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.
I ate a lot of Japanese curry growing up. My Japanese father was the preferred cook of the household, and he would make curry rice at least once a week. Because Japanese curry roux blocks weren't readily available, he made Japanese curry from scratch.
My father simply sautéed meat, potatoes, carrots, and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, added water, and when everything was cooked, he would add a mix of flour and curry powder dissolved in water to the pot. And it was good! Not to mention a great novelty to all my friends who'd come have dinner at home.
Indeed, I grew up thinking curry was an original Japanese dish—I had little idea of its South East Asian roots. It was only when I left home for college in the US that I started frequenting Indian and Thai restaurants—and discovered the convenience of Japanese curry blocks. It was also only then that I realized that my father's method was somewhat imperfect since the flour didn't get properly cooked (and often the curry was lumpy). When I discovered roux sometime later, I started to improve on my father's curry method.
Why Make It From Scratch
These days, very few Japanese people venture making their curry from scratch. It's a more involved process than making it with curry roux blocks: you have to make your own curry-flavored roux alongside the stew of meat and vegetables and combine the two in the last few minutes, just as you would with a roux block.
Yet making Japanese curry from scratch is hardly complicated, and gives you control over what you'll ultimately be consuming. First, it allows you to control your spices. Traditionally you'd use curry powder—S&B Curry Powder. But there is no reason why you shouldn't use garam masala or even mix your own spices—Maki Itoh shares the formula for Japanese curry powder at Just Hungry. Second, if you like the sweetness of Japanese curry, you can also add the fruit of your choice. Again, traditionally, apples would be the go-to fruit. Finally, if you want to avoid MSG, curry from scratch is the way to go. All curry roux blocks list MSG in their ingredients lists.
As I sat down to research and write the recipe, I came across Marc Matsumoto of No Recipes and realized that he has basically already figured it all out. Not only does he share his Japanese curry rice from scratch recipe with us, he also has an excellent video that takes you through the entire process:
Marc's recipe has, as he puts it, evolved throughout the years. It's no wonder—every Japanese person I know has some special way of customizing their curry rice, whether they make it from scratch, curry roux blocks, or curry flakes/granules (which I have not tried, but I know they are available in select Japanese food stores).
Vegetables: My father liked to add garlic, ginger, and tomatoes to his curry. He also added half of the onions and cubed apples at the end for "crunch." I like to add eggplant and green beans. Sweet potatoes probably go well with a spicy curry sauce, as would mushrooms.
Protein: Besides beef, pork, or chicken (or a combination thereof), you can make curry with seafood—shrimp, scallops, squid are a few that come to mind. Just bear in mind the cooking time, adding them toward the end of the preparation. A Japanese mom also observed that using ground beef (as Adam Kuban does in his curry-making tutorial) makes it easier for kids to eat it. My aunt tops her curry with a fried egg.
Sauce: Using red wine in place of water also seems to be popular, especially in beef curry—a sort of Japanese curry Beef Bourguignon. Milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese give the sauce a velvety texture. Ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tonkatsu sauce, soy sauce, chocolate, and honey are also popular enhancements to the Japanese curry sauce.
House Foods, manufacturers of Vermont, Java, and Kokumaro curry brands, suggests quite a few more ways of using your curry roux blocks which can probably be easily adapted to the from-scratch version.
Finally, for more variations than you'll ever imagine possible, check out the multilingual, fifteen-page "menu book" [PDF] from Curry House CoCo Ichibanya. If you ever go to Hawaii (or Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, or Thailand) you can customize your curry by ordering just the right amount of rice and countless toppings to go with your favorite curry, which can be ordered in your preferred level of spiciness.
- Yield:4, with leftovers
- For the roux
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tablespoons garam masala (or curry powder)
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (add less if you want it mild or more if you want it spicy)
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoons ketchup (or tomato paste)
- 1 tablespoons tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
- For the curry
- 2 teaspoon oil
- 2 large onions sliced thin
- 2 pounds chicken thighs cleaned and cut into chunks (you could also use beef, shrimp, or tofu)
- 2 carrots cut into chunks
- 4 cups water
- 2 large yukon gold potatoes cut into large chunks
- 1 small apple peeled cored and pureed (I use a Microplane)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt (use less if you use regular salt)
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 cup peas
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium low heat and add the onions. Sauté the onions until they are golden brown and caramelized (about 30 minutes). Turn up the heat to high, add the chicken, and brown.
Add the carrots and the water, then bring to a boil. Skim off any foam or oil that accumulates at the surface then lower heat to medium and add the potatoes, puréed apple, salt, and garam masala. Simmer for about 30 minutes or until you can pass a fork through the carrots and potatoes and the meat is tender.
For the roux, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the flour and garam masala, stirring until you have a thick paste. Add the cayenne pepper and some fresh ground black pepper and incorporate into the roux. Add the ketchup and tonkatsu sauce and combine. Continue to cook until the paste starts crumbling. Remove from heat and set aside until the meat and veggies are ready.
To make the curry, just ladle about 2 cups of liquid into the roux then whisk until it's smooth. Pour this mixture back into the other pot and gently stir until thickened. Add the peas and heat through.
Serve over rice or noodles.