While most people associate curry with India, it might be surprising to learn that it is a big deal in Japan as well. “How big?” you ask?

■ Where curry is king
For those who have never been to Japan, it might comes as a surprise that Indian restaurants – or more specifically curry restaurants – are really popular. However, just staying one night in an urban area of the country will reveal how prevalent they are.

Restaurant cataloging website Tabelog lists 21,188 establishments selling curry in Japan, considerably more than there are places serving pasta (14,345) or okonomiyaki (17,382). It’s not hard to believe that these spiced dishes could almost be considered a “Japanese food” at this point considering there is such a wide range of curries and side dishes served in generous portions at reasonable prices.

■ And you may ask yourself, “How did it get here?”
Curry first made its way to Japan around the turn of the 19th century when Japan had opened its borders for easier international trade. Curry was indirectly introduced here by the British who had co-opted it from their then-colony of India. As such, there were some changes such as a lighter and sweeter taste, which caught on well in Japan.

▼ And the changes didn’t stop there

The British curry, or “curry rice” (kareraisu) also referred to simply as “curry” or (kare), became a permanent fixture in Japanese society and opened the door for more authentic “Indian curry” (indo kare) restaurants to set up shop in the land of the rising sun. Although their curries are closer to home, they’ll still serve sweeter and milder variations that the people here have come to know and love.

However, whenever I ordered that kind of curry the South Asian waiter would usually laugh at me.

■ Come for the curry, stay for the ambiance
Indian curry restaurants are often small independent establishments and can also include shops run by people from Nepal, Bengal, or other South Asian countries. While these differences do bring some subtle variety to the flavor and decorations to these eateries, they all tend to be extremely similar to one another.

They all have the same color scheme which runs from mustard yellow to orange or brown. They are all adorned with posters and art from their native countries, and they all pipe in Indian music like that Panjabi MC song from a while back (the version without Jay-Z).

■ Indo Kareya No BGM
Whenever I visit one of these places the music always stands out for me. It’s a strange mix of feelings. I’m not really familiar with Indian music so on a whole it tends to sound alien to me, and yet I’ve gone to Indian curry restaurants enough times that these songs also feel very familiar.

I think a lot of Japanese people feel the same way, which is why Victor Entertainment released a series of CDs featuring the most frequently played songs in Indian curry restaurants in Japan. Different albums of Indian Curry Shop Background Music (Indo Kareya No BGM) contain different areas of Indian music such as Hold the Rice which highlights Indian classical music or Spicy with its more up-tempo and bass-heavy tracks possibly found in the more trendy curry places.

There’s also The Road to Maharaja which contains songs by superstar Rajinikanth.

A new edition, Indian Curry Shop Background Music: 2020 will be released on 21 September. It carries an updated track list of the songs that soak into our brains like so much sauce into the crevices of naan.

And so like pizza in America or McSpaghetti in the Philippines, a foreign flavor has become a deeply entrenched part of the Japanese culinary culture. And with the advent of curry shop CDs, who knows if eventually a way will be paved for Indian music or Bollywood to find a home here as well.

Stranger things have happened, as this website often attests to.

Source: NPR the salt (English), Tabelog 1, 2, 3, Hachima Kiko, Amass, Victor Entertainment (Japanese)
Curry Images © RocketNews24
Album Images: Amazon 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Video: YouTube/Motivo Records, YouTube/Cinecurry Tamil