I’m following up from my previous post in which I intended to post my tried-and-true recipe for Japanese curry but timed out for ranting.
Japan, as anyone with connections knows, has a long and illustrious gastronomic tradition reaching into its antiquity. A friend of mine moved there some years back and works as a game designer. He observed even non-foodies (I don’t love that word) he knows in Japan seem to engage in highly nuanced discussions about food. In 2010, Michelin released its Red Guide of Japan. Michelin awarded more stars there than anywhere else in the world: even major seats of western gastronomy. Consider too that not only is Japan a small country, its geography is such that its population is cluster in just a handful of major population centers. And you know what?
Japanese people complained.
They said Michelin missed out on the real gems. They said they awarded multiple stars to restaurants that weren’t really that big of a deal. They said a lot of things.* This is a culture that doesn’t screw around with its food, and Japanese curry rice remains one of its most popular dishes**
So what makes Japanese curry rice so special?
Hard to say. Honest to goodness.
A little background. Japanese curry rice is a pretty old dish in Japan, with roots in the Meiji era, shortly after opening trade with the west. Let’s examine the ingredients of a leading brand of curry sauce mix marketed in the U.S.:
Wheat flour, edible oil, salt, sugar, curry powder, spices, food color, monosodioum glutamate, malic acid, sodium guanylate, disodium inosinate.
Essentially just flour, oil, and seasoning. With the exception of malic acid and the flavor enhancers, nothing, in fact, one wouldn’t find in a typical Western kitchen. The above paste is dissolved into water simmered with meat and vegetables. As you can see. Curry rice is essentially a Western stew thickened with a roux. Not something you’ll find in a Betty Crocker Cookbook, is it? And certainly not anything like the curry we would eat in the West. We just don’t cook stuff like this anymore. But British sailors did a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s a simple, homespun stew seasoned with ready-made curry powder–maybe or maybe not to mask pungency of subprime meat.
That’s right. Japanese curry is a page out of culinary anthropology. Like an alligator,a coelacanth, a Lincoln Town Car: a dish that’s remain unchanged as the world has moved on. It is, in a country with more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, a dish invented by dirtbag seafarers to stave off scurvy.
I love it. Love it, love it, love it.
So on to the recipe. As I’ve written, you can find bricks of “curry roux” in most American grocery stores these days, but again, there’s not a lot in the commercial curry roux you don’t already have in your kitchen. In place of the malic acid and sugar in the store-bought stuff, we’re using grated apple. My first curry recipe came from a Japanese-language cookbook whose name I have trouble recalling–Something like “Mama’s 1000 Recipe Cookbook.” I use chicken, as did that recipe; thighs in particular. They’re not only one of the cheapest meats around, but also just about impossible to screw up. Variations will follow after the recipe.
Basic Japanese Curry Rice
½ to 3/4 lb. chicken, cubed
1 medium carrot, sliced into half-inch rounds
1 medium potato, coarsely diced
1 medium onion, coarsely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium apple (such as a fuji), grated or shredded
1 oz. (2 tablespoons) butter
1 oz. (about 3 ½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour (short-patent works best as a thickener)
¼ tsp. salt plus more to taste
1 tablespoon curry powder (more to taste)
2 cups broth, stock, or water (if using water, more salt may be needed)
Pepper to taste
Heat a lightly-oiled pan to medium-high heat until the oil is almost smoking. Season the meat cubes with salt and pepper and sauté until browned but not necessarily cooked through. Remove from heat and reserve. Reduce heat to medium.
Melt the butter in the pan. Add the flour and curry powder and stir until it forms a paste. Cook this mixture, stirring frequently until it begins to brown. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, until fragrant. Add remaining vegetables, browned meat, and grated or shredded apple. Add the broth, stock or water, salt, and pepper and stir until the butter and flour are incorporated. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Once it has come to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook covered for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are tender. The sauce should be about the consistency of a gravy. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Serve with white rice. May be garnished with beni shoga or other Japanese pickle.
More heat can be achieved by adding cayenne pepper or increasing the amount of curry powder.
Japanese curry is a very versatile dish. Beef. pork, or seafood may be used instead of the chicken. Beef is more stereotypical of an authentic curry in fact. For cubed beef chuck, do not add the carrots, onion, and potato immediately to the pan. Instead, braise it covered with the roux and broth for about an hour. Add the remainder of the vegetables for the last half-hour of cooking.
Other vegetables may be used–the recipe upon which this one was based called for minced carrots, celery, and onion. I’m also a fan or parsnips and sweet potato in curry.
Leftover curry makes a great sauce for breaded, fried cutlet (katsu curry; カツカレー)
- Optional ingredients can be added for a more complex taste:
- About ¼ cup wine or coffee (the wine should be allowed to boil down before adding the broth)
- Several dashes of Worchestershire sauce
- Five-spice powder
- ¼-inch slice of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste
* I’m over-simplifying. A lot of people criticized Michelin. Here is a longer discussion from the Wall Street Journal.
** For a relatively brief, but more detailed account of the history and popularity of Japanese Curry rice, see this page on the Kikkoman Corporation website.