As much a part of the national food culture as sushi, various types of curry served with white rice (Kare Raisu, カレーライス) has been an enduring favorite in Japan since the Meiji era (1868-1912). Known as “curry rice” or “rice curry”, these days they usually contain meat or poultry, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Unlike Indian curries, however, for which the spice mixture is created fresh each time, the Japanese dish uses curry powder (such as S & B Oriental Curry Powder) – which came from Britain and was first sold in Japan in 1930 – with flour as a thickener.
Curry Rice: The Ideal Meal?
It is a big family favorite here (my daughter often replaces the chicken with firm tofu and even adds in fresh shiitake mushrooms sometimes) and a great addition to your culinary repertoire. Fast, easy, savory, and delicious…what more do you want in a weekday meal?! Be warned: Japanese curry can be thicker than you may be used to and not ultra-spicy (unless you use one of the ready-made ‘hot’ curry roux packs) but it has a very alluring flavor and my biggest suggestion is to make double the amount to have some extra in the freezer or for another meal!
The earliest curry recipes are found in two cookery books published in 1872. Seiyo Ryori Shinan (A Guide to Western Cooking), written by the owner of a bookstore called Keigakudo, featured a recipe for frog curry quite unlike any curry eaten in Japan today. As well as frog meat, it included leeks, shrimp, garlic, ginger, butter, salt, flour, and curry powder, and was boiled for one hour. One can only wonder about the taste! Later in the same year, the first chicken curry recipe appeared in Seiyo Ryori Tsu (The Western Cooking Expert) by the noted journalist, Robun Kanagaki.
The Origin of Curry Rice
Curry rice’s real popularity can be traced back to the Japanese military, which began serving it at the end of the Meiji era and the beginning of the Taisho era (1912-26). It was considered the ideal meal, using only one bowl yet incorporating rice, vegetables, and meat. It also became popular in rural areas during harvest time, being easy to make, substantial, and cheap. Nowadays, a whole range of instant curry roux (with varying levels of spiciness) is part of Japanese life, and curry remains a perennial favorite for take-out, restaurants, and for the home cook.
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Japanese Curry Rice Recipe
- 3 tbsp neutral oil
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and grated
- 1/2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 tbsp Japanese curry powder (such as Oriental S & B Curry powder), or to taste
- 4 tbsp white flour
- 5-1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
- 1 small red apple, peeled and finely grated (grate just before using to prevent discoloration)–I used Fuji
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp tomato ketchup
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1.5 lbs skinless, deboned chicken thighs or breast, cut into large bite-sized pieces
- 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into large bite-sized pieces
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into large bite-sized pieces
- 1 large onion, peeled and cut into eighths (wedges)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce, or to taste
- Cooked & hot Japanese white rice
- Rakkyo pickles ( a type of Japanese shallot)
- Kizami pickled ginger
- Fukujinzuke relish
- In a deep frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of butter. Sauté the garlic and ginger briefly, then add in the sliced onions and sauté over medium heat, stirring, until brown – about 20 minutes. (Note: Caramelizing the onions adds another layer of flavor and depth to your curry.)
- Next add in 2 tablespoons of curry powder, sauté briefly, then add the flour and sauté for a few minutes more, stirring constantly, until well combined. Little by little, add in the chicken stock, stirring continuously, to make a thick roux, and bring to a boil. Add in the grated apple, bay leaves, and ketchup, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Remove any scum.
- Meanwhile, salt and pepper the chicken. In another pan, heat the remaining oil and butter, and sauté the chicken until it becomes brown on both sides.
- When the sauce is ready, remove the bay leaves, add in the chicken, vegetables, salt, and pepper to taste, 2 more tablespoons of curry powder (or more if you want), and the soy sauce. Cook, covered, over medium heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cook or reheat the rice. Adjust the curry seasoning to taste and serve hot over rice. Pass the garnishes separately.