Vegan Japanese Curry (ビーガンカレーライス)
In the century and a half or so, since Indian curry was brought to Japan by the British, it’s evolved into a uniquely Japanese version of the dish that’s one of the most popular comfort foods here. Most grocery stores have an aisle dedicated to ready-to-eat packets of curry and instant roux that can be used to make it at home.
Most of these contain meat extracts as well as loads of hydrogenated oils and “flavor enhancers,” so I’ve been making my Japanese Curry from scratch for the past decade. In this Vegan Japanese Curry recipe, I’ve adapted my method to derive tons of umami from plants, mushrooms, and seaweed to ensure this vegan and vegetarian friendly curry is just as satisfying as the original!
Why This Recipe Works?
- Pureeing the onions, carrots, garlic, and ginger makes them caramelize faster, and the vegetables break down to thicken the curry without making a roux.
- Using a mix of mushrooms and thoroughly browning them creates a medley of amino acids and nucleic acids that load this vegan curry up with umami.
- Chickpeas and edamame add plenty of protein to make this a filling and balanced meal.
Ingredients for Vegan Japanese Curry
- Mushrooms – I used a mix of Button, Cremini, and Maitake mushrooms, but any blend of flavorful mushrooms such as Shiitake, Matsutake, Portobello, or Porcini will work.
- Aromatics – Onions, garlic, and ginger are the traditional aromatics used in Japanese curry, but I also like to add carrots as they provide loads of flavor and additional sweetness.
- Baking soda – Baking soda helps break down the aromatics while raising their pH. Together, these effects help them to caramelize faster.
- Japanese curry powder – Although it has common spices with curry powder from other countries, Japanese curry powder also includes ingredients such as citrus peel and star anise and herbs like sage and bay leaves, which makes it unique. You can check out my Japanese Curry Powder recipe for more details.
- Soy sauce – Soy sauce not only seasons the curry, but it’s also a source of umami and flavor.
- Ketchup – I like to use ketchup in my curry because it is more concentrated than fresh tomatoes and sweeter than tomato paste. That being said, either of these will work if you don’t like using ketchup.
- Brown sugar – One of the defining characteristics of Japanese curry is the balance of sweet, savory, and spicy tastes it hits. The sweetness can be contributed by fruit such as banana or grated apple, but given the relatively short cook time of this recipe, you’ll still be able to taste banana if you go that route, and apples are too acidic.
- Cocoa powder – It may sound odd, but adding cocoa powder to curry is an old trick to give the sauce an earthy flavor. It makes it taste like it’s been cooking for a lot longer than it has while imparting a nice dark color.
- Broth – To ensure you have plenty of umami in the curry sauce, it’s important to use an umami-rich broth. I made one using dried shiitake mushrooms and konbu (kelp), but you can use a flavorful vegetable broth, mushroom broth, or any other flavorful stock that you enjoy.
- Canned chickpeas – Chickpeas are the primary source of protein for this curry. The cooking liquid in the can (a.k.a. aquafaba) is loaded with starch and amino acids, which helps to thicken the curry while adding umami.
- Potatoes – To speed things up, I like to pre-cook the potatoes by either steaming them in a microwave oven or boiling them in a separate pot of water.
- Carrots – In addition to being pureed in with the aromatics, I also like to have whole chunks of carrots in my curry.
- Edamame – Edamame is another excellent source of protein, and it also lends a splash of green to the curry. Some other options here are green beans, snap peas or frozen peas.
How to Make Vegan Japanese Curry From Scratch
The first thing you want to do is make a mushroom broth by adding the konbu and shiitake mushrooms to the water. Depending on the size and thickness of your ingredients, this can take an hour or two to rehydrate. To get the maximum flavor out of the ingredients, let this soak overnight. Once the ingredients are rehydrated, discard the konbu and lightly squeeze the shiitake mushrooms. Next, trim the tough stems off the mushrooms and slice them up.
Because the curry sauce is quite thick, it’s essential to pre-cook the potatoes and carrots. The easiest way to do this is to add them to a bowl with a splash of water, cover the bowl with a lid and then cook them in a microwave oven for around five minutes at 800 watts. You can also cook them in a pot of water on the stove. Whatever method you use, make sure you can easily pass a fork or toothpick through the biggest pieces.
To make the curry base, chop the onions, carrot, garlic, and ginger and puree them in a food processor or blender. The mixture should resemble wet applesauce. This curry is thickened by the vegetables dissolving into the sauce, so it is very important that they be fully pureed, or it will not thicken properly.
Because this is meatless, how flavorful your curry turns out is dependant on how well you brown the mushrooms and aromatics, so take your time doing the next few steps.
Heat a large, heavy pot, like a dutch oven, over medium heat until it’s hot, and add two tablespoons of oil, along with the mushrooms (rehydrated shiitakes and fresh ones). Add half a teaspoon of salt and saute these until they’ve reduced to about 1/4 of their original volume. The mushrooms will release liquid, and all of this needs to evaporate before they start to brown, so give this about ten to twelve minutes. Once browned, transfer the mushrooms to a bowl and set them aside.
Add the pureed vegetables along with the baking soda and remaining salt and let this mixture boil, frequently stirring until all of the excess water has evaporated and you have a thick paste (about ten minutes). Add the remaining oil and then fry the aromatics until you have a shiny caramel brown paste. This should take about three minutes.
Add the curry powder, sugar, and cocoa powder and quickly fold these into the aromatics to make a uniform coffee brown paste. The spices burn easily, so work quickly and proceed to the next step.
Add the soy sauce and ketchup to the pot and use them to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. At this point, the curry base is done, and you can freeze this if you like.
To continue with the curry, add the chickpeas, along with any liquid it came with, as well as the shiitake mushroom stock, cooked carrots and potatoes, and sauteed mushrooms. Bring this mixture to a boil while stirring, and then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook this, stirring regularly until the curry sauce has thickened. This should take about fifteen minutes.
Like most stews, curry is best the second day, so if you have the time, I recommend making it ahead of time and giving it a night in the fridge to rest. To reheat it, just add it to a pot along with a bit of water and heat it up over medium-low heat. Add the shelled edamame just before serving.
Other Vegan Soups & Stew Recipes
Curry was first introduced to Japan over 150 years ago by British advisors to the Japanese navy as an easy way to feel a lot of people. In the decades that followed, these troops brought their newly acquired taste for curry home, and the dish evolved to suit Japanese tastes. Compared to other Asian curry dishes, Japanese curry is thicker, sweeter, and less spicy, and its preparation is closer to a French stew. This is probably why curry is considered a form of yōshoku (Western food) in Japan. Curry is always served with rice in Japan which is why the dish is called karéraisu (カレーライス), the Japanese transliteration of “curry rice”.
Curry rice becomes a 5 syllable word that sounds more like karéraisu when transliterated into Japanese, and it’s pronounced as follows:
ka like copy
ré like 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. In this case the vowel is also extended.
ra like the “ra” sound does not exist in the English language and the best way to make it is to say the word “romp” with the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth.
i like even
su like soup
The heat in this curry comes from cayenne pepper in the curry powder, so how spicy your curry ends up depends on the curry powder you use. If you’re worried about the curry’s heat level, you can halve the amount of curry powder to begin with, and add more if you feel like it needs it. As for making this spicier, you can add extra cayenne pepper or your favorite hot sauce to the finished curry for a little extra fire.
This Vegan Japanese Curry recipe is made from scratch and is vegetarian and vegan friendly. That being said, most store-bought curry mixes, including curry roux blocks and instant curry powders, include meat extracts, so if you don’t use this recipe, be sure to read the label.
Most instant curry cubes include wheat flour in the roux, but since this curry recipe is rouxless, it can easily be made gluten-free by using tamari soy sauce.
I’ve added chickpeas as a source of protein, but you can skip the chickpeas and add in your favorite plant-based protein. Tofu, TVP, and tempeh are all excellent options, or you can just load it up with your favorite veggies for a vegetable curry. If you make a substitution here, be sure to add an extra 2/3 cup of water to account for the missing chickpea liquid.
As the name “curry rice” would suggest, Japanese Curry is always served with a large helping of Japanese short-grain rice. That being said, you could serve it with naan or bread, and if you thin the curry sauce out with some extra shiitake mushroom and konbu dashi, you can quickly turn this into curry udon. The other option is to make tofu katsu (tofu cutlet) and then serve it with this curry sauce poured on top to make katsu curry.
- 2 ½ cups water
- 10 grams konbu
- 12 grams dried Shiitake mushrooms (2 mushrooms)
- 400 grams potatoes (peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks)
- 225 grams carrots (peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks)
- 225 grams Button mushrooms (cleaned and halved)
- 225 grams Maitake mushrooms (shredded)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 440 grams cooked chickpeas (439 gram can)
- 100 grams shelled edamame
- 400 grams onion
- 200 grams carrot
- 30 grams garlic
- 25 grams ginger
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 30 grams Japanese curry powder (~1/4 cup)
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
- To make the mushroom stock, add the konbu and dried shiitake mushrooms to 2 1/2 cups of water and soak until the ingredients are rehydrated (1-2 hours). When the stock is ready, discard the konbu. Lightly squeeze the shiitake and then trim the tough stems off. Slice the shiitake and set them aside.
- Put the potatoes and carrots for the curry into a microwave-safe bowl, add a tablespoon of water and cover with a lid. Put the bowl in a microwave oven and cook the vegetables at 800 watts for 5-6 minutes. Use a toothpick to test a few veggies to see if they’re cooked. You can also cook these on the stove in a pot of water.
- For the curry base, roughly chop the onion, carrot, garlic, and ginger and put them in a food processor or blender. Puree the aromatics, scraping down the sides a few times until the mixture is smooth and the consistency of wet applesauce.
- Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and the Shiitake, Button, and Maitake mushrooms. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and saute the mushrooms until they’re golden brown. This will take 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and set them aside.
- Add the pureed onion and carrot mixture along with 1/4 teaspoon of baking and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and cook the mixture down until most of the excess liquid has evaporated and it forms a thick paste. This will take about 10 minutes.
- Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the pot and then fry the aromatic paste until it’s caramel brown and shiny (about 3 minutes).
- Add the curry powder, sugar, and cocoa powder and quickly mix this into the vegetable paste to toast the spices. Be careful not to burn the mixture.
- Deglaze the pan with the soy sauce and ketchup, scraping up any browned fond from the bottom of the pot.
- Dump the can of chickpeas along with any liquid into the curry and add the shiitake mushrooms stock, cooked carrots and potatoes, and the sauteed mushrooms. Stir the mixture together and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the ingredients together until the curry has thickened (about 15 minutes). If it gets too thick, just add some water.
- Finish the vegan Japanese curry with the edamame and serve with cooked short-grain rice.