An Introduction to Karē-Raisu, Japanese Curry Rice

In response to this post about a Japanese curry-loving cat, Aya Tanaka (also known as Carioca on SE) suggested that we write more about Japanese curry. It sounded like a great idea—and Aya, a Japanese curry aficionado and literature professor, sounded like just the right person to do it. This week in a series of four posts she introduces Serious Eaters to the joys of making and eating Japanese curry rice. —The Mgmt.

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee, unless otherwise noted]

People might be surprised to find curry in Japanese restaurants, but the fact is karē raisu (カレーライス), or Japanese curry rice, is so ubiquitous in Japanese home-cooking that it might well be considered one of the country's national dishes.

Curry was introduced to Japan via the British in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Meiji-era Japan opened its doors to foreigners and their goods. As a result, Japanese curry inherits most of its characteristics from Anglo curry—which means that the Japanese used and continue to use curry powder. Curry powder, a ready-made mix of spices (a good description of the spices can be found at Just Hungry), began to be standardized and mass-produced in Britain at the height of Queen Victoria's colonial stronghold of India. Curry powders are not only standardized masalas—they are also adapted to Western palates, and often result in curry dishes that are slightly sweet.

In Japan, British curry developed into karē raisu, a curried, thick stew of potatoes, carrots, onions, and your meat of choice, served over a bed of short-grain, white rice, and topped with pickles. The dish became popular in Japanese homes after an instant curry mix of spices and flour was developed in powder form in the early twentieth century, and its popularity took off after World War II, when the curry roux in blocks was introduced.

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Pot of ingredients with curry roux blocks. [Photographs: Adam Kuban]

It's easy to make Japanese curry rice: you sauté meat with vegetables, then add water. Once everything is cooked you turn off the heat and add the blocks of curry roux. In about five minutes you will have a pot-full of dense sauce coating your vegetables and meat. The curry is then generously ladled onto white, sticky rice, and topped with a small portion of crunchy fukujinzuke (radish, eggplant, lotus root and cucumber) or rakkyo (pickled shallots) on top. Japanese curry rice is always eaten with a spoon.

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Other curry rice variations are similarly popular: top it with tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), and you have a delicious katsu-kare. Thin your sauce and add udon noodles for kare-udon (or ramen noodles for kare-ramen). Bake curry in bread dough, and you have kare-pan.

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In the U.S. you can enjoy curry rice in specialized Japanese curry houses in California, Hawaii, and New York, and in some Japanese restaurants. You are more likely to find curry rice in noodle shops than in sushi places.

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[Photograph: Aya Tanaka]

You can also make your own by buying curry roux blocks in Japanese grocery shops, and sometimes in supermarkets with an Asian products aisle. Curry roux blocks come in a variety of brands (most popularly S&B and House), each with their own special mix of spices. They come in three levels of heat—mild, medium hot, and hot—although the hot version has never struck anyone with a taste for spicy food as particularly hot.

Although traditional Japanese curry is made of onions, potatoes, carrots, and beef (or pork), the possibilities are endless. Indeed, every family has their own variation on the basic theme, adding different vegetables, meats, fruits, blending different brands of curry roux and different levels of spiciness, thus creating their own version of the dish. In Japanese supermarkets you will also invariably find boil-in-a-bag curry as well, very popular with the young crowd with little time to cook.

Stay tuned for my curry roux and boil-in-a-bag taste tests, and a recipe for curry from scratch later this week.

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