Although curry isn’t a traditional Japanese dish, it’s become a home cooking staple in Japan since its introduction about 150 years ago. Its rich savory and spicy taste are balanced by a mild sweetness that makes it a favorite amongst kids and adults alike, and it has spawned an entire sub-genre of dishes and snacks seasoned with Japanese curry powder.
The problem is that preparing a proper Japanese curry (even using “instant” roux blocks) can take a few hours. A significant part of this time is spent caramelizing onions, which is the key to making flavorful Japanese curry. Through years of experimentation, I’ve found a few kitchen hacks that can significantly speed the process up. Combined with a few shortcuts, it takes the cooking time down from three hours to around thirty minutes. That’s short enough to make this an option for a weeknight dinner!
Why This Recipe Works?
- Grating the aromatics cuts the caramelization time down from 1 hour to 6 minutes. It also thickens the curry without preparing a roux.
- Adding baking soda to the aromatics also plays a part in speeding up the caramelization time by breaking down the grated vegetables more quickly while raising their pH.
- Pre-cooking the carrots and potatoes in the microwave significantly reduces the simmering time for this Japanese curry.
- A touch of cocoa powder adds a subtle earthy flavor that makes the curry taste like it’s been cooking for hours.
Ingredients for Quick Japanese Curry Rice
- Aromatics – The basis for Japanese curry is caramelized aromatics. This is what gives the curry some of its sweetness and depth of flavor. This typically takes about an hour of constant stirring when done with sliced aromatics, but grating them into a puree significantly speeds up the process. I use a mixture of onions, carrots, garlic, and ginger.
- Baking Soda – Baking soda does two things here. The first is that it helps break down the cell walls in the aromatics, making them release water faster. It also raises the pH of the mixture. These lead to faster caramelization times, reducing the usual 1 hour to properly caramelize sliced onions down to around 6-7 minutes.
- Ground Meat – Using ground meat significantly reduces the simmering time for the curry. I used ground beef for mine, but ground pork or ground chicken will also work. If you want to make this plant-based, you could saute various flavorful mushrooms (button, shiitake, maitake, etc.) instead.
- Japanese Curry Powder – Japanese curry powder includes a unique blend of spices, herbs, and aromatics that are not typically found in curry powders from other parts of the world. This gives Japanese curry its trademark taste, so I highly recommend searching for it at a Japanese grocery store or online. If you can’t find it in stores near you, I have a recipe for making a very good Japanese Curry Powder (it’s the recipe from a major Japanese spice brand).
- Stock – using a flavorful stock adds a ton of flavor to the curry without simmering the meat for a long time. Chicken, beef, or vegetable stock will work here. I used a powdered vegetable stock from Kayanoya.
- Soy Sauce – Because of the short cooking time, it’s important to add umami to the curry with every opportunity. Soy sauce is loaded with naturally occurring glutamate and is an excellent source of umami for the curry.
- Worcestershire Sauce – I usually use a Japanese condiment called Chunou sauce in my longer curry rice recipe. To keep the list of ingredients as simple as possible, I’ve substituted Worcestershire sauce, which has a similar flavor profile.
- Ketchup – Together with the Worcestershire sauce, the ketchup is the other half of the substitute for chunou sauce, which has a sweet fruity flavor.
- Honey – In my longer curry from scratch recipe, I use banana to add sweetness, but it needs to be cooked for a while to get the banana flavor to meld with the other ingredients. Since this quick curry isn’t simmered for very long, the banana flavor will remain, which is why I’ve switched it for honey.
- Cocoa Powder – It may sound like a surprising ingredient, but it’s a key piece of my 3-hour Japanese curry recipe, lending depth, and complexity to the dish. To reduce the number of components in this recipe, I tried omitting it in early versions, but it made such a big difference in the flavor of the curry, I ended up adding it back to the recipe.
- Vegetables – You can add any vegetables you usually add to curry in this recipe. The key is to cut hard vegetables like potatoes and carrots into small pieces and then pre-cook them in the microwave. This cuts the simmering time from 30-40 minutes down to 10 minutes. I’ve also added some peas for color, but this is optional.
How to Make Quick Japanese Curry Rice
The first thing you want to do is make the curry sauce mixture by combing the vegetable stock, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, honey, cocoa powder, and salt in a bowl and then mixing it together. It’s okay if you have some lumps of cocoa powder as these will dissolve in the pot; just make sure the honey and salt are dissolved.
Add the cut potatoes and carrots into a glass bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a lid. Pre-cook the vegetables in a microwave oven set to 800 watts for four minutes.
Use a grater or food processor to puree the onion, remaining carrot, garlic, and ginger. Add these to a pot, along with the baking soda and vegetable oil, and then mix everything together. Put the pot on the stove and boil off the excess liquid over high heat.
When the liquid is gone, and the mixture starts to sizzle, start stirring it constantly to keep it from burning. You want to reduce the mixture to about a third of its original volume while caramelizing it.
When the pureed vegetables are golden brown, stir in the curry powder and fry this mixture for twenty to thirty seconds, or until the mixture is very fragrant. Be careful not to burn the curry powder.
Add the ground meat and break up any clumps as you brown it. When the meat is cooked through, add the curry sauce mixture along with the potatoes and carrots you pre-cooked. Bring the curry to a boil and then reduced the heat as needed to maintain a simmer. Be sure to stir it periodically once it starts thickening to keep it from burning to the pot.
When the curry is nice and thick and the vegetables are tender, stir in the green peas to heat them through. Serve the Japanese curry with a side of rice.
Other Japanese Curry Recipes
Curry was first introduced to Japan from India by the British in the late 1800s. It’s since become one of Japan’s most popular comfort foods and has inspired a whole sub-genre of Japanese cuisine, including dishes such as Curry Udon, Katsu Curry, and Currypan. Compared to curry from other parts of the world, Japanese curry is thicker and has a sweet component that balances out the spices.
In cooking, the term “roux” typically refers to a mixture of fat and flour used to thicken and enrich sauces. In Japan, the term “roux” refers to instant seasoning blocks used to make curry or stew. They look like chocolate bars and contain all of the spices, seasonings, and thickening agents needed to make the dish, so you only need to add vegetables, meat, and water. While convenient, they are loaded with fat, sugar, flavor enhancers, and preservatives, so I prefer to make my curry from scratch without using roux blocks.
Aside from the meat and Worcestershire sauce, this recipe is primarily plant-based, so to make it vegan friendly, you only need to make a few substitutions. For the Worcestershire sauce, just look for a plant-based one (some sauces contain anchovies). For the meat, you can substitute a mix of flavorful mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, porcini, or button. You can mince them up in a food processor or with a knife to speed up the browning process, or if you don’t mind sauteing them a bit longer, you can just slice them up. In addition to the mushrooms, you can also add tofu or your favorite TVP for some protein.
Any ground meat, such as chicken or pork, will work for this recipe. As for the vegetables, I’ve used potatoes and carrots, which are the traditional vegetables included in Japanese curry, but you can substitute other veggies like zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant, sweet potatoes, etc.
Japanese curry is most often thickened with a roux (either homemade or instant), but I use a pureed mixture of vegetables to provide the thickness in this recipe. This saves time and makes this curry a bit healthier since it doesn’t have the extra fat and flour.
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 340 grams potatoes 4 small potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch piece
- 180 grams carrots 1 large carrot, cut into 1/3-inch pieces
- 200 grams onion ~1 medium onion, grated
- 120 grams carrot 1 small carrot, grated
- 15 grams garlic ~2 large cloves, grated
- 15 grams ginger grated
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 14 grams Japanese curry powder ~ 2 tablespoons
- 300 grams ground beef
- 75 grams peas
- In a bowl, mix together the vegetable stock, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, honey, cocoa powder, and salt and set aside.
- Put the cubed potatoes and carrots into a microwave-safe bowl, cover it with a lid, and then put the bowl in a microwave oven set at 800 watts for 4 minutes.
- Grate the onion, remaining carrot, garlic, and ginger into a pot and then stir in the baking soda and vegetable oil.
- Put the pot on the stove over high heat, and let the excess water boil off. Once most of the liquid is gone, start stirring the mixture constantly to keep it from burning. Cook the mixture until it’s about 1/3 of its original volume and golden brown.
- Add the curry powder and stir it into the onion mixture for about 20-30 seconds.
- Add the ground beef and brown it, using the side of a spatula to break up any clumps.
- Once the beef is cooked through, add the stock mixture along with the pre-cooked potatoes and carrots. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer.
Cook until the curry is nice and thick and the potatoes are tender (about another 10 minutes). Stir in the peas and heat them through. Serve your Japanese curry with rice.