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Hẻm Gems: Curry Shika and 12 Years of Making Memories in Saigon

Unlike a normal human, there is a chance that my body is not 70% water, but 70% curry; and a good 50% of that might actually be Japanese curry.

A good curry always feels like home. A spoonful with warm rice and thick, fragrant sauce goes down your throat like a hug from the inside, reassuring you that everything will be okay and that, for the next half-hour or so, you can temporarily forget about the treacherous world that’s raging outside and focus on pampering your taste buds. Aromatic Indian curry, rich Malaysian curry, soupy Vietnamese curry, and comforting Japanese curry each comes with its own quirks, strengths and personality. Over the span of nearly three decades of existence, I have tasted, cooked, and written about a lot of curries, but never has there been one that tickled my curiosity quite like Curry Shika’s creation. Ever since my first visit half a decade ago, it’s been living rent-free in the back of my mind as a compelling mystery beneath a stone unturned, just waiting to be discovered. And this year, discover I did.

A cabin in a hẻm

How to find Curry Shika.

Wedged into a dead-end hẻm, Curry Shika is not a restaurant that one can easily encounter just by casually wandering city streets. When you arrive from the sizzling pavements of summery Saigon, its wooden door serves as a portal into an alternate wintry world. Wood panels line every inch of the place’s interior and exterior; warm lights and soft jazz linger in the air; memorabilia, tiny origami characters, family photos, hand-drawn menus and signs, DIY Totoro clocks, and paper dolls cover the walls and shelves.

If the lived-in clutter makes you feel like you’re visiting a friend’s living room, it’s because a family actually lives here: Shika, the Japanese chef; Yên, his Vietnamese wife; and the couple’s two young sons. Shika explains to me that the eatery’s design was inspired by an old bakery near his mom’s home in Japan — small and woodsy like a mountain cabin. He’s always been fond of the little cottage and imagined that if he ever opens a shop, it would bear a similar design. The knick-knacks come from friends of the restaurant and family trips to Japan; some are actual arts and crafts creations of the two boys, who even helped wait tables back when Saigon was coming out of lockdown and they couldn’t hire anyone.

The menu’s savory section only has curry dishes, varying from VND98,000 to VND249,000, depending on the accompanying protein, but the special house-made curry sauce is the same across dishes. Each lunch dish comes with a plate of pickled kiệu, a small salad bowl, and black coffee or lemon tea. Fluffy white rice sits on one side of the plate while the sauce fills up the other. On top, the accompanying protein — slices of boiled egg, pork morsels, or even a whole patty of Hamburg steak (ハンバーグ) — shines amid vegetable chunks.

Japanese Curry 101

Before delving into Shika's curry, it’s important to demystify what Japanese curry is. Curry powder mix was likely introduced to the East Asian country by the British via Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy in the 19th century. During its early days, curry was considered an exotic and expensive western dish, but over time became accepted as a national staple after domestic curry manufacturers introduced more accessible and cheaper powder mixes in the 1920s. Another breakthrough came in 1954 when cubes of curry roux (カレールー) were introduced, using the French technique of making a thickening agent from flour and fat. With predetermined portions and fine-tuned spice ratio, these blocks made cooking delicious curry easier than ever for home cooks, catapulting curry rice into the well-loved national sensation it is today. A standard Japanese curry is sweet, mild and lightly spiced in taste and thick in texture, so it coats the rice instead of drowning it.

Old photos and hand-drawn pictures fill the walls at Shika's.

Last year, when Saigon went into hardcore Lockdown 16 Pro Max 256 GB, I found myself craving Japanese curry like a cold-turkey addict, so I resorted to the next best thing — learning to cook it at home. Using just onions, carrots, potatoes, chicken, and, most crucially, blocks of curry roux, even on my first attempt I managed to produce something that was surprisingly edible, bordering on tasty. What I have learned from my lockdown cooking shenanigans is that producing a good Japanese curry is quite attainable, but taking it from good to great is a road few have trodden. The curry at Shika’s is a strong contender in that special category. It’s impossible to transcribe that multi-layered taste onto the pages, but apart from discernible notes of spices and aromatics like turmeric, garlic and ginger, there’s a toasty, almost chocolatey, richness that underscores the sauce’s flavor.

How to make curry in three days 

As an amateur curry homecook, I love how simple and convenient the process is; thanks to instant cubes, it takes only an hour or less to produce enough curry for a small family. However, when every single element is made from scratch, the way Shika does, making a pot of curry up to his standards is a three-day ritual. Day 1 involves toasting wheat flour with 20 different aromatics and prepping vegetables. On Day 2, the chopped veggies are cooked down with bones in a pressure cooker, and onions are braised. Day 3 entails the most steps, including when various broths and braised vegetables are put together, and the house-made curry mix finally enters the equation. Guests can read about this intricate undertaking thanks to adorable handwritten notes at each table.

A variety of curry options on the menu (from left to right): boiled eggs, cheese, vegetables and pan-seared tomato, and Hamburg patty. 

To be honest, the result is a curry that might not please everyone, especially if one is used to the subtle sweetness in versions elsewhere. And across my visits throughout the years, sometimes it could be a tinge saltier, thicker, or toastier, though the depth of flavors is one constant that has never waned. It’s this ever-present quality that makes the sauce complex, interesting, and deserving of having its story told.

Shika (right) in Saigon in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Curry Shika.

Like me, Shika and Yên began their curry journey as complete novices, 12 years ago. Shika was an engineer by trade and Yên was still a tourism student when they met. As a part-timer at a tour agency, she booked his ticket for Bangkok in the wrong class. “I was terrified, I emailed him saying ‘I don’t know how to make it up to you, how about this: whenever you’re back in Saigon, I’ll treat you nước mía to apologize,’” Yên reminisces. “I was a poor college student and couldn’t afford anything else. When he returned, it was too late in the evening for sugarcane juice, so we had sushi instead. After that, the feelings slowly grew.” When they decided on curry as a business idea, neither knew how to cook it, but the house — which later became their home and Curry Shika today — was already bought, so there wasn’t any other choice but to take the plunge. First, the pair returned to Japan to embark on a curry pilgrimage.

Yên during the pair's trip to Japan to learn how to make curry and run a restaurant. Photo courtesy of Curry Shika.

“I biked all over Tokyo to find a restaurant to apprentice in, to learn how to run an eatery, how to take orders, how to welcome guests,” Yên tells me. “They kept rejecting me, but I finally found a job as a waitress.” Shika, on the other hand, couldn’t find work, so he learned by eating as much curry from as many places as he humanly could. “I worked for half a day, and the other half I would eat with him — curry for lunch, curry for dinner. Back then I really wished I could have udon or ramen,” she laughs. Eventually, they were impressed by the taste of Tokyo’s tiny family-run eateries, and decided that Curry Shika would follow the same philosophy in taste and operation.

Staying on the stone

The first year in Vietnam following the Japan trip was a time of widespread experimentation. Shika cooked curry religiously, and they would invite friends, colleagues, even neighbors in the hẻm to try out new versions. “At the beginning, it was so different from the recipe now. Sometimes, there was champagne in there, amongst other thingamabobs; whatever people suggested, we tried it,” Yên recalls. “Some house guests from that era came and have never returned even now because they think it’s still as unpleasant as back then.” In the first three years, the curry slowly improved in taste, though Curry Shika was constantly struggling to make ends meet due to a lack of customers.

A plate of the signature curry also named Shika.

Mizu shingen mochi, a dessert made of agar, eaten with kuromitsu (syrup) and kinako (roasted soybean powder).

“At the time, every day we opened thinking maybe this would be the last. Japanese people have a saying, ‘stay on the stone for three years’ [石の上にも三年], meaning you have to at least endure hardship for a while to have success,” Yên explains. “But we passed the three-year mark still without profits, so we were faltering, but we still opened. There’s just something there.” That something is affection, for a restaurant they built from the ground-up, and for the few patrons that they have managed to attract over the years. During Saigoneer’s visit to Curry Shika, two other tables were occupied. After talking to us, Yên stoped at each group to say hello and banter with the guests, obviously regulars, like old friends. Occasionally, her two sons would dash back and forth in the dining area to pick up a manga volume from the giant shelf beneath the staircase, or just to peek at guests. It’s a cordial scene that radiates intimacy, true to the spirit of a family-run eatery.

Dango for desserts (from left to right): soy sauce flavor, cheese and bonito flakes, and black sesame. 

After another two or three years running on hope and that silvery sense of attachment, Curry Shika finally started doing well enough to have an optimistic base of return customers in year six, and has passed the 12-year mark in 2022. When asked what factors contributed to the restaurant’s enduring existence for over a decade, Shika answers: “Because I didn’t pass it over to anyone,” while Yên points to love from customers, especially during the first three years of trials and tribulations.

In the years I’ve known Curry Shika, I’ve returned maybe twice a year. It’s not a venue for a rushed lunch, boisterous birthday party, business dinner or pretty much any occasion that calls for a strict time allotment and big space. The restaurant, in my mind, is reserved for times of languid enjoyment — a meal with best buds where you talk at length, or a date with somebody you’re deeply fond of. After all, you don’t introduce just anyone to your close family and friends.

Curry Shika is open 11am–3pm and 6pm–9pm every day except Tuesday.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 3.5/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5 — Motorbike parking is at Bún Đậu Homemade on Nguyễn Văn Tráng.

Khoi loves curry, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Curry Shika

1/4 Nguyễn Văn Tráng, Bến Thành Ward, D1

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