Curry Rice vs. Gumbo: What Louisiana has in Common with Japan

Japanese Curry Rice. (Photo by Hyougushi in Kyoto)

Japanese Curry Rice. (Photo by Hyougushi in Kyoto)

Last week I was honored to do a two-day interview with Conrad Chaffee and Mr. Yoichi Takeuchi, correspondents with the Tokyo Shimbun, a daily newspaper headquartered in Nagoya, Japan, and with a circulation of 3.5 million.

The two were on a quest to find out exactly what gumbo has in common with curry rice, one of Japan’s national dishes and surprisingly made with roux, and not-so-surprisingly served with rice.

The first day, we met in the New Orleans French Quarter at Arnaud’s, where proprietor Katie Casbarian graciously allowed us in the restaurant’s kitchen for a step-by-step demo of chicken and andouille gumbo. After a flurry of photos and many questions, we sat down for lunch in Remoulade’s, Arnaud’s causal eatery. Through courses of seafood gumbo and baked oysters, Chaffee and Takeuchi picked our brains on Creole gumbo’s popularity in the city’s restaurant establishment.

The following day I did a lot of questioning, when the two came to my home in Baton Rouge to watch me prepare a smoked sausage and wild duck Cajun gumbo. (Many thanks to Ed Ball, who keeps me supplied with ducks.) Since it’s not every day that a Japanese food enthusiast visits my kitchen, I also invited Cheramie Sonnier, my editor from the Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate, and a questioner par excellence.

After much quizzing and surfing of the internet, we Louisianaians learned that curry rice is a thick, brown, roux-based gravy that most often contains beef, and sometimes potatoes, and is seasoned with curry spices and served with a mound of rice. The dish was created in Japan in the late 19th century, when the Japanese were open to everything Western, and when the British ruled India and from there brought curry to Japan. At the time, British chefs on the island nation were unsure of what to do with curry powder, and so mixed it with a French butter and flour roux. From there, curry rice was born.

Who’d have thought that one of our favorite dishes has so much in common with what just about everyone eats in Japan. And another interesting tidbit is that the Japanese make curry rice from blocks of already-seasoned instant curry roux and roux powders, which only require the addition of water and beef. Hmmm — I see an opportunity there for some Louisiana gumbo entrepreneur.