting and calling for blood – for the spicy, the hot, and the burning. In return, maniacal curry shops would concoct ever more excruciating recipes to test the faith of their most devout. Hence, at certain curry shops, the diners could choose the preferred shock level from 1 to the fire and brimstone. Forget Sichuan hot pot, this is the real deal.

Although countless generations removed from the violent samurai period, covered underneath the neocortex, our primordial limbic system is nostalgic for the barbaric, the instinctive and the exotic and we yearn for something that will break the norm and upset our too comfortable equilibrium. Nonetheless, in the civilized 21stCentury, the only time we come close to chopping heads or slitting guts is when we cut sashimi or stuff the occasional bird, and that is even done usually by someone else so we can keep our soft hands clean. Hence, we seek for something that would gratify the subconscious hunger and quench the neglected thirst. Seeking that magic stimulant that would jostle the national stupor, even momentarily, Japan has found the ideal, legal drug in the form of curry.

However, the good and old brown curry, even spiced up a few notches, will not do this time as people are seeking, heretofore unheard of, a thing called – authenticity. The adventurous souls who have traveled abroad are armed with the memory of the vivid local flavors; and the sedentary folks, not to be outdone, take a virtual trip to the Internet and load up on vicarious pseudo knowledge. Therefore, “ethnic cuisines[5]” this time around had better be real – real beyond the grease and the fume; real beyond the plastic palms and dusty wall hangings – or else, the countless anonymous bloggers would bury them alive, virtually.

In the world of curry, authenticity is another word for escapism. The current generation of Japanese are seeking foreign thrill in tranquil Japan: they are looking for something that is tactile in the era of virtuality, something extraordinary among the ordinary, something unique in the ubiquitous; they want the sense of adventure without the physical exertion; and they demand stimulation but conveniently contained within a plate; all in all, they want the experience without bothering to experience.

This national malaise has produced Datenshi Kakki~. Datenshi – meaning fallen angel in Japanese – has been banished from heaven because he has indeed rebelled. He has rebelled against a combined heritage of staggering 6,500 years of cooking – 4,000 years of Indian cuisine[6] and 2,500 years of Japanese.[7] Why rebel? Why do we do anything, indeed? Pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, wrath… Ah, but in Datenshi Kakki~’s case, his sin was, without doubt, gluttony (well, perhaps with a dash of pride and a splatter of greed, too, as evinced by the tilde at the end of his name). Kakki~ is so gluttonous that he has to use the national favorite, tai snapper, for his dashi; then, he dares to layer it further with even more dashi from kombu and katsuo bushi. Tripled dashi – isn’t that arrogant for a mere curry-rice. Still not satisfied, he serves his tripled dashi curry on top of rice cooked in dashi. Now, you can surely see why he is damned.

This fallen angel has fallen into the spicy, scorching curry hell in Osaka, where curry restaurants are popping up in all the unlikely places – subletting to save cost – in a cut-throat competition for survival. In fact, it is said that curry in Osaka is in the Sengoku Period – taking from exactly when those samurai warlords roamed the fields and mountains before Japan was all set up for eternity centuries ago. Indeed, Datenshi Kakki~ could not have fallen anywhere else but Osaka.

Two major cities in this curry war are Tokyo and Osaka. Equally plagued by the national lethargy, however, their approaches to curry diverge. Tokyo began by compartmentalization because the first step to understand something new and foreign was to categorize and separate it in accordance with the long tradition of bureaucracy. Compartmentalization occasionally leads to specialization, and in the case of Tokyo, the search for authenticity has become a search for native experts. Hence, they go and hire chefs from five-star hotels in the Indian Subcontinent. Outsourcing is the name of the game.

Osaka, on the other hand, has one advantage and one disadvantage, which, in fact, amounts to the same thing – the chaos. Osaka thrives in chaos; and it is the origin of Osaka. Since the ostentatious and extravagant days of Hideyoshi – the one with the monkey face, Osaka has had four hundred years of practice in mixing and mingling in a chaotic, commercial environment. Being a major port town in the Edo Period meant that all the best produce and products flowed into Osaka, and even bits and pieces of foreign imports trickled through, despite the officially closed borders. Chaos churns and boils Osaka blood, which erupts, for example, in the form of the infamous local favorite, the “mixed juice,[8]” which blends up multiple fresh/canned fruits with milk. Similarly, Osaka’s soul food – the okonomiyaki – literally means “cooked to your liking” and is nothing but a chaotically mixed pancake of shredded cabbage and whatever the customer picks from a wide range of selection – pork, cheese, mochi (sticky rice cake), tenkasu (fried tempura batter droplets), pickled and red-colored ginger, to name a few. In Osaka, more is indisputably better and superior. Contrary to the current fashion of cooking as subtraction, flavors in Osaka are added and mixed and multiplied into a delightful and vivacious chaos.

Bear in mind, however: curry comes from Kali, the Hindu goddess of chaos. Chaos is a double-edged sword; it destroys and it creates. Thus, in Osaka, chaos has destroyed the traditional barriers across different cuisines and plied open the lid of the spice box. Now, everything is game, and a new genre of curry was created – the spice curry. Loosely defined, spice curry permits the use of any kind of combination of spices, herbs and ingredients as long as there are spices. Chinese Sichuan peppers, Bengali/Bangladeshi panch phoron, Thai chili peppers, Indian kasoori methiand corianders all make their way into the pot with tuna, mutton, chicken livers and gizzards, and pork belly, along the essence of Japan – the dashi. The curry may be enhanced further with a salad of mizuna (pungent greens like arugula) or a light gourd curry in coconut gravy with Maldives fish. Authenticity in Osaka has become synonymous with originality.

Kakki~ has fallen from being a musician (which may still be his official job title on his resume but perhaps not on his tax return), and for his multiple sins, he suffers in a stifling bar, which has only five stools, very closely spaced, and no air-conditioning. The door must be left open at all times to catch the fickle and feeble breeze, which may trickle in at the mercy of heaven. (As a further punishment, his cell phone and wallet were stolen because they were lying on the bar counter in plain view from the street, tempting the stray passerby.)

We, the daredevils, who dare to defy and visit him in the far corner of Osaka, must also suffer along in the heat (may I remind you again, that there is no air-conditioning) and wait for our curries to arrive in the steamy atmosphere, surrounded by bodies and spices, without ice cubes in the water and sometimes without the water itself. The waiting can be as long as forty-five minutes, although it feels at least double. Sure, five seats mean that there can be at most five curry orders at any given time; however, logic does not work in chaos, does it, certainly not in the July heat.

Yet, what a curry-rice it is, when it finally arrives.

Datenshi Kakki~ only makes the two curries per month. His signature is the tai-snapper dashi with chicken keema curry, topped with kinome (the bud of a Japanese pepper tree) and garnished with a sliver of kabosu citrus. The idea of taisnapper stock with a squeeze of citrus and a sprig of herb is as traditional it gets; and yet, the stock is untraditionally extracted by sautéing the snapper bones in olive oil first before katsuo and kombu dashi are added. The resulting triple dashi is clear, so clear and so pure that is almost angelic; nevertheless, it is not all that innocent after all as the scattering of the coriander, cumin and mustard seeds and other spices do provide a devilish kick to the tongue. Some customers dare to ask for their curries to be spiced up a notch: well, “a mere notch,” Kakki~ will not do; he throws in a few innocuously tiny chili peppers just to watch them dance on the firecrackers – well, in this case, the firecrackers happen to be in the mouth. Too late. Kakki~ did professe that he did not subscribe to the spicy=hot culture because the hotness hindered the taste buds to enjoy the flavors. Now, we know why.

Figure 1 Tai-snapper dashi keema curry

The other monthly curry can be anything. Oh, anything at all. Kakki~’s July curry was a hellishly red shrimp and eggplant curry. The eggplants used were the local mizu nasu, renowned for its delightful, juicy sweetness. Raw white shrimps marinated in mustard oil adorned the curry, along with a ground shrimp heads paste. As in the tai snapper curry, the strong umami of the shrimp shone straight through. The customers universally go for the double curry option – tai snapper dashi keema + monthly curry – to capture all the dashi Kakki~ had made, so the umami would be exponentially augmented by the double, triple or quadruple (tai snapper + katsuobushi + kombu + shrimp) dashi. Aren’t humans greedy. As I mused and chewed, the almost-whole shrimp legs in the paste scratched discordantly and disconsolately against my inner cheeks; however, given that it was Datenshi Kakki~’s curry, I had to think hard whether it was due to sloth or pride or anger that left the legs in the paste. Then Kakki~ mumbled, “you cannot fail with shrimps.”

Figure 2 July shrimp & eggplant curry

For the month of May, Kakki~ sprung a light curry of bamboo shoots, small clams and wakame (Japanese seaweed) – another traditional combination to commemorate the spring. Of course, the proud ex-angel could not leave the dish just like that without garnishing it with some bright, green, Japanese sansho peppercorns. Sansho itself is nothing surprising – after all, it is almost impossible to go into a Japanese restaurant around this time of the year without encountering its numbing effects on the tongue. However, Kakki~ keeps the customers on their toes by using a lot of strong sansho peppercorns and other spices, which not only tingle but send pins and needles all the way down the spine.

Figure 3 Double curry of tai-snapper dashi keema & clam with wakame

Mind you, his recipes are not fusion: nothing is fused for nothing needs to be fused. Fusion implies that two incongruous items are artificially and forcefully conjoined. Fusion cuisine takes a native cuisine – usually non-Western – and applies other sophisticated, scientific Western culinary method – usually French – and presentation style to the original recipe. Therefore, in this new genre of spice curry where every spice is just another condiment without country label, where every cooking method is just another pot in the kitchen, fusion cannot exist as there are no longer any separate “cuisines.”

Kakki~ creates what he wants, regardless of origin and convention, whimsically and freely. Therefore, adding spices to the traditional Japanese cooking is not fusing the two because he treats the additional spices merely as an extension of his array of condiments on the counter. In Japan, the condiments are described as Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So: Sa=Sugar, Shi=Salt, Su=Vinegar, Se=Soy sauce, So=Miso, exactly as in the third row of the Japanese alphabets. Kakki~ merely remade the alphabets to create his own new language; in his tiny, dingy world of five seat, after the Sa-Shi-Su-Se-So, there are the C’s – cardamom, coriander, cumin, curry leaves…to be continued as more new words and spices are added.

Datenshi Kakki~ is proud, and yes, he is greedy. But, perhaps, the biggest sin he has committed is the sin of being exceptionally original, which is the eighth deadly sin in Japan.

Datenshi Kakki~ (Closed)

Address: 2-17-31 Ojicho, Abeno Ward, Osaka 545-0023, Japan

Hours: (Wed-Sat) 11:30AM – 3:00PM; (Mon) 7:00PM – 1:00AM

Datenshi Kakki~ continuing on at Aozora Shokudo on Monday nights.

Address: 2-4 Abenosuji, Abeno-ku, Osaka.

Find him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/datenshi_kaki

[1] A feudal lord.

[2] For those history aficionados, yes, there are various competing theories. I agree with the theory which claims Hideyoshi was the first because 1) the concept of Japan was not fully formed before this time, 2) he was the first who could give orders to the four corners of Japan.

[3] The biggest producer of curry powder in Japan.

[4] Most recently, I have seen curries sold in bookstores.

[5] Mindlessly defined and ignorantly over-inclusive, it refers to the Asian and other cuisines from those nebulous countries whose locations are not immediately apparent, among which are those countries, which produce dishes named or misnamed, “curry.”

[6] The oldest curry known today is dated from this period. See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36415079.

[7] Counting from the beginning of rice cultivation, for lack of better guidepost, presumably that was also when the incipient form of sushi arrived in Japan.

[8] Make no mistake, the good, old mixed juice has nothing to do with the fancy, foreign import called smoothies.

#Curry #Osaka