As a long time resident of Kashiwa Chiba, local institution Raja has always been one of my favourite Nepalese curries in Japan. Their thick and creamy Saag is one of the tastiest I’ve had, and they do a killer Dahl. Their Dahl Saag - well, it’s the best of both worlds. So I was surprised to realise, after the past year or two of seeking out new and different curry shops in Japan, that Raja doesn’t come close to hitting the top tier of Tokyo-area Indian spots.
Don’t get me wrong - Raja is solid. Other children of the 80s might understand me if I compare it to the character of Mario in Super Mario Bros 2. In the game, all of Mario’s pals have super powers - levitation, high-jumping, super strength - while the titular Mario has nothing. Instead he’s a sort of Venn diagram of the others, and that’s not a bad thing. Like Mario, Raja is a solid all-rounder. He won’t let you down when you need him, but compared to the best he’s lacking in super powers.
This time out I chose to go at 5PM, so as to avoid the rush. Raja is a relatively small place, with only six tables of four, and it gets packed fast. It’s a well known place in Kashiwa, and quite likely the best (I’ll find out if that’s true in future posts.) I opted this time for the Beer Set. At 1,600 yen this is a bargain. It comes with a big bowl of any curry on the menu, a giant naan, three smallish Chicken Tikka, salad, papad, and the beer of your choice. As is my habit, I went for the Nepalese beer option: a Mustang. A quick word on beer. Though usually an IPA drinker, I find Indian lagers to be the perfect match with curry. Light, with a slight hint of Indian flavour (just my imagination?) it’s not too filling and the flavours mesh brilliantly. I must say, however, if you have a choice between a Nepalese bottle (Mustang, Everest etc.) and an Indian, grab yourself a Kingfisher. Mustang is nice, but I’ve often ended up with a slightly flat or skunky bottle. For me, Kingfisher is the beer for Indian curry.
Now back to the food. Chatting with the staff I learned that everyone at Raja is Nepalese, and I ordered my waiter’s recommended dish - the Mutton Chilli. After polishing off the salad and papad (the former quite standard, the latter adequately crispy if a bit salty) my curry arrived in a large, steamy Handi pot, accompanied by a massive naan.
I must take another sidebar to discuss naan. As you may have noticed on this blog, we at JIMC are pretty staunchly anti-naan. Of course it’s delicious, but the consensus here is that it’s just too damn filling, and it overrides the taste and experience of the curry. It’s a bit aggravating here in Tokyo, as many casual Japanese customers come for the naan, and stay for the afterthought of a curry. This means many shops in town bust out gigantic naan (which presumably costs next to nothing to make) with a tiny little finger bowl of curry.
Sadly, Raja doesn’t have a decent naan-alternative. They have Kulcha, which is tasty but nearly as filling and doughy as naan. What I wouldn’t have given for a Roti or a nice Chapati! I will say that the naan cut quite an aesthetically pleasing figure however, with three cute little Tikka nestled on top. The small chicken cuts were the right size in the context of this feast, and were very well seasoned and tender.
All of the above is meaningless, nonetheless, in comparison to the main event. How was the Mutton Chilli? I’m very pleased to say, this particular dish could stand it’s own against many of the better shops in the greater Tokyo area. Swimming with glistening stewed onions and effervescent green peppers, Raja’s Mutton Chilli is so thick as to cause zero liquid runoff as it makes the usually perilous trek from bowl to mouth. Though perhaps a bit light on meat, the mutton within is tender and packed full of flavour. I opted for the hottest spice level available (as is my wont) a while it probably should have been significantly hotter, the sheer depth of flavour made up for the lack of spicy impact. In future I will be sure to drive the point home that I want my curry seriously hot, as I assume they’re erring on the mild side for the sake of lightweight, untrained customers.
I made short work of the Mutton Chilli - wiping the bowl until not a speck of red remained. About a third of my gargantuan naan, however, went to waste on my plate. As much as I hate to waste food, it was just too damned much bread and I felt it best to make a statement by leaving behind the unwanted remainder.
It’s interesting to write such a mixed review of the place that was once my favourite in the world, but I’m not the only one who has picked “the best place” only to neglect everywhere else as if nothing can beat it. We here at JIMC are learning, and hoping to teach as well, that your best curry experiences will be had by trying a wide range of places. Get out there and taste as much as you can - you may find that your local favourite isn’t as all that as you may have thought.
All in all Raja is a very solid Nepalese curry. It’s not the best, but it’s a strong middleweight, especially in its Saag, Dahl and Chilli dishes. If you find yourself in Kashiwa, Kamiyacho, Tsudanuma, Tsukuba or Chofu, go ahead and give it a go. It probably won’t blow your mind, but it should leave you satisfied.