It’s Toru Yano Season, otherwise known as the G1 Climax, an incredible stretch of time where Toru Yano, my pick for wrestler of the decade, proves that he is, without question, the best wrestler in the world, taking on a rugged schedule, facing top opponents, and laying them all to waste without so much as cracking four stars in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. But wrestling isn’t the only thing Yano is about. If you’ve been following him, you know this. He completed the Tokyo Marathon. He produces and hand sells a line of DVDs called YTR VTR, chronicling what life is like as a member of Chaos. He functioned as a YouTuber during New Japan Pro Wrestling’s shut down earlier this year, and he was hired as “Special Content Advisor” by STARDOM.
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The King of Pro Wrestling is also a curry-obsessed chef with a line of cook-at-home meals produced by Kitano Ace. Largely unavailable in the United States (though a post on Reddit from a year ago suggests that some Asian grocery stores may have it, and also has an incredibly charming anecdote about the KOPW himself slinging curry at his bar after a Road To show), I managed to snag all four flavors of this line of “Hamburg Steak curry” through Japanese wrestling merch importer Stashpages. And then, when the boxes came, I just kind of stared at them.
I’ve had trouble putting my finger on why, but I think it’s this: The process of getting wrestling merchandise from Japan is not easy under the best circumstances, and in 2020 it’s even harder. Compounding things, this isn’t a shirt or a pair of boxers or a push-up bar—it’s food, something that, despite its Toru Yano themed packaging, has nothing to do with wrestling once you open up the box and boil the bag. Yes, I reviewed the food at Scott Steiner’s since-shuttered Shoney’s, but, pulling back the curtain a little, I went into that scenario looking to make some jokes and wound up with a wild story with virtually zero investment. This had the weight of anticipation to it. I like Toru Yano. I love Toru Yano. But what if the curry bearing his name was inedible?
I got over this fear, obviously. I’m a professional, and I can be honest about about the things I shove into my mouth for the sake of wrestling journalism, even if it disparages the good name of my favorite wrestler. How did the Sublime Master Chef do me? Read on to find out.
The curry here can be made in one of two ways, by microwaving it or by boiling it. Google Translate flipped back and forth between sealing and unsealing the bag, and figuring that that’d be a bigger problem in a microwave, I chose to boil the bag and keep the pouch sealed. This worked. This is how you should do it.
For the most part, I served YTR’s curry with plain white rice. For one, plain white rice is one of the best kinds of food in the world. For two, I don’t want anything interfering with the flavor profile of the curry. For three, it’s what was on the box. Also, I’m boiling a bag of shelf-stable hamburger in a pot of water, am I supposed to get fancy? I trust Toru Yano, y’all. If he wants me to eat my vegetables, they’ll be in the box. I am using NJPW’s curry spoon for ✨maximum authenticity✨, but as soon as I’m through Yano’s hamburger steak curry, it is doomed to the fate of all spoons, used for sad, midnight bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Also, it must be said that scoring points for presentations isn’t easy when you’re just glorping stuff out of a bag onto a plate.
Finally, I should note that these are live reviews, written as I ate, and presented in the order in which I tried these out. I saved the Demon Killer Black Curry for last because it had the coolest name, but otherwise I’m too lazy to make plans and just grabbed whatever box was on top of the stack, which is about as “convenience meal” as it gets.
The first thing I noted about this, my first curry out of the gate, is that sauce was not skimped upon. There is a healthy amount of it, enough to cover the hamburger steak that’s been marinating in there and the rice. The second thing I noted was the aroma, which was similar to Golden Curry, spice and apple. I started with a spoonful of rice and sauce. In two words? Fucking delicious. It’s more mellow than the Golden Curry I usually pick up for myself, less hot, but as an American weaned on Lean Cuisine and other kinds of Lonely Man meals for people who’ve never learned to cook, I was caught off guard by how flavorful this was.
Calling it a “hamburger steak” is a little generous, though. The word “steak” suggests a toothsome object, something you bite into and have to chew for a little while, the meat’s seasoning and texture making the enterprise worthwhile. When it slides out of the bag, the hamburger steak looks like it’s going to be a good time, but it dissolves almost as soon as it hits your tongue. It’s not bad, per se, it just feels like an undercooked black bean burger. This was the element of the meal where it’s utility as convenience food was most apparent. It’s about on par with your typical Salisbury steak. What’s surprising is that both the box *and* what was in the bag had me under the impression that I was in for a surprisingly tasty burger, but it’s the weakest element of the meal, relying on the sauce and the rice like a pin-eater in a six-person tag match. While it’s not offensive, it will absolutely be the most difficult aspect of eating four boxes of Toru Yano’s curry.
I got through the burger, leaving plenty of sauce behind for the remainder of the rice. While I think Golden Curry and a number of other, more easily accessible brands of curry paste are ultimately better than this, if it were possible to have the sauce on hand without any meat in it, I’d source a bag or two. Sometimes you just want to pour a bag of sauce onto some food and call it a meal, you know?
Rich Cheese Curry
This is apparently the most popular of the original line of YTR curries, presumably because cheese RULES. I went for the hamburg first, and, truthfully, I don’t taste cheese? Admittedly, I am an American with next to no experience with Asian cheeses, but something about the idea of cheese + hamburger had me thinking “cheeseburger,” and this is not that. The use of the adjective “rich” feels a bit misleading, too—while these curries *are* heavier than hell, there’s nothing intense about the flavor. There’s a mild spice on the back-end, but otherwise what’s here is mild and uninspiring—not bad, but not one I’d reach for after a cancelled dinner date or epic kill streak or six hour New Japan show.
The sauce, however disappointing this specific one was, continues to be the highlight. My roommate made some steamed broccoli, so I threw that on the plate and it paired very well, though not in the broccoli & cheese way I was hoping for. It was nice to have something with some real bite on the plate, as the hamburg steak continues to be a limp presence. This time through I scraped some of the sauce off and saw what looked like stray grill-marks. If these kissed a grill, it was with the same brevity as a kiss on the cheek from Tony Soprano, a flame-broiled “how ya doin’” that isn’t exactly invested in an answer. I remember when white liberals had fewer problems and wouldn’t shut the hell up about “pink slime,” the processed meatstuff that constitutes so much American fast food. The hamburg steaks in Toru Yano’s curries are legit pink, and not in a “rare meat” way, possessing the same kind of here-but-not mouthfeel of a McDonalds hamburger. The difference is that fast food restaurants hide the subpar quality of their beef by pounding it flat and burying it under a bun. These steaks, by comparison, are an obligation. They loom large because they look like the kind of burger a normal person would make, thick and substantial, but they’re a total fucking lie—I’m eating this curry with three day old microwaved rice and find the rice more satisfying. Like, I appreciate the hamburg for showing up to this party, but I wouldn’t mind if it stayed home.
Mild Tomato Curry
Here’s where I abandoned white rice, as my roommate made pasta with garlic, olive oil, and collard greens, and “tomato” and “pasta” have the same connotation to my thoroughly pedestrian palate as “hamburg” and “cheese.” Is it fair to the Sublime Master Chef if I sample his wares with something that has its own presence on the plate? Perhaps not, but nothing about Toru Yano is entirely fair, and since I already know that I prefer rice to the hamburg steak, so why not try something different?
I kinda guessed right, as this mild tomato curry’s aroma and taste combined with the hamburg steak made for something like spaghetti and bolognese. I started with the burger and sauce on its own, as Yano intended, and was frankly kind of stunned by how well the two were pared. Before I noticed, I was halfway through the big, meaty puck I’d dreaded over the course of my past two meals. Honestly, fixing the flavor of something otherwise unpalatable is one of the major miracles of ragú, along with its ease of use should one find oneself too depressed to drive to Taco Bell. Make no mistake—there’s nothing fancy or complex about the mild tomato curry, but it delivers on its promise, a nice, mellow meatball.
I’m glad I went with the pasta. It was a little heavy on red pepper flakes, so once I got behind the hamburg I was in arrabbiata territory. The sauce coming together with the garlic, collards, and aged Parmesan? It’s not exactly Sunday dinner, but it worked. Like, you know how in Pokemon Sword and Shield randos are always handing you weird curry ingredients and it doesn’t matter what you do so you’re like “chesto berries and pasta, why the fuck not?” and then your Pokémon thinks it’s delicious, even though it shouldn’t be? That was my experience here. I knew the pasta would be good, but entered the meal thinking I might ruin a good thing with something bad. Instead I’m sitting here, extremely full after about half a plate, wondering if I fucked up with the other two curries by not thinking outside the box a little. I finished those in one sitting, but this one I saved for later, in case my experience of the Demon Slaying Black Curry was a disappointment.
“Taking inspiration from one of Toru Yano’s most devastating moves,” the press release goes, “this spicy sauce is not for the faint of heart!” That’s pretty much all I had to go on, other than some vague knowledge that black curry is a real thing and not something that exists within the unknowable realm of the curry bag. I saved this one for last because it was the one box that promised a genuinely new experience as opposed to a version of something I’m familiar with that just happened to have my favorite wrestler on the box. If they came out tasting exactly like Golden Curry, cheddar cheese, and spaghetti, I would have been happy, but I wouldn’t have come away with anything new beyond my impressions of the hamburg steak. It isn’t often that a convenience meal offers you something completely new—even the most exotic meals in the freezer section are common fodder on chain restaurant menus—but I’ve been living in small and medium sized college towns for most of my adult life and haven’t had an opportunity to eat black curry. So Toru Yano was my buide.
The first thing about his Demon Slaying curry is that it’s the most aromatic of the four available flavors. The Japanese-style curry smelled nice when I cut open the bag, the tomato and cheese curries were just kind of there, but this one was like an invitation, like scent lines on a cartoon pie leading the hungry to some burly woman’s windowsill. It felt more substantial than the others, too, pouring out thick and dark. It stands out from the other curries, which came out a similar shade of reddish-brown regardless of the flavor.
Upon my first bite, my tongue recoiled like Hulk Hogan’s hand when he discovers that running water is not hot. I actually said “it’s not hot.” There is spice here, and it revealed itself on subsequent bites, but really what I’m noting, making my way through the hamburg steak, is how savory this sauce is. As much as I wish it challenged me heat wise (the bar isn’t that high), this was my favorite of the sauces, and it wasn’t particularly close. It has a more textured taste, spice chasing after umami, enough of both to linger after each bite. Like the tomato curry, the sauce here carries the hamburg steak beyond its humble intentions, much like Toru Yano carries the G1 Climax. To this point I feel like I hadn’t really *tasted* the hamburg. The sauces dominate it, but the Demon Slaying curry brought out a kind of sweetness that I think had been sublimated by the other flavors. “Sweetness” isn’t something I’m looking for in beef, pork, and everything else that went into the patties in these meals, but it’s a nice counterbalance to the black curry, feeling more present on the plate than it had before. I am glad that I saved this one for last, as it would have made the rest seem weak by comparison.
Should you try the Sublime Master Chef Toru Yano’s line of hamburg steak curries, if given a chance? That’s a hard question to answer. As a novelty, I loved these. There wasn’t a single bad meal in the bunch, they’re adaptable, and the black curry turned me on to something new that I might like beyond this exercise. On episode two of Gear Switch, the monthly podcast I do with Jes Skolnik, we spoke about how good New Japan Pro Wrestling is at merchandise, and this partnership with Kitano Ace is right up there with Kota Ibushi undies as proof of their genius, not just so far as the product line goes, but in who to attach it to. Watch the commercial above—Yano is perfect for this. The way his appreciation for the food leads to a eureka moment where he’s suddenly making money hand over fist at the grocery store? Only someone who hangs out with their friends and says “I bet I can make money off of this” can pull that off. Toru Yano and podcasters, pretty much.
But novelty is as far as I can go in terms of recommending the curry. It has nothing to do with taste. When these were available from Stashpages, they were $25 apiece. That’s fair—importing stuff from Japan takes time and money, and these arrived during a pandemic via a crumbling postal service. But at their most utilitarian, on the shelf in a store in Japan, they’re 1,000 Yen, or about $9.47. I have no real basis of comparison between ready to eat meals in Japan and the United States, I don’t know if Toru Yano’s wares are up there next to $2 cans of Chunky Soup or trays of Hormel Compleats, but were these available to me every day, I’d have a hard time justifying spending that much money on one hamburger patty and an envelope of sauce.
But this is a novelty, at least until New Japan realizes that the market for weird merch (and Toru Yano merch) is as robust stateside as it is in Japan. So yes, buy these the next time you see them, and unless you’re allergic to what’s in there or don’t eat one (or all) of the meats that go into the product, don’t be the kind of person who doesn’t eat the food in the box. Toru Yano’s curry has a long shelf life, something like two years, so you’ve got time, but don’t be like the weirdo who didn’t eat the cereal that came in his box of C-3POs in 1984. Food rots, man, and some day the spawn of your uneaten Mild Tomato Curry packet will eat through the box bearing Toru Yano’s likeness and ruin your day. Eat the curry. Like, brace yourself for disappointment, first. You may not like it! Or, worse, you may like it a lot but won’t be able to get more! But you’ll get to have it, which puts you on the same wavelength as Yano himself. I like living on that wavelength. You might, too.