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Curried Away

By Adam Kuban
January 24, 2007

Foodblogs, as a rule, are borne of passion. I have explored pizza and hamburgers in passionate and mind-numbing detail on Slice and A Hamburger Today, respectively, but if I were forced to create yet another foodblog, I'd depart from the path of iconic American foods and look toward the East. That's because my third-favorite food is the Japanese-style curry known as "curry rice." For what it's worth, I actually did create a third blog to explore my other food passions, but it was short-lived; this ode to curry rice is from that site, but I thought I'd share it with you here on Serious Eats, as it's a perfect wintertime comfort food.

You’d think the Japanese would have come by their curry via India. Nosiree, Bob-san. Our mates the Brits took it from India and sailed with it to Japan in the late nineteenth century. In an early show of the ingenuity they would later gain renown for, the Japanese soon developed make-at-home versions of the sauce. When cooked, these curry mixes look more like medium- to dark-brown gravy and are a touch thicker and sweeter than their Indian cousins. Common brands found in the U.S. include S&B and House.

Japanese curry sauce is served over rice, no surprise, and in this configuration is known as karei raisu, or “curry rice”—as you may have guessed. As you may not have guessed, it is eaten with a spoon, not chopsticks.

So how did a Kansas-raised gaijin come by this dish? From a longtime friend and college roommate whose mom is Japanese. At some point in the mid-'90s, at one of the various apartments we lived in, this friend cooked up a batch of curry (using an S&B mix, as per his mom’s recipe) and had me try it. Within a few bites, curry rice became my third-favorite food (pizza and tiny hamburgers, of course, holding down spots one and two).

Those of you familiar with curry rice will note that my version of the stuff looks a little different than that served in Japan or at Japanese restaurants here. My friend’s mom didn’t know how to cook when she came to the U.S., so her Japanese cooking is what he calls Midwestern-Japanese fusion. (Call it "hanbaaga helper.") This stuff, made from ten to 20 different spices, is delicious and strangely addictive. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to feed such an addiction, if you should find yourself hooked on the stuff.

Making Boil-in-Bag Japanese Curry SauceStart with a box of curry sauce mix (left). S&B is the most widely sold brand and is available in mild, medium, and hot; it can often be found in the "ethnic" aisle of large supermarkets as well as at Asian grocers. House Foods has several styles—Vermont, Java, Kokumaro, among them—also available in mild, medium, and hot varieties. For a more authentic version, I guess you’d have to follow the instructions on the box. I’m going to detail how my Midwestern-Japanese fusion version is made.

Making Japanese Curry, IngredientsNot only is Japanese-style curry delicious and easy to make, it’s perfect for feeding a lot of people—or for getting several meals out of one cooking session; it can be easily frozen in individual portions for reheating later. To make it, you need carrots, potatoes, and onions.

Making Japanese Curry, Sautéing OnionsFirst, sauté the onions in butter. It’s probably not very Japanese, but hey, neither am I. I like to think the butter gives the sauce an extra richness, but who am I kidding? It’s probably undetectable.

Making Japanese Curry, Adding the Ground BeefAfter the onions start to sweat and become tender and translucent, add the ground beef. One pound here. (Don’t worry, weight worrywarts: It’s for a batch with 10 servings.)

S&B is my go-to curry mix. House brand curry is another popular mix. It’s cold outside right now, so here I'm using the hot variety. The curry-sauce mix comes in a plastic tray (left; click to enlarge) and looks like a bullion-cube candy bar. I don’t recommend eating it like one. Doesn’t the plastic tray look like a Barbie-size bathtub full of frozen gravy? One box makes one batch that serves five, but tonight, I made a double batch. The bar is segmented for easy break-apart action.

Making Japanese Curry, Pre-BoilAfter the meat is browned, add potatoes, carrots, and the specified amount of water. You can add more or fewer veggies, but I know I’ve got it just right if the water comes up to the level of the vegetables in the pot. Bring to a boil.

Making Japanese Curry, Adding Sauce ChunksOnce pot starts to boil, add the sauce chunks. Here, two packages’ worth of sauce mix for a double batch.

Making Japanese Curry, Return to BoilAs the paste chunks dissolve and incorporate into the mixture, the sauce takes on the color and appearance of dog food, as a friend of mine put it. But trust me: It tastes much much better than anything a dog would eat—well, maybe not a dog spoiled by its owner. At this point, reduce the boil to a very gentle simmer.

Making Japanese Curry, The RiceOh, did I mention you need rice for this stuff? Yeah. You do. It’s best to start cooking about 2 cups of rice in a rice cooker around the same time you add the curry candy bar to the pot. That way, the white stuff (or brown, if that’s your preference) is ready around the same time the curry sauce is.

Making  Japanese Curry, Finished SauceThe finished sauce thickens and the vegetables become tender after a 15- to 20-minute simmer. Remember to stir occasionally so the sauce doesn’t burn and stick to the bottom of the pan.

Making Japanese Curry, Side-ShotThe finished product. Put about 1.5 cups cooked rice in a bowl, ladle about 1.5 cups of the finished sauce over it, and itadakimasu!

Favoring Curry: Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice enthuses over the curry available at Hanami in New York City.
This Is Wrong: Yongfook.com warns against using instant boil-in-bag curry sauces. Based on my own experiences with them, it's sage advice.
Yohshoku: Japanese-style Western Cuisine: Foodblogger Maki Itoh on Japanese adaptations of Western food.
Japanese Curry Story: S&B Food Inc.'s page about the history of curry rice in Japan.
House Foods Curry House Restaurant: If you live in the greater Los Angeles or San Diego area, you can visit one of eight House Foods Curry House locations.

And now, the text-only recipe, for your convenience.

JAPANESE CURRY (Midwestern Fusion Style)
makes about 5 servings

2 tablespoons butter or cooking oil
1 medium onion, cut into half-moon slivers
3/4 pound ground beef
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 large potatoes of your choice, peeled and chopped
1 box curry mix
3 cups rice (Kokuho Rose works well)

1. Heat oil in a medium stockpot over medium-high heat. Add onions, and sauté until translucent.

2. Add beef, and cook until browned.

3. Add carrots and potatoes, and pour in as much water as the package instructs, typically 2.5 to 3 cups. Bring to a boil.

4. Break up curry-mix bar and add to boiling pot. Stir as curry chunks dissolve and mixture takes on dark-brown shade. Lower mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, prepare the rice. If you have a rice cooker, aces! If not, prepare it on the stove according to package instructions.

6. Spoon about 1.5 cups cooked rice into a bowl, ladle about 1.5 cups curry sauce over rice. Serve.

7. Repeat step 6 as necessary.


AUTHOR'S ADDENDUM: May I add that this stuff is a cheap, goes-a-long-way dish? The curry mix is about $2.50 and the veggies cost almost nothing—the ground beef is the most expensive part, and you could add less than I did to stretch your budget. (In fact, most curry rices I've had from Japanese take-out places make a sauce that's very lean in meat.)

Moreover, it's fast and can be made with ingredients that keep for a while. Most people have onions, carrots, and taters on hand. And the mix—that keeps for who knows how long. If you keep a measure of ground beef in the freezer, you're pretty much set.

This stuff freezes well in individual portions, too. You need only cook up a bit of rice and you're set for leftovers, lunches, etc.

This is cool. I had no idea you were a curry rice freak. Where do you go for curry rice in New York (or any other city for that matter)?

Hanami is good for curry rice (there's a link to Robert Sietsema's review in the actual post), but I haven't been in ages because I usually just make it at home. I used to get it from Café Zaiya on 41st Street (b/n Fifth and Madison). But Café Zaiya's is nothing special. There's some new-ish place in the East Village, I think, that's supposed to have good curry rice, too. I'll ask around and see if I can come up with its name.

I've also had a good version of it at a now-closed neighborhood Japanese joint, but they only served it for the house meal at the end of the night. I was lucky enough to get it a couple times when I stayed till closing and the owner found out I was really into it. I've heard that it's not a common menu item, at least in NYC, because it's considered something you'd make at home and not a real draw for people more interested in sushi and yakitori dishes.

My boyfriend is Asian (1/4 being Japanese) and he just made this for me and my friends a few weeks ago. Instead of ground beef he used like beef stew meat. It was so good!

This stuff is very good...though I think your description of the multiple spices obscure the fact that the two primary ingredients are (1) corn syrup and (2) MSG. Delicious, but not super healthy. I wonder if Trader Joe's or someone makes a healthier version, or if it's possible to make from scratch.

Trader Joe's healthy? If you look at the ingredients on their packages, you'll find plenty of corn syrup and glutamates!

This sounds like something I had in Tokyo (but don't know what it was called b/c I just pointed to a picture). Thanks for posting, looks like a good cool-weather dish!

I'm a California-raised Mexican, and I love curry rice! Of course, my first introduction to it was at Tokyo Disneyland, but... BRING ON THE GOLDEN CURRY!

@racelleb: Yeah. I should have mentioned that most of the "authentic" versions I've had have used more of a stew meat type of beef. The ground beef seems to be one of the hallmarks of my friend's mom's JapanoMidwestern fusion thing. As are the chunky potatoes and carrots—all the Japanese versions I've had have gone light on veggies, too.

@NYminknit: Yes. From what I recall, there's corn syrup and MSG in this stuff. I guess if you eat it in moderation (which I have a hard time doing after I make a pot of this stuff), it's not going to kill you. As far as making it from scratch, I've heard that it's a very laborious process. Someone told me once that the bassist from Yo La Tengo, James McNew, is a huge fan of the stuff and has a recipe for making it from scratch but that it takes like 30 ingredients.

@Texan: It was probably curry rice or katsu curry. Katsu curry is just this same stuff with a breaded, fried pork or chicken cutlet thrown on top, thereby raising the YUM quotient significantly.

@MarySueSay: Having been introduced to this by way of Tokyo Disneyland is a quirky way of having a first taste of the stuff.

Is there an equivalent to the S&B brand in Canada? I love curry and usually make it from scratch, but I like the idea of a quicker method.

Oh, despite my Californian health-nutty comment from earlier, I really loved this feature! I thought the photos were a great edition to the recipe--I'll definitely print it out next time I try this. (I eat MSG and corn syrup a lot...I just like to hassle others--food bully, by Adam Roberts's term--a lot).

For all you folks out there who are even more time pressed S&B makes a a heat and eat version (bottom part of the page). (Like those Uncle Bens rice pouches that you put in boiling water for a few minutes) Also, they make a version with no MSG: http://www.sbfoods.co.jp/eng/retortpouch.html#02
(top of page)

You can get S&B at almost any Asian food store and there are plently of online grocers that carry it also.

I'm Korean-American and my mom made this stuff for me and my siblings when she wanted to prepare something easy. She usually used chicken and added peas or mushrooms to the onions, potatoes and carrots. I recently learned about the corn syrup and msg, too, which has made me a little reluctant to open the package of "medium" that I have sitting in my pantry.

Yeah. I'm not as afraid of the MSG as I am hesitant about the corn syrup. I'll have to see if the no-MSG version also has less corn syrup.

Usually I use chicken or some cubed beef instead of ground beef.

All the different brands of curry cubes in a box taste about the same to me though. They definitely vary in spiciness

As for the peeps concerned about MSG. Yea, I'm sure MSG is just droppin' those Asians left and right. What a health crisis! Oh man!

But hey, that's just me. Stuff could give me cancer for all I care. (All the more reasons to "kill" embryos and research stem cells). The difference between this and something like aspartame is that this is actually delicious and a huge timesaver for when you come home late and don't want to cook.

This article piqued my own curryosity. I'm currently curry-obsessed and this feature gave birth to all the different variations of curry that I have yet to salivate over.
Although I tend to think of mainly Indian and other Southeast Asian curries when considering take-out or restaurant-a-going, in my recent forays into cooking curry cuisine, I've tried my hand at mostly Americanized curries. This is probably because I'm secretly apprehensive about taking on what's considered to be one of the world's most challenging cuisines. Maybe this weekend I'll trek to Kalustyan's (have been dying to check it out) and then get lost in a curry cloud within my own little kitchen.
Or maybe I'll just go out and buy a package of Japanese curry mix and do it up JapanKansan style.
Maybe a taste test is in order...

@Pauper: I've used chicken and pork before, too. Sometimes I do tofu. I did a sort of week-long taste test of all the boxed curries. There are differences. Some are just wretched, others are bland as air. The boil-in-bag stuff is horrible. Metallic aftertaste similar to boil-in-bag rices or what not.

@JBeach: I've never tackled curry from scratch. The S&B box mixes are about as close as I've gotten.

I love this stuff. It has so much MSG its scary.

I agree with jperlow. Its scary how much MSG ALL of the Japanese curries have. S&B, House, etc... They are tasty, but they all give me a headache. If you can make them from scratch, do so.
You have been warned...

In addition, a block of your favorite chocoate enhances the curry to another level. Either the homemade ones or the boxed variety. But still watch out for the MSG!

The scary calories are not in the beef (although why use ground beef? YUCK! All the Japanese curry I've had or seen is made with slices or little chunks of beef).

The serious calories are in the curry block! It's called curry ROUX for a reason, it's mostly fat.

As for all your "MSG is Evil people" ... So you think you don't eat MSG? Think again...

Some of the names MSG goes under

monopotassium glutamate
glutamic acid
autolyzed yeast extract
calcium caseinate
sodium caseinate
E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)
Ajinomoto, Ac'cent
Gourmet Powder

The following may also contain MSG natural flavours or seasonings
natural beef or chicken flavouring
hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
textured protein
soy sauce

Free glutamate content of foods (mg per 100g)
roquefort cheese 1280
parmesan cheese 1200
soy sauce 1090
walnuts 658
fresh tomato juice 260
grape juice 258
peas 200
mushrooms 180
broccoli 176
tomatoes 140
mushrooms 140
oysters 137
corn 130
potatoes 102
chicken 44
mackerel 36
beef 33
eggs 23
human milk 22


@Rr: Thanks for the tip on the chocolate. It sounds just crazy enough to work.

@peekpoke: Thanks for the debunker on the MSG tip. I for one don't worry about it. Never did, never will. And Lia just blogged something about this in our "Required Eating" section.

I remember the best tasting major brands just a few years ago had pork lard AND beef lard in the ingredients. And yes, MSG, like almost everything good does. But now I can't find any Japanese or Korean brand curry with lard in it. I wonder why? It really does miss a certain richness without it, and doesn't taste like the curry I grew up with.


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