The Japanese have a knack for adopting foreign dishes and transforming them. Ramen, for example, is based on Chinese noodles, while tempura has Portuguese roots, and naporitan is unmistakably Italian in origin.
Another fine example is Japanese curry, which has long been considered a national dish. It is said that curry was introduced to the country during the Meiji period (1868-1912) by the British, which had India as a colony at the time. It has since mutated into something altogether milder and sweeter and is popular, especially with more conservative palates.
However, chef Satoru Mukogawa feels that it is time to change that perception. Seeing that most Japanese curries he has tried in Hong Kong are nothing out of the ordinary, the owner-chef of Sushi Kuu in Central decided to devise a more complex, sweet-and-spicy version that is popular in his native Osaka.
"In the past, the Japanese could not adapt to the taste of using so many spices so we developed our own and toned down the flavour," says Mukogawa. "But now the spice time has come. People go to India and Thailand to try the real thing and restaurants serving authentic Thai or Indian curries already exist in Japan, so we're pretty much educated. We are ready to have more spices for complexity."
The result is Tiger Curry, an upbeat corner shop on Pennington Street in Causeway Bay. Housed on the ground floor of a three-storey building which bears a grey geometrical mural by graffiti artist 4Get, the shop has a black-and-yellow interior and boasts an open kitchen and al fresco dining area.
Together with Calvin Ku, Buzz Concept's food and beverage director, they set off to create a unique blend of curry spices. Their destination was a massive spice plant in Osaka, a company which Mukogawa says handles 80 per cent of the country's spices. From there, they came up with a curry sauce featuring more than 25 spices, as well as the company's crunchy, dye-free radish pickle that Tiger Curry serves on the side.
The curry has a lot more depth than the mono-flavour, jammy sweet ones that we're used to.
"You first get the sweetness before the hotness and complexity from the different spices. It slowly goes away for the next bite for the spiciness kick again," says Ku.
Although the curry alone should be popular enough in Hong Kong, the duo decided to perk things up by offering pairings such as deep-fried Kurobuta pork chop, jumbo shrimp and shabu shabu beef. They offer a choice of five levels of spiciness, and cheese and onsen egg can be ordered to tone down the heat. There's also hayashi rice - the non-spicy tangy tomato beef stew served with rice, which we enjoy as much as the curry.
The opening of Tiger Curry comes as good news for foodie Kei Sugiuchi, who agrees that striking a balance between spiciness and sweetness is crucial for a desirable Japanese curry sauce. Although the Hokkaido native has been living in Hong Kong for 30 years, Japanese curry remains one of his favourite comfort foods.
"I've tried almost all the Japanese curry shops in Hong Kong," he says, adding that while they start off tasting the same as in Japan, they change once the chef, here to oversee the chain's launch, has gone back to Japan.
He says in Hong Kong he enjoys Izumu Curry and Osaka Horumon, the latter a barbecue meat shop in Causeway Bay, famous for its many offal dishes.
"I love Osaka Horumon because it's unique. The Japanese chef has created a curry from scratch which skilfully masks the strong smell that beef offal and intestines may have."
At Katsutei Kareraisu in Tai Kok Tsui, coffee powder and a generous amount of vegetables are the keys to chef Fok Tak-wah's popular curry. While coffee powder brings out the fragrance of the spices, vegetables such as onion, carrot and celery give it a sweet taste. Potato is also essential as it gives the curry that creamy consistency which is sometimes achieved elsewhere by adding corn starch.
With more than 40 years of experience in Japanese cuisine since he started as a junior cook at the The Hongkong Japanese Club, Fok insists on making his curry fresh daily. The homey restaurant, which he relocated from Yuen Long three months ago, allows him greater freedom with the menu. For example, mackerel, which is grilled in most Japanese restaurants, is deep-fried in Fok's shop, so as to retain more moisture.
Fok, who runs the restaurant with his daughter, takes pride in using the best quality ingredients he can afford, while preparing everything from scratch. It seems to embrace exactly the spirit of a simple dish which more often than not reminds Japanese of their childhood memories of eating home-made curry.
"It's one of the most satisfying and affordable choices available in Japanese cuisine," says Fok. "I've worked my whole life learning the different varieties in the cuisine, but curry and katsu are so well loved, that when I decided to open a shop, it was a no-brainer as to what I would specialise in."
14 Pennington Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 25111051
31Kok Cheung Street, Tai Kok Tsui,tel: 6446 0444
Six branches including 1/F Mira Mall, 118 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 3104 1904
Golden Dragon Building, 41-43 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 25911821
Bee Japanese Curry
• 524 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2838 9633
• B2 Sogo Department Store, 555 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 28318570
Six branches including Shop 8, 1/F Crocodile Centre, 79 Hoi Yuen Road, Kwun Tong, tel: 3572 0773
Ginza Nichome Curry
• Shop 162, 1/F East Point City, 8 Chung Wa Road, Tseung Kwan O, tel: 2628 7887
• Shop 805, 8/F Food Court, Dragon Centre, 37 Yen Chow Street, Sham Shui Po, tel: 2720 2222
Four branches including
Shop 228-230, 2/F Shun Tak Centre, 168-200 Connaught Road Central, Sheung Wan, tel: 2559 1166