One of my favourite things in the world to eat is Japanese curry. I know some curry aficionados turn up their noses at Japanese curry. Such food snobs are quick to comment, and usually rather dismissively, “It’s not really curry”. And I can tell when these critics give me a certain look that they’re thinking to themselves, “And this schmuck thinks of himself of a foodie? How pathetic!” Nonetheless, I really do enjoy the taste of Japanese curry and often find myself craving a homey and comforting bowl of curry rice.
I do have to say that the above-mentioned food snobs are correct to an extent. Japanese curry isn’t a curry in the way that we, in Southeast and South Asia, would define this type of food. And that’s because Japanese curry and the way in which it is made, was brought to Japan by the British. Or to be more accurate, historians believe it came with the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century. In fact, curry, when it first arrived in Japan, was classified as yoshoku, i.e. Western food. Like all yoshoku dishes, Japanese curry has, with time, evolved to incorporate local ingredients and to suit the Japanese palate.
According to a Japan Times article, the earliest recipes for raise kari (curry rice) appeared in Japanese cookbooks in 1872. Curry, according to these recipes, was made by thickening a simple meat and vegetable broth with a spoonful of flour and chopped or minced apples. Over time, Japanese chefs, who also learnt French cooking techniques swapped out plain flour and started using roux as the thickening agent. Roux is made by whisking flour into hot melted clarified butter. The result is a thick but smooth paste. Using roux in Japanese curry meant smoother, richer curries.
One of the biggest differences between Japanese curry and curries from South or Southeast Asia, is that with the former, you are essentially making curry sauce. You can then pour this sauce over whatever food you’ve prepared or add different meats into it.
One of my own favourite curry recipes (that I have written about before) comes from, of all places, the Harry’s Bar Cookbook. Now, I have absolutely no idea why this famous restaurant in Venice, Italy, has both a shrimp curry and a chicken curry on its menu, but both dishes (especially the shrimp) are delicious. The Cipriani curry recipe is amazingly similar to that of Japanese curry… which makes sense once you understand that the latter was based on a European adaptation of curry. The Cirpriani recipe asks you to cook onions, leek, carrots and apple until they are all super soft. You then flambe the ingredients, and then add flour, curry powder and stock. This is simmered for a half an hour and then strained. The only difference between the chicken curry and the shrimp curry recipes is in the stock used (chicken for the former and fish for the latter).
Japanese curry is the same. That said, I have been making big batches using minced beef, which I cook together with the sauce. The resulting minced beef curry can be eaten as is with rice and pickles, or when I’m in the mood for a meat overload, poured over a freshly fried tonkatsu.
It’s also a pretty easy dish to make. The most important thing, I think, is finding a curry powder that works best for you, and also figuring out how much of it to use. I’ve used different curry powders, some purchased commercially and some made by friends. As I am sure you know, some can be hotter than others, and some might have quite distinct ratios of the different spices that can go into a curry powder. These days, I tend to try and find a Japanese curry powder in a Japanese supermarket (or in Japan when travelling). Because I am not a huge chilli eater, I do like that most Japanese blends are actually quite mild. You could of course make your own blend but, honestly, I’m too lazy these days to do that. If you do want to, there are many recipes online.
As always, please take my recipe as only a starting point. Just as the Japanese adapted curry from the Brits who in turn adapted it from India, you should feel completely free to adapt this to your own style and taste buds. Finally, the nice thing about dishes like this is that they freeze well. Which is why I always make a hefty portion and vacuum pack most of it for a rainy day.
3 tablespoons oil cooking oil
2 apples or pears, peeled and core removed
8 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons plain flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
800l chicken stock or beef stock
3 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoon garam masala
1kg minced beef
Use a food processor and mince together the onions and garlic. Store in a bowl. Clean the processor and then mince the carrots and apple/pear as finely as possible. Store in a separate container.
Take a heavy bottom pot and place over medium-high heat. Pour in the oil. Once hot, spoon in the minced garlic and onion. Cook, stirring continuously, until the onions are soft, approximately 5-8 minutes. Then spoon in the carrot and fruit. Cook for another 8-10 minutes while stirring.
Stir in the minced beef and cook (keep stirring) for around 2-3 minutes.
Add the curry powder and flour, stir and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Then add the soy sauce, honey, bay leaf, and garam masala. Cook and stir for another minute. Then add in the stock. Lower the heat so that the liquid is just simmering and cook for 20-30 minutes. You want the liquid to reduce a little while the curry comes together. If it looks too dry, add some more stock. If too wet, turn the heat up and reduce a little more. You want the curry to have a nice thick gravy consistency.
Taste and adjust to your preference adding some salt or sugar if you want it saltier or sweeter.
Once done, I find it best to cool the curry down and let it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day you can pack away and freeze portions, while also keeping some to reheat and have with rice, or even with rice and tonkatsu.