If you had to name a dish that represents Japan — one of the everyday, home-cooked comfort foods folks look forward to enjoying after work or school — what would you choose? Sushi? A common misconception. Shark fin and bird’s nest soup? Wrong country. Try curry, Japanese style. Many consider it a national dish alongside ramen. Even the Japanese Navy serves curry roux every Friday — it’s that big.
Japanese curry, or karē-raisu, diverges from other Asian curries in a couple of ways. First, you’ll notice its sweetness, a pleasant contrast to its abundant, but variable, spiciness. Next, you’ll find the recipes call for roux. Japanese curry roux is used as much for flavoring as it is thickening, and most cooks use premade versions. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic element to Japanese curry is its roux — it gives it identity and sets it apart from other dishes that share the curry name.
Think of curry roux as the Japanese analogue of curry paste with an entirely different flavor profile and, usually, several more ingredients. Visit a well-stocked Asian or Japanese specialty market, and you’ll find a plethora of curry roux, mainly classed by spiciness — mild, mild-hot, hot and extra hot, or some similar nomenclature.
Adventurous home cooks tend to think, usually correctly, that making a dish entirely from scratch equates to authenticity. Not always with Japanese curry.
To Buy or Not to Buy
“Embrace the premade blocks of curry roux,” says Michelin-starred Iron chef Masaharu Morimoto in his book “Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking.” High-quality, premade roux has a curated flavor that balances all the taste sensations, allowing you to use it as-is or build on it by combining two or more varieties or adding your own spices to make the final taste your own.
Store-bought roux has a wide array of ingredients — up to 50 or more — made cohesive through proprietary techniques and commercial equipment. For instance, S&B’s highly rated Torokeru curry roux contains a concentrated fruit paste comprising banana, passion fruit, mango, apple and pineapple. In addition to those, a powdered-vegetable mélange consisting of Chinese cabbage, potato, carrot, onion and celery are also included. You just can’t recreate that combination using home equipment, not to mention balance it all into a harmonious flavor in such a small, concentrated quantity.
Look for quality when you buy a prepared curry roux. Highly rated brands available in the United States include Vermont, Java and Kokumaro, made by Japanese producer House Foods, and Torokeru, by S&B.
Ultimately, packaged roux gives you a variety of flavors you’d have difficulty creating from scratch. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make your own quality roux at home — that’s how it started, after all.
If you choose to make your own roux at home, keep it simple. One-fourth cup each of butter and all-purpose flour cooked with two tablespoons of Japanese curry spices makes one enough roux for one batch of curry.
Designing Your Own Japanese Curry
Creating your own Japanese curry doesn’t differ much from making other curries. You caramelize onions, add water, and then incorporate the main ingredients and roux.
- Caramelize a large batch of sliced onions in a heavy-bottomed pot. Use two large yellow onions per batch of curry. Use low to medium-low heat to slowly render out the onions’ water so the sugars can caramelize to a deep golden brown, about 30 minutes.
- Brown the main ingredients separately while you caramelize the onions. Use one-half pound of cubed beef (chuck and short ribs are fantastic) or chicken thighs along with one carrot and two medium potatoes, roughly chopped, for each batch of curry.
- Add water to the caramelized onions according to curry roux’s package directions. Vermont curry calls for five-and-three-fourths cups of water, for example, but the amount can vary among varieties. Many Japanese curries use a combination of water and dashi for added flavor.
- Add the main ingredients. This is where you introduce the meat, carrots and potatoes to the curry.
- Simmer the meat until tender. Skim the surface of the water of foam as it forms.
- Add the roux according to package directions. If you’re using homemade curry roux, add one tablespoon of roux per cup of cooking liquid.
- Simmer the curry until it thickens, about 20 minutes. Adjust the seasoning as needed with additional ingredients, such as soy sauce, lime juice, mirin and coarse salt. Serve with short-grain white rice or your favorite hearty noodles, such as udon.
Garnishes are optional but common. For example, Fukujinzuke, a medley of pickled vegetables, and rakkyou, or pickled shallots, often embellish the top of a finished Japanese curry.