Vegan Katsu Curry (ビーガンカツカレー)
Since its creation at a Ginza eatery over 70 years ago, Katsu Curry has been a beloved mashup of two of the most iconic dishes in the Japanese home cooking repertoire: Tonkatsu and Japanese Curry Rice.
While the original was made with pork cutlet, I've developed a process to turn a block of firm tofu into a delicious plant-based meat substitute. The Tofu Katsu ends up crispy on the outside and meaty and flavorful on the inside. Smothered with a homemade Japanese curry sauce, this vegan Katsu Curry is packed with enough flavor to satisfy even the most skeptical meat-eater.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- The curry sauce is thickened with a mixture of pureed vegetables and aromatics. This eliminates the need for making a flour and butter roux.
- Baking soda raises the pH of the vegetable puree, which helps it caramelize in about ⅓ of the time it would typically take.
- A small amount of cocoa powder adds an earthy roasted flavor to the curry, making it taste like it's been simmering away for hours.
- I like to add a colorful array of vegetables to my Katsu Curry, and flash frying them with the oil for the katsu makes it easy. It also locks in their vibrant color while contributing additional textures and tastes that keep the Katsu Curry from getting boring.
Ingredients for Vegan Katsu Curry
- Tofu katsu - Follow the instructions in my tofu katsu recipe to make the vegan katsu. I've included cues in this recipe for when you should start each part of the process to finish the katsu around the same time as the sauce and vegetables.
- Japanese short-grain rice - We use short-grain rice in Japan which is stickier and sweeter than long-grain rice. I have a post explaining everything you need to know about Japanese short-grain rice, including how to select it and how to cook it.
- Vegetables - For the flash-fried veggies, I recommend using a colorful variety of vegetables that will hold up well to the high temperatures involved in frying. Root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and burdock are all excellent options, and I also like doing green beans and romano beans. I've used red and green peppers, orange kabocha, and purple Japanese eggplant for this one.
Ingredients for Katsu Curry Sauce
- Aromatics - Onions, garlic, and ginger are the holy trinity of aromatics for Japanese curry, and these ingredients are caramelized to bring out their aroma and sweetness. Rather than cooking the sauce for hours to let these ingredients melt into the sauce, I puree them from the start to speed things up.
- Carrot - I also like to add some pureed carrot, which adds natural sweetness to the curry.
- Baking soda - Baking soda is alkaline and will raise the pH of the vegetables in the curry base. This cuts the caramelization time for the mixture down to a third of what it would normally take.
- Japanese curry powder - Japanese curry powder is a blend of about 20 different spices. It differs from other types of curry powder because it includes Western herbs such as thyme and sage while also including East Asian spices such as star anise and mandarin peel. The most common pre-blended Japanese curry powder brand is S&B (make sure you get the powder in a can and not the instant roux in boxes). If you want to try making your own, I have a Japanese curry powder recipe.
- Vegetable stock - Japanese curry is usually made with meat-based broths, but vegetable stock works just as well when fortified with other umami-rich ingredients. I like using this vegetable dashi pack which makes it super easy to make a flavorful veggie stock.
- Soy sauce - Soy sauce is rich in amino acids, which bolsters the umami from the vegetable stock while acting as the primary source of salt for the curry sauce.
- Tomato paste - Tomatoes are a component of Japanese curry's fruity flavor and sweetness. Since tomato paste is concentrated tomato pulp, it's a time-saving addition that avoids having to peel and seed whole tomatoes and then boil the pulp down into a concentrate.
- Date syrup - One of the defining characteristics of Japanese-style curry is that it is much sweeter than curry from other regions of the world. This was likely due to the population's unfamiliarity with spicy tastes when curry first appeared in Japan 150 years ago. The sweetness tames the spices, and ingredients like fruit and honey are a common addition to Japanese curry. Since it takes a while for the flavors of fruit to disappear into the curry, I prefer directly sweetening this quick curry sauce. Date syrup is my preferred option because it also adds a marvelous caramel flavor, but other vegan-friendly sweeteners like maple syrup or agave will work. Just make sure you adjust the quantity of sweetener to compensate for the differences in perceived sweetness (agave is much sweeter than date syrup).
- Cocoa powder - Kakushiaji (隠し味) is a Japanese word that literally means "hidden flavor," and it's used to reference an ingredient that's added to a dish that enhances the dish without being obvious. Cocoa powder is the kakushiaji in this curry, providing a marvelous toasty flavor that makes the curry sauce taste like it's been bubbling away for hours.
How to Make Vegan Katsu Curry
Giving the tofu a meaty texture requires planning ahead because you need to freeze and defrost the tofu. Then I press the tofu to remove the excess water, leaving behind a meaty soy protein. This gets seasoned with a mixture of Marmite and vegetable stock to infuse it with flavor. Then it's battered and breaded with panko. Finally, it's deep-fried until golden brown and crisp. I have a full explanation of the process in my Tofu Katsu recipe. I'm going to focus mainly on the vegan curry sauce to pour over the katsu in this recipe.
To prep the vegetables for the Katsu Curry, make sure you dry them well with paper towels after washing them, or they will spatter when you fry them. I usually cut the peppers into segments and then use a knife to cut out the light-colored membranes and the core. Then you can cut them into thick strips.
For the kabocha, I use a spoon to scoop out the seeds, and then I usually cut it in half to make it more manageable. Then you can slice it into ⅛-1/4-inch thick slices. Too thin, and they will burn. Too thick, and they will take forever to cook through.
For the eggplant plant, I usually just cut them in half lengthwise, leaving the stem portion attached because it looks nicer, but this part is too tough to eat, so if you want to make it easier to eat, you can trim it off. Then you want to cut slits into the skin-side of the eggplant (about halfway through) ⅛-inch apart. This helps the eggplant cook through faster, which prevents the skin from getting dried out and leathery.
Prepare a cooling rack by lining it with a few paper towels. You'll also want to bread your tofu katsu at this time.
For the curry sauce seasonings, add the vegetable stock, soy sauce, tomato paste, date syrup, cocoa powder, and potato starch to a bowl and whisk all of the ingredients together.
For the curry sauce base, you want to puree the onion, carrot, garlic, and ginger. The easiest way is to peel and roughly chop the vegetables and then run them through a food processor or blender. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl as many times as necessary to get a smooth puree. Another option is to use a rasp or daikon grater to grate the whole vegetables. The goal is to end up with a puree like smooth applesauce.
Dump the pureed aromatics into a non-stick frying pan and mix in the baking soda. This raises the pH of the vegetables and significantly cuts the time required to caramelize them. Next, turn on the heat to medium-high and boil the mixture while stirring until the water has evaporated and the mixture thickens into a paste. This should take five to six minutes.
Add the oil to the pan and mix it into the paste. Then you want to continue stirring the mixture for five to six minutes until the paste has become thick, glossy, and tan in color.
Add about an inch of oil to a high-sided pot and start preheating it to 340°F (170°C).
Once the onion puree has caramelized, add the curry powder and stir it into the paste. This toasts the curry powder and brings out its aromas, but be careful not to burn it. Next, add the curry sauce seasoning mixture to the pan and stir. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and stir the curry occasionally while you fry the vegetables.
The vegetables will take different amounts of time to cook, so I recommend doing them one at a time. The kabocha pumpkin will take the longest, so I usually start with that. Just lower it into the oil and fry it until the edges brown (for 2-3 minutes). Transfer to the prepared rack to drain.
The peppers will take anywhere from thirty seconds to a minute, depending on how thick they are, and you'll know they're done when the shiny skins start to blister.
Moderate heat will degrade the anthocyanins in eggplant skin, causing them to discolor and turn brown. By adding the eggplant skin-side down into the oil, the high temperature preserves the anthocyanins, which will leave your eggplant a vibrant shade of purple. You can flip them over after about half a minute and then fry them until they're tender (another minute or so). Unlike the other vegetables, eggplant will soak up oil like a sponge, so drain them on the paper towels with the cut-side down. You may also want to pat them tops with additional paper towels to remove excess oil.
Once all of your vegetables are done, you can fry the katsu. I recommend doing this at the last minute to ensure the katsu is extra crispy when you serve it. Drain the katsu on the prepared rack and then slice it up.
To assemble the Katsu Curry, lay down a bed of cooked rice, and then arrange the katsu and fried vegetables on top. Finish the dish by pouring the Japanese curry sauce over half of the katsu and veggies. Serve your Katsu Curry as fast as possible, or your katsu will go soggy.
Other Vegan Japanese Recipes
Katsu is the Japanese way of saying cutlet, and it's usually used to refer to any relatively thin piece of protein that's been breaded with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Japanese curry is a specific style of curry that's thicker and sweeter than curry from other parts of the world. Although it's usually made like a stew, the whole chunks of vegetables are usually omitted for katsu curry, and the curry is used as a sauce for the crisp katsu.
Katsu Curry is a 4-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
ka like copy
tsu like eat soup said quickly
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.
Most packaged Japanese curry mixes are not vegan because they contain meat concentrates. Using this recipe, you can make a plant-based Japanese curry sauce that's as flavorful as most instant curry roux mixes.
In Japan, Katsu Curry is usually served on top of a bed of rice along with sweet red pickles called fukushinzuke. To add more variety in textures and colors to this dish, I borrowed a technique used when making Japanese Soup Curry and flash-fry various vegetables, including peppers, kabocha pumpkin, and eggplant. This retains their vibrant color while bringing out their natural sweetness.
- 1 batch tofu katsu
- 2 servings cooked Japanese short-grain rice
- 1 ½ cups vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoon date syrup
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 1 tablespoon potato starch
- 200 grams onion (~1 medium onion)
- 120 grams carrot (1 small carrot)
- 15 grams garlic (~3 large cloves)
- 15 grams ginger (peeled)
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 14 grams Japanese curry powder (~ 2 tablespoons)
Flash fried vegetables
- 80 grams mild green peppers (seeds removed and cut into strips)
- 80 grams red bell peppers (seeds removed and cut into strips)
- 150 grams kabocha (seeds removed and sliced thinly)
- 150 grams Japanese eggplant (halved)
- vegetable oil (for frying)
- The day before you want to prepare your Katsu Curry, follow the steps in my tofu katsu recipe to prepare the tofu.
- Prepare the vegetables. You need to make sure they are very well dried after washing them, or they will spatter when you fry them. I recommend cutting slits about ⅛-inch apart into the skin side of the eggplant, so it cooks through faster while keeping the skin from getting tough. This is also a good time to bread your katsu and prepare a cooling rack with a few sheets of paper towels.
- Whisk the vegetable stock, soy sauce, tomato paste, date syrup, cocoa powder, and potato starch together in a bowl until evenly combined.
- Roughly chop the onion, carrot, garlic, and ginger. Add them to a food processor blender and puree until smooth. You can also do this with the rasp side of a box grater or using a daikon grater.
- Pour the pureed vegetable mixture into a frying pan(I recommend a non-stick pan) and stir in the baking soda.
- Put the pan on the stove over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Stir regularly and let the mixture cook until any extra liquid has evaporated and it starts to thicken into a paste (5-6 minutes).
- Add the oil and then fry the paste until it's glossy and tan in color (another 5-6 minutes). This is a good time to start preheating a high-sided pot with about 1-inch of oil up to 340°F (170°C) to fry your katsu and vegetables.
- Add the curry powder into the pan with the caramelized vegetables and quickly stir them together to toast the spices.
- Pour the vegetable stock mixture into the pan and stir it in. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and stir periodically.
- Deep fry the vegetables one type at a time. The kabocha will take about 2-3 minutes. The peppers will take anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute, and you'll know they're done when the skin starts to bubble. Drain the vegetables on the prepared rack.
- For the eggplant, you want to add them into the oil skin-side down to prevent them from turning brown. Flip them over after 30 seconds and continue frying them for about another minute. Drain the eggplant cut-side down on the prepared cooling rack.
- Fry the tofu katsu according to the recipe.
- To plate your Katsu Curry, slice the tofu katsu and arrange it on a bed of cooked rice along with the fried vegetables. Pour the curry sauce over half of the katsu and vegetables and serve immediately while the katsu is still crisp.