February 2008


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Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>
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Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 17 Feb 2008 10:50:29 -0500
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Happy Boil-in-a-bag Birthday!
Japan's 'pouch curry' turns a tasty 40
Staff writer
Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008

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 (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

"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  

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