Tastes like home: Japanese discovers love, and the best curry recipe in Saigon

By Dang Hanh, Thanh Nien News

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A dish of kare raisu, or curry rice, served at Curry Shika in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos: Doan Hang - Dang Hanh A dish of kare raisu, or curry rice, served at Curry Shika in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos: Doan Hang - Dang Hanh

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Ho Chi Minh City is considered a melting pot for different cultures. Almost every expat here can easily find a neighborhood that reminds them of their home country.
There's a Chinatown in District 5, a Koreatown near the airport, and of course the ever famous Bui Vien Street, where many Westerners hang out.
Then for the Japanese, Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1 is their home, their market and their kitchen.
The Little Tokyo has so many restaurants and lounges there's no chance a Japanese visitor will have trouble curing their homesickness with some good sushi, sashimi and ramen.
And yet it's almost a mission impossible to find a genuine kare raisu curry rice. When ordered, the dish can be made by almost all restaurants in the area, but it often tastes like one of those frozen dinners from supermarkets.
At least that's what Kiyoshi Koshika believes.
The 47-year-old man runs Curry Shika, a small curry shop down a small alley on Nguyen Van Trang, which is a five minute ride from Little Tokyo.

Koshika Kiyoshi in his Curry Shika kitchen.

Koshika is rigorous in his cooking, with the broth alone taking three days to prepare.
To make it, Koshika has to stew chicken bones with a curry roux a whole day before adding vegetables into it. He then simmers it for another 24 hours until the mix turns thick. Then he lets the remaining broth rest another day.
It takes some time to prepare for the curry roux mix as well. Koshika's secret mix has 18 different spices and herbs, including galingale, lemongrass, chili and cinnamon. They have to be preserved for a year, to let them mature, the chef explained. 

Ground herbs and spices for the curry roux.
When someone orders, Koshika will sauté the meat, usually pork or chicken, before putting it into the curry broth, instead of cooking the meat in the broth for hours beforehand.
This style of cooking, which is different from how Indian, Thai and Vietnamese curry is often made, allows the meat to taste as fresh as it can be.
While Indian curry hits you right after the first taste, Thai and Vietnamese curry will conquer eaters with the richness of coconut milk.
Japanese curry, on the other hand, is milder and much less buttery. But when the warm and naturally sweet taste reaches the palate, a diner can't help but reach for more.
In the dark brown sauce, served with rice, you can usually find some nice chunks of perfectly cooked pork or beef, along with onion, carrot and potato.
In Curry Shika, the chef also adds some cheese as topping, making the dish a little bit more silky.
Most customers usually complain that the restaurant is hidden inside a small alley and thus very hard to find.
“We couldn't find a better place. It cost all we had at the time," Vu Hoai Phuong Yen, Koshika’s wife, said of the house they bought five years ago.
Yen is running the business part of the restaurant, while her husband takes care of the kitchen.
They met in 2008 when he was still a construction engineer. He visited a travel agency, looking for a tour.
Yen, then a Japanese language student, was working at the company, handling travel brochures to potential customers.
They fell in love, and the Tokyo native decided to quit his job to avoid all the business trips so that he could settle down in Ho Chi Minh City with Yen.
“I didn’t want to move around anymore. I just wanted to stay here.”
Koshika spent almost all of his savings to buy the small house, and began to learn about cooking in Tokyo.
“I decided to open a curry restaurant, because there were so many Japanese restaurants in the city at that time, but none served the homemade, traditional curry,” Koshika said.
“As a Japanese expat, I used to feel desperate looking for it.
“The best curry should taste like a homemade dish. You cannot find the same taste anywhere else."
Koshika said he had spent a whole year in Tokyo eating curry three times a day, to learn everything there about curry.
“I could not eat curry that frequently, so I quit after a few days,” Yen interrupted her husband, with a contagious laugh.
After dozens of trials and failures, he finally found the recipes that could make even the most discerning diners happy.
However, it was not easy to lure customers to an unknown restaurant, much less one tucked deep in a small street.
That's why Yen was often seen handing out brochures in Little Tokyo, along Le Thanh Ton.
“I used to talk to every tourist I met on the street, in either Japanese or English, and invited them to our restaurant,” Yen recalled.
Many Japanese expats, who worked and lived in the city, knew about the restaurant that way.
Then they told others about it.
When Yen decided to add some desserts, including matcha cakes and transparent water-like shingen mochi, into the menu, the restaurant immediately became popular among young Vietnamese.
But some of the regular customers said that they came mostly for the curry.
“If I were you, I wouldn't even order a dessert,” said Mari Sakai, a Japanese. “Who needs a dessert anyway after such an oishi and big lunch?”

Shingen mochi, a popular dessert at Curry Shika

A waitress prepares a table at Curry Shika

 

 

A dessert at Curry Shika

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