Paying homage to a Japanese classic
In a country renowned for the unmatched sophistication, quality and presentation of its products, Japanese curry is a refreshing exception: a sloppy cafeteria favorite enjoyed as comfort food cross-country.
Brought to Japan in powder form by British navymen in 1854 (British curry was itself a primitive form of the Indian dish), Japanese curry has long been classified as “yoshoku” (foreign food). Since the early 1900s, however, it has gradually morphed into something uniquely Japanese: a swampy marriage of rice and sauce, topped off with katsu (fried meat cutlet), cheese, or other deep-fried delicacies for gut-busting good measure.
Unlike its Indian progeny, Japanese curry is more sweet than spicy. It’s a savory blend of vegetables, soup stock and spices that slow-cook into a sticky, gravy-like roux served over Japanese rice.
Along with lobster vending machines and vampire cafés, Japanese curry remains one of the country’s great hidden treasures. Chances are before reading this you didn’t even know J-curry was a thing. But it is, and it’s pretty damn popular too.
Today, Japanese curry is so widely consumed that many regard it a national dish. It’s a favorite of Emperor Akihito, who samples regional curries whenever he travels domestically. It’s eaten by Major League great Ichiro Suzuki before every home game and made in homes and cafeterias from Naha to Nagasaki.
During my year in Osaka — a period defined by frequent late-night trips to the local curry house — nothing moved me quite like curry. In a country full of great food, it was my unabashed favorite.
Then I moved to Seoul…
It was rough going at first. I tried a few curry joints. I hit some of the imported chain stores. But invariably, I always ended up disappointed. That was, until I happened upon Kareo.
Located just a couple minutes from Hongik University, Kareo is a tiny Japanese-style curry shop specializing in rice curry. Curry is prepared Kanazawa style, a sweeter, slightly more acidic alternative to the stuff found in Tokyo, eaten with a fork and served in a shallow (almost boat-like) metal bowl with shredded cabbage on top.
In appearance, as in product, Kareo emanates minimalist refinement, with simple wood furnishings, wood floors and plain yellow and white walls adorned only by the owner’s collection of classic anime figurines. With seating for 14 and prices on the lower end (4,500 won to 7,500 won a pop), it resembles any number of smallish curry shops I frequented in Osaka.
What sets Kareo apart, is the attention to detail and iron will of owner/head chef Kim Do-hoon. Like Japanese curry itself, Kim has a complex international history. He has split his time evenly between Korea, Canada and Japan since his teenage years and is fluent in all three respective languages. Tall and charismatic, he’s an improbable mixture of traditional Japanese perfectionism, easygoing Vancouverite charm and K-drama white knight (at least in appearance).
For Kim, the path to owning Kareo began when he was in his late 20s. Looking for something new, he left his position with an American company in Seoul to study Japanese cuisine in Tokyo and Kobe. For months, he worked for free under his culinary “master” Mr. Fujii in a little mountain village in Hyogo prefecture. Work was thankless and days were long, but he never complained.
“I just love cooking; it’s my life.”
This is no overstatement. Kim works 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Besides the restaurant, his only other hobbies are watching movies about cooking and a video project he recently launched with an American friend called “The Ultimate Korean Kitchen.” The show provides viewers with a crash course on Korean cooking, something the polyglot hopes will bring even more traffic to his business.
Naturally, Kim’s passion is evident in the food. Unlike most curry joints that throw all the vegetables into a pot and then boil, veggies at Kareo are ground and then sautéed for seven hours each morning. To cut down on starch and sugar, bananas and small amounts of other fruits are added to the mix. Meats come from a local butcher and are never frozen. Instead, Kim — who cooks every entrée, every time for consistency—keeps his katsu “live” throughout the day, ready to batter and fry the moment an order comes in.
Aside from the traditional curry rice, Kareo features a spicy katsudon (fried cutlet over rice, known so well in Korean cuisine as donkkas) and curry udon (both 6,500 won). These are interesting, if uncommon, dishes, but it is the chicken and pork katsu curry (6,500 won) which stands as the restaurant’s signature. The subtle nuttiness and soft, sticky texture of Japanese rice combined with the deep savory richness of the curry and crunchy, devil-may-care fattiness of the katsu is simply superb.
Although it may lack the heat of other well-known curry iterations, for those looking to up the Scoville units, there is “shichimi” oil (seven-flavor chili pepper) on every table. Every dish is served with two kinds of tsukemono (Japanese pickles): fukujinzuke (pickled daikon) and kakuteki (a Japanese take on radish kimchi), necessary for when things get spicy. Portions are decently sized, and food comes fast.
While Japanese curry has yet to reach the ubiquity of sushi and miso soup overseas, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before it blows up. Rich, savory and deeply satisfying, it’s a dish that feels instantly familiar even on your first try. With prime curry season fast approaching, discover the wonders of curry firsthand at Kareo.
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