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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Recipe for Hope

Apr. 4, 2016

A popular Japanese comfort food, curry rice, is playing a special role in helping one community recover from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The town of Onagawa in northeast Japan has its own recipe that it's promoting as part of revitalization efforts. But maintaining sales is a struggle, because the disaster is fading from the public's memory.

The curry helped sustain evacuees in the town, which is in Miyagi Prefecture, following the disaster.

The taste replicates a meal that was served at temporary shelters. Although the curry is not overwhelmingly spicy, the unique blend of spices is said to have a warming effect.

An Indian man from in Kamakura City, about 400 kilometers away, came up with the recipe while volunteering as a cook at disaster-evacuation shelters.

Bharat Mehta manages a wholesale business that sells imported spices. He remains a frequent visitor to Onagawa after helping its people in their time of need.

His curry is mild enough for children and the elderly to enjoy. It provided much-needed sustenance and energy during a traumatic time.

"It made me very happy when younger people came back for a second helping," Mehta says.

He hopes the dish that encouraged so many can play a part in revitalizing the local economy, too.

A year after the disaster, he and Onagawa's Association for Commerce and Industry helped a company that produces a packaged version of the spice blend.

The curry powder and beans are sold as a set. At first, orders came in from all over the country.

Onagawa curry came to reflect the town's revitalization efforts. But now, things are changing.

Miwa Abe is the president of the curry enterprise, called DilSe Onagawa, and she manages everything from the production process to sales all by herself.

She says the initial sales rush has slowed and orders are down by about 50 percent.

"Unfortunately, our sales are falling every year," Abe says.

Mehta paid a visit to help Abe at the company's Onagawa office. He’s concerned about the declining sales.

"At first, we received large orders because people were supporting the reconstruction efforts. But sales are gradually decreasing," Abe tells him.

"Do you think it's because more time has passed since the disaster?" Mehta asks her.

"Yes. People are starting to lose interest," she replies.

Mehta says the affected areas, which are still trying to recover, need outside support now more than ever.

"We tend to forget easily, because we’re busy with our own lives. But every time I come back here, I'm reminded that there are so many things that need to be improved," Mehta says.

Mehta promoted his creation at an international food products fair near Tokyo last month. He explained the origin and concept of the product.

"We are trying to create more jobs and new specialty products in Onagawa by selling this food that was served just after the earthquake," he said.

"We must not forget about the earthquake," one customer said. "While I was eating, I remembered the disaster. I really hope this will support the reconstruction effort."

The meal that once offered comfort and energy to disaster evacuees has now come to symbolize hope. Mehta wants his product to stimulate a continued interest in stricken areas like Onagawa.

"I'm using curry to educate people about Onagawa," Mehta says. "I hope that my efforts will help the revitalization process. I continue to believe that they will bear fruit one day."

Onagawa curry can be purchased online. It's served at 12 restaurants in the town. The spice blend can be used to add flavor to various dishes, including seafood and noodles.