Let’s dive in.
I’m going to blast through some history here, but long story short, curry first made its way to Japan in the late 1800s, but really became popular in the early 1900s and has only grown in popularity since then. What really pushed it from a niche food to mainstream popularity was, and 500 pts if you guessed it, the Japanese Army and Navy. Curry became a staple in the early 1900s for the Japanese armed forces, and as you can imagine, when soldiers and sailors came home, they brought their love of curry with them. Today, curry is on par with ramen and sushi in Japan (yes, really!) and is served everywhere, from convenience stores, to schools, and yes, military bases.
What is it?:
Japanese Curry has a unique flavour profile compared to what you may be used to for curry dishes. It tends to be mild (think more warm and cozy than hot or piquant) and also tends to have some sweetness brought on by the inclusion of fruit, sugar, or honey. Even curry mixes labeled “hot” tend to be pretty mild if you are used to the more common Indian or Southeast Asian curries. The mix of warm spice and natural sweetness means it is something altogether different from what you see from any curries from other parts of the world.
While there are multiple brands, the most common ones you will probably find in the US will be Golden Curry and Vermont Curry. You may see more, but if you go to the international aisle in your local supermarket or the curry section of your local asian grocery store (Korean stores tend to have more than Chinese ones), but those are the two biggies. They come in long rectangular boxes which contain blocks of curry paste, but more on that later. It’s pretty standard to also see three levels of heat - mild, med-hot, and hot. Like I mentioned, even “hot” varieties lean pretty mild in my experience, but that isn’t a bad thing. Of the ones I have tried, my favorite variety tends to be Vermont Curry’s Med-Hot flavour. It has a great mix of warm curry spices and sweetness which comes from honey and apple.
While served many ways in Japan - the most common being curry and rice, curry udon noodles, and curry buns - I’m going to focus on curry rice and the format you will most commonly find Japanse curry in the grocery story today - curry roux blocks.
The idea of curry coming in block form is a bit strange, and to be honest, while I’ve seen these boxes of curry blocks on the shelves of Asian grocery stores for years, it took until maybe 3-4 years ago for me to actually go and buy a box and add it to my regular rotation.
Curry Blocks, also called Curry Roux, are pretty true to their name. In their long rectangular boxes, trays of curry paste are formed into convenient blocks with flour, oil, and other ingredients, all ready to be mixed with simmering water and other ingredients to create a thick, warm curry sauce. This is the magic of curry blocks - the prep work of making a roux and making sure the spices are balanced is all done for you. All you have to do is do some initial cooking of your meat and vegetables, add water, simmer, and add the curry blocks to have a tasty meal ready in under 45 minutes.
While I mentioned there is not really a recipe per se, there are a few tips on making the most of your curry experience which I want to share based on my own trial and error and recommendations from others on the internet.
- Cut your protein and vegetables into large, bite sized chunks - While it does not take long to prepare a dish of curry, you still are simmering your “stew” and total cooking time will be about 30-35 minutes, so don’t cut your vegetables too small, otherwise they may turn to mush.
- Use tender cuts of meat - Because this is a quicker cooking dish, you will want to use meat that will stay tender even with a relative shorter cooking time. Chicken, both white and dark meat like boneless thighs, work well. If you’re in the mood for beef, choose a steak cut like sirloin or NY Strip, and cut into bite-sized chunks so you have tender chunks of beef in your finished dish. Vegetarian? A firm tofu or fried tofu are great options.
- Keep vegetables simple - The traditional Japanese curry is light on the vegetables, but I’m going to argue that is OK. The 3 primary veggies in a Japanese curry are onions, carrot, and potato. All three, like the rest of the ingredients, are cut roughly and in large pieces. On its own, this makes a warm, hearty, and delicious curry. If you insist on adding more vegetables, choose quick cooking vegetables which can be added at the end of cooking. Think tender greens like spinach or frozen green peas, which can be added in the last minute or two of cooking and quickly mixed in and cooked by the hot sauce. It may not be traditional, but as long as you like it, that’s OK.
- Brown your meat - Many recipes and directions call for the meat and vegetables to be added to a pot together and cooked at once. I’m a fan of adding additional flavor whenever possible as long as it’s easy, so I like to take the step to brown meat for about 3-4 minutes in hot oil before adding in the additional vegetables for the extra flavour. I recommend you do too!
- Garnish with something fresh - I like to serve by Japanese curry with fresh white rice, and on its own, it is amazingly delicious. But if you would like to take things to the next level, keep a small jar of pickled ginger (like the kind you get with sushi) in your fridge to serve alongside your curry. The contrast of the bright and sweet ginger and the warm, savoury curry will take your curry from a 10 to a 12. Look for it in the international aisle of your favorite grocery store or your local asian grocery. Not a fan of ginger? Fresh sliced green onion is also a pro move.
Alright - hopefully by now I’ve piqued your interest on what Japanese Curry Blocks can do for you. For a quick, flavorful meal that can be made with on-hand ingredients and be ready in under 45 minutes, I would argue that Japanese Curry is hard to beat. Curry blocks are becoming increasingly common and easy to find, are inexpensive, and will keep in your pantry for over a year. It’s perfect for those who want something a bit different and even good for those who are averse to spicy food but want something packed with flavor.
Instead of a recipe - here’s a perfect video showing how to prepare Japanese Curry at home. Try it out today - you’ll be hooked before you know it.