Curry is a Japanese National Dish
If you had to come up with an example of Japanese food, you might say sushi or ramen. But did you know that curry is actually considered to be one of the national dishes of Japan? In Kanda, a small business area in Tokyo populated with lots of offices, it's not uncommon to see besuited business men standing in lines to eat curry for lunch at one of the 400 or so specialist restaurants that dominate the district.
You'll see curry as an option on a wide range of Japanese food menus, whether it’s at a casual family joint or the fine dining room of a leading five-star hotel, in a soba noodle restaurant, local café, a school cafeteria or even at a pastry shop. Curry is also a staple dish on the menu of Japanese homes, with many people frequently preparing curry for lunch or dinner.
The key to curry’s enormous popularity? It’s got to do with what’s known as the “curry roux,” a unique Japanese invention that’s been a staple product of Japanese kitchens for more than 60 years.
The ingredients of a typical curry roux include flour, spices, oils and fats. A number of curry roux brands are available, each offering a selection of “mild,” “medium” and “spicy” levels to satisfy different consumer preferences. The curry roux produces a curry that is thick in texture, very similar to English-style curry but different to that which you’ll eat in India or Southeast Asia.
You can make a tasty curry by simply mixing the curry roux with any other ingredients you want to include together in a pan. Japanese people like to get creative, inventing their own personalized curry dishes with various ingredients and seasonings.
According to recent trends, and with an increase in the number of dual-income and elderly households, pre-packaged curry in a pouch is becoming increasingly popular. As lifestyles change, this kind of ready-made Japanese curry is proving now more than ever to be a convenient, customizable and always delicious meal option.
Japanese curry is usually eaten with rice together as one dish and is seen as a heart-warming symbol of family dining.
*1. Exhibit: A 2016 Statistic Report by the All Japan Curry Manufacturers Association shows that Japanese people eat curry approximately 73 times per year on average, or more than once per week. *Both for household and restaurant use.
*2. Results from a 2017 Market Survey by the Japan Management Association (Nihon Noritsu Kyokai) in answer to the question, “What household dishes do you prepare more than once a week?” show that 80 percent of housewives and 50 percent of bachelors cook curry.
*3. In 1950, soon after the Second World War, the development of curry roux as a product began after which it was gradually and widely accepted by Japanese households.
*4. In 1968, Japan commercialized the world’s first retort-packaged instant food (preserved in a plastic and foil pouch).
Japanese Curry is a Super Food
Japanese curry is packed with nutrients and is thought of as a super food in Japan. This is one of the reasons why curry has been on the lunch menu of Japanese elementary schools since it was first launched in 1948, and why it is consistently picked as a favorite menu option by school children.
One of the biggest appeals of Japanese curry is that it provides well-balanced nutritional value in just one dish. The rice contains carbohydrates for energy, there’s meat for protein and the vegetables supply vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Furthermore, curry powder and curry roux both contain many kinds of spices and herbs, some of which are recognized for their medicinal properties. In Japan, some of these spices and herbs have been used since ancient times, not only for the prevention of diseases but also for general health maintenance. In fact, Japanese people between 50 and 70-years-old are shown to rank curry highly on their list of favorite meals for dinner, in part thanks to its health benefits.
Currently, the benefits of the various spices used in Japanese curry are of particular interest to health and other related industry professionals who are studying their effects on stress reduction, brain activation, and energy and vitality.
Another fact to note about Japanese curry is its low salt content. The blend of ingredients added to curry mean that there is no need to add lots of salt for flavor. The average salt content of Japanese curry is approximately 2.3 grams per serving — 1/3 or the salt content found in ramen. Nowadays, you can buy both curry roux and ready-made pouch curry with a reduced sodium content.
Japanese people are known for having the highest life expectancy in the world. As such, people across the world are keen to know more about the healthy rewards of Japanese curry and how eating it can benefit them.
*1. Exhibit: Curry Rice won first place in a market survey conducted by Kyodo News Agency to determine the favorite school lunch meal of children starting a new semester, as well as the ranking of elementary school students’ favorite meals in a survey carried out by Gurunavi, Inc., both in 2018.
*2. In market research conducted in 2018 by the Nisshin Oillio Group, Ltd. on the eating habits for both genders in their 50s ~70s, Japanese curry was ranked relatively high, taking 1st place for both genders in their 50s and 6th place for men/4th place for women in their 70s. However, there was a trend for curry to rank lower as the age demographic increased.
*3. According to the Forum for the Rediscovery of Curry held in 2012 during a discussion on the functionality and merit of curry to maintain motivation and suppress stress.
The Evolution of Japanese Curry
Japanese people are known for having a discerning palate with the ability to differentiate between a wide array of flavors. They also have a deep love of elevating simple-seeming foods, like curry, and transforming them into sophisticated, complex dishes. Ever since curry was introduced to Japan in the latter part of the 19th Century, people have experimented with what was originally an ordinary recipe to create further iconic dishes like curry udon noodles, curry soba noodles and katsu curry — breaded meat cutlet with curry sauce.
Japan is a nation of curry fanatics which means that curry has found its way into many diverse and ingenious dishes. It’s poured over chicken or pork cutlets, stuffed inside a croquette, served with fried chicken and mixed with deep-fried vegetables. You’ll sometimes see curry in a potato or rice gratin, with udon noodles, ramen or pasta, or inside bread and buns.
Curry goes well with all kinds of meat and vegetables making it perfect for regional adaption and consumption. Across Japan’s diverse landscape, each region has come up with its own twist on the traditional curry dish by using local ingredients, ranging from Soup Curry in Hokkaido and Oyster Curry in Hiroshima to Kyoto Vegetable Curry in Kyoto and Olive Curry in Kagawa to name a few.
Dubbed Japan’s Curry Mecca, the district of Kanda in Tokyo hosts an annual event called the Japanese Curry Grand Prix where curry restaurants from across the country compete to win top prize.
And Japan’s passion for curry doesn't stop there. Curry brands are constantly introducing new products onto the market which are also entered into an annual contest: The Best Ready-Made Pouch Curry Ranking.
Notably, a recent trend in curry cuisine has been the rise of the Deco (Decoration) Curry where the rice is molded into elaborate kawaii (cute) animation or gaming characters.
Japanese Curry is Going Global
The popularity of Japanese curry has started to spread overseas. Recent trends demonstrate that international consumers are becoming fans of it too. At Wagamama, a British restaurant chain that specializes in Japanese food, diners highly rate the chicken katsu (cutlet) curry — so much so that Londoners in the capital now recognize the dish as a classic example of Japanese cuisine, much like sushi or ramen.
In 2018, major Japanese curry restaurant chain Curry House CoCo Ichibanya opened their flagship UK branch in central London which serves its own Chicken Cutlet (Katsu) Curry option as well as unique topping choices for other curries on the menu. It’s a positive sign that even in the UK, the home of curry powder and more than 9,000 Indian restaurants offering curry across the country, Japanese curry is proving more popular than ever.
You'll find a similar story in the US, where, back in 1983, a Japanese curry brand opened its first international curry restaurant Curry House in Los Angeles and Go Go Curry in New York — both cities with a lot of Indian restaurants. In the US, Japanese curry served with meat cutlets, hamburgers or fried shrimp are popular.
In Japan, curry brands and restaurants are sharpening their focus on the market at home as the number of tourists to the country continues to increase. Halal-friendly, vegetarian and other special dietary options are being introduced to meet diverse needs.
Adaptable yet always delicious, Japanese curry is an ideal dish for global export and to meet the needs of today’s rapidly changing lifestyles.
Recipe for Katsu (Chicken Cutlet) Curry
The chicken cutlet (katsu) in a katsu curry is made from lean breast meat which matches well with the rich taste and texture of the curry sauce. Fresh coriander is a key additional seasoning to give the dish a little bite. It’s a meal that’s one-of-a-kind, whether you cook it for a regular family dinner or as a showstopper for a dinner party.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
- Curry roux (about 1.5 oz/45 g)
- 1 onion
- 1 cup water (240 ml)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
For the chicken cutlet (katsu)
- 1 chicken breast
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 egg
- Panko breadcrumbs (1 oz/30 g)
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Baby leaf greens
- Mini tomatoes
- Cooked Rice 1/3 oz/150g x 2
- Fresh coriander
Method01. Dice onions and slice garlic. On a low heat, fry the sliced garlic in olive oil until fragrant. Then add the diced onion and keep stir frying over a medium heat until the onion has softened and become transparent.02. Pour water into (01) and bring to the boil. Stop the heat, and mix well with curry roux.
03. Prepare the chicken cutlet by cutting a chicken breast into two pieces of equal thickness and beating the meat with a tenderizer.
04. Add salt and pepper to the chicken breast, and coat it first in flour, then add the beaten egg and lastly the breadcrumbs.
05. Fill the pan with olive oil to 1/2 inch/1.25 cm deep, and shallow fry the chicken breast until golden and crisp.
06. To serve, place 1 cup of rice, salad and the curry onto one plate, then add the chicken cutlet cut in small pieces onto the curry, and sprinkle over fresh coriander for additional seasoning.