So far in our curry series, we have examined Britain and Thailand’s take on the Indian curry, familiar yet different, a classic example of other cultures assimilating our cuisine and making it their own, a reverse Tangra chilli chicken or white sauce penne, if you will. In this final instalment, we turn our attention to the Far East.
I’ve seen curry being featured a lot in Japanese animes, with white rice and a brown curry occupying each half of the plate. This might shock us Indians, but curry, or kare as the Japanese call it, is a big part of their cuisine. Although the Indian and Japanese curries look pretty similar, they are prepared in very different ways, which impacts their final flavour and texture. And interestingly, curry didn’t reach the Japanese shore directly from India, but via the British.
” The curry which the British introduced to Japan was the Anglo-Indian version of Indian food that was commonplace throughout the Raj and which had found its way on to the menus of merchant ships and P&O steamers. Japanese recipes instructed the novice on how to mix curry powder with flour and then fry it in butter to produce a curry roux to which meat, vegetables and stock were added. Once the dish had simmered for a while, it was finished off with a dash of cream and a dribble of lemon juice.”
— Lizzie Collingham, Curry.
The Japanese curry is a classic example of the culinary style and philosophy called yoshoku, which happened during the Meiji res restoration of the second half of the 19th century. It refers to the incorporation of foreign influences into Japanese cuisine. Other Examples include the korokke from the French croquette), the omuraisu (which has French elements like omelette and demiglace) and the hambagu, Japan’s take on the American hamburger, served with rice instead of between buns.
One of the finest examples of yoshoku is the ingredient that lies at the heart of the Japanese curry: the curry roux, which combines a French cooking technique with an Indian ingredient filtered through a British lens. A roux is a mixture of flour and butter used to thicken a number of French sauces like the bechamel and velouté. Add to it an English-style curry powder and you get the basis for all Japanese curries. While you can make a curry roux from scratch, most Japanese households stock up on cubes of store-bought roux to whip up a curry in a hurry.
While Indian and Thai curries revolve around the a freshly made dry spice mix or wet spice paste, the curry roux takes the convenience of the British curry powder to the next level. And as in a British curry, complexity of flavour and interplay of spices is secondary to the general “curry” flavour. You could throw in some garam masala or red chilli if you want to, though most Japanese don’t really care much. And even if you do, the presence of the flour and butter will make the final curry mellower compared to the spice-forward palette of most Indian and Thai curries. It is usually served with pickles to offset the richness of the curry.
The commonest version of the Japanese curry uses chicken or beef, potato and carrot. It is not a meat-heavy dish, and the veggies are just as important as the meat. The texture of the curry is much thicker than Indian curries thanks to the roux, and it is very mildly spiced. The sauce could be blitzed into a smooth paste in fancy restaurants but at its heart, the kare is a rustic dish. It is traditionally eaten with rice, although the popularity of curry has spawned other dishes like katsu kare and kare pan, which we will see in a bit.
The USP of the Japanese curry is convenience. During the early 20th century, curry rice was adopted by the military canteens as a food that can be quickly whipped up in large batches, providing the troops with the necessary nourishment of meat and veg. After World War 2, it started featuring in school canteens for much the same reason. And with the advent of the pre-made curry roux, the kare, like the TV dinners of the West, became the ultimate convenience meal.
To make the kare, simply fry the meat and veg, add water and a cube of curry roux, season with ketchup, soy, Worcestershire sauce and a fruit component like grated apple or apricot preserve (the resemblance to Madame Crocombe’s curry is pretty obvious with this step), and let it bubble away till the curry thickens. What’s more, the kare is exempt from gochiso, Japanese culinary laws of purity and perfection, meaning that unlike sushi or sashimi which need to be plated and eaten a certain way, kare can be lazily ladled onto rice, making it the ultimate comfort food.
One aspect of the curry really epitomises the Japanese cooking philosophy and sets it apart from the Indian curry. The elements like meat and veg are cooked separately and added to the sauce at the very end, unlike Indian or even Thai curries where the components are cooked with the spices so that they penetrate the meat thoroughly, something we can also ensure via an extra step of marination. “The spice hasn’t penetrated the chicken” is a common complaint you would get with a lot of mediocre Indian curries.
But the Japanese value purity of ingredients, in an almost European way: “chicken should taste of chicken, lamb should be lamby, and pork must be porky”. A lot of traditional French cooking focuses on highlighting the main ingredient. By cooking the meat and veg separately, the flavour of the individual components are maintained. The curry sauce merely enrobes them with another dimension of flavour, much like a red wine sauce spooned over a nice steak.
The Japanese curry goes far beyond the humble curry rice or kare raisu. The kare udon combines the spiced curry with thick, chewy strands of udon or wheat noodles. The kare-pan or curry bread involves us dough with a curry filling, similar to the Malaysian karipap, and maybe even the Indian samosa. The katsu kare combines the curry and rice with a katsu, a cutlet made of chicken or more commonly, pork. The pork cutlet is called tonkatsu, not to be confused with tonkotsu, a style of ramen made using pork bones (ton means pork, kotsu means bone).
And even these compound curry dishes are great examples of yoshoku: the katsu is a derivative of the schitzel or cutlet, while the kare pan, which closely resembles the Malaysian curry puff or karipap, is clearly derived from the French “pain” or bread. For a culture that remained relatively isolated for most of its history, Japan ha embraced globalism in the most unique and astounding way over the past century and a half, and the Japanese curry is one of its greatest examples.
Of course, there are numerous other derivates of our beloved curry, but the British, Thai and Japanese curries have speciated in true Darwinian fashion into three unique dishes which, despite some resemblance to our own cuisine, have turned into dishes which are uniquely their own.