The House Vermont Curry Mystery
Hi everyone! I am back home now after a week in the hospital. More about that later perhaps, but for now I am trying to catch up around here. My usual monthly article for The Japan Times appeared last week, and it was all about Japanese style curry. If you've ever wondered how curry got to be so popular in Japan, and why Japanese curry is so, well, different from curry you get elsewhere - head on over there and take a look. (I especially loved finding out about the Great Curry Scandal of 1931.) It has a recipe for a proper, rich beef curry using curry mix (curry roux), which is the easy way to do things of course. (If you're interested in a from-scratch curry recipe, check out the Beef Curry recipe right here on this site, as well as my Dry Curry recipe. And if you have leftover curry and are feeling ambitious, I have a recipe for Curry Bread (kareh-pan) too!
As I delved into the history of curry in Japan while doing research for the article, I ran across the answer to a question that's been nagging me mildly forever. Why is House Vermont Curry called Vermont Curry? If you're unfamiliar with Vermont Curry, it's the most popular brand of curry roux in Japan (according to the manufacturer, House Foods). Here's the Japanese packaging:
And here's the English packaging, which is the one you see more often when Vermont Curry is for sale outside of Japan. I've also seen packaging in Chinese and Korean. Have you seen it in other languages?
As I stated in the Japan Times article, Vermont Curry was introduced in 1963 as a "sweet" or mild version of curry, suitable for kids to eat. It really achieved its purpose and then some, as it really helped "curry rice" to become one of the most popular kids' foods in Japan, rather like hot dogs and pizza are for American kids. The popularity of Vermont Curry was really solidified in the 1970s, when singer Hideki Saijo (still often just known as Hideki) became the face of the brand - a role he was to continue in for 12 years. Here's a typical Hideki TV commercial from the '70s. It contains the image of runny honey being poured over a sliced apple with Hideki singing ringo to hachimitsu toro-ri toketeru ("Apple and honey smoooothly melted in") which came to really symbolize the brand. The guy in the inset is an older Hideki looking at his 18 year old self. (Click here if you can't see the embedded video.)
And in this version (which I can't embed at all unfortunately), Hideki even lives in a cute little apple house in a snow-covered landscape - presumably, Vermont.
Looking at the list of ingredients in Vermont Curry, honey and apple are indeed listed - along with tons of other recognizable and unrecognizable stuff. This is an industrially produced food product after all.
So, why Vermont? The Green Mountain state is certainly not known for their curries I don't believe. The key, as you have probably guessed, is the apple and honey part - but why specifically Vermont, a relatively obscure (for non-Americans anyway) state? Even most Americans in 2011 don't think "Vermont" first and foremost when apples are mentioned. Well, it's all because of a health fad of sorts that was very popular back then. In 1958, D. C. Jarvis, a country doctor in Vermont, published a book called "Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor's Guide to Good Health", which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 2 years, and was (according to the good doctor's Wikipedia page still in print up until 2002. You can still get a used copy now. One folk remedy that particularly captured the imagination of people was the use of a mixture of apple cider vinegar and honey, called honegar, for anything that ailed you. The popularity of this magical mixture eventually spread to Japan and was known as the "Vermont Health System (バーモント健康法）". So when House Foods introduced their special, sweet and smooth curry in 1963 (even though the mix includes other sweetening agents besides honey and apple), they latched onto this "healthy" combination, blithely changed the apple cider vinegar to plain apples, and voila! Vermont Curry was born. Isn't marketing just grand?
Nowadays of course, barely anyone remembers just how widely popular "honegar" was, though the popularity of using apple cider vinegar, or other vinegars for that matter, as home health tonics lingers on. (Readers have pointed out that honegar is still available in some areas.) The most recent 'healthy' vinegar fad in Japan was for kurosu or "black vinegar", an aged rice vinegar. This stuff was wildly popular as a weight-loss aid until around 6-7 years ago, and they still advertise "40 year-aged" kurosu and kurosu supplements on Japanese TV. (My favorite happens to be kurosu flavored candy, which probably defeats the 'healthy' purpose.) Thankfully perhaps, no black-vinegar flavored curry mix emerged from the fad.
Vermont Curry is now available in three degrees of spiciness - amakuchi (Mild or Sweet), chuukara (Medium Hot) and karakuchi (Hot), but to me the one real Vermont Curry is the Mild one, which can be served to a small child or an excessivly timid-about-spiciness adult without compunction.
Incidentally, manga and anime fans may know Hideki Saijo via the Chibi Maruko-chan series, which is set in the mid-'70s when his popularity was as its peak. Hideki is still in showbiz, though he's transitioned into becoming a TV presenter and occasional actor (he's not too bad either) rather than a pop singer.