Curry is, without a doubt, my favourite main course meal in Japan.
What? Has dementia set in? Am I mixing up memories of Japan with my 1970’s travel adventures in India and Pakistan? Japan, in fact, makes great curries and I love them.
Back in 2000, Japanese photo journalist Morieda Takashi wrote that the average Japanese ate curry more often than sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. He reported that in a survey of almost 10,000 Japanese participants, most people said they ate curry and rice several times a month.
“Curry,” he said, “is to the Japanese what fish and chips are to the British and hamburgers are to the Americans”.
Japanese people have been enjoying curries since the 1800’s when it was introduced to them by the British. Back then it was more those sort of curries your Aussie Mum made in the 50’s and ’60’s – western style stews flavoured with a curry powder mix. My mum used Clive of India curry powder and Keens curry. Very exotic for the Australian palate back then. And nothing remotely like a real Indian curry.
Japan took this British version of an Indian curry and made it their own, adapting it to suit their taste. The result is uniquely Japanese and you will find it throughout the country. Some restaurants and chefs there are devoted to producing the best and most innovative curries in Japan.
I find Japanese curries are less spicy and more subtle in flavour than Indian curries. And generally they are not expensive. Ideal traveller fare. As well as eating curries at cafes and restaurants, I’ve also enjoyed cheap and delicious takeaway curries at convenience stores in Japan. At a good curry restaurant, a curry meal might cost $A25 to $A35, but at most cafes you are looking at around $A10.
I love Japanese curries because they are delicious, and secondly because Japanese curry was the big foodie surprise to me when I first went there. I thought their cuisine was going to be all about seafood, eels and other food that I might not like. I’m not a fish or crustacean eater, so I did wonder if I’d starve in Japan! Should I pack the vegemite and exist on toast?
The Japanese use chicken, pork, beef, seafood and vegetables in their curries, usually matched with short grain sticky rice or noodles and served with a side salad. Sometimes it’s a curry sauce over Tonkatsu – crumbed pork or chicken cutlets. A bit like snitzel with a curry sauce!
I have seen horse curry on a menu in Japan – I’m sure some people find it delicious, but it’s not for me. Luckily, in Japan, they do usually clearly tell you what meat you are getting. Though maybe knowing the Japanese word for horse might be useful if you want to avoid it on a menu that isn’t in English!
Have I mentioned ‘curry bread’ yet – OMG – I am in raptures thinking about it! Curry bread (Karepan) is sold in bakeries and convenience stores – a bread bun with a savoury curry filling. The bun is rolled in panko bread crumbs and deep fried. It’s a delicious inexpensive snack – usually less than $A2 each.
One Tokyo bakery hasn’t changed its recipe for curry bread in nearly a century! The Cattlea bakery near Morishita subway station, east of the Sumida River, began cooking these treats in the 1920’s, and it’s remained a popular item for them ever since. I’ve no idea why it’s called Cattlea – hopefully nothing to do with cats!
The convenience store chain Daily Yamazaki has fresh fried curry bread, so not as oily than some other packaged ones.
The chocolate maker Godiva has apparently recently joined hands with the more well known Japanese convenience store chain Lawsons to produce a chocolate beef curry bun. I haven’t tried this, but Time Out in Japan reported in February this year that the bun includes minced beef curry “accented with chocolate”. And the bread mix includes chocolate too. It does look a bit strange in photos, but I’ll reserve judgement until Covid is gone and I can return to Japan to try one!
Japanese curries can range in quality, depending on where you try it. Though I’ve only had one unsatisfactory one. It was in eastern Kyoto, coming down a main street from the fabulous Kiyomizu–dera temple. We stopped at a little cafe and were served up what was basically a plate of half cold, very unappetising curry sauce. I couldn’t even find a piece of vegetable in it. You win some, you lose some. All my other curries in Japan have been great.
I noted that the American movie star Johnny Depp may have wandered past this cafe as a nearby shop had a photo of him wearing one of their pendants with his name inscribed in kanji. I bought one for my son, only to discover later that the translation wasn’t remotely accurate. Maybe Johnny translated better than Michael and maybe he lucked in on a better curry cafe near Kiyomizu-dera than me!
In Takayama in Gifu prefecture, we had the opposite experience – a truely wonderful curry at a dedicated Hida beef curry house in the centre of the city. That’s all they made. Curry. So you knew it was going to be pretty special. Besides, it had been recommended to us by a local. Like a lot of restaurants in Japan, it had room for only about half a dozen people. Very cosy. We watched from the restaurant counter as the chef made the meal for us.
Most home cooks in Japan use pre-made curry roux to make their curries. Pre-made japanese curry roux is an easy way to produce a delicious meal, although you can make your own from scratch. If you want to make your own, one of my favourite Japanese home cooking chefs YUCa has a great recipe:
Back home in Australia I regularly visit a Japanese supermarket in Perth (WA) for boxes of Japanese curry roux so that I can make Japanese curry at home. This has proved particularly handy in this last year of the Covid pandemic. I’ve been able to bring a little bit of Japan into my kitchen, and replicate the taste of Japanese curries that I’ve experienced there. Usually I add a few other flavours such as garlic and ginger to make it more my own. You know you’re producing a decent Japanese curry when friends ask for your recipe! A little embarrassing when you have to explain “Well, there’s this premade Japanese curry roux mix…”
Some Australian supermarkets such as Coles are now selling Japanese curry roux – S & B Golden Curry’ seems to be the main brand. Personally I find it a little salty and lacks flavour for my taste. So I look for the Japanese ‘HOUSE’ brand at my Japanese supermarket. Some other Asian stores also stock HOUSE. My favourite is HOUSE’s ‘Vermont’ curry that includes a little apple and honey. I photographed a box of it on one of my much loved Japanese bowls – see above.
A tip with the House curry roux – ‘hot’ is not really hot. As Goldilocks said ‘it’s just right’.
So- there you go. Japanese curry. Who would have thought! With Japanese cuisine, expect the unexpected.