I have achieved a dream, three years in the making. On Dec. 1, I participated in a competition greater than the Olympics, Daytona 500 and Army/Navy Game combined. I, of course, speak of the Sasebo Goeikan (Escort Ship) Curry Grand Prix (GC1).
Kaigun (Navy) Curry is a Japanese maritime tradition going back to the Imperial Japanese Navy where it was introduced in the Meiji-era (1868-1912) to combat beriberi. At its core, Japanese curry is based on a British Royal Navy recipe and is composed of curry powder and flour, and varying amounts of meat and vegetables served with white rice. It’s simple but allows for a great degree of flexibility.
Unlike the U.S. Navy’s fleet-wide homogenous meals, every ship and station in JMSDF has a unique curry recipe making this the Pokemon of Japanese food because you have to travel the country to try them all. These curries run the gamut from hot to mild, thin to thick and with varying degrees of sweetness thanks to the inclusion of fruit, condiments and even coffee to make a ship’s recipe standout. (For example, my favorite curry, which didn’t compete, is that of JMSDF Sasebo District curry, which has a thick, sweet, mild sauce with minimal beef chunks. The secret ingredient is banana.)
At the Grand Prix, four local ships, and for the first time, the Amphibious Ready Deployment Brigade, faced off in a battle for curry supremacy. The participants included JS Jintsu, JS Asayuki, JS Sawagiri and JS Chokai. ARDB’s participation is interesting because they’re part of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, not JMSDF, but as the Japanese equivalent of the Marine Corps I suppose they’re close enough.
A curry competition with only five competitors may not sound impressive, but at the former chinjufu (Imperial Japanese Naval District) cities it’s a huge culinary event that draws thousands to Sasebo’s Shimanose Park. Just getting tickets requires standing in line for an hour weeks in advance.
This is the fourth time since 2015 I’ve tried to attend but every year the tickets sold out before I could get one. Luckily, my wife works a 9-to-5 job and was able to join that mile-long line to get me entry in the 12 - 12:30 p.m. block.
Arriving early for my allotted block, I had to stand in a Disneyland-esque line before gaining entry, and after that I paid my 500 yen for the curries and a bowl of white rice. If we’re being honest, the rice serving could have been more substantive, but that’s what the 200 yen extra rice booth is for. Voting is done by dropping your curry spoon in a unit’s box, and whichever unit has the most spoons wins.
Though only five curries were served, they came from all across the flavor spectrum. JS Asayuki was my pick for the best as it had a bold, sweet taste with different fruits and lots of meat. It was a bit over the top but very memorable. JS Chokai’s solid, heavy curry lacked a standout component but instead delivered the perfection of the core curry concept and is something I could eat daily and never tire of. Despite being a newcomer to the world of Navy curry the ARDB brought a rather sweet and low-heat spicy dark curry that I was surprised to see didn’t rank better when all was said and done. I guess this crowd wasn’t ready for that bold of a flavor.
The real winner was everyone who came out, but the final ranking was JS Asayuki in 3rd place, JS Chokai in 2nd place and JS Jinstu taking the top spot. Though I had my favorites, there wasn’t a single bad curry among the crop and if I’m still here, I look forward to next year’s competition.
If you want to try the champion curry from past years, head to your nearest JMSDF town, where pre-packaged ship curries can usually be found in souvenir shops and museums. In Sasebo, this can be done at the Sasebo JMSDF Sail Museum or the community center/café on the arcade. In Maizuru, curry can be bought at the Akarenga Park and in Yokosuka there is a Navy Curry café. In Kure, they’ve taken their Kaigun Curry game to the next level with a curry stamp rally in which about 30 cafes have each adopted a different local ship’s curry and you have to visit them all to try everything. God bless Kure.