This unique curry that originated at a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force camp in Fukuoka has been making waves online.

A Nishinippon Shimbun article published on June 1 introduced a recipe for making an unconventional version of a favorite Japanese home-style dish. This version, called botayama curry (ボタ山カレー), has been served in the mess hall of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Camp Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture since 2008. Our Japanese-language reporter was intrigued by the article and subsequently got in touch with the camp’s PR division to learn more about the curry’s origins and tips for making it himself.

▼ The particular presentation of the curry on its plate hasn’t changed since its initial inception and actually has meaning behind it, as we will see below.

According to the staff, the dish was originally created to boost morale for camp members participating in training drills. In a recent survey of members, many responded that their motivation to work hard goes up on days when botayama curry is being served. Its unusually dark appearance was initially besides the point, but when the dish gained recognition by media outlets and went viral on social media, the salient coloring became the focus and was met with “half surprised, half happy reactions.”

So what is the significance behind not only the black sauce but the black rice as well? “Botayama” refers to a “spoil tip,” or a large pile of accumulated waste rubble collected during coal mining. Some of Japan’s most productive coal mines were located in Iizuka (particularly in Chikuho, a former town merged into Iizuka in 2006) during the country’s period of industrialization, so the dish styles its appearance in a nod to local history.

To achieve that effect, edible bamboo charcoal powder is mixed in with uncooked rice in order to darken its color. Diced steak is also added to evoke the image of coal chunks and a fried sunny-side-up egg represents the full moon peeking over a coal mine.

The actual recipe for botayama curry was recently shared on Camp Iizuka’s Twitter account. This is what our reporter referred to while attempting his own take on the dish.

The lower-left table lists all ingredients and measurements for one portion of curry. From top to bottom, they are:

  • margarine
  • minced garlic
  • sliced onion
  • beef leg meat
  • quartered slices of ginseng
  • chopped potato
  • laurel [bay leaf]
  • whole pink pepper
  • feitan/妃湯 [a brand of stock; chicken stock can be a substitute]
  • curry roux
  • Masala kuro [black] curry
  • soy sauce
  • vegetable oil
  • diced steak
  • more minced garlic
  • steak spices
  • egg
  • hot spice to your liking
  • polished rice
  • enhanced polished barley/oats
  • edible bamboo charcoal powder

Most of the ingredients can be purchased at a regular Japanese supermarket. Here’s our reporter’s haul after a shopping trip:

There are four main steps in the recipe and three helpful tips.

1. Stir-fry the margarine, minced garlic, and onion well

Add margarine and minced garlic to the sliced onion. Tip 1: Carefully brown for one hour or until whenever the onion caramelizes (becomes amber in color).

2. Rub spices into the diced steak and grill over an iron surface

Rub the spices into the steak well and cook until brown spots appear. The aroma should be enticing at this stage and whet your appetite.

3. Cook the curry as usual

Sauté small chunks of potatoes and carrots in a saucepan. If you want the beef flavor to really stand out later, make sure to cut the vegetables into smaller pieces than the meat.

Here is where you combine the caramelized onion mixture, the diced steak, the other beef leg meat, stock, water, curry sauce, and laurel [bay leaf] together. Cover the pot and let simmer for 40 minutes.

4. After stopping the heat, add the masala kuro curry 

Add the masala kuro curry in order to darken the curry produced in Step 3. Tip 2: the curry should be added only after the heat is cut. If it isn’t, the flavor of the masala will diminish.

Now we’ve finished Steps 1-4…but we can’t forget about one final important piece of the puzzle: the rice!

Tip 3 states that edible bamboo charcoal powder (two grams of powder per portion) should be mixed in well with the rice and barley/oats directly prior to cooking. If it’s added too early the grains will become stiff. Other than that addition, the rice mixture should be cooked as usual in a rice cooker using the regular amount of water.

Seeing the powder clouding the water is a strange and not altogether un-appetizing feeling…

Stir together well and let it cook. Upon opening the lid, it should look something like this:

This could be the end, but if you want to follow Camp Iizuka’s instructions to a T there’s one final missing piece: the fried egg that represents a full moon.

Add the cooked egg to the top, decorate with two pieces of pink pepper, and voila–the botayama curry is finished.

Thoughts on the taste

The curry had both sweet and spicy flourishes to it and a depth of flavor. Our reporter thought that it could be evenly loved by people of all ages. There was plenty of volume, especially with the addition of the steak bits and egg, and enough variety to never get tired of it.

The blackened rice certainly left a visual impact. A hint of the charcoal taste went well with the curry, which had also absorbed the water so at its best it could be called refreshing and at its worst it could be called a bit dry. He supposed it would depend on the individual taster but in his mind he though it would go well with thick curries but probably not with soup curries.

▼ SoraNews24’s take on botayama curry

On a final note, he mentions to keep a small mirror nearby because your teeth and lips will darken after eating it–as he found out the hard way from his family’s laughing.

Source: Nishinippon Shimbum, Twitter/@JGSDF_IIZUKA
Images © SoraNews24, Twitter/@JGSDF_IIZUKA (used with permission)
Top image: SoraNews24
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