What is Japanese Curry ?

The origin of the word “Curry” (カレー) is believed to have several possible sources. One theory suggests it comes from the Tamil word “Kari” (கறி), which means a sauce made with various spices and ingredients. Another theory suggests it may have evolved from the Hindi word “Tarkari” (तरकारी), which means “vegetable” or “side dish, and eventually became “Turri” and then “Curry” in English. There are various other theories and interpretations of the word’s origin. In any case, the term “Curry” (カレー) has come to refer to spicy dishes, particularly those from tropical and subtropical regions, primarily centred around India.

In India, even today, most households prepare curry dishes according to their own recipes, resulting in hundreds of variations. For example, there are dishes based on meat as well as seafood, vegetable-only curries and more. The aroma, colour and spiciness can vary according to individual preferences, but unlike in Japan, creamy or thick curries are less common and most are of a lighter consistency.

It is said that curry dishes were introduced to the British who ruled India in the 17th century, and were added to the royal menu. Afterwards, they were adapted into European-style dishes and gradually spread from the upper classes to ordinary households. In the late 18th century, curry powder was commercialised by Cross & Blackwell, and curry dishes became popular in various European countries for a period of time.

In the early Meiji period, curry powder, along with methods of cooking with it, was introduced to Japan from Britain. It became popular in Japan when combined with rice, known as “rice curry” or “curry rice”. 

Essential ingredients in Japanese curry include protein sources such as meat as well as potatoes, carrots and onions. To begin with, curry in India primarily featured onions and tomatoes as the main ingredients. Wheat flour, which gives it a thicker consistency, was introduced due to the influence of British curry. The use of potatoes and carrots in curry began after their cultivation became widespread, with carrots and onions becoming prominent ingredients in Japanese curry from around the second decade of the Meiji period (1880 onwards).

The widespread popularity of curry in Japan began in the late Meiji period. Initially, it was mainly Western-style restaurants that introduced curry to the Japanese palate. However, towards the end of the Meiji period, dishes like rice curry, curry udon and curry soba started appearing on the menus of ordinary restaurants and gradually became more accessible to the general public.

The real turning point for the proliferation of curry in Japan was when rice curry was adopted as part of the military’s menu. Rice curry was not only nutritionally balanced but also convenient to prepare, making it suitable for mass catering. After serving in the military, many soldiers took what they had learned about curry and how to cook it back home, which played a crucial role in spreading knowledge of curry throughout the country. After World War II, curry was also adopted as part of school lunches (学校給食) in Japan for similar reasons, further contributing to the widespread popularity of curry in the country.

During the Meiji era, Japan relied on imported curry powder, but with the onset of the Taisho era, enterprising companies began researching and working towards domestic production of curry powder. By the late Taisho era, powdered instant curry (curry roux) had also started to appear. In the years following World War II, various types of curry roux were developed by different manufacturers, and these curry products gradually became popular in ordinary households, especially in the Showa era. Tinned curry became popular in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s Japan introduced its unique invention, retort pouch curry. In addition, in the 1980s, microwaveable curry was introduced.

Generally, curry products can be categorised into curry powder, curry roux and cooked curry.