Hi. Hello there. I’m back, in many senses – first I was back in KL, and now I’m back in London, and in this small plot of virtual land once again. It feels strange to be stretching these writing muscles again after a long break, deliberating over a turn of phrase or comma placement, how to put together a sentence. Languages are bleeding into each other behind my eyes. As time marches inexorably forward away from what I think of as My Time in Japan (I left at the end of August), I find that Japanese nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions – words here and there are slowly fading, perhaps scattering themselves in the dusty corners of my head. English is starting to reassert itself. Speaking Japanese is starting to feel sometimes like a too-small glove, a mask rather than my own face, and it’s a little frightening.
“How was it, how was Japan?”
Everyone asks this question, but no one, barring close friends, really wants to hear all the details.
“Good. It was really good.”
An insipid answer that says absolutely nothing. Accompanied by a few anecdotes and generalisations that the other person already agrees with, like ‘yes, it’s very clean there’ or ‘oh yes the service is incredible’, or ‘the food is amazing’ and it passes muster in most casual conversations.
“Do you miss Japan?”
Yes, I reply, instantaneously. Yes, I do. So much so that it almost feels like a betrayal to my time in Tokyo that I am settling back into London at an astonishing pace. For the first few days it hadn’t quite sunk in that I had Left Japan, you know. You still have lingering echoes of the warm farewells that everyone’s sent you off with. I’ll miss you. We’ll meet again someday, definitely. Have a safe trip back. Come to Japan! Outside the window of my dorm room in Setagaya there was lush, green foliage and crickets constantly screeching from tree branches. In KL I’d wake up in the morning but there were no crickets, only haze shrouding buildings in the distance. But there was family, and there was food, so it was alright, it was just fine for the first few days.
It hits you without warning, like a cancer letting you know it’s been there all along. Six days after I returned to KL, my uncle passed away. It was inevitable, given his illness, and I’m glad I met him the day I returned. My mother, two of my sisters and I visited him at the hospital. He was, as they say in common parlance, a shadow of his former self – a cliche but completely true. We sat and joked around, listened to Chinese music from the 70s, some singer whose voice I don’t like. Before we left he told us that he loved us, and that was the last time my sisters and I spoke to him.
My mother drove my elder sister and I to the funeral parlour. Sitting at the back of the car, I put on my headphones and this song started playing on shuffle. I’d not listened to anything in Japanese since coming back, and suddenly hearing Ishida Ayumi sing about a plane leaving Haneda… a much-delayed reaction, but I cried the way I hadn’t cried at the airport and on the plane flying away from Japan, tears streaming down my face as though a tropical rainstorm had descended upon my head. When we arrived at the funeral parlour all of us cried again at the sight of my grandmother grieving for her second son lost and gone before her. In Japan, dying before your parents shows a lack of filial piety. So it is too, here. These emotions have the weight of fast-falling snow and I didn’t know what I was crying for anymore after a while, because tears eventually stop from exhaustion only to be replaced by a certain numbness.
It’s a terrible trait, but I cry really easily – far less often than two years ago. Most people I’ve met in Japan haven’t seen that and only know me as a super Genki Girl. For instance, A, a shy boy straight out of this Katie Melua song who is best relegated to a bittersweet end-of-summer memory box with JAPAN scrawled on its lid. Persistent, slightly domineering, genki – that’s how I come off to some people. And yet two nights ago saw me in a moment of fear and spinelessness, sobbing into N’s shoulder – latent fears at an uncertain future welling up as we talked about how I hadn’t decided what to do after graduation even though I’m in my final year now, and that I should just decide, stick with something, make it work. He gives harsh advice that I hate hearing and at the same time welcome, because he’s right.
“Friends will just tell you what you want to hear, usually, so you can’t ask them. I’m not really your friend so I can say this. Well… I mean, I am, but. Because in a sense, I like you…”
Harsh words, kind words, a little despair, a quiet and unresolved love.
“You cry easily, don’t you…”
“Of course. I get lonely, I cry.”
When N left London a year and a half ago it felt like winter, though London had spring in the air and asparagus in the markets. People leave, but they also leave ghosts of themselves in the city and in you. You leave a city but it stays with you. Being away from Japan is fine for the most part, really. I smile, talk to people, make daft jokes, read articles on the internet and function quite well, every day. But some days you look up, expecting a familiar face or sign and they’re not there. Some days there is a small aching hollow in my chest, and at times like this the only thing I can do to fill that hole is to make a pot of curry.
Everyone has their own comfort food. You can keep your mashed potatoes; I’ll have a plate of curry rice. Curry rice has seen me through weeks of solitary eating and essay-writing, a few dorm parties and many more meals in Japan. The last meal I ate out before leaving Japan was an Indian-style Japanese curry from a stall called Curry Freak (that’s me!) at an open-air food market in Aoyama. Slices of seared belly pork in a gravy boat full of deeply savoury curry, along with two neat mounds of rice and pickles. I had tears in my eyes; it was rather spicy and utterly sublime.
Professional curry-maker I am not, but I dare say that having had a few years to test and tweak, I can make a pretty decent version now. N and I had the curry for dinner while watching several episodes of Amachan the other day, and this version went down very well with him.
“This is delicious,” he exclaimed, almost incredulous. “It’s my mother’s curry!”
N is quite particular – even conservative – about how Japanese classics like these should taste. High praise, then, that it tastes like home to him. It tastes like home to me, too.
curry as i made it the other day
This is not one of those quick meals. It is the kind of stew you make a large pot of when you have a morning and early afternoon to spare, and especially if you don’t mind the smell of onions clinging to your clothes and hair.
For a long while, I was enamoured with Nancy Hachisu’s method of making curry rice: she makes a vegetarian curry, and meat is only added in towards the end in the form of thinly-sliced sautéed pork. Grated ginger and sesame oil add a lovely background warmth, and finishing it with soy sauce gives the sauce that final kick of umami. How I make mine now owes much to her recipe, along with other tidbits gleaned from the internet.
All kinds of curry-making methods abound, along with the addition of various kinds of ‘secret’ ingredients that different cooks swear by – ginger, garlic, instant coffee, tomato paste, red wine, honey, apple, milk, chocolate. (Possibly not all in the same recipe.) The basic meat and root veg quantities usually vary according to what I have in my cupboard, so this is much less a recipe than a guideline. However, I do think that slow and careful flavour-building at each stage really does elevate a ho-hum back-of-the-roux-box curry into something quite spectacular. The following is a list of pointers distilled from many curries made over the years.
#1 If you’re stewing your meat and not adding it in at the end, season and marinate it, preferably with some spices. I don’t think the type of spices you use particularly matters as long as you like how it tastes, but the two functions of this are: your meat has more flavour than if you merely boil it along with the veg, and when you brown it you end up with a lovely spiced, browned crust. I used chicken here for a less-heavy curry, but you could use any stewing meat you like, and adjust your cooking time accordingly.
#2 Brown your meat, take it out and then add the onions. The pan-stickings* from browning your meat will colour and give a little spice to your onions. The onions can be left on medium-low heat, and you should stir occasionally, and deglaze the pan. Onions are the backbone of Japanese curry, and it is crucial that you take your time with them. Every cook worth their salt tells you this, but you cannot rush the process of sautéing onions till they are at the very least golden-brown.
#3 From Nancy’s recipe: save your vegetable skins and make a stock. For me, this just means pouring boiling water over the carrot and onion skins and leaving it to putter on the stove while getting on with the other stuff.
#4 15 (or more!) cloves of garlic is not a lot of garlic, and your curry will taste all the better for it.
#5 Mixing brands of roux will make your curry taste far more interesting; I like mixing roux by House Java and S&B. Making my own roux requires too many spices I’d never use otherwise.
#6 A little chopped apple before returning the meat to the pan, and a little honey stirred in at the end, is wonderful for balancing the heat out, should you find it too spicy. I also like my curry spicy, and have taken to adding birds eye chillies and/or chilli powder along with the ginger.
#7 Japanese curry welcomes leftover bits, and particularly vegetables of all kinds. A lonely tomato in the fridge went in, along with a small fistful of garlic. The last wilting bits of spinach from Chinatown, stirred in at the end. Aubergines, ladyfingers and sweet potatoes would all be sound additions. Himesama makes hers with beets, and I like that a lot, too.
3 chicken thighs, filleted or bone-in, cut into chunks
1 tsp gochugaru (Korean chilli powder; optional)
1/2 tsp curry powder
Scant 1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
Half a capful of Shao Xing wine, about 2 1/2 tsp
A generous dribble, a slosh, even, of fish sauce (Thai or Viet)
6 medium carrots
3 large onions (or more – I won’t tell)
9 baby potatoes or equivalent large potatoes
15 whole cloves of garlic
1 or 2 tbsp grated ginger with juices
1 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 a small apple
2 – 4 birds eye chillies
1 tomato (wedges or diced – doesn’t matter)
Japanese curry roux, two different types
Honey and soy sauce to taste
Oil, for cooking
Season your meat lightly with salt. Using your hands, toss the meat with the various marinade ingredients, making sure you get a nice coating on all the sides. (I’d up the quantities a little more if your fillets were on the large side.) Set aside.
Peel your carrots and onions, and put them in a large stockpot. (I also tend to save and freeze vegetable peelings for curry-making sessions.) Cover with boiling water and leave on, say, medium heat. It’ll turn a nice deep brown as everything softens in there.
For the onions: you can cut them into thick wedges, or julienne them finely. I like the occasional slice of onion in my curry (and I’m lazy) so I wedge them, but when I used to julienne them finely they’d disintegrate and thicken the sauce. Your call.
Heat a large, heavy-based pot over high. Slosh in a tablespoon or two of oil, and brown your meat until it’s cooked on the outside and a nice crust has formed. Remove and set aside. Deglaze with a little stock and scrape the pan, turn the heat to medium-low, then add your onions. Add a little oil if you must, and let the onions slowly brown, stirring occasionally and deglazing with stock.
Get on with the chopping and cleaning up. Cut the carrots into even-sized chunks. Halve the baby potatoes. Potatoes tend to disintegrate into the sauce and are quicker to become tender than carrots, so I leave them in larger chunks than the carrots. Crush and peel your garlic – you can leave them whole, as I do, or mince them. Grate your ginger, finely dice your apple, cut your tomatoes into wedges or dice. Chop up the birds eye chillies, discarding the seeds if you don’t like too much heat. (I like leaving them in.)
When the onions are two-thirds of the way to being done, add the garlic, chillies, ginger and apple. When the onions are soft and golden brown, stir in the sesame oil. Add the tomato along with its juices, crushing it into the onions. After the tomato has disintegrated a little, turn the heat up to medium-high, add your root vegetables and stir to coat with the onions. Add the chicken chunks, and stir a little more. Cover all of it with hot stock, reserving a ladleful or two. Top up with additional boiling water if needed. Bring it to a moderate boil, cover, turn down the heat to medium-low and let it bubble away until the vegetables are fork tender.
In a small saucepan, pour in the remaining hot stock. Dissolve a packet or two of Japanese curry roux in the stock, adding more hot water as needed to form a smooth paste. Set aside, and clean up.
When your root vegetables are tender – a crunchy block of carrot is NOT what you want in curry – stir in spoonfuls of the curry paste to taste – you want a fairly bold sauce, since you’ll be eating it with plenty of rice. (Any leftover roux can be kept in the fridge for another curry-making session.) You may end up with a fairly loose sauce, and that’s okay, too. If you like, you can simmer it for another half hour to thicken it. Add honey to taste – two teaspoons or so usually does it for me. Slosh in some soy sauce.
Drown your rice in curry, and eat.
if you want to be fancy
Turn on the broiler. Fry an egg in a small ovenproof frying pan, leaving it a little undercooked. Remove and set aside. Heat up some curry in the same pan, stirring in a handful of washed spinach leaves. When it’s all wilted, place the egg on top, scatter one-third cup of grated cheese on top, and stick it under the boiler until the cheese is melted and bubbling. (I suspect it would work just as well if you skipped frying the egg and cracked it on top of the curry, followed by cheese and the broiler.) Remove, grind over some pepper and eat with lots of rice.
*a lovely turn of phrase for which credit must go to Nigel Slater, whose books I have been reading cover to cover since returning to England.