Aya Tanaka grew up eating Japanese curry in Brazil. When she's not cooking or parenting, she teaches eighteenth-century travel literature to undergraduates and researches early modern spice trade routes. This week she introduces Serious Eaters to the joys of making and eating Japanese curry rice.
There are three ways you can enjoy Japanese curry rice: you can make it from scratch, you can use curry roux blocks, and the easiest—you can simply boil a retort pouch or open a can of ready-made curry.
Retort pouch curry was introduced to Japanese markets in 1971 by House Foods and serves the distinct purpose of convenience. With retort pouches, enjoying curry is a matter of boiling the hermetically sealed bags in boiling water for three minutes and serving it with white rice. Retort pouch curries are especially popular with working people living alone. Making curry from scratch or with curry roux blocks usually yields more than a single person can consume in a week, unless you like to eat a whole lot of curry.
There are two brands of retort pouch curry available in the US: S&B's Golden Curry and House's Curry Sauce with Vegetables (Kukure Curry in Japan). They are available in mild, medium-hot, and hot versions in Japanese supermarkets. Kikkoman, of soy sauce fame, recently introduced Japanese curry in cans—the Kikkoman Ginza Classic Curry Sauce. Although there is no choice of spice level, Kikkoman does offers beef, pork, and chicken curries. When I went to Mitsuwa in New Jersey to buy the read-made curries, they were giving away samples, and touting the fact that Kikkoman's is the only of the ready-made curries that does not contain MSG. Together with the fact that it is also pretty mild, Kikkoman seems to be positioning its curry to be healthier than the other brands.
We had a blind tasting of the three brands of ready-made curry at the offices of Serious Eats. As with the curry roux taste test, we concentrated on three characteristics: sweetness, spiciness, and overall texture and appearance. One thing we all agreed on is that they were all mild—not hot at all. The results were rather mixed; unlike the curry roux taste test, there was not a clear winner here, with each curry presenting its own virtues.
Best texture: S&B Golden Curry
Golden Curry was at first unpopular with the taste testers for its brown, unattractive color; and then for the flatness of its spices. Yet its overall texture was considered the best, as the vegetables were bigger and with a better bite than in the other currries.
Best Meat Taste: Kikkoman Ginza Classic
Kikkoman Ginza Classic was the yellowest of the three curries, and had strong, sweet tomato flavors. In fact, tomato also appeared in the taste testers' palates in the form of tomato soup and ketchup. Kikkoman had the best meat taste and texture, although testers were unsure whether it was beef or chicken (it was pork) but at least the meat was more present here than in the other brands. The vegetables, however, were so mushy that they disintegrated in the first bite.
Best Balance of Sweetness and Spiciness: House's Curry Sauce with Vegetables
House's Curry Sauce with Vegetables was considered the sweetest of the three brands tested. The sweet tones were pleasant, and less sour than the other curries. It was perhaps a smidge spicier than the others also. However, the vegetable and meat pieces were barely distinguishable, and the texture entirely unremarkable.
Overall, it's hard to compare ready-made curries to the ones you make at home, from curry roux blocks or from scratch. If we accept as a given that the stabilizing process for long-shelf life, in retort pouches or cans, affects the texture of the vegetables and meats, then perhaps House's Curry Sauce with Vegetables is the best of the three because it has more distinctive flavors on both sides of the sweet and spicy spectrum that one expects from Japanese curry.