Recipe Spotlight

Curry Rice: Japan’s Comfort Food on the Fly

Vegetables and protein simmered in a fragrant box-mix stew, kare raisu has long been a quick, hearty staple for Japanese cooks. Nowadays, from-scratch versions are too.

Published Oct. 2, 2023.

The charms of curry rice are as multivarious as the dish itself, but first on the list might be how purely comforting it is. On one side of the bowl sits the stew: a pool of velvety brown gravy as deeply savory as it is fragrantly spiced, enveloping chunks of tender meat and vegetables. On the other, a generous mound of steamed rice: utterly neutral, gently chewy grains that both soak up some of the gravy and offer a palate-cleansing respite from it.

That split-screen plating is intentional for eating purposes and serves as a reminder that curry rice, or kare raisu, is one of the great mergers between Japanese and Western cooking and a prime example of yoshoku (Japanese foods inspired by the West). Japan adopted curry from the British when the archipelago emerged from isolation during the late 19th-century Meiji Restoration, associating the spiced stew’s well-balanced nutrition and resourceful approach to stretching meat and vegetables with the modern West. (Of course, British curry itself was an adaptation of the richly spiced stews British colonizers experienced in South Asia.)

Like many Western stews, curry rice is made by cooking meat and vegetables in a gravy thickened by a roux, in this case seasoned with Japanese curry powder. As the dish gained in popularity in Japan in the early to mid-1900s, Japanese spice companies such as House Foods and S&B Foods transformed the curry roux into precooked solidified “bricks” that could be slipped into liquid with fresh vegetables and/or proteins, making curry rice a snap to prepare and replicable on a grand scale (think: mess halls and school cafeterias). Thousands of curry shops sprang up peddling their own unique blends, while home cooks routinely doctored the commercial base with anything from honey and apple to dashi, coffee, or cheddar cheese. By the time it reached national-dish status, curry rice had become a sort of universal language with individual dialects. 

If you have a (curry-roux) brick ready to go, you just pop it into broth with some proteins and vegetables, and you have something so satisfying.
Sonoko Sakai, cooking teacher and cookbook author

Now Japanese consumers are starting to push that customization to the next level.

“The palate has really become sophisticated,” Sonoko Sakai told me on a phone call from her home in California. The acclaimed Japanese American cooking teacher and author of Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors (2019) noted that while most home cooks still rely on commercial curry roux, they’re increasingly interested in blending their own curry powders and even making curry-roux bricks from scratch. “They’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, this curry-roux is convenient—just drop it in water and have curry in 20 minutes—but it’s kind of flat,’” she said. “‘How can we make it better?’”

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The DIY approach intrigued me too: I could blend curry powder to my taste, support its savoriness with umami boosters, and incorporate it into roux. And I could add the curry roux directly to a batch of stew or form it into bricks and freeze them for whenever I need a fast, warming meal.

“If you have a brick ready to go,” Sakai said, “you just pop it into broth with some proteins and vegetables, and you have something so satisfying.”

The Rapid, Improbable Rise of Japanese Curry

You’d never know that curry, which is everywhere in Japan, wasn’t always part of the cuisine. Less than 200 years ago, spices such as turmeric and cinnamon, today fundamental to any Japanese curry powder, were kept only for medicinal purposes. 

Only once Japan opened its borders during the Meiji Restoration (mid- to late 1800s) did the nation become acquainted with the spice blend that the British adapted from South Asian cooking and dubbed “curry powder.” Its allure caught on fast, particularly the spiced meat‑and-vegetable stews, or curries, popular with the Royal Navy, which became an iconic mate for Japan’s prized polished white rice. 

Recipes for curry—the spice blend and the stew—appeared in Japanese cookbooks by the late 1800s and within a few decades, Japanese culinary manufacturing giants such as House Foods and S&B Foods were mass-producing their own curry powder and curry-roux bricks. 

Eric Rath, a professor of history at the University of Kansas who specializes in Japan and its food, noted that in the early 1900s, curry’s perceived modernity prompted the Japanese newspaper Sanyo Shimbun to publish an article about the rise of curry entitled “Western and Japanese Enlightenment on a Plate.” 

“You have Japanese white rice, which is highly esteemed,” Rath said, “and then you have this Western dish, that meet together. It was sort of like the quintessential advanced food blending of East and West.”

Currying Flavor

Most Japanese curry powders are mild and earthy with pronounced savory-sweet warmth, a complexity that’s achieved by blending a dozen or so spices into balance. I like to think of the individual spices as instruments in an orchestra and the blend’s flavor profile as a symphony created by the ensemble. 

As I tinkered with my own formula, I grouped the spices into categories based on their purpose: Some (coriander, ginger, fenugreek, turmeric, fennel, and cinnamon) laid the foundation for the blend; others (cumin, brown mustard, garlic powder) brought rich base notes or (green cardamom, black pepper) added trills that lightened and enlivened it. A little sugar and smooth, umami-rich miso rounded out the flavors.

Initially I ground whole spices myself, figuring that their fresher aroma and flavor would be worth the effort. But I quickly realized that the type of spice grinders most home cooks have produces a coarse powder that requires sifting, so I switched to ground spices (the fresher, the better) and simply stirred them into the hot roux. It wasn’t necessary to toast them separately; the roux did an admirable job of that, and the spices in turn cooled the roux so that it didn’t overcook.

Bright Finish

Acid is a must for balancing curry’s savory, earthy warmth. Fukujinzuke, the sweet-tart pickled vegetable mixture, is traditional (find jarred versions, which are often vividly red or pink, at Japanese or Korean markets), as is pickled ginger or lemon wedges. 

Laying Brick

Curry roux works fast magic: When added to the stew’s hot cooking liquid, its fat melts; the spices and fat-coated flour particles disperse; and those flour particles absorb water, swell, and thicken the liquid. Form it into bricks and freeze it, and you can keep that magic on hold until you need it.

To make one large brick (enough for two batches of curry), I started by whisking flour into a roughly equal amount of melted butter. (Commercial producers use vegetable oils with enough saturated fat to keep the brick solid at room temperature; butter is simpler for home cooks.) Then, I cooked the mixture until the roux was golden brown—but no further. Lighter rouxs taste mellower, allowing the spices to stand out. Plus, they’ve got more thickening power: The further the roux browns, the more the flour’s starch chains break into smaller molecules that flow more freely and thus don’t thicken liquid as much. Bottom line: I could use less flour to achieve the velvety consistency I was after.

Blending Curry Powder Is a Balancing Act

Composing curry powder is all about balance, Sonoko Sakai told me when we spoke about how the Japanese American cooking teacher and author of Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors (2019) blends her mix. “No single spice should stand out,” she said. “It should come to this harmonized flavor.” Here, coriander, ginger, fenugreek, turmeric, fennel, and cinnamon serve as a foundation for curry’s earthy warmth. Cumin, brown mustard, and garlic powder bring rich base notes, and green cardamom and black pepper brighten the mix. Sugar and smooth, umami-rich miso round it all out.

SOLID BRICK: Refrigerated in a loaf pan, the curry roux molds into a “brick” that’s easily halved for two batches of curry rice. Better yet, double the recipe and freeze the bricks to have on hand for fast meals.

From there, I simply whisked in the sugar, spices, and miso off the heat and either used half of it right away in a batch of curry rice and stored the rest or transferred all of the roux to a loaf pan, which molded it into something resembling an oversized chocolate bar. Then, I chilled it for 30 minutes to firm up the butterfat, ran a butter knife around the perimeter of the pan and inverted it to release the brick, and cut it in half.

The Nicest Rice for Curry Rice: Curry rice is a rice dish, and half of each portion should feature a mound of steamed short-grain white rice to complement the deeply seasoned stew. When properly cooked, the grains are distinct enough that many of them seem to point upward. Or as cooking teacher and author Sonoko Sakai put it, if you’ve made good rice “the grains are practically standing.”

From-Scratch Fast Food

With the curry roux all set, making curry rice was as quick as using box-mix bricks. I got a pot of rice going and then sautéed onion, ginger, and garlic until a fond formed. In went chunks of boneless chicken thighs that I had seasoned with salt, followed by carrots and potatoes—iconic in Japanese curry—and chicken broth. I simmered the pot for about 20 minutes to cook the meat and vegetables and then slipped in half of the curry brick along with soy and Worcestershire sauces for extra savoriness. Within minutes, the gravy was as satiny as heavy cream.

I ladled the hearty, deeply savory and aromatic stew into bowls alongside a mound of rice, per the traditional split-screen presentation, and topped off each portion with scallion and fukujinzuke, Japan’s sweet-tart vegetable pickle, for a bright finish. (Pickled ginger or lemon wedges work well too.)

Tucking into the curry and the rice was supremely comforting and satisfying. So was knowing that I had another brick on reserve for my next batch.


Kare Raisu (Japanese Curry Rice with Chicken)

Vegetables and protein simmered in a fragrant box-mix stew, kare raisu has long been Japan's comfort food on the fly. Nowadays, from-scratch versions are too.
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