"The Japanese, who are probably the world's greatest culinary aesthetes, don't hesitate to serve a greenish-yellow glutinous mess over their rice and label it 'curry.'" And thus Madhur Jaffrey, in An Invitation to Indian Cooking, cut down Japanese curry with the swiftness of a samurai sword.
To be fair, Japanese curry was just one of her targets. She directed her broadside equally at British, American, Chinese, and French renditions of curry, all of which feature a generic and often stale blend of Indian-esque spices. At the root of her disdain was the question of curry itself, and what it is. That's a topic worthy of a deeper discussion, but we can briefly say that "curry," as the term is used outside India, does not have much meaning there. There is no Indian or South Asian spice blend known as "curry," nor a dish that goes by that name. In the south of India, there's kari, a saucy preparation that's often identified as the source of the English word, but, according to Raghavan Iyer in 660 Curries, even that is open for debate.
What we can also say with some certainty is that at some point in the 18th century, the British began to incorporate an Indian-inspired spice blend that they called "curry powder" into their cooking. By 1747, curry had made its first appearance in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It's this more generic conception of curry, and the powdered convenience product that fuels it, that leads us back to Japanese curry.
Now, I won't go as far as Madhur Jaffrey in condemning Japanese curry. She was on a specific mission at a specific time when she tore it down. Her goal was to introduce a more nuanced idea of Indian cooking to people whose familiarity didn't go far beyond a dusty old spice tin. But, given Japan's love of its version of curry—or kare, as the Japanese call it—it can't just be dismissed. It's one of the nation's most popular comfort foods, belonging to a class of dishes called yoshoku—Western foods that the Japanese have adopted, and have at times heavily adapted, but still don't consider to be inherently Japanese. I will admit, though, that I was less than impressed with my first tastes of Japanese curry. To me, they were as perfectly tame as curry could ever be, which is to say, perfectly forgettable.
That changed after I visited the country last year. I'm always out to prove myself wrong, so one of my goals on that trip was to find a Japanese kare that could make me truly love it. My conversion came at a narrow lunch counter called Kitchen Nankai in Jinbocho, a Tokyo neighborhood famous for its bookstore-lined streets. There, the cooks heaped rice and shredded cabbage on a large plate, set a sliced fried pork cutlet on top, then ladled a black lagoon of steaming curry sauce all over it.
It was an entirely different Japanese curry from ones I'd had before: darker, more bitter, and spicier, without the sweet and soft easiness of so many others. It was a curry that made itself known, its chili heat lingering until well after I'd left the restaurant.
I didn't leave with just burning lips, though. I also left with a new sense of just how much of a range of flavor is possible in Japanese curry without betraying the essence of the dish. I knew I could make my own, from scratch, calibrating the spices exactly as I wanted them and deepening the flavor as much as I pleased.
My mission upon returning home was to make a Japanese curry that had all the classic trappings—tender morsels of meat, chunks of silky potato, sweet bits of carrot, and green peas—in a sauce that was warm and gentle, cradled in a subtle sweetness, but barking with freshly ground spices, edged with bitterness and prickling heat.
The Spice Dissection and Resurrection
The first and most important step in coming up with my own recipe for Japanese curry was to develop a spice mix. My biggest clue came on the side of a tin of S&B curry powder, one of the most popular Japanese brands.
These days, you can buy S&B and other Japanese curry products in a number of forms. The most basic is the spice powder, which requires the home cook to make their own sauce from scratch, save for the spice blend itself. The next level up in weeknight-dinner convenience is trays of the spice blend set in blocks of solidified roux—cook the meat and vegetables, add water or broth, then melt the blocks into it until a thickened, flavorful sauce forms. Beyond that, you can go for full-blown space-food ease in the form of premade curries packed in NASA-style retort pouches: Simply heat, then squeeze the contents, often already studded with cooked vegetables, onto rice. I ate a whole bunch of these in the service of writing this article.
The ingredient list on the tin of S&B was the most enlightening for my endeavor. While it didn't show exact quantities, it did at least list the spices in order of quantity. I could see that turmeric made up the largest portion of the mix, followed by coriander seed and then fenugreek—the spice used to flavor artificial pancake syrup, famously responsible for New York City's mysterious maple syrup odor about 10 years ago. As you can see, it's a spice profile that leans light, floral, and sweet.
Another helpful resource was this breakdown of Japanese curry spices that I found on the Japanese food site Just Hungry. It mostly confirmed what the S&B tin was already telling me, though Just Hungry had found a Japanese-language source with the approximate percentage of each spice used in S&B, which they translated into English. (The link to the original source in Japanese is no longer working.) Those percentages underscored even further just how mild these Japanese spice blends can be, with upwards of 90% of the spices in the mix made up of the mildest ones.
For my blend, I decided to mirror the S&B breakdown only insofar as turmeric was the number-one ingredient, but I punched up the cumin for more funk, added significantly more black pepper for warm heat, and included a more generous dose of chili pepper for more robust spice. Instead of ground ginger, I opted for grated fresh, to deliver far more zip and zest. Beyond that, I rounded it all out with a range of spices and flavorings, from dried orange peel to star anise and cinnamon.
The most important thing to remember about this spice mix is that you don't need to replicate mine exactly. That's what's so great about making your own. You could simplify it by paring down the number of components, or change their proportions to suit your tastes. It's this customization that makes the homemade version worthwhile. If you're not interested in that, you might as well grab a tin of the premade stuff off a Japanese-market shelf.
Some recipes for Japanese curry call for cornstarch as a thickener, but many others use a classic roux of flour cooked in butter or another fat. The advantage of a roux is that you can toast the flour to whatever degree you want, altering its flavor more and more the darker it gets. I'm not sure what tricks Kitchen Nankai uses to get their curry sauce as dark as it is, but I suspect a deeply browned roux is one of the keys.
I make my roux in a small pot on the side while the rest of the stew cooks—because this is a stew at heart. Once the flour has reached a deep caramel brown, I add my spice blend. As mentioned above, I dry-toast the spices in a skillet first to deepen their aromas. Frying them in the roux helps develop their flavor even more. Cooking spices in a fat is a technique that's sometimes called "blooming," and not only does it make the spice flavor more complex, it also infuses the fat with the spices. That's a useful step, given that some of the flavor and aroma molecules in spices are fat-soluble.
The Broth and Add-Ins
The final components of the stew are the broth and all the vegetables and meat that go into it. I opted for chicken here, using boneless, skinless thighs, since they handle prolonged cooking much better than the white meat does. You could just as easily use beef, selecting a cut that's suitable for stewing, or even pork. The basic technique would be largely the same, except for the cooking time, which would be longer for beef or pork.
The first step here is to sear the meat until it's browned, then transfer it to a plate while you sauté the vegetables. I use a simple combo of diced onion and carrot, leaving out the celery and garlic that often join those aromatic vegetables, since I decided I didn't want them in this particular dish. There's no right or wrong here; they're just not flavors I tend to associate with Japanese curry. (That's not to say no one in Japan uses them in their curries—I'm sure plenty of people do.)
Once the vegetables are tender and beginning to turn golden, it's time to add the liquid. Water is one choice, but it's a missed opportunity to reinforce and deepen flavor. Chicken stock is a better idea, but I wasn't satisfied with it alone. The holy grail in this dish is a combination of both chicken stock and dashi, which together add a meaty richness and also an unmistakable Japanese essence to the dish. The finished curry doesn't taste like dashi in any obvious way; it just tastes more Japanese.
At this point, I cut up the chicken and add it back to the pot, along with pieces of potato and finely grated or minced apple. The apple, or another sweet component like it, is something a lot of kare recipes call for, and it's partly responsible for that accessibly sweet flavor that's so common to Japanese curry. Given that I had pushed my spice profile in a more aggressive direction, that base note of fruity sweetness was even more important here.
Bringing It Together
To finish the curry, simply stir in the roux, then simmer until the broth has thickened. Green peas can go in right at the end, just long enough to warm them through. The most popular way to serve it is spooned into a bowl with a generous mound of warm short-grain rice, making what the Japanese call kare raisu, "curry rice."
Is it real Indian food? Clearly not. But when you take all the components into your own hands, it's a kare with enough flavor and personality to silence any doubters.