The Japanese didn’t invent curry, but they have certainly made it their own. It was brought to the island by the British sometime after 1869, when the island nation was first opened to trade with the West. Curries were first manufactured commercially in the 1920s, though the dish didn’t achieve its wild popularity until the 1960s, when Japan’s economic miracle made convenience foods a necessity. According to a survey by S&B Foods, a Japanese curry manufacturer, people in Japan currently eat curry at least five times a month.
Not that the Indians would recognize it. There are no curries per se in India, where the dishes labeled “curry” contain complex and subtle spice combinations unique to each dish. Inspired by the simple-minded British approach to these Indian recipes, Japanese curries invariably involve a gluey brown gravy—thickened with flour and flavored with raw curry powder—that would make Indian chefs wince. One of the country’s premier brands, Vermont Curry, boasts that it’s sweetened with apple and honey. (Please ponder the significance of “Vermont Curry” and then let me know what it means.)
Typically, a serving of Japanese curry consists of meat tidbits floundering in gravy with carrots, potatoes, and onions, served with extensive quantities of rice and a selection of pickled vegetables. New York is no stranger to Japanese curries; they’ve been a small but significant feature of Japanese menus here for the last couple of decades. Last year in the garment district, we were blessed with an outpost of a popular Japanese curry chain, Go! Go! Curry!, which amused us with its baseball theme and caused curious diners to line up around the block just to get a taste.
Now the East Village boasts its own curry parlor, and no one will be surprised to learn that it’s slightly upscale from the downmarket image that curry has in Japan. Curry-Ya looks more like a laboratory than a restaurant: A white-marble counter facing the prep area provides seating for 14, forcing you to pay close attention to the meticulous manner in which the curries are prepared. All manner of scientific-looking vessels are employed thereby. Mirroring the idea that curry is a foreign food to the Japanese, all curries are served with silverware rather than chopsticks. The four employees who toil behind the counter at peak times are dressed in natty outfits, including white tunics and navy-blue motoring caps with the bills snapped down.
A set meal ($7 for the gravy alone; $11 to $15 for your choice of meat) available from noon to 4 p.m. includes portionettes of three salads that send wonderfully mixed cultural messages. The recent selection included a cole slaw barely kissed with mayo, a seaweed salad that might be considered traditional except that it contained baby lettuce, and a cooked-vegetable salad puckishly uniting two squashes—orange pumpkin and green zucchini—perhaps for the first time.
Consistent with the theme of a curry laboratory, Curry-Ya often deconstructs the dish. The rice is formed in a mold shaped like a big LifeSaver. The curry gravy (choose your level of spiciness) is presented in a little white lidded pot, and one of the attendants warms it on the stove before ferrying it to the counter and placing it on an oblong red-plastic trivet.
It you’re already agog at the meticulous care taken, prepare yourself for more. Each set meal comes with four miniature glass beakers containing substances to be strewn over your curry. Three, like the curry itself, are sweet: pickled green-onion bulbs, daikon dyed red, and raisins. (Raisins?) The fourth beaker contains flakes of dehydrated garlic, an ingredient that you may turn up your nose at when it comes to using it in a recipe, but one that makes a fine crunchy topping. For a dollar or so extra, you can buy additional condiments, including stinky fermented natto beans, kernels of yellow corn, and—Emperor Akihito strike me dead if I’m lying—cheddar cheese.
Now for the main ingredients: The most expensive is the Berkshire pork cutlet, panko-encrusted, fried to perfection, and served on the side. Also available at $15 is a wad of good prime beef stir-fried in butter. Unfortunately, the meat is deposited in the curry gravy, which is a sin against prime beef. For a couple of bucks less, you can have the hamburger curry, which features an oblong patty set alongside the ring of rice and looking quite forlorn. Ultimately, hamburger curry is more of what the dish is all about: a random juxtaposition of incongruous international elements. It might leave you scratching your head—but with your hunger magnificently satisfied.