Asian Curry – Japan


Curry has me in its heady grip, and as I was curious to see its permutations as it made its way around the world.  I touched on some of the varieties that could be found in India, how the English stamped their influence on curries by adding a few of their own, such as Balti, and how the addition of curry powder to a dish does not an authentic curry make.   But stopping here is a bit like a television show cliffhanger, what happens after the hero plunges over the waterfall in his barrel?  So many unanswered questions – does he he survive? Is he reunited with the heroine?

One of the intriguing things about curries is that while some ingredients are ubiquitous, each successive culture tweaks the recipes to increase its appeal to their own tastes and account for their available food, so that they are not the same.  Its like a craving for grilled food, if I’m hankering for a steak, a saté is not going to cut it, and if I’m craving Panang curry, a batch of steaming hot Chinese curry studded with all sorts of goodies just will not do, and vice versa.  So how did curry get to these far flung countries, and what genius tweaking did they make to adopt it as their own.  Curry’s influence on Asian cultures is no small thing, and Japan in particular appears to be a bit obsessed.

Japanese Curry

Steps of spiciness

Curry came to Japan who got it from the British so a fairly straight forward route:  India → Britain → Japan when Japan, in the Meiji era (1869–1913), ended its policy of national self-isolation (Sakoku).  No contact with the outside world on penalty of death.  Given that the Japanese received curry via the British, to the Japanese, its considered a Western dish, although like most first encounter, this one got off to a rough start, calling curry “food for a dirty people”, but like so many foods (chocolate being a prime example) it was “do as I do, not as I say”.  How popular is it?  According to a dated resource (1999 – The Japanese Forestry and Fishery Ministry), the average Japanese, regardless of age, consumes curry more than 64 times a year.  [Other sources only gave larger numbers – 84 times a year to 125 times a year, regardless the exact amount it is considered the most popular food in Japan]

Yokohama’ Curry Museum is dedicated to this spicy treat.  Yokohama was selected as the site as it was a point of entry and one of the first places that the Japanese first sampled this spicy delicacy. They even offer a few versions of this curry that are probably unique to Japan – blow fish and beer curries are options.

In the Navy

Japan’s love affair with curry is attributed to its adoption by the Japanese Army and Navy as a convenient field and naval canteen dish, which allowed conscripts from the remotest corner of the country to sample curry. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force continues to serve curry on Fridays for lunch to maintain this tradition and many ships have their own unique recipes.  The original recipe for curry served on those ships was more closer in style to the British curry that the British navy served and the Japanese naval emulated.

The reason is a bit more complicated than they sampled something that tasted good.  Back in the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867) many people suffered from beriberi (an illness caused by a Vitamin B deficiency that caused inflammation of the nerves and heart failure)  The reason is that the people had a diet that consisted mainly of polished white rice.  For the Japanese troops and navy this illness was particularly devastating as the solders lost the will to fight, and the illness resulted in more deaths than the battles fought.  The addition of the curry sauce to the rice offered the nutrients that were previously lacking in their diet.

However, they soon set out to improve upon this concoction.  How?  First, the British navy, who they emulated, commonly ate their curry with bread (often stale given the conditions) this style was not well received by the Japanese, and the substitution of rice for bread made for a substantial improvement.  Another change involved the addition involved more vegetables and particularly flour which thickened the curry so it was not so prone to spill while on the open sea.  Once this recipe was brought home by the sailors, people were quick to appreciate its appeal, it was a tasty dish that only got better as a leftover.

What Makes Up a Japanese Curry?

A typical Japanese curry might contain onions, carrots, potatoes, and sometimes celery, and a meat that is cooked in a large pot.  Sometimes grated apples or honey are added for additional sweetness (a common characteristic of Japanese curry)  and other vegetables are sometimes used instead.  Regional differences can come into play, in northern and eastern Japan, around Tokyo, pork reigns supreme, while beef is more common in western Japan, including Osaka, and in Okinawa chicken is preferred.  A few other optional ingredients may include garlic, ketchup, raw eggs, and yogurt.  Another difference is the addition of pickled vegetables fukujinzule that are served as an accompaniment, maybe similar to a chutney?  According to Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry, A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors part of curry’s appeal is that precisely because it can look like a “sloppy brown” mess, it is exempt from gochiso, the culinary laws of purity and perfection.  A perfect version of comfort food, eaten Western style with a spoon and poured over rice “warm, sustaining, and without the need for ceremony.”

Curry Options:

choose wisely

  • karē-raisu (curry rice) – sometimes made with a dashi broth of kelp and bonito flakes
  • katsu-karē (“cutlet curry”) is curry rice topped with a breaded pork cutlet (tonkats). Korokke (potato croquettes) are also a common topping.
  • karē udon (thick wheat (udon) noodles in curry flavoured soup) and karē-pan “curry bread” — deep fried battered bread pocket with curry in the middle are also popular.
  • dorai karē – curry-flavored fried rice, or curry rice with a drier, mince meat curry sauce.
  • maze karē – curry rice, served with the sauce and rice already mixed.
  • karē don – curry sauce, thickened and flavored with mentsuyu or hondashi and served on top of a bowl of rice, to give the curry a Japanese flavor.
  • aigake – rice served with curry sauce and hayashi sauce (fried beef and onion, cooked with red wine and demi-glace).
  • yaki karē – curry rice, topped with a raw egg and baked in an oven. Originally from Kitakyushu.
  • ishiyaki karē – curry sauce with rice served in a heated stone bowl, similar to dolsot bibimbap.
  • sūpu karē– soup curry: a watery, broth-like curry sauce served with chunky ingredients such as a chicken leg and coarsely-cut vegetables. Popular in Hokkaidō.
  • curried yakisoba (fried noodles)
  • omu-raisu (omelette-rice) curry, an eggy envelope surrounded by a sweeter sauce.

Regional curries include: (source: wikipedia)

  • Hokkaidō Sika Deer curry (ezoshika karē) from Hokkaidō
  • Scallop curry (hotate karē) from Aomori
  • Mackerel curry (saba karē) from Chiba
  • Apple curry (ringo karē) from Nagano
  • Nagoya Kōchin Chicken curry (Nagoya kōchin chikin karē) from Aichi
  • Matsusaka beef curry (Matsusaka gyū karē) from Mie
  • Oyster curry (kaki karē) from Hiroshima
  • Nashi pear curry (nashi karē) from Shimane
  • Bitter melon curry (gōyā karē) from Okinawa

Other curry items

  • curry flavored soda (just not sure about this one?)
  • curried doughnuts
  • curry pizza

Home made style

#1 Brand

Homemade is often not from scratch as many Japanese households make curry using processed cubes, most commonly of the brand “Vermont Curry”.  Japanese curry’s are generally sweeter than Indian or other styles of curry because of the addition of apples or other fruit, and I’ve never found one as hot as some of the Indian curries I’ve sampled.  Another differentiator is that a Japanese curry is thickened by a roux (remember that addition of flour?)

Interested in Japanese Curry?

Americurry offers reviews of all things Japanese Curry in the US.  They’ve even reviewed “Volcano Curry”, a Japanese curry joint in my neighborhood.

Wafuu Curry

recipe adapted from Saveur, serves 4


3 c chicken stock
1 T vegetable oil
1 # boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1″ chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T butter
1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
1 medium yellow onion (1⁄2 minced, 1⁄2 cut into 1″ pieces)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 T flour
2 T curry powder, preferably S&B brand
2 T crushed tomatoes (or tomato paste)
1 dried bay leaf
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut crosswise into 1⁄2″ rounds
1 medium russet potato, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks
1 small apple peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
1 tsp honey
1 T soy sauce
Steamed rice


Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a medium pot over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper to taste, add to the skillet, and cook, stirring frequently, until deep golden brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the chicken to a plate, and set aside.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and melt the butter. Add the ginger, chopped onions, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently to scrape up any browned bits, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is evenly browned, about 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and tomatoes, stir to combine, and remove the skillet from the heat. Add 1⁄2 cup of hot chicken stock and whisk vigorously to combine, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of skillet.  Whisk the curry mixture into the pot of simmering stock, followed by the reserved chicken meat, onion pieces, bay leaf, carrots, and potatoes. Bring the curry to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

Add the apples, honey, soy sauce, and salt to taste to the curry and stir to combine. Cook the curry, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat, until the flavors meld, ~ 5 minutes more.  Serve with rice.

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39 comments for “Asian Curry – Japan

  1. April 30, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    I have yet to taste Japanese curry, though it does sound interesting with the addition of fruit. My favorite is Indian, hands down. I always seem to be in the mood for it. Under your list of other curried items, I’m also a fan of curried pizza. Have you tried Zante’s in Bernal?

  2. April 30, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    I just realized that I’ve never tried a Japanese curry. I’m so glad you posted about it, I will be looking to try it very soon!

  3. April 30, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    OMG!!! I knew about Indian curry!!!!I have to try the Japanese curry soon. Curry flavored soda sounds interesting!

  4. April 30, 2010 at 6:49 PM

    i remember reading about Japanese curry once briefly a while back. I’ve gotta see any any places in here in LA have Japanese curry.

  5. April 30, 2010 at 10:03 PM

    I’ve tried Japanese curry numerous times before, of course, as it’s a staple in the Korean kitchen, too. I don’t actually really enjoy it, because it’s so sweet, and not spicy at all. But I think it suits American tastes really well, which is why I’m surprised it’s not as popular! I always wondered if it’s possible to make that curry from SCRATCH though! Would be very complicated, right?

  6. May 1, 2010 at 6:16 AM

    I love that the curry was thickened to make it easier to eat on board a boat! And, since I haven’t had breakfast yet this morning, a curried doughnut sounds very interesting right now.

  7. admin
    May 1, 2010 at 6:20 AM

    Lisa – Its hard to say no to the original, have not tried Zante’s in Bernal Heights – its a bit of a commute for us and there are so many good spots in between. I’ll make sure to based on your recommendation.

    5 Star – Gotta give it a try but realize that while its called curry its completely different than the Indian version.

    Erica – I’m just not sure about curry flavored sodas, but having been to Japan they’ve surprised me on flavor combinations more than once so would be willing to try. Just be prepared that it tastes different!

    Jenn – I bet there are many – look forward to hearing what you think

    Sophia – I bet you could tone down the sweetness. Making it from scratch is not too complicated at all, although many Japanese i talk to think that includes the Vermont Curry package as opposed to using the ingredients individually. I linked to a lot of U Tube videos on the topic, and the recipe I included from Saveur gets you started. Look forward to seeing your version.

    As to popularity – I think people might go in expecting it to be closer to the Indian Version, and as with Indian if they’re told its hot, they’re expecting some heat. The hottest Japanese curries I’ve tried were like some mild Indian curries – so there’s a mismatch in expectations.

  8. May 1, 2010 at 6:49 AM

    i would like to tatste this japan curry !! cheers from paris Pierre

  9. May 1, 2010 at 7:23 AM

    Japanese curry sounds interesting with so mamny flavors. Wish I can try it one day.

  10. May 1, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    I’ve never heard of “curry bread” before, but now I now want to try it 🙂

    I wonder, too, if the addition of apple is something that the Japanese picked up from the British – I seem to recall from Lizzie Collingham’s book that she talked about apple as being one of the local substitutions that the Brits made when they first started making curry back in Britain. It was certainly a common addition to curries in this part of the world – in fact I’m sure that one of the first curry-type dishes that my mother made when she discovered curry powder had apples in it!

  11. May 1, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    I love curries, though I still have to try the Japanese version. I didn’t know that there were so many different Japanese curries… Thanks for making me learn something!



  12. May 1, 2010 at 8:39 PM

    I love how the Japanese have this obsession for building museums devoted to their favorite foods — curry, ramen, etc. Wish I could visit them all. Would be both fascinating and frivolous fun.

  13. May 2, 2010 at 2:12 AM

    I have never tried a Japanese curry but I appreciate being able to at least find out more about it through your writing and photos. Thank you!

  14. May 2, 2010 at 5:02 AM

    I believe that I just felt a quake on my creative Island and the natives are running for cover…curry has me in its grip too, but it took me a long time to embrace fruit+meat=acceptance and I tolerate it…hubby loves it.

    Not sure I can go there again, so I will wait for my trip to Japan, but I do love their passion for all things life…I do share that one with them…

  15. May 2, 2010 at 6:41 AM

    Not only have never had Japanese curry – I remained ignorant that they even had their own stamp on curry. The sweetness is interesting – I like a savory, spicy Indian curry. But am open to try Japan’s version. It would be a fun change.

  16. admin
    May 2, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    Lisa – I thought that the addition of flour to make the dish more boat worthy was a great story too.

    Pierre – Hopefully you can find a place in Paris to check out.

    Zerrin – Me too! I think you would enjoy it.

    Spud – You’re right about the apples, they used them to substitute for mangoes and the other more exotic fruits they could not get – raisins served the same purpose.

    Rosa – My pleasure!

    Carolyn – And this one you get to sample the different curries – my kind of place

    Taste of Beirut – You’re welcome

    Chef E – The fruit is a bit unexpected especially if your point of comparison is Indian style curry.

    Claudia – I thought the history was fascinating and the fruit certainly changes the tastes, you have to try this when your open to new tastes and not craving an Indian curry – they are not the same and you’ll still be craving the curry.

  17. May 2, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    Japanese curry on the agenda next. I so love your food evolution history lessons!

  18. May 2, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    Surprisingly, I’ve never tried Japanese curries. My husband and I love Indian food, we have our favorite Indian restaurant that we go there almost every week.

  19. May 2, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    I never had a Japanese curry! Wasn’t even aware that they ate them or had their own versions. I like the sweet element. Curry soda? Eww. Who thinks of these odd concoctions?!

  20. May 3, 2010 at 3:15 AM

    I would never have associated Japan with curry – 66 -125 times a year, amazing. I want to try the volcano curry…!

  21. May 3, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    Curry soda? Oh no way! Must find a restaurant featuring Japanese curry sometime soon.

  22. admin
    May 3, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    Kitchem Butterfly – Can’t wait to hear your feedback

    Thip – We’ll have to swap Indian restaurant tips – I’m always looking for a new one to explore.

    Reeni – Creativity is the name of the game, I had a few combos when I was in Japan that I thought might be a bit too far out, but turned out surprisingly delicious. So I’m always game to try,

    Crystal – I know – I wonderful if all those times includes eating leftovers?

    Duo Dishes – That was my reaction although I am curious as to the taste – assuming they did market research, some segment of the population finds it appealing.

  23. May 3, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    I must try Vermont (House brand) next time. I usually get the S&W (hot and spicy) version. Japanese curries taste kinda sweet to me…I like it but the spice level is different from the other Asian curries (Thai, India, Malaysia etc) due to the different herbs/spices used.

  24. May 3, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    Mehfil is the one, LouAnn. 🙂

  25. May 4, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    Hi I left a comment a loooong time ago but it never showed:-( HOpe this one goes through. From my experience Japanese curry is a fairly mild curry. It’s delicious with pork.

  26. May 4, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    I didn’t know the history behind the Japanese curry, thanks for sharing this delicious information, I need to explore more the curry areas 🙂



  27. admin
    May 4, 2010 at 7:58 PM

    Tigerfish – I agree about the sweetness especially when you’re inclined to compare it to the Indian versions, have to view them separately I think. I also hold back on the fruits if I am using a curry mix because I have the same problem with the sweetness.

    Thip – Thanks! I now look forward to checking it out.

    Wizzthestick – Crap – sorry to have you go through the trouble twice – but thanks so much for the effort. You’re right the curry is mild, especially when compared to Indian curry. We had the “volcano” curry recently and were curious as to where the flames were =)

    Gera – My pleasure!

  28. May 4, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    This is a very interesting history and evolution of Japanese curry. I didn’t know that there were so many permutations of Japanese curry, it’s very interesting the versions.

  29. May 5, 2010 at 4:11 AM

    I had never heard of Japanese curry until the friends (Aussies) we were visiting in Thailand told us about it. She had it quite often on business trips there. It seemed crazy to me at first because I only think of udon and sushi. This just means I need to get myself there and check out the real deal!

    Great recipe! I’ll definitely have to give this one a try.

  30. May 5, 2010 at 4:50 AM

    Yumm…I’m a big fan of Japanese curry, would love to cook with it for every dish, seriously. But I haven’t tried Vermont curry yet, so get used to S&B.

  31. May 5, 2010 at 7:46 AM

    I didn’t realize how popular curry was in Japan – its quite common in Korea and the sorts you describe sound familiar. In Korea you can often find curry in a powdered form and add vegetables and water to it. I think my favorite type of curry is Thai. Here in Britain the question, “would you like to go for A curry?” is often thrown about and of course means the Indian kind. When I worked at GD’s we had a chef from India come and work with us in the kitchen for two weeks. He showed us how to make curry from scratch, including toasting our own fresh coconuts for the sauce – was quite an amazing experience.

  32. May 5, 2010 at 11:34 PM

    Japanese curry is one of my favorites! I love the spicy, thick sauce. So good!

  33. May 6, 2010 at 12:54 AM

    That wafuu curry sounds so good to me!

    Thanks for the learning process!

  34. admin
    May 7, 2010 at 12:13 PM

    Christine – I knew of a few of the varieties going in, but the diversity surprised me too

    Lori – Japanese curry is definitely worth a try, and I think you’d like it, but it is a completely different taste than udon and other more popular Japanese food in the States.

    Christine – I’ve only had Vermont – I think we’ll have to switch it up a bit. =)

    Gastro – From what I understand the Korean curry is essentially the same as the Japanese, so if you’ve had Korean you know what to expect. I agree with you that homemade curry sans curry powder is incredible the flavors are out of this world. The first time I made curry from scratch and savored the results, I could not believe I was responsible for that bit of perfection. I’m also with you that Thai curry is up at the top of my list for me too.

    Sook – Japanese curry is indeed good and tasty!

    Sophie – The wafuu curry is delicious and its a good opportunity to make this style of curry from scratch.

  35. May 20, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    Dear Lou-Ann!
    Greetings from Japan!
    Not much to add there! Very, very good posting!
    I’d just like to point out that the Japanese invariably like their curry soup-style or dry-style. The difference is simple: Soup curry will be served on half the plate with plain rice. Dry curry just means that the rice will be mixed with (less) soup so as to appar “dry”. It will often be served topped with a fried egg, then.
    The Japanese also like to have pickled ginger with it.
    Although curry was introduced by the British, the present fashion is more based on what was eaten in Thailand and Burma where the Japanese Navy stayed for quite some time during WWII (very practical for a Navy canteen).
    Will post a natto article next week to help you, unless you want the information mailed to you!

  36. May 30, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    Japan’s been my number one travel place for years! Now i wanna go so bad just for the food! Thanks for all the delicious food info!

  37. admin
    June 2, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    Robert-Gilles – High praise indeed coming from you.

    Meesan – My pleasure!

  38. June 2, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    I will have to get rid of that “specialist” reputation of mine!
    All the best!

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