Japanese curry rice (also known as "kare raisu") might be the homiest, most comforting of all Japanese dishes. It is consumed two to three times a month on average in Japanese households, and is very easy to make. Curry is indeed so Japanese that it's the standard meal in the Japanese Navy on Fridays, and is consistently voted one of the favorite meals in school cafeterias. There are even reports that curry is the Japanese emperor's favorite food.
I grew up with my Japanese father's somewhat rudimentary, from-scratch version of curry rice. It was only later in college that I learned about the ubiquitous blocks of curry roux that you simply add to a stew, magically turning them into curry. There are currently five brands of curry available in Japanese grocery stores in the US: S&B's Golden Curry and Torokeru (Tasty) Curry, and House's Vermont Curry, Java Curry, and Kokumaro Curry. They are all available in mild, medium hot, and hot versions. I have also seen Golden Curry in supermarkets with Asian groceries sections.
Cooking with Curry Roux
For the taste test, I opted for the medium hot version and prepared each of them following package directions, in the most traditional way, employing only onions, potatoes, carrots and boneless chicken legs. Although every Japanese person seems to have a special addition or method to enhance their curry, the basic recipe can't get much easier. You sauté onions, carrots, potatoes and meat, add water, and cook until the vegetables are tender. Then you turn off the heat, add and dissolve the curry roux blocks, and return it to a simmer for five minutes.
For the taste test, I decided to blind taste the five brands twice, once on the day I prepared them, and once the next day, as curry gets a lot better a day later. I looked for distinctive traits in three separate categories.
- Sweetness: One of Japanese curry's most distinctive characteristics is sweetness, often provided by the addition of fruit and sometimes honey. It's the first thing you taste when curry touches your tongue.
- Spices: I was looking for brightness of spices, and perhaps some assertiveness, given that among the sweetness they might get a bit muddled. The spices kick in about three seconds after the sweetness when you eat curry.
- Texture: Japanese curry is thickened with flour and sometimes corn starch, and the smoothness of the texture is an important vehicle for the delivery of both sweetness and spiciness.
The taste test demonstrated, unsurprisingly, that each curry roux lays somewhere between the sweetness and spiciness spectrum. Some favor the first, some the latter. Besides the liveliness of the sweet and spicy components, I think what makes curry special and a Japanese dish in its own right is the transition between the initial sweetness and the spice kick at the end. Ultimately, it is the full experience, the balance between the two components that I was looking for.
Least Remarkable: Golden Curry
Golden Curry is perhaps the most traditional of the brands, and it is a straight curry—no claims to sweetness. It has the shortest ingredient list among the five brands tested, with no fruits included. Yet, despite the lack of sweetness to interfere with the spices, Golden Curry is also the blandest of the brands. It's a bit boring, the spices are not remarkable, and the curry's consistency is a bit sticky, as though the wheat flour used to thicken it were not cooked enough.
Sweetest: Vermont Curry
I know—"Vermont" Curry sounds a bit weird, but I guess the addition of apples and cheddar cheese makes it a Vermonter. What makes Vermont the sweetest of the curries tested here is also the addition of sugar and honey to the mix. The ingredient list also lists banana and Gouda cheese, and you can actually taste both in the curry. All these flavors, blended in a sauce a bit too thick, overwhelm the spices. Vermont is sweet and comforting, and perhaps the reason why children are so fond of curry in Japan.
Spiciest: Java Curry
Java Curry is the spiciest of the five curries—"robust", as the packaging claims. It starts a little sweet as curry should, thanks perhaps to coconut paste in the mix, but right away the spices kick in, and they are harsh. There is no subtlety in the transition from sweet to spicy, nor in the medley of spices. Java Curry is perhaps for those who enjoy the heat and sweat resulting from a hot curry.
Best overall: Torokeru and Kokumaro
To be fair, it's a bit of a tie. Torokeru is perhaps the best of the curry rouxs because it's so well rounded. Its sweetness is derived from fruit (apple) and chutney, and there are hints of cheese. The spices are well balanced and pleasant, and overtake the sweetness just right.
Kokumaro Curry is a bit sweeter than Torokeru, and the spices are a bit livelier. Kokumaro also handles the transition between sweet and spicy well, although paradoxically, it seems as though there is less contrast between the tastes.
Basically, Torokeru is more balanced and distinct, and Kokumaru more assertive and blended. The great difference between the two is that Kokumaro's consistency is thinner and more elegant. As with all House curries, they use corn starch as a thickener in addition to wheat flour.
How To Customize Your Curry
Given the distinct personalities of these curry rouxs, it's not uncommon at all to blend two and perhaps more brands. I could see Java giving Torokeru a kick, and Vermont mellowing down Kokumaro. Personally, I had always been a fan of Java. After the taste test, I will be making my curry 70 percent Kokumaro, 30 percent Java. Sweetness levels may also be increased by adding apples, cubed or grated, to the stew; spiciness may be heightened to individual tastes by adding chile powder, paprika, or black pepper. You may also customize your spiciness level by mixing hot and mild curries (same or different brands).
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.