Looking for a hearty, comforting dish with complex flavors? Japanese curry definitely fits the bill! This dish has a distinct, rich flavor that is both savory and slightly sweet making it incredibly popular in Japan and around the world.
I absolutely love exploring cuisines from different countries — from doing my own version of Swedish meatballs (or Svenska köttbullar), to doing my take on Japanese curry.
The history of Japanese curry, also known as “kare” in Japan, can be traced back to the late 1800s, when the British first introduced it to the Japanese during the Meiji era. The dish quickly gained popularity, and has since become a staple in Japanese cuisine. Today, it comes in a variety of forms, from the traditional curry rice to curry-based soups and stews. For this recipe though, I will stick to pairing it with rice.
What makes Japanese curry different from other curries?
Japanese curry is different from other curries in that it has a sweeter and milder taste compared its Indian or Thai counterparts. The sweetness comes from the apple and honey, which are not typical in other curries. Additionally, compared to other curries, Japanese curry has some sweeter spices like cinnamon and star anise. It also has a lower amount of chili powder and other hot spices. However, it’s worth noting that garam masala, a blend of ground spices that is commonly used in Indian cuisine, can be added to some Japanese curry recipes (like this one) to add an additional layer of complexity and depth.
I use S&B curry powder and it’s most people’s go-to Japanese curry powder. S&B Japanese curry powder is a blend of several spices, including: turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, orange peel, black pepper, chili pepper, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, star anise, thyme, bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg, sage, cardamom. The use of sweeter spices and a lower amount of heat is important in creating the unique flavor profile of Japanese curry. It also allows for a wider range of vegetables and proteins to be paired with the dish. Hence, making it more versatile and approachable for a wider audience.
Should I make roux from scratch or use pre-made roux?
Another difference with making Japanese curry is that it’s made with a roux base, which is a mixture of flour and butter that is used to thicken the sauce. The roux adds a depth of flavor that makes this dish so unique and delicious, but also gives the curry sauce a velvety consistency. A lot of Japanese households use pre-made roux blocks like this one from S&B Golden Curry. You’re more than welcome to use it if you’re pressed for time, but roux is pretty easy to make. And to be honest, you’re already going to spend a good amount of time building the flavors in this dish. Making the roux from scratch isn’t adding all that much extra time. Plus, depending on where you live, it may be hard to find the pre-made roux blocks at your local grocery store.
Can I use other protein or vegetables for Japanese curry?
I like to use boneless and skinless chicken thighs for this recipe, but it’s also great with pork or beef. You also don’t have to necessarily put the protein in the curry itself. Japanese curry is also sometimes served with katsu, which is a deep-fried Panko-breaded meat, typically chicken or pork. I actually prefer to pair it with katsu because I like the texture and crunch that it adds. But, to be honest, I was too lazy to fry something on top of making this curry. If you’re feeling up for it, I highly recommend eating it with katsu too. If you want a vegetarian option, you can use tofu or tempeh instead. However, just make sure to use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth in the curry sauce.
And when it comes to vegetables, I always add onions, carrots, and potatoes to keep it as simple as possible. However, you can also add other vegetables like mushrooms for some added umami. One thing that is interesting about Japanese cuisine is that they use a traditional cutting technique called rangiri. The word “rangiri” literally means “random cutting” in Japanese. They make random diagonal cuts on cylindrical vegetables while rotating them about a quarter turn in between cuts. This helps the vegetables cook more evenly and absorb more flavor while simmering. On top of that, it makes the vegetables more visually appealing. You definitely don’t have to cut your vegetables this way — I just found the technique really fascinating.
Do I really need to use a food processor or blender?
One thing that I like to do when making this dish is to use a food processor or a blender. I prefer to purée the cooked onions with the roux and about half of the chicken stock. You definitely don’t have to do this step, but I personally don’t like to eat big chunks of onions. Plus, it makes for a smoother curry sauce.
- 2 small onions, cut into half-moon slices
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1.5 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small apple, peeled and grated
- 1.5 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 large potato, peeled and diced
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 3.5 tbsp S&B Japanese curry powder
- 1.5 tsp garam masala
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil + 1 tbsp butter (for cooking the onions)
- salt and pepper to taste
- In a medium pot (wide and deep enough for stews), heat up the vegetable oil and the 1 tbsp of butter in medium heat. Add the half-moon slices of onions with two pinches of salt and pepper and sauté for about 5-7 minutes. Once the onions are less opaque, add the grated apples and cook together for 10-12 minutes, stirring constantly. The idea here is you're cooking down the onions almost to a caramelized or jammy stage, so stirring will help keep the onions and apple from burning. Then, add the tomato paste and stir some more -- only about 3 minutes -- to just slightly cook down the tomato paste. Remove from the pot and set aside.
- In the same pot, on medium low heat, melt your 1/2 cup of unsalted butter. Once it has melted, carefully add the all-purpose flour and keep stirring with the butter to make a roux. When it comes to making the roux, it's important to take your time and cook it over low heat. This process can take around 15-20 minutes, but trust me, it's worth the effort. A good roux should have a nice golden color and a smooth consistency. Once you've reached a nicely browned color, add the Japanese curry powder and the garam masala and keep stirring until everything is fully incorporated (about a minute or two). It should start forming a sort of paste. If you're opting to use pre-made curry roux blocks, you can skip Step 2 altogether. Just heat up your roux block in the pot with a little bit of chicken broth until the roux block has softened, then move on to Step 3.
- Add the onion-apple compote to the roux paste and mix everything together. Add about 2 cups of chicken broth and mix it with the paste as well. Then, temporarily transfer everything in a food processor or blender to purée until it gets to a smooth-ish consistency. At this point, you can probably also start making your rice. I use a rice cooker so it's straightforward. If you want some added flavor, you can use chicken broth instead of water to cook your rice with.
- While you're blending the onions, apples, and roux, lightly season your chicken thighs with salt and pepper. On the same pot where you were making the roux, lightly brown both sides of the chicken pieces on medium heat. Add the chopped potatoes and carrots and mix everything together. Cook for about a minute or two, just enough to get some light color on your vegetables.
- Add the curry purée back into the pot and mix it with the chicken and vegetables. Then, add the remaining 2 cups of chicken broth, the soy sauce, and the honey and stir until everything is fully mixed. Make sure the chicken and vegetables are fully covered in the curry sauce. Bring up the heat to medium-high, only long enough for the curry to start simmering. Once you see some simmering, bring it to medium low heat and cover the pot with lid. Leave it to simmer for 20 minutes.
- Once it has simmered for 20 minutes, check that the vegetables are cooked enough and are tender. You can also taste test the curry sauce to see if it needs more seasoning. Mine came out just right and did not need additional salt or pepper. Serve with rice and enjoy!
Japanese curry is perfect to enjoy any time of the year. Needless to say, making it from scratch requires some time and love, but I promise that it’s definitely worth the effort!
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- Bottom backdrop: Replica Surfaces — Cement
- Props: tea towels, matte gold utensils