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The strange shared history of curry rice and donkkaseu sauce

curry riceCurry rice... ugh.
blue dot
Nov 25 2012

At Korean elementary schools, Wednesday lunch is something special – hence the nickname Special Wednesday. Now, Korean school lunches vary in quality from day to day and from school to school. At my old school, for instance, the lunches were pretty good until the lunch lady left and a new one arrived, who served up grotesque slop day after day, resulting in loud complaints from many of the teachers. Including, perhaps most loudly, me. Still, you won’t get any argument from me that Korean school lunches are the best in the world.

At my new school the lunches are pretty good. I don’t like all Korean food – I detest squid and octopus, and am not fond of radish – but, apart from dishes based around these foods, I usually enjoy my school lunch. I say “usually” because the truth is that Special Wednesday is chancy. Sometimes it is bibimbap, or crab soup, or pork with ssamjung and perilla leaves, and on those days I am happy*.*Actually, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. At other times it is some kid-friendly food like jjajangmyeon – Chinese black bean noodles – which is OK, but is let down by the crafty lunch ladies sneaking too many vegetables into the sauce to make it healthy for the kids. Those damn chunks of radish…  I can certainly eat it, but it doesn’t excite me.

And then there are times when it is awful. And those days have a common theme – they tend to feature some bastardized foreign dish. And, while Korean food is great, what Koreans do to other cultures’ cuisines should be illegal. Italian food is reduced to pasta and hideous sweet potato and corn pizza. The entirety of Chinese food is also reduced to two dishes: jjajangmyeon and jjamppong, a seafood stew. Hamburgers are all evolved from the McDonalds Big Mac. “Sausage” means a hotdog frankfurt.

My least favourite of these Wednesday foreign meals is curry rice. Made with curry powder, small chunks of pork and random vegetables, thickened with cornflour, this unappetizing gloop is dumped on some rice and served to the delight of the students and the misery of me.

I like curry. I like Indian curries, and I really like Thai curries. But this godforsaken meal has no resemblance to either. As Korean cuisine otherwise makes no use of curry, I wondered how it arrived here. The story turns out to be quite interesting; it is also the same story as that of a key component in another foreign-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off Korean meal: donkkaseu, a breaded pork cutlet. Specifically, it’s the same as donkkaseu sauce. It is a story of cuisines travelling via nineteenth century Imperialism, and, unfortunately for me, gaining nothing in the process.

Curry Rice

Curry originates, of course, from India. There, complex mixes of spices known as garam masala, or sambar, in various proportions and according to different recipes, have been used for centuries. In the eighteenth century the imperialist Brits ruled India, and from there created the homogenized mix known as “curry powder”, which they exported back home.

As well as becoming popular in England, these mixes were heavily used by the British Army. In the nineteenth century, this powder spread from the British Army to the Japanese Army, who valued it for its nutrition and ease of cooking. The Japanese quickly made use of the Anglo-Indian “curry powder” to come up with “curry rice” – a thickened sauce featuring onions, carrots, and potatoes, served over rice.

Around the same time, the Japanese embarked on their own imperialist ventures, and curry rice came to Korea. Further “improved” by the addition of some Korean vegetables, it became the salty, thin-tasting gunk which I dread seeing on Special Wednesdays.

Donkkaseu sauce

A less offensive item, but one with a similar history, is donkkaseu sauce. Around the time of the original British craze for curry powder, a certain Lady Sandys chanced to remark to a companion that she wished she could get some very good curry powder. Her companion, whose uncle had served in India, mentioned that she had in her drawer a very good recipe. Lady Sandys, who apparently possessed a lot of time, money and determination, hired some local chemists to recreate it for her.

The chemists, Lea and Perrins, apparently had a go at it, and thought the result might be good as a condiment – but their efforts produced something disgustingly inedible, and so it was consigned to a barrel in the basement for a few years, until it was rediscovered and found to have mellowed into a delicious, savoury liquid. The result, Worcestershire sauce, was a hit.

This story has the feel of legend about it – one wonders why Lea and Perrins would have kept the sauce in a barrel for years if it tasted so bad, rather than dumping it – but it is the accepted origin myth of Worcestershire sauce, and probably has some element of truth. You can read a version of it on Lea and Perrins website.

The rest of the story is familiar. The Brits took both Worcestershire sauce and breaded cutlets to Japan; the Japanese thickened and sweetened the sauce, apparently substituting apples for the tamarinds of the original, and brought it to Korea along with every other horrible thing they brought to the peninsula. As a result there exists in Korea a “native” dish that is served with knife and fork, with a sauce that, like curry rice, has its distant ancestors in India.

I am interested in the stories of how foods travel and become native. It is hard to imagine Asian cooking without chillies, or Italian food without tomatoes, although both were originally New World crops.

In those cases, the results were wonderful. In the cases of donkkaseu sauce, and particularly curry rice, the results are more like photocopies of photocopies. The complexity and flavours of the originals were lost somewhere along the journey.

Waegukin wrote these 991 words on November 25th, 2012 | Posted in Culture |


3 comments on “The strange shared history of curry rice and donkkaseu sauce”

  1. yoo says:

    hi, 외국인.
    ah…..-_- i am sorry to hear that to you the worst food in Korea is curry with rice! cus i love Korean style curry while i don’t like indian style.
    i think Korean style CURRY is healty and delicious.
    i guess my mom like it too. cus once she makes it she doesn’t need to cook anything for several days. we can eat curry with rice for few days(EVERY MEALS). ^^; so simple, right?

    Then, what’s your favorite korean food? the best one? Galbi? Gimbap? ^0^

  2. The Waegukin says:

    Hi 유,

    된장찌개. One of the world’s greatest dishes. ^^


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