Curry is one of Japan’s great comfort foods. Does that sound strange? I know curry is normally associated with South and Southeast Asia. Japanese cuisine, by contrast, doesn’t tend to use a lot of spices, especially not curry-like spices. Also, while I love Indian brinjal curry, red Thai curry, Malaysian penang curry, etc., they’re not foods I would want to curl up with on the couch on a cold winter’s day or eat by a campfire while camping.
Japanese curry is different. In fact, you might not want to consider it curry at all. It’s more of a hearty beef and potato stew that happens to be curry flavoured. Some Japanese curries contain ingredients that would make any self-respecting Indian or Thai chef want to cry. Ketchup, soy sauce, dashi, yogurt, honey, apples, raisins… Sound gross? You’re wrong. Virtually every Japanese person, from toddler to centenarian, loves karei. And so will you if you forget your ideas about what a proper curry should be and think of Japanese curry as another beast altogether.
Normally, Japanese people make curry using a roux, which comes in a plastic pack inside a cardboard box. I’m not totally sure what’s in it, but I know that besides spices, Japanese curry roux contains a hefty dose of wheat flour, fat, and chemical additives. Nonetheless, when I learned I was gluten intolerant, I mourned the loss of boxed roux from my life. I didn’t think it would be possible to make a tasty Japanese curry without it. I also didn’t think it would be possible to make without onions, which are high in FODMAPs.
I was wrong.
These days, Japanese curry from scratch is one of my family’s staple foods. I’ve made it so many times, I don’t follow a recipe or measure quantities, so the following is a bit approximate. That’s okay. It’s a pretty forgiving dish. Go on and experiment. Your curry will probably still turn out delicious and comforting, the kind of dish that warms both the belly and the heart.
Japanese curry from scratch (gluten-free, low-FODMAP, slow cooker version)
Quantities given will fill a large slow-cooker and serve a hungry family at least twice over, maybe three times. This is a dish that freezes well.
- 1 tablespoon or so sunflower oil
- 1 kg stewing beef cubes
- 4-6 large potatoes, chopped in large pieces
- 4-5 large carrots, roughly chopped
- 2 stalks celery, sliced on the diagonal
- Beef or chicken stock, enough to comfortably cover all the chunky ingredients (homemade is best, especially if you need it to be low-FODMAP, because every commercially prepared stock I’ve ever come across contains onions and/or garlic)
- Optional: 1 bunch green onion, green part only, chopped into lengths about an inch long (if you don’t need your curry to be low-FODMAP you can use the white part too)
- 1 heaping tablespoon turmeric*
- 1 heaping tablespoon ground cumin*
- 2-3 teaspoons ground coriander*
- Cayenne pepper to taste*
- Salt to taste (you may need a fair bit if you’re using an unsalted broth; this is supposed to be a fairly salty dish)*
- Black pepper to taste*
- A good squirt of ketchup (a tablespoon or so)*
- 1 tablespoon or so soy sauce (gluten-free if necessary)*
- Approx. 1/2 cup sorghum flour
*Have more on hand in case you want to add more at the taste test stage.
- In a large pot on medium-high to high heat, heat the sunflower oil and sear the beef until nicely browned and quite dry in texture. If you find a lot of fluid bubbles up from the beef, dump it in the slow cooker. You don’t want to waste the broth and you want your beef to sear, not boil, at least at this stage.
- With the heat still on medium-high to high, add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, and black pepper and stir-fry briefly until the spices are fragrant.
- Put the spice-coated beef in the slow cooker with the raw potatoes, carrots and celery.
- Heat up your broth by bringing it to the boil in the same pot, taking the opportunity to stir the spices left in the pot into the broth. Once it has started to boil, turn off the heat and pour the broth into the slow cooker. Use enough broth to comfortably cover all the meat and vegetables. If you don’t have enough, add hot water.
- Slow cook for about 8 hours on low or 4-5 hours on high. (You could also make this meal on the stovetop by simmering for about an hour, stirring occasionally.)
- If slow cooker is on low, turn it up to high. Dissolve 1/4 cup sorghum flour in a little cold water to make a paste. Stir into the curry. Add more sorghum flour, a tablespoon at a time, again dissolved in a little cold water, until you achieve the consistency of a thick stew. (I find sorghum flour to be the best gluten-free flour for thickening dishes when you don’t want the slippery/goopy feel that cornstarch and potato starch tend to produce. Most other gluten-free protein flours, as opposed to starches, will work OK but some tend to produce lumps, which sorghum flour doesn’t. Avoid very strong-tasting flours such as buckwheat. Nut flours may not give you the consistency you want.)
- Add the ketchup and soy sauce and taste the curry. Add more spices if needed.
- Stir in the chopped green onion, if using, then turn off the slow cooker or stove. Serve with Japanese rice** and optionally Japanese pickles.***
**To make Japanese short-grained white rice, use a proportion of 1 1/3 cup water to 1 cup rice.
***Fukujinzuke is the traditional accompaniment for Japanese curry. If you live outside Japan and manage to find any at all, it will almost certainly contain gluten and high-FODMAP vegetables such as shiitake mushrooms. Making it yourself looks time-consuming. Another common accompaniment to Japanese curry is rakkyo (pickled pearl onions). This is a quick and easy pickle to make if you don’t have a problem with onions. I’ve made the latter before but I don’t miss either enough to bother making my own now. I actually find gari pickled ginger to go quite nicely with Japanese curry, though it’s normally eaten with sushi, not curry. It’s not too hard to find in stores in England or Canada.