Thursday, February 6, 2014

Japanese Curry (カレーライス)

Are you ready for a history lesson?

The story of Japanese curry is a heart-warming tale about sharing.

Actually, sorry, that's not entirely true.  If we're honest it's a tale about war, racism, and world conquest.  But also about the power of food to help build rickety bridges across cultural gaps.  I hope you'll forgive me for glossing over some of the mass murder and subjugation bits so that we can focus instead on the fascinating game of food telephone that ultimately led to Japanese curry.

Once upon a time a few English sailors came to love Indian curry.  As we cover every so often on this blog, curries can have all kinds of bases and contents.  It can take a little while to get the hang of it.  You can imagine, then, why British sailors in the late 1800s could get confused.  It's spicy, a little soupy, but often thick like a gravy.  So, lacking detailed instructions or culinary know-how, they simply started dumping large handfuls of "Indian" spices into their stews.  Stews that, for various reasons having to do with the French influence on English cooking techniques, were occasionally thickened using a roux (I'll explain what this is below in the recipe if you're not familiar).  So now you've got British sailors eating spicy, thick stews sometime around the first time in modern history that Japan was open to foreigners.  It wasn't long after that that Japanese curry was born.

Here's where I have to draw on my own conjecture a bit.  Japanese curry has a distinct lack of heat and instead features a mild sweet and tangy flavor that I haven't experienced in any other kind of curry.  I suspect these are unique features that were part of the adaptation that occurred, since Japanese food is rarely hot-spicy.  At any rate, it's certainly much more sweet than spicy and even the "hot" varieties are fairly mild.  And really, how many curry recipes do you know that call for a roux and ketchup and Worcestershire sauce?

(I know, right??  But it's really good stuff.  Trust me.)

The dish also ultimately spread to Korea because of reasons.  Kind of a bummer of a footnote, but that's world history for you.

Now, my experience is that by and large folks making Japanese curry in Japan don't make it from scratch.  There are two popular ways to make it.  One -- and my favorite when I lived there -- is simply to buy it pre-made.  It comes in a little tin foil bag that you drop in a pot of boiling water, heat for a few minutes, and then dump over rice.  Easy-peasy.  This is called, perhaps not shockingly, "curry rice."  These little bags were a staple in my Japanese pantry and were, as it turns out, one of the very first things I ever bought at the grocery store (having at that time zero experience with or knowledge of curry as a food).  It was also one of my first opportunities to document real-life Engrish:

Please forgive the terrible picture quality.  That was taken on a camera phone back in 2005.

Anyway, the second way to make Japanese curry at home is to make your own stew and then flavor it using a pre-made brick of flavoring.  The flavor brick looks like a miserable, questionable chocolate bar.  The idea is to hack off a square of the brick, dissolve it in hot water, and then add it to your stew.

Both the ready-made curry-in-a-bag and the roux block are typically available at any Asian market that sells Japanese food.  Heck, since they're both nonperishable they're also available through Amazon.

But I thought it'd be nice to make it from scratch.

Best of all, since it's just a flavored stew you can be as inventive with the ingredients as you like, including opting for a vegetarian/vegan version if that's what floats ya.  This version is vegetable-only, but please feel free to add chunks of cooked beef, chicken, pork, tofu, or other Protein of Choice.

Concise recipe at the bottom, y'all.

Japanese Curry
Total Time:  Approximately 1 hour
Weirdest Ingredient:  "Sauce"

First off, the credits:  The spice mix is S&B's blend, which I would not have been able to find without Just Hungry.  The rest of the recipe is minimally adapted from No Recipes, with a few tweaks from various curry recipes off Cookpad.

Now let's to get down to business.

(We will not be defeating the Huns.  We had enough war in the intro, thanks.)

What you need to remember is that there are two major steps:  roux + stew.

Roux, pronounced "roo," is flour that's cooked in melted butter or oil.  The basic rule is that the longer you cook a roux, the stronger the taste and the weaker the thickening power.  It's used in all kinds of recipes, like gravy (light-colored, thick) or gumbo (chocolate brown, thinner).  The idea is to make the roux, flavor it, and then whisk your liquid into it.  Which is precisely what we're going to do here.

The first step is to mix up the spice blend.  Now, if you happen to have some S&B curry powder on hand, then just use that, since this is precisely their recipe plus a little addition of my own.  To make enough of the blend for this recipe, mix together the following:  1/4 tsp cumin powder, 1/5 tsp cardamom powder, 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/8 tsp ground cloves, 1 crushed/powdered bay leaf, 1/8 tsp allspice powder, 1/4 tsp coriander powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1.5 tsp turmeric powder, 1/4 tsp ginger powder, 1/4 tsp red chili powder, 1/4 tsp ground black pepper, and 1/4 tsp cocoa powder (yes, really).   Optional:  1/8 tsp finely ground instant coffee or espresso powder.

The blend can be easily multiplied (I've actually cut the original in half) according to your needs or how often you want to make this.  Assembling all that took me about 10 minutes since I had to crush my own bay leaf.

TIP:  Use a mortar & pestle or a clean coffee grinder to crush the bay leaf (the seeds are cardamom because I was out of powder).
TRIVIA: In Japanese bay leaves are called laurel, which is what they actually are.  As in, a laurel wreath.  Cool, huh?

Now, this step is optional but I find it helps to bring out the flavors.  Put a skillet on LOW heat and whisk the spices around on the slightly-hot pan until you just begin to smell them:

Put them in an uncovered container to cool.  If you're not using it all right away then stick the blend in an air-tight container.

Once that's set you're ready to hit the ground running.  Thickly chop up some onions (I used two onions) and cook them on medium-low in a deep pot with a splash of oil for about 20-30 minutes to caramelize them.

While those are caramelizing you've got two tasks: chopping the rest of your veggies and making the roux.  I chop first since the roux requires fairly constant attention.  For this curry I chopped up the following into bite-sized pieces:  12 baby carrots, 2 potatoes, and 1.5 bell peppers.  If you want to use meat or tofu as well, just be sure the meat is pre-cooked (you could brown it alongside the onions if you'd like).

Once the veggies are chopped up it's roux time!  Take a skillet and add 3 tablespoons of butter (or oil of choice) on medium-low heat.

When the butter is melted add 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour.

Using a whisk or paddle, mix the flour into the butter until you get an oozy paste:

It should be fairly thick and just a tiny bit runny.  Keep stirring constantly until the roux is more of a caramel brown.  It'll also be a good deal thinner than it was.

Remove the skillet from heat and quickly add:  1 tablespoon ketchup, 1 tablespoon "sauce*," the spice blend (apx. 2 tablespoons in total, or sub in your favorite curry powder),  & 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (adjust to your taste).  

*  "Sauce" in Japanese refers most typically to a kind of fruity, tangy brown sauce that's seen on all kinds of food.  It's especially popular on fried foods like croquets or pork cutlets ("tonkatsu"), which is why one of the variations is called tonkatsu sauce.  If you don't have any (and why would you), for this recipe you could either:  (1) make your own; (2) use brown sauce instead; or, (3) substitute Worcestershire sauce.  Each of those will produce a slightly different flavor but none is really going to cause you to miss out.

Mix up the spices, sauces, and roux.  You'll find it all gloms together in a way that is just about as far from appetizing as anything could be.  There will also be a smell that walks the seldom-trod line between sickly sweet and spicy in an unfamiliar, alarming way.

Don't panic.  I promise this will be okay.  Leave it in the skillet off the heat and set it aside.  We'll come back to it in about 15 minutes.

For me the roux-cooking process took about 20 minutes, which was just enough time for my onions to finish caramelizing:

On top of the caramelized onions I added my veggies, 1/2 cup of unspiced apple sauce or apple puree (no kidding), and 2 tsp of garam masala.

I covered all this with 4 cups of vegetable stock and dialed the heat up to medium-high.

Once it boiled I turned it down to a simmer and let it cook until the potatoes were tender.  It took about 10 minutes.

Hooray, we're nearly there!  Using a heat-proof measuring cup I scooped out about 2 cups of just the hot liquid from the pot.  Be sure to only grab the liquid and not any of the veggies.  This got put back into the skillet where the roux... lump... was waiting:

About a minute and a half of whisking later I'd dissolved the roux block into the soup liquid:

Which was then added back in with the rest of the stew:

Tadaaa!  Salt and black pepper to taste and you're done.

My favorite way to eat Japanese curry (which is always served over either Japanese sticky rice or noodles, by the way) is with a plain omelet sandwiched between the rice and the curry.   So that's what I did.

With a little salad for color & crunch:

Yum!  Curry rice with omelet is among my favorite dishes, second to having it a panko-breaded donut, because of course that's a thing.  A very delicious, very unhealthy thing.

Next up is some kind of baked goodie, I think.  I'm still deciding what to send with Doc when he visits his parents this coming weekend.  Stay tuned to find out!

Japanese Curry (Curry Rice / カレーライス)

Spice Blend:
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
  • 1/5 tsp cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp clove
  • 1 crushed/powdered bay leaf
  • 1/8 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp garlic
  • 1.5 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cocoa powder
  • 3 TBS butter (or oil of choice)
  • 1/4 all-purpose flour
  • 1 TBS ketchup
  • 1 TBS tonkatsu sauce
    • can sub:  1 TBS brown sauce or 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 TBS spice blend (above) or S&B curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika (or to taste)
    • can sub: cayenne, red chili powder
  • 1 tsp oil
  • 2 onions, cut into large chunks
  • 1.5 bell peppers, any color, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 12 baby carrots (or 1-2 large carrots, peeled) cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 cup plain, unflavored applesauce
    • can sub:  1 apple, pureed
  • 4 cups stock or water
  • salt & pepper to taste


  1. If desired, lightly toast the spice blend on low heat until just fragrant.  Place into an uncovered container and allow to cool completely.
  2. Drizzle oil in a pot large enough to hold several cups of soup on medium-low heat.  Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, 20-30 minutes or until caramelized.  
  3. To make the roux:  While onions are caramelizing, melt the butter in a skillet on medium-low heat.  Blend in the flour and stir constantly until roux is light brown, approximately 15 minutes. Remove from heat.  Add ketchup, sauce, spice blend, and paprika and mix until a dense ball forms.  Set aside, away from heat, leaving the roux block in the skillet.
  4. Once onions are caramelized, add peppers, carrots, potatoes, garam masala, apple sauce, and stock to the large pot.  Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer 10 minutes or until potatoes are fork-tender.
  5. Using a heat-proof cup scoop out approximately 2 cups of the soup liquid, taking care not to get any vegetables into the liquid.  Pour liquid into the skillet.
  6. Whisk the roux block into the hot liquid until completely dissolved and no lumps remain.
  7. Pour the liquid back into the soup pot and stir to mix.  
  8. Remove from heat.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over Japanese rice or udon noodles.
  9. Optional: place tonkatsu (panko-breaded, fried pork cutlet) or a plain omelet on a bed of rice and ladle curry over top.

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