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Tea ceremonies, happiness and keema

January 31, 2011

KeemaBefore setting off to visit a new place, as well as a guide-book, I try to read some fiction from the country that I’m going to.  It gives an added dimension to the journey and a context that I might not  have taken in by reading bare facts.  Driving to Palmyra in Syria wouldn’t have been the same without imagining Lady Jane Digby on a camel emerging from the hills, eluding brigands.  In the Country of Men painted a picture of life in the early days of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, where neighbours distrusted one another and people disappeared, which was important to remember when I saw his face emblazoned on every street in Tripoli proclaiming his 39th year of power.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

I love the illustration on the cover of one of my childhood favourite reads (and equally dislike the updated cover)

Japan seems so exotic and such an alien culture to me that getting my nose into several books would be essential prior to a visit.  I’m currently reading Dance, dance, dance by Haruki Murakami (author of Norwegian Wood) and the social conventions of Japan are coming across loud and strong in this off-beat novel where brand names and fast food have been adopted with gusto.  The first book I read  about Japan (and reread over and over again) was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden which took me into an elegant world of good manners and tea ceremonies.  My daughters also enjoyed this wonderful tale of a child’s experience in a cold foreign land and how the dolls helped her to feel less home-sick and lonely.

Japanese section in my supermarket and curry blocks

Japanese section in my supermarket and curry blocks

Dubai is not like a foreign country at all in some ways.  The street signs are in English and there is a huge range food stuffs on offer.  Living in Japan as an expat must be pretty daunting.  A friend told me how going food shopping was incredibly difficult.  It’s hard to imagine feeding your family when you can’t read or speak the language and you don’t recognise a single thing as edible in the shops.  I am even fairly mystified by the Japanese section in my local supermarket. My friend did go and visit lots and lots of beautiful temples while she lived there.  For some lovely pics visit this post by White on rice couple.

Sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki and the satsuma have been successful exports but just as the Japanese have embraced many Western things from Burberry to Manchester United Football Club, they have also taken to a culinary import with enthusiasm;  curry.  According to Madhur Jaffrey, (who is at the Emirates Literature Fest in March) most Japanese families eat curry at least once a week and like us Brits (whose enthusiasm for curry has made it our unofficial national dish) they have adapted recipes to their tastes.

Most Japanese cooks use a ‘roux block’ as the base for the sauce and add vegetables (which are already chopped and bagged as curry packs), meat and possibly curry powder.  Fruit and cream are also popular additions.  They also like keema often with the inclusion of tofu.  I searched for a recipe for Japanese curry that appealed to me but in the end fell back on an old favourite.  I don’t pretend that the recipe below is a Japanese version in any way shape or form, but I make it at least once a fortnight for my family (who would rebel at tofu).  It’s the ultimate quick to make, satisfying to eat comfort food, while dreaming of  cherry blossom and tea ceremonies.

I ‘visited’ Japan as part of Foodalogues’ Culinary Tour around the world.  Joan has taken us to Panama, Alaska, Turkey and next we are off to Thailand. Foodalogue has a delicious round-up of other recipes inspired by this virtual trip to Japan.


The character on the bowl is probably Chinese!

Keema (adapted from recipe in Nigella Lawson’s Feast)


Serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
  • 2 and half centimetre piece of ginger, finely grated or chopped
  • 2 small, hot green chillies, finely chopped with seeds
  • 1 and a half teaspoons sea salt
  • 11/2 teaspoons garam masala
  • large bunch chopped coriander
  • 700g lamb mince
  • 250g frozen peas
  • some boiling water (I fill half the tomato tin and rinse it)
  • Juice half a lime, or to taste


  1. Heat the oil in a wide pan one big enough to take everything comfortably later (I use a Le Cruset cast iron pot) and add the onion and garlic. Cook on a high heat until they become golden brown.
  2. Turn the heat down, and add the can of tomatoes, ginger, chilli, salt, garam masala and a handful of the chopped coriander. Stir until the mixture becomes shiny, and then add the mince breaking it up with a fork in the sauce.
  3. Add the boiling water. Bring the pan to the boil and then turn it down to a very gentle simmer.  Half cover with a lid.
  4. Cook for about 20-30 minutes, by which time most of the water should have evaporated and the lamb will be tender.
  5. 5 minutes before the cooking time, cook the peas in a generous amount of boiling water for about 3-4 minutes (I use the microwave).  Stir the peas into the keema.
  6. Squeeze in some lime juice to taste and sprinkle the remaining chopped coriander over the top.
  7. Serve with plain, fluffy basmati rice and some mango chutney, with some lime quarters on the side.
  1. January 31, 2011 9:45 pm

    Looks yummy…..when I read keema in the post title, I assumed you would be making somethign Indian. So I’m very surprised and intrigued to learn that the Japanese use keema with tofu in their cuisine!

  2. January 31, 2011 9:46 pm

    Interesting article Sally – love the literary connections (so wonderful to be reminded about Rumer Godden whose books I haven’t read for 25 years!) but hesitant about the recipe… However, because I have loved and prepared your other inspirational recipes, I will give this the benefit of the doubt….
    Stand by for post-production report… 🙂
    Thanks for inspiring.

  3. January 31, 2011 9:54 pm

    Sally, Thanks for the travel reminder to read not only guidebooks but novels set in a destination. I did that a while ago and while I continue to travel, I seem to have fallen out of that habit. It will be remedied.

    Your post is very interesting and well-written, as usual. You’re a good travel companion. 🙂

  4. January 31, 2011 10:00 pm

    Japan is a country I would like to visit but I don’t think I could live there. Too many rules for me.

    • February 1, 2011 7:29 am

      @Slivia – I agree @Joan – thanks for the really nice comment @Tara – let me know because we LOVE this recipe in our house @Sukaina – Yes interesting isn’t it (not sure about the tofu and mince combination though!)

  5. February 1, 2011 2:21 am

    I didn’t know that Japanese eat a lot of curry. You learn something new every day, don’t you?

    • February 1, 2011 7:24 am

      @Adele – we all know about the sushi and sashimi so I thought it would be interesting to write about the curry. I don’t fancy the curry blocks though!

  6. February 1, 2011 9:59 am

    Great job!!! This looks and sounds very appetizing. I like Japanese Hibachi (and their steak with the white sauce) but that is probably “Americanize”? Not sure….

    I had hoped to join in on this Japan trip, but have not had any luck in my research of Japanese recipes. I’m not a lover of Thai food (but who knows maybe I’ll find something).

    I love to read fiction about an area I’ll be traveling too. Lately, I follow people on Twitter from that area so I can be familiar with places I’d want to visit (mainly foodie type places).

    • February 1, 2011 4:20 pm

      What a good idea to make a country-specific Twitter list before you go. I know what you mean about Japanese recipes – I would love to go to a sushi-making class but really would rather eat Japanese food in a restaurant than make it at home. Maybe we’ll change our minds when we see the round-up.

  7. February 1, 2011 12:21 pm

    Hi Sally, true about living in Japan being daunting especially on the first few months when you don’t know the language. I was carrying my electronic dictionary with me when I go grocery shopping (heck, when I go ANYWHERE!).

    Great post but one thing though, did you stick those chopsticks in that bowl of food picture there? Because in Japan, it is not favorable to stick chopsticks vertically like that as it signifies ‘death’ or bad omen in Japan. Standing chopsticks resemble the incense sticks used as offerings to the deceased or at funerals.

    (I lived in Japan for more than 10 years so the first thing I noticed with your post is the chopstick picture)

    Sorry I talked too much, but just a heads up! 🙂

    • February 1, 2011 4:10 pm

      Grace. This is so interesting – gosh I didn’t realise I could go so wrong with the chopstick etiquette!

  8. February 2, 2011 6:04 pm

    It was a pleasure to see you again on Joan’s culinary tour. Our minds were in synch when we both made curry based dishes for this event!

  9. February 2, 2011 7:37 pm

    Yum- I will add this to my “to make” list! Love the list of ingredients, and it looks delish. And thanks for the reading suggestions- that was fun to see. Am SO looking forward to your Thailand post…

    • February 3, 2011 6:22 am

      Thanks Stephanie and Bellini.

  10. February 2, 2011 9:44 pm

    Lovely post! And thanks for the reminder about the book reading, you are absolutely right, to properly immerse into the country’s spirit you should read a fitting book. I’ll try to find a Thai story then, since we have two weeks left for the event :=)
    And yes, Grace is right, never make that chopstick thingy in Japan, you would really shock people *hehe* superstitious, but hey we don’t have a 13th floor in hotels …

  11. Michelle permalink
    February 2, 2011 10:07 pm

    Great post…I wold never have known that curry was popular in Japan. I plan to make this with a tweak or two (ground turkey??). Glad to be traveling with you!

    • February 3, 2011 6:20 am

      Hi Michelle, Actually Nigella does a ground turkey keema in her new book Kitchen which I’ve tried with beef but it would be so much better with turkey (which I can’t get in Dubai). Chicken is too wishy washy. Likewise on the travelling!

  12. February 5, 2011 3:30 am

    I like your japenese section and curry blocks photos…even if I didn’t meet you I imagine you taking a picture in the supermarket…so nice to see we are all so involved in these culinary tour! Nice recipe, thanks also for the suggested novel. Hope you’ve read the famous Memoirs of a Geisha…lovely descriptions of tea cerimonies, fantastic

    • February 5, 2011 8:29 am

      Yes – you have to be a bit bold and whip out your camera at funny times ignoring the strange looks you get taking photos of supermarket shelves and the like Acky!

  13. February 27, 2011 9:05 am

    i’m thoma and am delighted to meet you. lemme warn you this note is going to be long…

    you have a fabulous space here, obviously and i’m so glad i came across you. i’m less of a blogger and more of a blog hopper…i enjoy the latter better!
    i generally look around for bloggers who’re good writers too and i notice you write beautifully!!
    clicks are so good i needn’t say…i photograph by default 😛 but i thoroughly enjoy good snaps. i’ve a profile in flickr (for exclusive enjoyment without even a single upload; i don think anyone has public uploads with a point-and-shoot!!). i’ll look you up there hoping your id is mycustardpie.

    i can’t help but follow you!! thank you for this warm corner with all the better kitchen smells 🙂
    you’ll find me pottering about quite a bit in here…like to live vicariously…tht’s more practical!

    happy to read gracie@sandier pastures comment on chopsticks. excellent trivia!!

    • February 27, 2011 12:23 pm

      I like long comments (I’m prone to them myself) – yes My Custard Pie on Flickr and many of my images are using my Sony Cybershot point and shoot camera (have only had new Nikon DSLR for a couple of months).


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