Why Do People Make Curry Rice When Camping?
by Justin Sevakis,
What's up with curry and rice being the camping meal of choice? Seem like cooking rice and making curry (chopping vegetables and meat) make this meal one of the most inconvenient and more difficult meals to prepare outside with uncontrolled heat source and limited resources, not to mention if raw meat is used then it needs to be refrigerated or iced. What is that kidney shaped pot with the lid and locking handle that is used to cook the rice in the fire? It seems like a army surplus item.
Curry rice -- that uniquely Japanese take on curry stew that's served 50/50 with rice -- is Japan's number one comfort food. It's pretty fattening, and full of carbs. And you can put almost anything in there -- chopped meat, chopped onions, chopped potatoes, chopped carrots... It's this rich, creamy, filling stew. (Despite the name, the rice is actually not a part of the curry itself -- instead, you're supposed to eat it with a spoon, 50/50 with white rice.)
For those unfamiliar, Japanese curry is a very mild roux-based stew (i.e. a paste involving flour and oil) that has very little in common with the sort of curry you get from India. Indeed, it was introduced to Japan through British culture during the Meiji era, having been adopted by the Imperial Japanese Navy from their British colleagues to prevent beriberi, a crippling condition caused by a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. In the years since, it's become one of those dishes that Japan has adapted into its own thing. It's often served with a breaded and fried pork or chicken cutlet (katsu-curry).
It's also got a few things going for it that make it a good, if not ideal, camping food. First, it's very hard to screw up. Japanese (and other Asian) supermarkets sell the curry mix in pre-made chocolate bar-like bricks that keep for a long time on a shelf, which you boil with a bunch of water and ingredients. The curry sauce will cover up and dominate almost any other flavor, so you can throw in pretty much any combination of chopped meat and vegetables and get a pretty predictable result. Since it's essentially a stew it's pretty hard to burn, so it can easily be cooked over a campfire.
Most Japanese kids' camping memories involve a class trip in elementary or middle school. Curry is already a favorite of most school kids, and is pretty commonly served as school lunch. Some class camping outings include activities like foraging for ingredients to put in the big communal curry pot. And while there's a lot of chopping involved with curry, that work is easily divided among a big group of campers. The cooking of a big communal pot of curry is a fond memory that many campers have from their school days.
In fact, curry and camp outs are so intertwined in people's memories that there are quite a few curry restaurants around Japan that are camping themed. (One I found actually uses spoons that look like tiny shovels!)
As for the rice part, yes, those kidney shaped rice boilers are called "hango", and those are an essential part of the experience too. Rice has been a staple food in Japan for every meal dating back centuries, perhaps millennia. There's a trick to using them -- the heat has to be low, and opening the tin during cooking will ruin the rice.
Camping traditions are just that: traditions. They're based as much in what people find fun and comforting as they are in what's practical. (S'mores is pretty messy for camping food too!)
If you're curious and have never had Japanese curry before, it's very easy to make. Check your local Asian supermarket for a brick of pre-made curry mix (several Japanese moms have told me that it tastes better than trying to make your own). Just make sure you cook up some rice to eat along with it. If you're feeling lazy, there are also several boil-in-a-bag options. Some Japanese restaurants have it too -- in fact, Los Angeles has local locations for two of Japan's big curry restaurant chains, Curry House and Coco Ichibanya. They're both pretty tasty.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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