Curry is not something that comes to mind when you think of Japanese food nor are you likely to come across a recipe for curry (kare) in a Japanese cookbook. That said, curry is so popular in Japan it is “unofficially” considered a national dish. You will find curry shops in train stations, on the high streets, and instant curry products on endless shelves in supermarkets and 24 hour shops. Japanese curry houses abound outside of Japan as well, branding if you will, Japan’s “modern” fast food cuisine!
“Modern” denotes Japan’s transition from an insular agrarian island nation into an international industrial economic powerhouse. Curry was introduced into Japan via the English Raj colonial rule during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Following WWII Japan refocused it’s trajectory towards rapid modernization and everything that went with it. With the new fast and hectic lifestyle home cooking transitioned with modernity. For better or worse fast food had arrived!
I’ve tried Japanese curries over the years with mixed feelings. In its simplest form udon noodles are napped in a thick, sometimes almost custardy, curry sauce. Not so appealing I have say. On other forays curries were more like a vegetable stew, sometimes with meat or chicken, that were served with noodles or with a side of rice. These were far more appealing and I felt well worth trying at home.
Instant packaged curry sauce mixes (roux), which I had never tried at home, are the most popular quick and easy base for Japanese curries made both at home and in curry shops. Curiosity sent me off to find Japan’s most popular brand S&B Golden Curry Sauce Mix. The resulting curry was indeed tasty, but unfortunately it left an unpleasant grease slick on my lips and in my mouth. After reading the label I discovered the mix had a 20% saturated fat content (palm oil), as well as MSG, disodium guanylate, and disodium nosinate. Obviously making a “slow” Japanese curry at home had to be a far better option.
So it was into to the kitchen to make a Japanese curry from scratch. Yes, a little more time and effort was required, but the result was as delicious as it was nutritional. I did away with the roux (fat/ flour thickener), which is contrary to everything I know about Japanese cooking anyway. Instead I used cornstarch which is commonly used in Japan to thicken curry, soups, and sauces, eliminating fat content entirely. I also used a traditional dashi broth for the recipe which added a supporting umami flavor and nutritional value to the curry.
I have to say, as skeptical as I was, I’ve been won over by Japanese curry. An aromatic bowl of piping hot udon noodle curry can be a heartily satisfying experience, including noisily slurping up those saucy noodles as they do in Japan!
Japanese Udon Curry serves 4
- 9oz/250g chicken, pork, or beef, cut into bite size slices (Optional)
- 2 tablespoons light vegetable oil (olive is fine)
- 1 medium onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- ¼ cup sake (Japanese rice wine)
- 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
- 2 tablespoons curry powder + more to taste
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar
- 5 cups/1 ¼ liters dashi (see recipe here), stock or water heated to a near boil
- 1 plump carrot, peeled, sliced in half lengthwise and very thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons corn starch
- 3 tablespoons cold water
- 6oz/175g green beans, steamed al dent and halved
- 5.3 oz/50g shimeji mushrooms (enoki or shiitake/sliced) separated
- pinch of cayenne (optional)
- 1.5 pounds/ 675g pre-cooked udon noodles or 12oz/350g dried
- 4 green onions, thinly sliced (garnish)
Place a large deep skillet (or wok) on the stove over medium heat.
If you are using chicken, pork, or beef, when the pan is hot add the oil and the chicken or meat and saute until nicely browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Otherwise heat the oil in the pan and add the onions and lower the heat. Saute the onions until they are very soft. Then add the garlic and ginger and saute for 2 minutes while stirring. Add the sake, mirin, and 1 teaspoon sea salt and continue to saute until the liquid is mostly absorbed. Then stir in the curry powder, garam masala, soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon sugar and stir until combined.
Promptly stir in the hot dashi (stock or water) and stir to combine. Once the liquid is simmering return the browned chicken or meat (if using) to the pan and simmer for 15 minutes stirring from time to time. Then add the carrots and continue to simmer another 20 minutes.
While the curry is simmering set a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. If you are using dried udon noodles plunge them into the boiling water and cook at a rapid boil until al dente as you would pasta. Promptly transfer the noodles to a metal strainer with a handle and drain. Rinse the noodles briefly under cold tap water and set aside to drain.
Keep the pot of water at a simmer for reheating the noodles just before serving.
Place the corn starch in a small bowl and add the cold water. Whisk until the corn starch is incorporated into the water and there are no lumps. Promptly stir the mixture into the simmering curry and continue stirring. The curry broth will thicken as the curry returns to a simmer. Simmer for another minute.
A word of caution. Corn starch thickened sauce should be kept at a very low simmer and only cooked for a few minutes. A rapid boil or extended cooking time will cause the sauce to thin out.
The thickness of the curry is up to your own preference. You can thin the sauce if you like by adding hot dashi, a little at a time while stirring, until you reach the consistency you like.
At this point you can set the curry aside to reheat later, or refrigerate for up to four days.
…or continue to simmer the curry for another minute and then add the steamed green beans and mushrooms. Once the curry returns to a low simmer cook for another minute. Taste and adjust the curry by adding more salt, sugar, or curry powder to taste. Additionally add a pinch of cayenne if you want to punch up the heat a little bit.
To reheat the precooked noodles, place a portion of noodles in a metal strainer with a handle and lower it into the pot of boiling water for about 45 seconds. Lift the strainer out of the water and give the noodles a shake to drain off excess water. Repeat for each serving.
Promptly place the hot noodles into individual serving bowls and ladle the curry, including ample sauce, over the hot noodles. Using chopsticks, give each serving a gentle stir to evenly distribute the sauce and garnish with sliced green onions and serve.