Whenever I ask my students what their favourite school lunch is, the overwhelming (and most enthusiastic) answer I get is “Curry!” Japan is usually not the first place we Americans think of when we hear the word curry; rather, we think of countries like India or Thailand. Nevertheless, curry has found its own niche in Japan, and while it may not be as spicy or exotic-tasting as vindaloo or phanaeng curry, it has its own wonderful, warm flavour and is definitely one of the most popular foods in Japan.
What is kare?
Curry (called kare in Japanese) came to the country during the Meiji Period (1868—1912), when Japan opened its doors to trade with Europe. In Britain, Queen Victoria’s colonisation of India sparked renewed interest in the country, including its food; curry rose in popularity, and in Europe it altered over time to fit more Western palates—Western-style curry resembled stew mixed with curry powder, and it was a little sweeter. When it came to Japan, it again underwent another transformation, becoming less spicy, on par with Japanese tastes, and more savoury.
Another reason curry gained popularity in Japan was its potential nutritious value. Of the many challenges Japan faced in the early twentieth century as a budding military power, keeping its soldiers both fed and well-nourished was near the top. Beriberi, a disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency, was widespread amongst the troops, and soldiers were suffering from neurological disorders as a result. The diet of the average soldier consisted of polished white rice, and the soldiers didn’t want to eat bread for meals (which they viewed as a type of snack food) or cereal mixed in with rice (which was too similar to the staple diet of poor peasant farmers). The army needed to find a way to hide wheat in the soldiers’ meals.
An alliance with the British provided the answer. From 1902—1921 the Japanese were allied to the British, and aboard British ships they observed the food being served. Curry proved to be the perfect way to conceal wheat in the soldiers’ diets, and long after the war the Japanese love of curry rice remained and spread across the country.
For many years curry was made with curry powder; but in the years after World War II, blocks of curry roux were introduced, and after that its popularity truly took off. It is a staple food in Japanese households and is often served as kare raisu (curry rice): potatoes, carrots, and onions over white rice with a heaping spoonful of a type of tsukemono called fukujinzuke. Fukujinzuke is a mix of pickled daikon, eggplant, lotus root, and cucumber. (I love it; it’s so wonderfully crunchy and tart!)
Besides kare raisu, curry can be eaten in kare pan (curry bread), katsu kare (fried pork cutlet with curry), kare udon (curry with udon noodles)…the possibilities are endless!
Kare pan is my secret love:
This part of the blog, Washoku Wednesday, is focused on traditional Japanese food. Curry, with its origins from India via Britain, is actually called youshoku, or Western cuisine, rather than washoku. And yet, despite this, curry has evolved wholly on its own into something that is uniquely and essentially Japanese. You would be hard-pressed to find a household that didn’t have a box of House Foods’ Vermont Curry or a small tin of S&B Oriental Curry Powder. And I guarantee, any Japanese kid you ask will tell you, curry is their favourite food!
Basic Japanese curry consists of familiar ingredients any American could find in their kitchen—potatoes, onions, carrots, and meat. Today I decided to make chicken katsu curry, so I made the meat separately.
The curry roux might be tricky to find (or it might not be…Target was advertising it on its website when I looked it up. They even had a pop-up box informing me that they could ship it to me in Japan, haha!) But I believe this should be easy enough to find in Asian or Japanese grocery stores. I also added a dash of curry powder at the end to add more flavour.
And finally, my absolute favourite—fukujinzuke! While the vegetables in Japanese curry are soft enough to melt in your mouth, fukujinzuke can add a bright crunch to each spoonful.
Several recipes suggest adding a tablespoon or so of ketchup, Worcester sauce, soy sauce, or even apricot jam to deepen the flavour. Some even include apples and honey, which sounds absolutely delicious! These things are all optional, and I used what I just found in the fridge—a dollop of ketchup and a dollop of soy sauce.
First, I noticed the time it would take to cook the vegetables—45 minutes! So I opened up my favourite podcast to listen to when I cook—Stuff You Missed in History Class. It’s so good; if you ever need something fascinating to listen to when your mind is idle but your hands are busy, this is a great podcast!
I cut the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and popped them in the pot with water to simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. (Whenever I cook with carrots, I add one extra carrot, because I nibble while I cook.)
While the vegetables boiled, I prepared three tupperware containers with flour, two eggs, and panko bread crumbs. I sliced a chicken breast in half lengthwise, pounded the two pieces flat, and dredged them in first flour, then egg, then panko.
I fried up the chicken katsu…
By the time I was done with all that, the vegetables were boiled! I popped in one container of Golden Curry roux (I chose the “hot” mix, because Japanese “hot” isn’t really hot at all) and mixed it in. I added ketchup and soy sauce and set it to simmer for another ten minutes.
Just before serving, I added a dash of curry powder, and voila! Chicken katsu curry!
Chicken Katsu Curry
Makes 3-4 servings of curry and 2 servings of chicken katsu.
Curry recipe adapted from Japanese Cooking 101’s Curry and Rice Recipe.
- 6 small potatoes
- 2 onions
- 3 carrots
- 1 tbsp oil
- 3.5 cups water
- 1 box of curry sauce mix
- steamed rice
- 1 tbsp ketchup
- 1 tbsp Worcester sauce
- 1 tbsp apricot jam
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 chicken breast
- salt and pepper
- oil for frying
- 2 eggs
- panko bread crumbs
- Chop vegetables into bite-sized pieces.
- Add oil to a pot and fry the onions for around 8 minutes, until they are slightly caramelized. Add carrots, potatoes, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.
- Place flour, eggs (beaten), and panko bread crumbs in three separate shallow bowls.
- Cut the chicken breast in half lengthwise and pound the two pieces flat. Season with salt and pepper, then dip first in the flour, then in the egg, and last coat generously with panko bread crumbs.
- Heat oil in a pan. Fry chicken until golden-brown. Set on paper towels for a few minutes after before slicing. Slice and place on top of steamed rice.
- Remove the pot from heat and add curry sauce mix. Stir well to dissolve the pieces.
- Add any extra seasonings, like ketchup and soy sauce, and simmer for an additional 10—15 minutes (or longer if you want it thicker).
- Add any extra curry powder before serving.
- Pour curry over chicken and rice. Add a big spoonful of fukujinzuke for some extra love.
Japanese Cooking 101: Curry and Rice Recipe
Serious Eats: An Introduction to Kare-Raisu, Japanese Curry Rice
Taiken Japan: the Origin and History of Japanese Curry Rice