Japanese Curry is a roux thickened stew that typically includes a protein, onions, carrots, and potatoes. It comes in varying levels of spiciness; still, most Japanese curries have a sauce the texture of a thick gravy, which makes it pair well with Japanese short-grain rice, referred to as Curry Rice, of Kare Raisu. Thinner curries make Japanese rice lose its stickiness, which is considered undesirable.
Most people are surprised to hear that Japan has its own version of curry, and the reaction makes sense, given that most Japanese foods have a more subtle flavor profile.
The history of 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 as an efficient means to feed a large number of hungry troops. These young men would take their newly acquired taste for curry home, and by 1906 there was at least one company producing and "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, and it's become 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.
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. The fat and flour roux also tends to make it much thicker than most curries. 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 includes variations of Japanese curry as well as curries from around the world.
These days, most Japanese households use blocks of instant curry roux that look a bit like a giant chocolate bar. They're produced and sold by brands such as SB Foods, House Foods, and Glico, and they come in sweet, medium, and spicy varieties. The curry is made by sautéing onions and then adding a protein (such as chicken, pork, or beef), carrots and potatoes along with water before cooking it until the meat and potatoes are tender. The roux blocks go in at the very end to season and thicken the curry sauce.
Although they taste great, these Japanese curry roux blocks are often loaded with hydrogenated fats, sugar, and MSG, as well as other questionable additives. This is why I've been working on a recipe for making Japanese Curry from scratch for over 10 years. The rich flavor is accomplished by thoroughly caramelizing the onions, and I have a few hacks to help out this process. I also have a great method for chopping onions here.
Although they won't admit it, many restaurants also use packaged sauce mixes to make their curry, the way they set their curry apart from others is through technique and the use of Kakushiaji.
Kakushiaji (隠し味) literally means "hidden taste," and it's a cooking technique that involves adding a very small quantity of a contrasting ingredient to make subtle improvements to the taste of the dish. In the case of curry, this includes things like coffee, chocolate, vanilla, butter, chutney, fruit, Worcestershire sauce, etc.
The idea is to add just enough to make a subtle change, but not enough to be able to tell you've added that ingredient. For this curry recipe, the kakushiaji ingredients include banana, soy sauce, and cocoa powder. The banana adds sweetness and a silky texture to the sauce, you want to use a ripe (yellow, but no brown speckles yet) banana. The soy sauce adds loads of umami, and the cocoa powder lends an earthy depth as well as a rich brown color.
Once you've tried this recipe as written, I encourage you to experiment with different combinations of kakushiaji ingredients to come up with a curry that fits your ideal for a perfect Japanese Curry.
Since curry powder is a blend of spices, herbs, and aromatics the ingredients vary by brand. Generally most Japanese curry powders include: Turmeric, Cumin, Coriander, Fenugreek, Fennel, Dill, Cinnamon, Ginger, Star Anise, Allspice, Citrus Zest (yuzu or mandarin), Cardamom, Cloves, Bay Leaves, and Black Pepper. I have a recipe of making homemade Japanese curry powder if you want to try making it yourself.
The standard vegetables are carrots, and potatoes, but variations exist by region, as well as from household to household. For example, in Okinawa, they add piman (a kind of green pepper). My mom always added celery to hers and finished it with some green peas for color. I've even seen versions with corn, burdock, taro, or sweet potatoes. Like most stews, I think there's a lot of room for creativity here, and it's a chance to do some cleanup of your veggie drawer.
It includes soy sauce, so it isn't, but since there's no Japanese curry roux in this, there is no wheat flour in it. To make it gluten-free, just make sure you're using a gluten-free soy sauce (such as tamari).
Since this recipe doesn't contain butter or chicken stock, it's straightforward to make 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.
Like ramen, curry is a whole sub-genre of Japanese cuisine which means there are a ton of variations. Keema curry is a popular-style of 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. And if you're in the mood for noodles, Curry Udon has got you covered. 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 rice.
- 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 the salt and baking soda to the water and mix until dissolved.
- Add the 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 the chicken 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 ginger and garlic. Saute until you have a thick layer of brown fond on the bottom of the pot and the mixture is caramelized.
- Add the onions along with the baking soda solution and quickly give it a stir to coat the onions evenly with the mixture. Cover the pot with a lid and turn down the leat 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 there is very little liquid left.
- Add the grated carrot and fry the mixture by stirring and 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 the curry powder and stir the mixture together until it is very fragrant (about 1 minute). Be careful not to burn it.
- Add the vegetable stock and banana, and then use a stick blender to puree the mixture until smooth.
- Now you want to return the chicken to the pot along with the potatoes, carrots, soy sauce, chunou sauce, tomato paste, bay leaf, star anise, and 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 or so to make sure it is not burning to the bottom of the pot.
- The curry is done when the vegetables and chicken are tender, and the sauce is very thick. Taste the curry and adjust the seasonings with salt and cayenne pepper to taste. If you like a looser curry, you can add water to thin it out.
- Serve the Japanese curry with Japanese short-grain rice.