Japanese chicken curry is something I have a complicated relationship with. The Malaysian in me does not prefer it over traditional Indian, Malay and Thai chicken curries, but the nipponized part of my psyche loves to have an affair of convenience with it from time to time.
Does that make me a curry…. slut? =D Maybe, haha. But you won’t judge, because my goal today is to help you get a tasty dinner ready for the whole family in 30 minutes or less.
My Relationship History with Japanese Curry
I was first introduced to Japanese curry in the little S&B red metal cans they come in (when I was a young girl). My worldly father was quite the foodie. He often traveled to and from Japan for business in those days, and either brought food things, or ideas back to share with us.
However, since I grew up in Malaysia where curries are a staple in our cuisine, I didn’t actually eat a lot of Japanese curry back then. Apart from the novelty effect of the red can, I don’t remember having too many bowls of karē raisu. There was just no need to cook the imported stuff, because authentic Indian curry was everywhere to be found. That is, until I found myself on another island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where Malay and Indian-style curry weren’t in such abundance.
Hawaii: Aloha gozaimasu
Welcome to Hawaii: college edition. Arriving from tropical Borneo, familiar-to-me were the palm trees, flora abound, and easy going vibe of the locals. When I close my eyes now, I still see scenes of perfectly-chiseled tanned surfer bods set against the azure backdrop of the Hawaiian waters, and pristine sandy beaches. Ahh, Honolulu. How I miss those days!
Despite all the sexiness that was Hawaii in the mid-nineties, Indian and Malay curry were not common dishes to be found on the islands. For a 16-year-old girl who left home to live in a foreign country on my own for the first time, this was a really tough adjustment. I had to eat watery, inauthentic curry interpreted by other Asian cooks who didn’t come from curry culture when the cravings hit… and it sucked!
Well, the choice was between crappy curry, and Japanese curry. Hawaii is home to many people of Japanese descent, and Japan was also Hawaii’s #1 tourist market. For those reasons, Japanese food was everywhere to be found in Honolulu. Since Japanese curry was more easily found and tasted better, eating it was how I appeased the curry-seeking monster that lived within. Let’s just say that Japanese curry was and is a “good friend,” but not my “sweat-hard.” Very punny, Jackie, HAHAHA. *eyerolls* =D
What is Japanese Curry?
Japanese curry is simply curry from Japan. The British introduced curry to Japan during the Meiji era (1868–1912), around the time that they ruled the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t until the 20th century that curry became popular in Japan. According to Wikipedia, curry was eaten by the Japanese Imperial Navy to prevent beriberi. With wide-spread adoption within the Japanese navy and army, the dish eventually became popular with Japanese civilians, and thus became a big part of Japan’s food culture. By 2000, Japanese curry was said to be more popular than tempura or sushi.
- S&B was the first to offer curry powder to the Japanese market in 1923.
- House Foods began to market instant Japanese curry roux in powder form in 1926.
- S&B introduced curry roux in block form in 1956.
The latter is the the type most people think of when they think of Japanese curry today. Below is how it looks like, in and out of its packaging.
What does Japanese Curry taste like?
Taste-wise, Japanese curry differs a little from Indian or Southeast Asian curries. It is a little sweeter, lighter, and less rich. Heat-wise, their products aren’t as hot as South and Southeast Asian curries. The sauce is silky and has a glossy shine from the use of wheat flour for the roux. There is no need to use a wet creamer like coconut milk, cream, or yogurt to finish. You just add it to your cooked meat and vegetables to finish your dish off.
The roux comes in different heat intensities; mild, medium, medium hot, hot, to extra hot. The presence of MSG in the roux cubes, albeit an issue for some people, makes the curry ultra tasty and relatively easy to like.
What brands to buy?
I have tried both S&B Golden Curry, and House Foods Vermont Curry lines of products. I think both lines taste great! Vermont curry has apples and honey in the roux, and S&B doesn’t. Even though I like the Vermont curry, I usually get S&B because the list of ingredients is shorter (and therefore cleaner). That said, I am fully aware that Vermont curries probably might fare better in taste tests because of the extra additives. If you aren’t concerned with cleaner eating, I’d say go for the House Foods Vermont Curry, but otherwise, S&B is the original (and plenty delicious)!
Why Japanese curry?
Japanese curry is very easy and convenient to make, so it’s perfect for busy moms who need to get dinner made quickly. As a meal prep dish, it’s great as it can keep for a few days.
It is also easier to introduce Japanese curry to people who are new to curry, or those who can’t handle the intensity of South and Southeast Asian curries. The mild curry mix is great for toddlers, kids and the elderly. I made this for my elderly mother-in-law, who found my mild version of Malaysian curry too hot for her to handle. She absolutely loved the mild Japanese curry I made this time. My 20-month old also loves it!
Where to Buy in the U.S.
Locally in Seattle, Oregon, and California: Uwajimaya, Asian Food Center, HMart, 99 Ranch, Central Market (Seattle). It should cost under $5 per box (2020).
For the most authentic and best tasting Japanese curry, make sure it’s “Made in Japan.”
The curry roux is an ingredient for several popular modern yōshoku-style dishes. I’ll share how to make other types of curry-based Japanese dishes another time, but today, we will make a basic karē raisu with chicken!
P.S.: This is also fairly easy to make in the instant pot. I’ll do an IP version of this recipe another day.
Japanese Chicken Curry チキンカレー
- 2 lbs boneless chicken thighs cut into 1 1/2" x 1 1/2" pieces
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 medium onions sliced
- 1 lb carrots peeled and cut into 1/2" pieces
- 1 lb yellow potatoes peeled and quartered
- 3-4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water adjust according to the consistency you like
- 3 blocks Japanese curry roux cubes
- Fukujinzuke (red pickle daikon) optional
- Heat a 12" heavy-based pot or skillet on medium high heat. When the pan is hot, add the vegetable oil to coat the whole surface of the pot/pan.
- Add the onions and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Then add the meat and stir fry for another 2 minutes.
- Add the carrots and potatoes, and stir fry for 1 minute.
- Add 1-1.5 cups of water, mix the contents in the pot, bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to medium-low.
- Close the lid. (Note: I like to steam the chicken is as little liquid as possible to retain the flavor of the chicken in the meat. This technique requires a bit more attention. If you aren't particular, just add 3 cups of water in directly).
- Set the timer to 12 minutes. In case your heat is too high, periodically check the water every 5 minutes and add another 1/2-1 cup of water in if necessary.
- When the timer rings, open the lid and add the 3 curry roux cubes. Mix the roux and stir the contents constantly, adding more water to get the consistency you like. Bring to a boil, about 3-5 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, and serve the curry on a bed of cooked, short to medium-grain steamed rice.