Japanese Curry: Japan’s Favorite Dish

By Umami Recipe
Japanese Curry: Japan’s Favorite Dish

When it comes to Japanese cuisine, sushi and ramen are probably the foods that first spring to mind. But what about curry?

In Japan, there is a real curry culture – one that is akin to places like India and Thailand but is also uniquely Japanese. Japanese curry, known as curry rice (カレーライス), is in fact one of the country’s most popular dishes.

In this article, we’ll look at a few of Japanese people’s favorite types of curry and what kinds of ingredients are used to make them.

A Brief History of Japanese Curry

It is believed that Japanese curry comes from British-style Indian curry, characterized by a spicy curry sauce served with rice. Upon introduction to Japan via the British navy, this curry further evolved to accommodate the Japanese palate.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the number of Western-style restaurants began to increase, and curry gradually oozed its way into public consciousness. Later, in the Taisho era (1912-1926), food manufacturer S&B Foods developed a wildly popular curry powder that was soon spotted in restaurants and homes across Japan.

Variations such as authentic Indian and Pakistani curry, Southeast Asian soup curry, and curry combined with Japanese cuisine are now easily found on restaurant menus up and down the country.

How Does Japanese Curry Differ From Thai or Indian Curry?

Although not as globally familiarized, Japanese curry has its own characteristics that distinguish it from its more famous Thai and Indian counterparts.

Firstly, Japanese curry is paired with Japonica rice instead of Indica rice. Japonica rice is short-grained rice that is sticky and sweet, while Indica rice is long grain rice that is dry with a strong aroma.

Secondly, Japanese curry roux is prepared as a thick sauce made of vegetables mixed with spices and simmered together for up to several hours. In the case of Indian curry, regional differences in types of curry mean some are made with fish, some with only vegetables, some are smooth, and some are thick. Thai curries are generally smooth, with a lighter consistency much like a soup.

Thirdly, when it comes to taste, Japanese curry is moderately spiced and the umami of the vegetables and meat are drawn out in the thick sauce. In Indian curry, ingredients are cooked with a robust amount of spices at the base, and many contain lots of chili peppers, turmeric, and garlic. Thai curry is usually made with coconut milk and chili, a combination that produces a complex taste of sweetness and spice.

What Are Some Popular Types of Curry Rice in Japan?

Among the most loved curries in Japan, you’ll find pork cutlet curry, chicken curry, beef curry, dry curry, and pork curry.

Let’s take a closer look at these curries and some of the secrets behind their popularity.

Katsu-Curry (カツカレー)

Katsu-Curry is Japanese curry with the added bonus of a large deep-fried pork or chicken cutlet.

Katsu-Curry is said to have originated in Japan at a restaurant that served western-style cuisine about 100 years ago. The story goes that a hungry (and imaginative) baseball player asked for a pork cutlet on his curry – and so this beloved pairing of curry and deep-fried meat was consummated.

Today, Katsu-Curry is a staple in many western-style restaurants and curry shops across Japan. The ultimate comfort food for some, others can find the heavy combo hard on the digestive system, so Katsu-Curry is often served with vegetables like shredded cabbage to offset the oiliness.

Pork Cutlet Curry and Rice

A satisfying dish of curry and rice topped with breaded pork cutlet. It is a favorite at homes across Japan, but also widely available in restaurants and school cafeterias. We encourage you to try rec...

Chicken Cutlet Curry

Following the pork katsu curry (curry with pork cutlet) recipe, this chicken katsu curry dish (curry with chicken cutlet), has fewer calories and checks all the boxes for a delicious meal. It is best ...

Chicken Curry (チキンカレー)

Chicken curry is a popular curry in its native India, as the consumption of chicken is not taboo in Hindu and Buddhist religions. Chicken curry is also very popular in Japan as an economical substitute for more expensive meats like beef and pork. As a good source of protein and easy to make, chicken curry is often a go-to for student athletes.

Beef Curry (ビーフカレー)

Though it takes longer to cook, beef adds a richness to the roux that other meats can't compete with, especially when lightly fried in butter or stewed in red wine before being added to the vegetables. Since beef curry tends to be more difficult to prepare, it’s often eaten at restaurants.

Fun fact: In Japan, curry preferences are divided between Eastern and Western regions with beef curry being more popular in the west, and pork curry the top pick in the east.

Japanese Beef Curry

Japanese curry rice is popular among children and adults alike. It has both meat and vegetables as main ingredients, so it's not only great-tasting but packed with nutrition as well. We've inc...

Dry Curry (ドライカレー)

Indian Keema Curry is often mistakenly equated with Japanese dry curry, though the latter can be said to have evolved from the former. That said, keema curry has a higher water content than Japanese dry curry. Though both keema curry and dry curry use ground meat, Japanese dry curry usually consists of chopped carrots and onions, whereas keema curry uses chickpeas and a variety of spices.

Dry Curry with Summer Vegetables

These colorful summer vegetables are rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C; good for the skin especially when UV rays are strong and the weather is hot. Vegetable prep is simple, only requiring micro...

Pork Curry (ポークカレー)

Pork curry is the most commonly eaten and easily prepared curry in Japan. Typically packed with lots of ingredients including pork, onions, potatoes, and carrots – this is the classic curry that Japanese people go crazy for. If it’s your first time eating curry in Japan, we recommend trying the pork curry to begin with.

What is Fukujinzuke and Rakkyo?

There are a variety of garnishes that you can add to a Japanese curry that you won’t really find outside of Japan. Fukujinzuke and Rakkyo are the two main ones.

Fukujinzuke (福神漬)

Fukujinzuke is a pickle made from vegetables such as daikon, eggplant, shiitake, lotus root, and cucumber or turnip (this can vary depending on the season and region), and seasoned with sugar, soy sauce, and mirin, Seven kinds of vegetables were originally used in fukujinzuke, which is why it was also called "Nanafukujinzuke", with "nana" meaning "seven" in Japanese.

According to strict government regulations, pickles that can be made from five or more types of vegetables can be considered fukujinzuke. Most of the fukujinzuke sold on the market is colored with red food coloring giving that distinct bright red garnish.

Rakkyo (らっきょう)

Rakkyo is a vegetable that originates from China. It has many medicinal properties and has been eaten in Japan since the Heian period (794-1185). You usually eat the white portion of the root. When served with curry, the rakkyo is pickled in sweet vinegar, creating a sweet and sour taste that blends well with the curry.

What is Japanese Curry Roux?

Curry roux is an ingredient that is dissolved in water to make the sauce for the curry. It is a solid, paste, or flaky mixture made by frying flour in butter and mixing it with curry powder, spices, and other umami ingredients. A bit like a stock cube, curry roux is indispensable for making a quick and easy curry at home.

In Japan, you can buy all kinds of curry roux. Many of them have unique characteristics in terms of spiciness and taste, and it’s fun to try out all the different options. Just be sure to wear loose pants!

Some Popular Types of Curry Roux (Vermont Curry, Java Curry, and Golden Curry)

The first food manufacturers to successfully produce curry powder in Japan were S.B. Foods and House Foods. They are the makers behind the big-name curry roux brands Vermont Curry, Java Curry, and Golden Curry.

Vermont Curry is sweetened with apples and honey making it popular among children. Javanese curry is characterized by its authentic spiciness. Golden Curry is characterized by its deep umami and aroma of spices made from 35 different spices.

But it doesn't stop there. Walk into any supermarket in Japan and you will find shelves full of curry roux options catering to all preferences and tastes.

What is The Typical Spice Level of a Japanese Curry?

There are three main levels of spiciness when it comes to a Japanese curry sauce: sweet, medium, and spicy. With the recent boom in spicy foods in Japan, though, curry roux is actually getting spicier so there may be a need to add more levels in the not-so-distant future!

Forget Sushi, Try Japanese Curry Instead

As a nationally recognized dish, we reckon that Japanese curry is one of the most important foods to learn more about Japanese food culture. When you come to Japan, why not order it at a restaurant or try a curry roux and cook at home to get a taste of what Japanese people truly love to eat!

View more Japanese curry recipes from here.

Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.