In a country where you can get everything from hamburgers to lady's undergarments out of a vending machine, it’s no surprise that home cooks have many convenient options when “cooking” a meal. For some dishes like Japanese curry (カレーライス - karei raisu), pre-made mixes have become the norm rather than the exception and a trip to the supermarket will reveal an entire section of boxed curry mixes.
These instant curry mixes usually take the form of bricks that look a bit like bulbous chocolate bars and are loaded with saturated fat, MSG and preservatives. But as much as I want to hate this junk food, it's a comfort food I grew up on and could easily be called the national dish of Japanese home cooking. That's why I've been working on my recipe for Japanese curry from scratch for the past 7 years. It may take a little more effort than using the packaged variety, but it doesn't require any extra time, and involves only a handful of additional ingredients.
So what exactly is Japanese curry?
Like many foods in Japan, curry worked its way into the Japanese culinary repertoire from abroad. The prevailing theory is that the British introduced it as a cheap way of feeding troops en masse and that these soldiers brought their newly acquired taste for this un-Japanese blend of pungent spices home with them.
Today, curry has become a staple of the Japanese home, that's enjoyed by people of all ages. It's thicker and sweeter than most other curries of the world and has a depth of flavor that's unique, thanks to an ample dose of caramelized onions. With big hunks of tender meat, carrots, and potatoes, it's more like a hearty stew than a typical curry.
Ask any chef at one of the many famed curry houses in Japan, and they'll tell you that the key to a really great Japanese curry is in the caramelized onions. The onions not only add a ton of umami and flavor to the curry, they also provide the characteristic sweetness without using sugar. For a more detailed explanation on caramelized onions, check out my post on caramelizing onions
Also, after years of experimenting with different curry powders and garam masalas, I've come to the conclusion that the most consistent way to get the right blend of spices is to use a Japanese curry power such as S&B brand. You can usually find it at Asian supermarkets but Amazon also carries it (see the widget below)
- Clean any large bits of fat or tendon from the chicken and cut into large chunks. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper and mix to distribute evenly.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering and then add the chicken in a single layer. Let the chicken brown undisturbed (about 5 minutes). Flip the chicken and let it brown on the other side.
- Turn down the heat to medium-low and transfer the chicken to a bowl using tongs, making sure to leave as much oil in the pan as possible.
- Add the grated garlic and ginger and fry in the oil until it's not sizzling as much and it reaches a rich caramel brown color.
- Add the onions, and stir to coat with oil. Cover with a lid and let the onions steam until translucent and limp (about 10-15 minutes).
- Remove the lid, turn up the heat to medium and continue frying the onion, stirring constantly until it's reduced to about 1/8 of its original volume and it forms a shiny caramel brown paste (about 20-30 minutes). If the onion starts to stick to the pan before it's fully caramelized, try scrubbing off the stuck bits with a spatula. If that doesn't work you can add just a bit of water to the areas where things are sticking and then use the spatula to scrape.
- When the onions are fully caramelized, add the curry powder and saute briefly until very fragrant.
- Return the chicken to the pot and then add the stock, carrots, grated apple, chunou sauce, tomato paste, cocoa powder, salt and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce the heat. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Add the potatoes, cover and simmer until the carrots and potatoes are very tender (another 15-20 minutes).
- In the meantime, make the roux by adding the butter and flour to a small saucepan over medium heat. Use a spatula to stir constantly until the bubbling subsides and the roux is a light brown color.
- When the potatoes are tender, taste and adjust salt to taste. If you like your curry sweeter, you can add some honey.
- Finish the curry by stirring in the roux and green peas and bringing to a boil to thicken the sauce.
- Serve with hot rice, or on top of a bowl of udon.