Not too long ago, at a pop-up event in Ojai, I found myself in the awkward position of explaining what Japanese curry spice was to an Indian woman. Although genuinely curious, there was an edge to her tone, as if uncovering a vast criminal conspiracy, of which I was part. The problem was, the more I explained its provenance the more it sounded like I was making it up, and her eyes began to narrow with suspicion. Truth be told, the history of curry in Japan is winding and improbable, and then there was my own history with it, which I withheld for fear of further incrimination.
Curry, as I tried to explain, arrived in Japan through the port city of Yokohama during the Meiji period, when the country reopened itself to the world after 200 years of isolation. As maritime trade resumed, the British set up a little enclave on the hillside neighborhood of Yamate, with a church, a cricket club, and a Christian cemetery. The Japanese, in their push to modernize the country’s infrastructure, were great admirers of the British, adopting their roads, postal system, railways, and military; in particular their navy, which had ruled the seas since the time of the Armada. British sailors had created a dish, taking an old roux-thickened beef stew and mixing in spices from the Raj, which they called curry, that the Japanese fell in love with.
By the time I was born, curry was already one of Japan’s national dishes. We grew up eating it from my dad’s recipe, a concoction of half S&B curry brick and half garam masala. As time passed and the recipe fell to me, I wondered how I could refine it for the next generation. I saw a program on Japanese television called “Ryori no Kaijin,” which translates to something like “Cooking Weirdos,” that highlighted the many obsessive lengths Japanese chefs go through to hone their craft. One episode followed a guy named Yoshida, who ran a curry shop called Big Sur in Enoshima, not far from my aunt’s house.
The sad piano music started to play and he recalled how his car flew off PCH on a surfing trip to Big Sur, and how, while in traction in the hospital, he realized that curry was his calling in life. When he got out of the hospital, he returned to Japan and opened a little 8-seater restaurant in a little surf town two hours from Tokyo, making every batch by mixing something like 35 spices by hand.
Nothing weird about that, I thought to myself. People do a lot weirder things than nailing a curry recipe, and if mixing 35 spices by hand is what it takes then so be it. On a trip to visit my aunt, I checked out his place and settled in for a night of talking shop in broken Japanese, absorbing as much knowledge as I could from him. By the end of the night, the way forward became clear, and I spent the next year in an N95 mask grinding up curry powder. Over the years I've continued to refine and simplify, whittling it down to the essential recipe I use today.
Japanese Beef Curry
This recipe works best in a pressure cooker, like an Instant Pot or traditional stovetop cooker. If preparing it without a pressure cooker, simmering time will be much longer.
1 tbsp avocado oil or other high-heat cooking fat
1 lb beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes
1 medium onion, diced
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
3 cups water (4 if not pressure cooking)
2 tsp shoyu
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
10 oz potatoes (2 medium), unpeeled and cubed
5 oz carrots (2 medium), sliced on the bias in 1/2" pieces
For the roux:
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tbsp Japanese curry powder
2 tsp grated ginger
If using an Instant Pot, set the pot to medium saute and add the oil and beef cubes, tossing them around as they cook to brown them on all sides. If using a stovetop cooker or dutch oven, warm over medium heat and saute the beef cubes in the oil until browned on all sides.
Remove the browned meat from the pot, leaving the residual fat. Add the onions, salt, and sugar, and continue to saute over medium heat until the onions have begun to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Add the beef back to the pot, along with the water, shoyu, worcestershire sauce, and potatoes. If using a pressure cooker, cover and cook at high pressure for 30 minutes. If using a dutch oven, bring to a boil and then simmmer, covered, over low heat until the beef is just beginning to flake, which will take about 1.5-2 hours. Monitor the liquid level as it cooks, adding more water if the beef is no longer covered.
While the beef is cooking, prepare the roux. In a small saucepan or skillet, warm the butter over medium-low heat. Once it has melted, add the flour and stir to combine. Continue to cook, stirring to keep it from burning, until the mixture reaches a light golden brown color. Add the curry powder and ginger and mix well to combine.
Once the beef is tender, remove it from the pot and puree the remaining broth and potatoes until smooth using an immersion or upright blender. This step is optional if you don't have a blender, but it does make the final gravy thicker and richer.
Add a ladle of broth to the curry roux and stir to combine, then add all of the roux into the cooking pot. Whisk well until fully incorporated, which should thicken the broth quite a bit. Add the beef back to the pot, along with the chopped carrots, and simmer all together over medium heat for another 15 minutes or so, until the carrots are tender and the sauce is thick.
Serve over Japanese rice with pickles—pickled ginger (kizami shoga) and onions (rakkyo) are traditional.