If burgers, fried chicken, and mac and cheese are some American comfort foods that remind you of home, what do you think are their Japanese counterparts? Sushi? Ramen? No, the quintessential Japanese comfort food is … curry! Spice master and cookbook author Jinsuke Mizuno has organized a unique curry collective, Tokyo Curry Bancho––bancho literally means “leader of the pack”––and is dedicated to sharing the charms of Japanese curry with the world. During his recent visit to New York, Chopsticks NY caught up with him and asked about his passion for Japanese curry and Tokyo Curry Bancho.
Could you please tell us what Tokyo Curry Bancho is?
It’s a group of curry lovers consisting of ten men who go to various types of events thoughout Japan and cook curry live and then serve the curry to the event participants. We cook curry from scratch, starting with blending the spices. We do this once a week––so 50 times a year––and we have done this for 17 to 18 years, meaning we have cooked about 1,000 different curries by now.
Is it more like an event than catering?
Yes. In the beginning, I was the only person who could cook curry, and most of the other members were club DJs. Our style of cooking curry and playing music with a DJ was naturally being formed. [laughs]
Eating curry with a live DJ performance seems surreal…
I understand that. [laughs] When we started, everyone frowned and asked, “Why are you serving curry at a club?” But now, serving food at clubs is really common. Also, this is not limited to curry––now some other types of catering groups that go to events are becoming popular. I think in the past 17 to 18 years, the Tokyo Curry Bancho style has been accepted.
I heard you have made it a rule that you never cook the same curry ever.
If we had our own restaurant, we would have to set our signature flavors and serve them all the time. However, we can go out everywhere and serve curries to different audiences at different events in different places. We always ask event producers and organizers about the purpose of the event, the concept, and target audience, and then we customize an original curry exclusively for the event, like European curry, Thai curry, or Indian curry––whatever fits the event. Also, we want to maximize local ingredients. So, when we arrive at the place, we go to local markets to find local specialties and decide what to use rather spontaneously. The only thing we bring from Tokyo are the spices. It’s really fun. We really enjoy discovering local specialties and creating curries from them.
Do you keep recipes?
No, not at all. Some people say that it’s not that we do not cook the same curries, but that we cannot cook the same curries! [laughs] Sometimes we get a request to reproduce a flavor that we made at a certain event. But we often forget what it was. [laughs] “What curry was that? What ingredients did we use?” Something like that. So we can cook something similar, but we can never reproduce exactly the same flavor, to be honest. [laughs]
Suppose you got an offer from New York––what curry would you like to make?
What kind of specialty ingredients do you have?
Well, duck in Long Island, for example.
Oh, I love that. In Tokyo, gibier [wild game] is booming now. So Tokyo Curry Bancho has a team working on creating gibier curries. The team consists of three gibier hunters and four chefs/spice buyers. The hunters ship what they have caught to each chef’s restaurant, and each chef creates an original curry using that meat. That’s what we are doing now. So duck curry in New York would be wonderful!
How about the style of a Duck Curry Event in New York? Would you like to do it in a park, club, or what?
The club scene in Tokyo is not really dynamic any more. It does not attract many people. How about in New York?
It’s not as dynamic as before, but it’s growing again.
That’s great. I would love to do the curry event at a club. What kind of music is in?
Various styles––there’s no specific genre that stands out, but clubs alternate styles and genres daily or weekly. But it seems like clubgoers now love music from the 70s and 80s.
If that’s true, that is more than perfect for Tokyo Curry Bancho! Our DJ members specialize in a genre called Free Soul or Rare Groove. It’s a sound based on Black music like jazz, soul, and funk in the 70s. So our DJs have lots of vinyl from the 70s. We also have a bartender who makes exquisite spice cocktails.
By the way, what do you think is the main appeal of Japanese curry?
In my opinion, it’s the aroma––without a doubt. Compared to other types of dishes, curry gives off a strong aroma. If you see ramen, pizza, and curry in front of you, you smell the curry the most. Then that aroma induces you to eat the curry. I think that is the most distinctive charm of curry.
Tokyo Curry Bancho has served curry at many club events, and I have noticed that club music and curry have something in common. When a single song is played at a club, it reaches all the people in the venue. Similarly, when we start cooking curry at a club, the smell of the spices instantly spreads throughout the venue. So both club music and curry have the power to deliver something to everyone, rather forcefully.
Also, this might be true only for Japanese people, but curry is the ultimate comfort food for them––it is deeply embedded in their hearts. Each Japanese has a special attachment to curry, a feeling that dishes like spaghetti, gyoza dumplings, and ramen can never give. In Japan, each family has its own curry recipe passed down by mothers. Curry is the number-one dish in school meal rankings. People cook curries when they’re camping. And when a person leaves home and starts to live alone, the first dish he or she makes is curry. So curry is the dish that stays in Japanese people’s lives, and that is why Japanese people have such a special affection for curry.
In Japan, ramen and curry are considered the two most popular comfort foods. But ramen does not have the same intimacy with a person’s heart. Ramen is something that people develop their love for after they start eating it at ramen houses, spending their own money. Ramen is not a top-ranking school meal. There is no mother’s family recipe for ramen. People don’t cook ramen at camp. So ramen and curry are two favorites, but they have completely different characters. And in terms of special attachment to each person’s heart, curry is the winner.
You have traveled around Japan and have enjoyed a tremendous number of local curries. Which local curry do you like best?
My favorite one is Sapporo soup curry. The curry sauce texture is thin, but it actually tastes full-bodied, just like ramen. It’s fatty and powerful, but I like it. The umami from the broth and the aroma from the spices really stand out.
Does it use chicken broth?
Yes, it’s basically chicken, but the broth has evolved into a blended broth called “double broth” or “triple broth”––blending shrimp broth with chicken, for example. It’s been enjoyed for about 20 years, so I believe that today there are 300 to 400 restaurants specializing in Sapporo soup curry in Hokkaido.
Would you recommend some things to do in Japan for Chopsticks NY readers?
I would recommend attending a Tokyo Curry Bancho event, but there might not be one that coincides with their travel plans. So I recommend hopping around curry houses. There are various types of Japanese curries and curry houses––I think there are more than 5,000 curry specialty joints in Tokyo. Even if it’s not a curry specialty house, there are restaurants that serve superb curry dishes. So go for it and dig into Japanese curry!
Jinsuke Mizuno founded Tokyo Curry Bancho, a live curry cooking unit, in 1999, which goes nationwide Japan to cook original curries upon request. He is also a prolific cookbook author. He recently launched a spice mix brand for home cooking, AIR SPICE.
About Tokyo Curry Bancho