Japanese Curry Powder (カレー粉)
If you’ve been following along on the blog for very long, you may know that perfecting a Japanese curry from scratch that rivals the instant roux blocks sold in Japan has been a personal obsession for a good part of my life. I think I got there with version 4 of my Japanese Curry Recipe, but I’d still get one complaint: the recipe wasn’t really from scratch because I didn’t make my own curry powder.
Japanese curry powder is a unique blend of South Asian and East Asian spices with Western herbs, giving Japanese curry its trademark flavor. S&B brand is the most common one found outside of Japan. Still, its availability is generally limited to Japanese supermarkets, so I’ve been working on my own blend for over a decade. Through trial and error, I narrowed in on the taste, but it was never quite right.
Recently, I found a make-your-own-curry-powder-at-home kit. It’s made by Gaban, a major spice company in Japan, and a subsidiary of House Foods. Aside from being one of the largest Japanese food companies, House Foods got its name from one of its first products, “House Curry.” This was the first mass-produced instant curry mix in Japan, dating back to 1926. I figured if anyone knows the secret to the flavor of Japanese curry, it’s them, so I picked up a few sets to give it a shot.
The good news is that the curry powder is good. I actually like it better than S&B’s curry powder which is the benchmark for Japanese curry these days. Because all of the spices are individually packaged and labeled, I was able to reverse engineer a recipe.
The bad news is that it includes 20 different spices, herbs, and aromatics. This is almost double the number of spices I was working with, which explains why I couldn’t replicate the taste. If you live in Japan, I highly recommend just buying Gaban’s set as it will save you a lot of money and time. If you live in an area where Japanese curry powder is not available, then this recipe is for you!
Why This Recipe Works?
- A mix of traditional South Asian spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fenugreek with East Asian spices like star anise and mandarin peel along with Western herbs like dill, sage, and thyme gives this curry powder a complex flavor profile that balances sweet and savory aromas with herbal and citrus notes.
- Adding some oil and toasting the spices helps bring out and redistribute the aroma in the spices.
- Aging the curry powder for a few days helps the flavors of the individual ingredients meld together.
Ingredients for Japanese Curry Powder
- Savory spices – Curry powder generally contains a mix of savory and sweet spices, and this one includes turmeric, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, fennel, and black pepper in the savory column.
- Sweet spices – Sweet spices aren’t literally sweet, but they have aromas that are generally associated with sweet foods. This curry powder includes cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, cloves, star anise, and nutmeg.
- Citrus peel – One of the defining characteristics of Japanese curry powder is its strong citrus flavor. In this blend, dried mandarin orange peel powder is added, but I’ve also seen blends using powdered yuzu zest. The thing that surprised me here is how much of it is added (it makes up about 10% of the curry powder).
- Chili pepper – Four grams of cayenne pepper is where this curry powder gets its heat. As far as curry goes, it’s a relatively mild heat level, so you can double or even triple the amount if you like it hotter.
- Herbs – Japanese curry powder somewhat surprisingly contains Western herbs such as dill, sage, thyme, and bay leaves, none of which are commonly used in Japanese cuisine.
- Aromatics – Garlic powder and ginger powder
- Neutral oil – Because many aromatic compounds in the spices are oil-soluble, adding a small amount of oil when toasting the spices helps draw out and meld their flavors.
How to Blend Japanese Curry Powder
Before you start, it’s important to know that turmeric will permanently stain porous materials such as wood and plastic. At the same time, cloves can break down the polymers in some plastics, so choose your utensils and cookware wisely.
All of the ingredients in this recipe are ground into powder. If any of your spices are whole, you will need to use either a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind them into a powder first.
Then you want to measure all of the spices into a bowl and give them a preliminary mix to ensure everything is evenly distributed.
Next, you want to toast the curry powder in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat, along with a tablespoon of neutral oil. Be sure to stir the mixture constantly to keep it from burning. If the spices start to smoke, get them out of the pan as soon as possible. After toasting the mix for 2-3 minutes, it should be very fragrant, and you can transfer it to a bowl to cool.
Once the Japanese curry powder has cooled to room temperature, store it in a sealed non-reactive container. I recommend letting the curry powder age for a few days before using it, which allows the aromas to mingle and mellow out.
Japanese Curry Recipes
Japanese curry powder is a blend of spices, herbs, and aromatics used to season Japanese-style curry dishes such as curry rice and curry udon. It should not be confused with curry roux, which are “instant” curry mixes with other flavorings, salt, and thickeners mixed in.
Curry has a history spanning back at least 160 years in Japan, and it was first introduced by the British in the 1860s. The first commercially produced curry powder called Hachi Curry came out around 1905. In 1926 Urakami Shoten started mass producing Home Curry, which would be rebranded as House Curry two years later. It wasn’t until 1954 that S&B started producing solid curry roux blocks, similar to what you can buy at Japanese markets today.
Curry is a two-syllable word that’s pronounced as follows:
ka like copy
re – the “re” sound does not exist in the English language, and the best way to make it is to say the word “rain” with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
Curry powder is just a blend of herbs, spices, and aromatics, so it should be plant-based. However, some instant “roux” powders for sale include all the flavoring ingredients for the curry. These usually include meat extracts, so if you buy a mix, check the ingredient label.
The main use is for making Japanese-style curry rice; however, it’s a delicious seasoning that can be used to season meat, sprinkle on popcorn, or knead into doughs.
The first significant difference is that a different blend of spices is used. The second difference is that Japanese curry is generally much thicker than Indian curry. Taste-wise, Japanese curry tends to be sweeter and less spicy than Indian curry.
- 20 grams turmeric
- 14 grams cumin
- 12 grams coriander
- 10 grams mandarin orange peel
- 5 grams fenugreek
- 5 grams fennel
- 4 grams cinnamon
- 4 grams cayenne pepper
- 3 grams garlic powder
- 3 grams ginger powder
- 3 grams dill
- 2 grams allspice
- 2 grams cardamom
- 2 grams cloves
- 2 grams star anise
- 2 grams sage
- 2 grams thyme
- 2 grams nutmeg
- 2 grams black pepper
- 2 grams bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- If they aren’t already in powder form, add the spices to a spice grinder and grind them into a powder.
- Mix the spices in a bowl to evenly distribute everything.
- Heat a frying pan over medium-low heat and add the vegetable oil and spices. Toast the spices while constantly stirring until the oil is evenly distributed and the spices are very fragrant (about 2-3 minutes).
- Transfer the Japanese curry powder out of the pan to let it cool to room temperature. Store the curry powder in a sealed non-reactive container until you’re ready to use it.