Japan Data

Japan’s World-First Retort Pouch Curry Still Evolving 56 Years On

Food and Drink Lifestyle Economy

Curry is a popular dish in Japan, made even more convenient when packaged in retort pouches that can easily be heated up in hot water.

The move toward practical use of retort pouch food packaging was pioneered by the United States. In the 1950s, when canned food was already being mass-produced, a US Army research institute developed pouch-shaped packaging that was more functional than cans. While initially planned for usage with military and space food, it garnered interest as an alternative to canning, which led to a packaging trade magazine article about vacuum-packed sausages.

It was this article that caught the attention of Otsuka Foods (at the time operating as Otsuka Foods Industry). The company had long been searching how to produce a curry that only needed to be heated in hot water. Inspired by the article, it started work on developing the necessary technology. After repeated trial and error, the world’s first ever retort curry went on sale to the general market in February 1968.

Bon Curry, at the time of its launch in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Otsuka Foods/© Jiji)
Bon Curry, at the time of its launch in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Otsuka Foods/© Jiji)

The product’s short shelf life meant that sales were initially limited to specific regional markets. However, with a series of improvements to the packaging, it went on sale nationwide the following year, in 1969. By chance, vacuum-packed food became a hot topic that year after five types, including beef and pot-au-feu, were taken on Apollo 11, the spaceflight that made the first moon landing.

As food packaged in retort pouches became more accepted, the number of companies entering the retort curry industry increased. Over the past decade or so, manufacturers have been releasing a variety of retort curry products that have long shelf lives and taste delicious even at room temperature. The products are also stored as emergency food stock in preparation for disasters.

Within this last 10 years, the production volume of retort curry in Japan hit the highest level in 2020, with approximately 25 million pouches produced. Along with the boom in regional varieties of curry and “spice curry” (made from scratch rather than with curry roux), it is thought that the increase in people spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to expansion of the home-use market.

Production Volume of Retort Curry in Japan

More recently, new kinds of pouches have been developed that can be either heated in hot water or directly in the microwave. Even after half a century, retort curry is continuing to evolve.

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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