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Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

WEEK 3

HAPPY BOIL-IN-A-BAG BIRTHDAY!

Japan's 'pouch curry' turns a tasty 40


Staff writer

Fancy a feast? Un petit peu du foie gras, perchance? A slice or three of the finest Aberdeen Angus roast beef, if you will — with lashings of horseradish, sans doute. Or, drop a plastic pouch of curry into boiling water, wait for 3 minutes, pour it over rice and — voila! — you have a meal fit for an impoverished king.

Pouch curry fans gather in Kawasaki
Pouch 'boil in a bag' curry
Pouch curry fans gather in Kawasaki (top), where over the last four years they have enjoyed more than 800 boil-in-a-bag recipes, such as these (above) and even astronauts' fare (below). ERIKO ARITA PHOTOS
Astronaut's pouch curry

"I don't need to cook if I have pouch curries, even when I hold a home party. What I do is just prepare the rice," said Makiko Hidari, a housewife living in Kawasaki.

For four years, she has held regular gatherings she calls retoruto kare o kiwameru kai ("group seeking the depth of pouch curries"). To date, Hidari and her friends have tasted more than 800 kinds of boil-in-the-bag curry. But this is no mere academic pursuit, because one of the group's members, who goes by the name of Mi-chan, said that she, her husband and two children regularly eat "pouch curries" at home whenever she is tired of cooking and other household chores.

"I usually stock pouch curries for such times," she said. "Without them I feel uneasy."

Boil-in-the-bag curry, called retoruto kare in Japan (because the industrial machines used to cook the curry in bags are called, in English, "retorts"), is one of the nation's most popular convenience foods, and this month marks the 40th anniversary of the invention of this cordon-something cuisine.

Back in 1968, on February 12, Otsuka Foods Co. launched Bon Curry on the world.

Before that scrumptious and momentous day, Otsuka Foods had been struggling to keep its show on the road selling curry powders and brick-like curry roux, according to Tetsuya Tsutsui, the firm's spokesman. Then the late Rokuro Harima, one of the developers of the product, spotted an article in the American magazine Modern Package that featured "pouch sausages" used in the Swedish army.

"Inspired by this, Harima thought that if our company was to sell curry in bags, it may be a hit," Tsutsui said.

In developing his idea, Harima realized he needed to make the curry so that it could be stored at room temperature. To solve this problem, he came up with a method of cooking pouch curry in retorts at high temperatures and under very high pressure so that the food was sterilized and the bags didn't swell and burst.

Heat-resistant bags

Although the principle of making boil-in-the-bag curry was essentially the same as for canned food, Harima had to oversee the development of heat- resistant plastic bags, work out the best cooking temperature and create machines to mass produce the product, Tsutsui explained.

The heat-resistant bags he arrived at were made of laminated plastic films. Although the first pouch curries could only be preserved for a couple of months, within a year Harima had invented a pouch consisting of layers of plastic and aluminum foil that function as an excellent barrier against contamination by either light or air and allow the contents to be safely preserved for up to two years — even though, to this day, the curry contains no preservatives.

And with that, ole! — by 1973, just five years after it launched Bon Curry, Otsuka Foods was selling 100 million packets a year.

"On average, almost every single person in Japan ate at least one Bon Curry that year," Tsutsui said. "The pouch curry matched the needs of people in that period, when many more women started to work in various fields and children often went home alone and ate supper by themselves."

In 2003, responding again to changing lifestyles, Otsuka Foods introduced a new pouch curry that can be cooked in a microwave and is ready to eat in only two minutes.

But where Otsuka Foods and Harima led the way, other makers have been quick to follow in the past four decades, with many selling not only pouch curries but other foods such as stews, pasta sauces, Chinese food sauces and rice porridge, all preservative-free. In fact, the current top maker of pouch curry, House Foods Corp., sells 40 varieties, according to Masakazu Yamaguchi, the company's Marketing Headquarters manager.

Frozen foods reign

As a result, the latest data from the Japan Canners Association shows that, in 2006, every person in Japan (population around 127 million) on average consumed around 13 pouch-food packages — compared with just nine in 1996.

Interestingly, though, while boil-in-the-bag products are popular in Japan, they have not carved their way so much onto the menu in other developed countries such as the United States, where frozen foods have been the staple convenience meals since the 1950s.

"Americans have long eaten frozen foods such as TV dinners, and the infrastructure for selling and storing such products is well developed," Yamaguchi said, adding that U.S. supermarkets sell far more frozen food than those in Japan.

In Asian countries, however, distribution and storage systems for chilled foods are relatively underdeveloped, leading House Foods to target China as a booming new market for it pouch meals. In 2001, in fact, the company began selling its pouch curries in Shanghai, after establishing a joint company there with the Japanese food-maker Ajinomoto Co., Inc.

The joint corporation researched Chinese tastes and as a result added star anise to the spices in the pouch curries marketed in Shanghai, according to House Foods. Now, sales there are believed to be booming, though it is the joint company's policy not to release precise figures.

While boil-in-bag curry may be on the way to winning over China, it is also poised to conquer the final frontier by going into space. This follows considerable work by House Foods and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to jointly develop a pouch curry named "Space Curry," especially tailored to the tastes and needs of astronauts in the International Space Station. Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is slated to crew the ISS this autumn, looks set to be the first to enjoy this zero-gravity gourmet delight.

"Space Curry contains extra calcium, as astronauts are exposed to a lot of stress in space," Yamaguchi of House Foods said. Also, he explained, the flavor of Space Curry has been enriched and made spicier than normal because a person's sense of taste is reduced outside the Earth's atmosphere.

But don't feel left out, complaining that your Earthbound life is highly stressed as well, because if you want to eat like the astronauts, just go online, where customized pouch curries are waiting to spice up your life.

To put Space Curry on your menu, check out www.shop-house.com


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