The spiciest curry I’ve ever eaten wasn’t Thai or Indian— nope, it was Japanese.

P36-1If you’ve ever tried Japanese curry, you might nd this story hard to believe. Or you might simply assume I’m one of those delicate folk who are unable to handle spice. Let me stop you right there.

The truth is, I adore spicy food. I eat Indian and Thai food—not to mention Mexican and southern Italian and Korean—on the regular. I actually lived in Korea and ate food that was literally red-hot for six months of my life.

But Japan isn’t known for its spicy foods, so I admit I was surprised (and a little disappointed) when I rst tried your average Japanese curry. It wasn’t spicy, but … sweet?! Thankfully, my lunch companion pointed me in the direction of the spice shaker and I happily devoured my meal.

It wasn’t long before I had fallen madly in love with Japanese curry. It became one of my favourite dishes in Japan, and I was known for hanging out at the local Coco Ichiban (a fast food curry chain with a huge selection) several times a week.

After I moved to a smaller city, where a mom-and-pop curry shop replaced the famous chain, I realized that as much as I had adored the popular option, home-cooked curry was by far superior in quality and taste. Soon, the shop’s Obasan (auntie) recognized me each time I’d show up for my weekly (or tri-weekly?) curry. After a while she knew me by name.

One fateful day, I decided I was ready to take my relationship with curry to the next level. See, this particular curry shop had spice levels that ranged from 1 (mild) to 10 (suicide). I had never gone higher than 4 or 5 (mostly because I thought it was the perfect mix of sweet and spicy), so a jump to 10 was dramatic to say the least. When I ordered, Obasan tried to talk some sense into me. Surely I had made a mistake, she laughed. Level 10 was way too spicy for me. But her warning only made me want it more. “No, no,” I assured her. “I can handle spicy food. I lived in Korea!”

She smiled nervously and headed to the kitchen to place my order. When she came back with my hot, steaming, beautiful plate of curry, she stood by and watched as I con dently took my first bite. (See? It’s not so bad.) I chewed, and felt it on parts of my tongue I didn’t even know existed. (Mmm, spicy!) Then I swallowed. (OUCH!)

With each bite, the experience became more painful. Excruciating, even. I wasn’t sweating. And my tongue wasn’t burning. Instead, it felt like razor blades were waging war on my throat.

I had eaten less than a quarter of my plate when I had to admit defeat.

At that moment, I could feel my eyes starting to water. I blamed it on my mangled throat, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my heart had broken a little that day. Yep, that was the day I cried over a bowl of curry.


KATHLEEN O’HAGAN

Kathleen spent years living in and travelling around Japan—and blogging about her adventures while she was at it. Now back in Toronto, Kathleen continues to write about her life-changing experience abroad when she can—in between discovering new and delicious Japanese restaurants in the city, working as a copywriter and raising her baby boy.


Illustration by Reiko Ema