Japanese curry, also known as Curry Rice (カレーライス - karé raisu), is the ultimate comfort food in Japan. While loaded with a blend of over a dozen different spices, it tends to be milder than its Indian or Thai counterparts, and it has a rich texture and comforting sweetness that makes it a hit with all age groups. Although it has a history dating back over a century in recent years, most people opt for making it using instant curry blocks, or they buy it premade in vacuum-sealed retort pouches (レトルトカレー). I like making mine from scratch, and I've developed this Japanese chicken curry recipe over the past several decades into something that rivals the best curry restaurants in Japan.
Why This Recipe Works?
- The umami and depth of good Japanese restaurant curry come from caramelizing onions and other aromatics. I build layers of flavors in this recipe, first by browning the chicken, then caramelizing garlic and ginger before going in with onions and carrots.
- The characteristic sweetness of Japanese chicken curry is created by adding fruit and sugar in most recipes. In my version, I like to use moderately ripe bananas, which provide a nice sweetness and help thicken the curry sauce.
- Japanese curry is usually thickened with flour and fat roux, but the luxurious texture of this homemade curry rice is developed with a mixture of vegetables and fruit, making it healthier than most.
- Kakushiaji (隠し味) means "hidden taste," and it's a cooking technique that involves adding a tiny quantity of a contrasting ingredient to make subtle improvements to the dish's taste. For this Japanese Curry recipe, my kakushiaji is cocoa powder. It may sound odd, but it's one of the secrets to get a rich earthy depth depth of flavor, making it taste like it's been simmering for hours.
Types of Japanese Curry
Like ramen, curry is a whole sub-genre of Japanese cuisine with many variations. Keema curry is a popular dry curry made from ground meat that comes together in minutes. Katsu Curry, on the other hand, is a mashup of Tonkatsu smothered in Japanese curry sauce. Then there are regional variations like Soup Curry, which originated in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. If you find yourself craving Japanese Curry, but you're pressed for time, check out my Quick Japanese Curry, which comes together in about the time it takes to cook a batch of rice.
Japanese Curry From Scratch
These days, most Japanese households use blocks of instant curry roux that look like a giant chocolate bar. They're produced and sold under brand names such as Golden Curry, Vermont Curry, and Zeppin, and they come in sweet, medium, and spicy varieties. While convenient, these Japanese curry roux blocks are loaded with hydrogenated fats, corn syrup, MSG, and other questionable additives. Making Japanese Chicken Curry from scratch is not much more complicated and tastes even better.
- Vegetable Oil - A neutral oil that doesn't overpower the other flavors. If you're looking for an alternative, canola or sunflower oil work well.
- Boneless Skin-on Chicken Thighs - These offer the perfect balance of meaty richness and juiciness for the Japanese chicken curry. You can also use chicken breasts, which tend to be less flavorful and juicy.
- Ginger & Garlic - These two are the backbone of most curry dishes; they provide the base layer of aroma that the spices will build upon to give the curry its quintessential flavor.
- Baking Soda - Baking soda breaks down pectin in the onions, which softens them more quickly. The increase in pH also speeds up the process of caramelization.
- Onions - One of the defining characteristics of Japanese chicken curry is the flavor of caramelized onion. These provide umami and sweetness; in this recipe, they add body to the curry sauce. The key here is caramelization and Maillard browning, which develops a deep, complex flavor, and it's the trick good Japanese restaurants use to make their curry.
- Japanese Curry Powder - Japanese curry powder is a unique blend of spices that includes the usual suspects like turmeric, cumin, and black pepper, but also includes East Asian spices such as mandarin and star anise, as well as Western herbs such as dill and sage. I like using S&B brand which comes in a red (or red and yellow) can.
- Vegetable Stock - Curry requires a liquid to form the sauce, and while you could use water, vegetable or chicken stock will provide more flavor. If you are using a protein other than chicken, you could match the broth with the meat you are using (i.e., beef broth for beef).
- Banana - It may sound odd, but fruit is a common addition to Japanese-style curry to add the trademark sweetness. Apples are the most common, but I don't like the acidity it adds. Glico, a brand of instant curry blocks, uses bananas in theirs. After trying it out, it's my favorite fruit for this because it contributes sweetness while thickening the curry. You want to use a fully ripe banana (yellow), but do not use an overripe banana (brown spots); otherwise, your curry will have a banana flavor.
- Carrots - I like to add carrots in two forms to my curry. First, I add grated carrots, which get caramelized with the onions. This adds a natural sweetness to the curry, and as it breaks down, it helps thicken it. I also add chunks of carrots, which add substance and a pop of color to the finished dish.
- Potatoes - Although curry originates in India, it was brought to Japan by the British, so the ingredients resemble a European stew. Potatoes add substance to Japanese curry while soaking up its flavors. I like to use waxy potatoes (Red Bliss, Fingerling, etc.) in my curry as they don't dissolve as easily as starchy ones (Russet).
- Bay Leaf & Star Anise - Although Japanese curry powder contains both spices, I like adding a little extra to my curry. You can skip these if you don't have any on hand.
- Soy Sauce - Soy sauce seasons the curry while contributing boatloads of umami. It also gives it a dark brown color, which is a hallmark of Japanese Navy Curry.
- Chunou Sauce - Chunou sauce is a fruit-based sauce similar to tonkatsu sauce and okonomiyaki sauce. If you can't find it, a 50:50 mix of Worcestershire sauce and ketchup makes a reasonable alternative.
- Tomato Paste - Tomato paste is essentially a concentrated tomato flavoring. It adds fruity sweetness and umami to the curry. Ketchup will work in a pinch.
- Cocoa Powder - This is my kakushiaji, or "hidden taste." It brings a nutty and earthy depth to the homemade Japanese curry without making it taste overtly of chocolate. Some people add instant coffee granules to their curry for a similar effect, but I don't want my curry caffeinated, and cocoa powder provides a more subtle flavor.
How to Make Japanese Curry from Scratch
Start by mixing the salt and baking soda into the water until they're evenly dissolved.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add in the boneless, skin-on chicken thighs that have been cut into large bite-sized pieces. I like using chicken thighs because they have more flavor and tend to hold up better in stews due to their fat and collagen content. Brown the chicken on one side before flipping the pieces over to brown the other side. The high temperature of the oil creates Maillard browning, which is how we build the layers of flavors in traditional Japanese chicken curry.
When the chicken is nicely browned, remove it from the pot and set it aside. Then, add the grated ginger and garlic to the pot and sauté them until they're fragrant and starting to brown. This builds the second layer of flavor. Now add in the onions and stir in the baking soda solution. Cover the pot with a lid and turn down the heat to steam the onions for about 10 minutes.
When the timer is up, remove the lid and turn up the heat to boil off the excess liquid. Add the grated carrots and saute the mixture until golden brown and caramelized. Take your time here, as this is where the curry will get the bulk of its flavor.
When the onion mixture has carmelized into a thick paste, add the curry powder and quickly stir it into the onions so that it doesn't burn to the pan. The idea is to get the spices bloom, releasing their fragrant oils.
When the curry powder is fragrant, add the vegetable stock and banana and use a stick blender to puree the mixture. You could also do this in a regular blender, but be careful when blending hot liquids, as the sudden release of steam can cause the lid to blow off.
Next, return the chicken to the pot along with the potatoes, carrots, soy sauce, chunou sauce, tomato paste, bay leaf, star anise, and cocoa powder. Bring your curry to a gentle simmer and let it cook until the vegetables are tender and the curry roux has thickened up. This should take about an hour. Be sure to stir your curry regularly to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pot.
Once the vegetables are tender and your Japanese chicken curry is nice and thick, taste and adjust the seasonings as needed with salt and cayenne pepper (if you want some more heat).
How Japanese Curry May be Served
Over the past century, Japanese-style curry has become one of the most popular meals in Japan, and as a result, people have come up with creative ways to serve it. The classic way is to serve it alongside a generous mound of short-grain rice to make Japanese curry rice. Variations of this include serving it topped with shredded cheese or topping it with a hot spring egg. The curry can also be served as a sauce over a crispy chicken or pork cutlet, which is a popular dish known as Katsu Curry. If you're more of a noodle person, Curry Udon is a hearty dish involving a bowl of udon noodle soup topped with Japanese curry. For a more portable option, try stuffing some curry in between two slices of sandwich bread to make Currypan (Curry Bread) .
Japanese Curry is a roux thickened stew that typically includes a protein, onions, carrots, and potatoes. The sauce is sweet and packed with umami, and the luxuriously thick texture serves as a gravy that can be mixed into white rice to form curry rice.
Because many Japanese people are not used to eating spicy foods, curry in Japan has a balancing sweetness that's added using ingredients such as fruit, honey, or even sugar. Japanese curry is more viscous than most, and the sauce resembles a thick gravy. Finally, since the Japanese version of curry originally came from Europe, the ingredients (such as potatoes and carrots) are more like a stew than other Asian curries. You can check out all of my curry recipes here, which include variations of Japanese curry and curries from around the world.
You may be surprised to learn that Japan has its own version of curry since Japanese food is known for its subtle flavors. Curry in Japan dates back about 150 years to the early Meiji era when military advisors from the British Empire introduced the concept of curry (taken from India) as an efficient means to feed many hungry troops. These young men would take their newly acquired taste for curry home, and by 1906, at least one company produced an "instant" curry mix.
House Foods followed with their version in 1926, and in 1954, SB Foods released the first solid curry roux. Its popularity has only grown since then. House Foods introduced its "Vermont Curry" in 1963, becoming the top-selling brand. These days, the shelves of every convenience store and supermarket are lined with reheatable packets of premade curry, as well as a myriad of curry-flavored foods such as chips, crackers, noodles, and fried rice.
Japanese curry blocks (a.k.a. curry roux) include wheat flour, so it is not gluten-free. Since this recipe doesn't use curry blocks, it can easily be made gluten-free by substituting tamari or coconut aminos for the soy sauce.
Since this curry rice recipe doesn't contain butter or chicken stock, it's straightforward to make it vegan. Just substitute your favorite plant-based protein for the chicken. I also have a vegan Japanese curry recipe that's loaded with mushrooms and chickpeas that you can check out.
Curry Rice is pronounced Kare Raisu in Japanese and is pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
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- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 800 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs (cut into large bite-size pieces)
- 30 grams ginger (grated)
- 20 grams garlic (grated)
- ¼ cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅛ teaspoon baking soda
- 600 grams onions (2 large minced)
- 70 grams carrot (grated)
- 24 grams Japanese Curry Powder (~3 tablespoons)
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 banana
- 400 grams potatoes
- 300 grams carrots
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 star anise
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon chunou sauce
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- Add 1 teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon baking soda to ¼ cup water and mix until dissolved.
- Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil to a heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven and heat over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering (but not smoking).
- Add 800 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs in a single layer with the skin-side down and fry undisturbed until the skin is browned and crisp (about 3 minutes). Flip the chicken over and brown the second side.
- When the chicken is browned on both sides, remove it from the pan and add grated 30 grams ginger and 20 grams garlic. Saute until you have a thick layer of brown fond on the bottom of the pot and the mixture is caramelized.
- Add 600 grams onions along with the baking soda solution and quickly stir to coat the onions evenly with the mixture. Cover the pot with a lid and reduce the heat to low, allowing the onions to steam for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid and turn up the heat to medium-high, boiling the mixture until very little liquid is left.
- Add the grated 70 grams carrot and fry the mixture by stirring, then spreading the vegetables into an even layer and then stirring again until the onions are fully caramelized and the mixture is cinnamon brown.
- Add 24 grams Japanese Curry Powder and stir until it is very fragrant (about 1 minute). Be careful not to burn it.
- Add the4 cups vegetable stock and 1 banana, and then use a stick blender to puree the mixture until smooth.
- Now, you want to return the chicken to the pot with 400 grams potatoes, 300 grams carrots, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon chunou sauce, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 1 bay leaf, 1 star anise, and 2 teaspoons cocoa powder.
- Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and then let this cook until the carrots and potatoes are tender (about 1 hour). You'll want to mix the curry every 10 minutes to ensure it is not burning to the bottom of the pot.
- The Japanese curry is done when the vegetables and chicken are tender, and the sauce is like a thick gravy. Taste the curry and adjust the seasonings with salt and cayenne pepper to taste. If you like a looser curry, add water or stock to thin it out.
- To make Japanese curry rice, just serve your homemade chicken curry over Japanese short-grain rice.