Text and images by Gregory Leow@ Makansutra
This year has seen spicy Japanese curries hit the Singapore food scene with the famous Japanese curry chain CoCo Ichibanya opening late last year and Monster Curry which opened in May this year.
But are they here to stay as permanent residents in our food landscape like how big name fast food chains have or are they just passing fads like the coffee bun, apple strudel or doughnut crazes of many years before?
Or perhaps they might end up having a niche spot in local food culture like Funan Mall’s two-year-old Cawaii Koohii Cosplay/Maid Café or the AKB48 Café at SCAPE?
Curry originally came to Japan during the late 1800s when Japan’s navy emulated the British navy’s meals (who adapted it through their colonial occupation of India) and started serving curry on their ships. The Japanese naval cooks in turn tuned this dish to suit their own tastes and the popularity of that unique Japanese curry caught on throughout their country later.
When Japanese curry first arrived in Singapore, it wasn’t surprising that it carved its own niche because its flavours were akin to a beef stew – thicker, sweeter, milder and just all-round pleasant to eat. Plus, it was non-spicy which made it perfect for people who can’t take chilli.
Now, the situation is different. With these two eateries upping the spice quotient, it begins to compete with the big boys like Thai curry, local curry, Malay and even Indian fish head curry operators, who have been in the Singapore food scene for much longer.
But the management of both eateries are confident that it can win the hearts and taste buds of Singaporeans.
Ever since opening in September 2011, the CoCo Ichibanya chain has aggressively expanded into a new joint at the new Bugis+ mall in April this year and is set to open another outlet in Holland Village soon.
Monster Curry, owned by the En Holdings Group, now has three outlets (PARCO Marina Bay, ION Orchard, 313 Somerset) since its opening in May 2012.
Early signs are encouraging so far.
Mr. Kenichi Yamashita, the Director of CoCo Ichibanya Singapore said that having opened almost 1270 restaurants around the world, their experience is that their brand succeeds in countries that have rice as a staple in their diets.
“We weren’t 100% sure as to whether it would work but currently our chains see nearly seven in 10 people order the spicy version,” says Mr Yamashita.
The experience is the same for Monster Curry who reports that 95 per cent of customers order their spicy curries. They also observed that in general, Singaporeans take a higher spice level than the Japanese.
Bank officer Bernard Loh has been eating Japanese curry once every two months ever since it was introduced in Singapore more than a decade ago. His first experience of spicy Japanese curry was in the beginning of June at Monster Curry.
“Even without the spiciness, the dish was flavourful, but whether it remains in Singapore is really not about spice level, but more about the overall taste. If it tastes good, I’ll go back to eat it,” the 46 year-old says.
36 year-old Inez Kwan had never taken Japanese curry in her life. She avoided it because her friends told her that it was sweet and she just figured that it was something she wouldn’t like, but upon trying a spicy Japanese curry in July this year, her reactions were more favourable than she expected.
Says the pharmaceutical manager, “It is nicer than I imagined and not too sweet, but it doesn’t feel like a curry to me, it’s more like a spicy sauce. Whether I go back again depends on whether I have cravings for it. Local chicken curry I have cravings but the same can’t be said about spicy Japanese curry because it’s new to me and I haven’t developed a relationship with the food.”
So what’s the difference between the two?
If you’re itching to try some spicy Japanese curry for yourself to see what the fuss is about, we break down the differences between the two joints.
The richer, darker curry sauce from Monster Curry.
Boasting up to 14 different spices and vegetables and requiring two days to bring out its umami flavour, the key is in the caramel that has been roasted for five hours. It has a dark, smooth, brown rich curry sauce which is unlike other lighter-looking Japanese curries, spicy or non-spicy.
Thick, smooth smoky and full-bodied with every palate note hitting you: salty, sour, hot and sweet but with rich undertones.
You can choose and order the level of spiciness in the curry (spice level 1 for the least spicy and spice level 5 for the most spicy), whether you want more rice and sauce and the kind of toppings you want from beef shabu shabu to pork katsu.
Monster Curry locations are at PARCO Marina Bay Itadakimsu #03-05, ION Orchard #B4-55 and 313@Somerset, #05-01. Open daily. Individual servings range from $8 – $13.
CoCo Ichibanya's highly customisable Japanese curry.
The largest Japanese curry chain in the world with about 1,268 branches in the US, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand.
Unlike Monster Curry which tells you what a good curry is, CoCo takes the opposite approach. With a relatively bland curry base, you can customise everything from the level of spice, rice portion, curry sauces (Original, hashed beef, mild) and choose from a large variety of toppings.
The customisation even extends to every bite. If you want to bump up the sweet, sour and salty notes of the curry, add the Yamasa shoyu sauce. Want some flavoured texture? Add some Japanese pickles. Ordered the wrong spice level and want it a bit hotter? Add their secret spicy powder mix.
CoCo Ichibanya locations are at 313@Somerset #B3-25/27 and Bugis Plus #01-10. Open daily. Individual servings range from $10 – $12.50
If you are very specific about how you like your Japanese curry, CoCo is your best bet. In fact, when you add both their spicy powder and the shoyu, you can get close to the flavours of Monster Curry but it does admittedly miss out on the unique rich and smoky aspect of Monster’s curry. This alone is enough to win – this particular fan at least – over to Monster Curry.