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. 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, and 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 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. Because it includes a fat and flour roux, it’s also 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.
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 sauteing 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.
Although they taste great, these 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.
Over the past decade, I’ve made dozens of different variations of Japanese Curry. Here’s a rough breakdown of the 4 major revisions I’ve made:
Version 1.0 (no recipe) – My first attempts at curry were to make a stew that included sauteed onions, chicken, carrots, and potatoes along with grated apples, curry powder, and a little ketchup. I made a butter and flour roux that I added at the very end. It was turmeric yellow in color, lacked umami and complexity, and had an oddly sour taste.
Version 2.0 (recipe here) – This is the first version of my curry recipe I posted back in February 2010. In this version, I tried emulating a boxed roux by making a dark butter and flour roux and then adding garam masala, ketchup and tonkatsu sauce to it. Then I’d caramelize thinly sliced onions, brown the chicken and cook these together with water, grated apples, carrots, and potatoes until they were tender. Then I added the roux in at the end. While closer, this recipe had a few glaring issues. The first is that garam masala varies widely in flavor depending on the brand, so how close your curry tasted to Japanese curry depending on how close your garam masala blend tasted to Japanese curry powder. The second issue is that the onions would take an hour and a half to properly caramelize. That’s why I usually moved on when the onions started turning light brown. This was not enough time to get the best possible flavor and sweetness out of them. The third issue is that the curry was still quite sour. The result was a curry that still fell far short of the umami that a boxed roux has (in all fairness, I was competing against large quantities of MSG). It was also still and insipid shade of yellow, looking nothing like the rich brown curries made with a boxed roux.
Version 3.0 (recipe here) – The key innovation here is that I started adding ginger and garlic to the onions. I also started slicing the onions against the grain so that they would caramelize faster. I also started steaming the onions before frying them, which cut the caramelization time down to about one hour. I also started experimenting with adding darker ingredients like soy sauce, cocoa powder, and wine to give the curry a darker color. Finally, I switched my recommended spice blend from Garam Masala to Japanese Curry Powder. This was my closest attempt to a copycat boxed curry roux, as it had much more umami and complexity, however, it was still not quite right in the flavor department, and although I’d ditched the ketchup at this point, the apples and chunou sauce I was adding was still making it sour.
Version 4.0 (this recipe) – This is the current version of my Japanese curry, and I think I’ve finally arrived at my destination. It tastes just as good, if not better than the boxed roux, and it doesn’t take all that much more effort to make. Read on for all the details about what makes this so special.
Although they won’t admit it, many restaurants also use packaged roux 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, 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 roux in the curry, 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. The only change is to add them in later during the cooking process (i.e., when the potatoes and carrots are almost soft).
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 800 grams skin-on boneless chicken thighs (cut into large bite-size pieces)
- 30 grams ginger (grated)
- 20 grams garlic (grated)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 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.