Japanese cuisine has a dirty little secret – ‘kare raisu’. That’s curry rice to you and me. And people love it. In fact, Japanese curry is said to be so popular in Japan that it’s regarded alongside ramen as one of that country’s unofficial national dishes, ahead of sushi, udon and miso soup.
Who woulda thunk?
When you think Japanese cuisine, the usual suspects spring to mind – sushi, sashimi, yakitori, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and ramen – not curry. And for good reason. Imagine inviting someone out for dinner on the premise of eating Japanese food and you buy them this.
I first came across Japanese curry when I was living in Tokyo back in the late nineties, where I was surprised to learn there was such a dish in that country’s acclaimed and much-loved culinary catalogue.
The dish is the antithesis of the delicate, finely-crafted morsels a master sushiya san painstakingly puts together with the dexterity only decades of repetitive training can bring. There’s a reason why it’s a popular school lunch option and a staple of the Japanese armed forces – it’s easy to make and transport, not to mention, versatile.
If you haven’t eaten it before, kare raisu is best described as having the appetising colour and consistency of a roast beef gravy, even a stew, when it’s done well (see photo above). And if you’re lucky, served up with a few chunks of carrot and potato partly submerged in a gluggy, ‘oniony’ mix, with steamed white rice served to the side and a spoonful of (largely tasteless) pickled ginger.
But when it isn’t done well, it’s a whole different story. You might say it then has the unappetising colour and consistency of the painful result of a really bad street food experience from the night before. You don’t ever want to see that served up on your plate, ever (see photo below).
So how did curry get its break in Japan?
It’s said to have been introduced to Japan by Anglo-Indian officers of the British navy when they swung by the “Far East” during their Empire days, some time in the 1850s or 60s, while apparently the earliest kare raisu recipes appeared in Japanese cookbooks in 1872. It’s nothing like the curries of Southeast Asia or the Indian sub-continent because it’s been adapted to suit Japanese tastes (code for plain and stodgy).
When it got to Vietnam is anybody’s guess, but there are plenty of joints in Saigon working hard to stave off the homesickness of hungry Japanese salarymen with their curry offerings.
Yet, despite the simplicity of cooking a Japanese curry – drop a few pre-made solid blocks of curry mix (ingredients unknown) into some scalding hot water and wait for it to melt – what you get in and around Saigon’s “Japan Town” varies greatly in taste, price and presentation from one place to the next. For the most part, it’s disappointing.
I can’t remember if it was nostalgia or what that drew me to Saigon’s “Japan Town” and its narrow alleyways in District 1 recently, looking for the best kare raisu, or more specifically, katsu kare – curry rice with a crispy pork cutlet.
But there I found myself scouring the alleys peering through shop front sliding doors, rifling through laminated menus on wobbly pedestals and asking in my fossilised Japanese with a mix of faltering Vietnamese if they served katsu kare there.
At Daiichi Ramen (8A/2B2 Thai Van Lung) I stumbled across the best katsu kare (VND90,000) in this part of town, hands down. The mix is rich and flavoursome while the pork cutlet is tender and crispy. It’s the benchmark for Japanese curry in Saigon. Look no further.
Next stop was Torasan Restaurant (8A/1C2 Thai Van Lung), a kawaii (cute) little corner shop that barely seats 10 people on the ground floor. Their pork cutlet (VND90,000) is nicely done and arguably the next best after Daiichi Ramen, but if you’re hungry, you might want to order two.
Meanwhile, Kome Restaurant’s (8A/A17 Thai Van Lung) is largely an ‘unmemorable’ affair. If it wasn’t for the spongey, dry pork cutlet (VND105,000), I probably wouldn’t remember it at all.
Moving on to Hanakaruta (17/25 Le Thanh Ton), it’s a cosy place with a small subterranean dining space that specialises in teppanyaki and reminds me of Tokyo subway station eateries. Their katsu kare teishoku (set lunch) for VND130,000 comes with a small bowl of miso soup and a small side salad. The crunchy pieces of pork crackling in the mix sets it apart from the rest I’ve tried and if only to experience the ambiance here, it’s worth a visit.
In the same alley as 4Ps Pizza’s original store, Gyumaru (8/3 Le Thanh Ton) serves up a large, sweet katsu kare (VND180,000) that looks better than it tastes. Just because it looks like curry and smells like curry, doesn’t mean it actually is curry.
Meanwhile, Daichan Ramen’s (15b/12A Le Thanh Ton) katsu kare (VND100,000) holds the ignominious honour of driving this search for the city’s best katsu kare to an abrupt end.
The plan had been to round the list out to a perfect 10, but with such disappointment (and concern for my health), I decided that it wasn’t worth ‘currying’ on.
My suggestion? Stick to sushi.
Words & Photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon