Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

Beat the heat with help from a spicy Japanese staple

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

The heat and humidity of August doesn’t help a waning appetite. Spicy food does, though, and in Japan “spicy” means curry.

The most popular form of curry in Japan is karē raisu, a dish that’s known around the world as Japanese curry — a thick curry-spiced stew served over steamed rice. Personally, I don’t like to make karē raisu in the summer. Like any stew, it needs a long simmer to be really good, and who wants a hot bubbling pot going for hours in the kitchen?

One way to get your curry fix is to take a look at other homegrown dishes that are lighter and quicker to cook. For instance, dry curry is ground meat and chopped vegetables that are sauteed and flavored with curry powder — a kind of curry-flavored meat sauce. It’s served on plain rice, stirred into fried rice, used as omelette filling and more. It’s also great in bentos.

Soup curry originated in Sapporo in the 1970s. It’s a curry-flavored soup with a chicken soup base that was inspired by soto ayam, an aromatic Indonesian soup, and similar soups from Singapore and other Asian cuisines. Soup curry has become increasingly popular across the country in the past decade or so, and has come to represent Sapporo as much as miso ramen and fresh seafood.

And then there’s karē pan (curry bread), a bun stuffed with dry curry or thick curry stew that’s breaded and deep-fried like a Russian piroshki. It’s not that easy to make at home, but it’s available everywhere and makes a tasty, if somewhat greasy snack.

Another type of popular homegrown curry dish is karē udon, a classic bowl of hot udon noodle soup with curry roux (or curry powder and a thickener like potato starch) added to the broth. It may be the most Japanese curry dish of them all, since it combines dashi stock, soy sauce and mirin or sake — the foundations of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) — with curry spices. There are several theories for the origins of curry udon, but it was most likely invented at an udon restaurant in Tokyo during the postwar period to cater to the ever increasing demand for curry-flavored dishes.

The recipe this month is for a curry dish inspired by the curry udon served in Kyoto. It has a classic udon noodle soup base in which summer vegetables like eggplant and kabocha squash are simmered until very tender and spiced up with curry spices and ginger. Sababushi (dried mackerel flakes) is used instead of the usual katsuobushi (bonito flakes) because it has a stronger flavor that stands up well to the spices, but if you can’t find it use katsuobushi instead. This dish is just the thing to have the day after a long summer’s night out, slurped down in an air-conditioned room.


Summer vegetable curry with ‘udon’ noodles

Serves 4

For the broth:

  • 1 10-cm. square piece konbu (kelp) seaweed
  • 20 grams sababushi (dried mackerel flakes) or katsuobushi (bonito flakes)
  • 1 liter of plain water
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mirin

For the curry roux:

  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1½ tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large piece ginger
  • 2 small eggplants
  • 1 large bell pepper
  • ¼ small kabocha squash, de-seeded
  • 1 block (200 grams) atsuage (thick fried tofu) or 200 grams boneless chicken breast
  • 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 4 frozen udon noodle packets, defrosted

Make the dashi: Soak the konbu seaweed in 1 liter of water for at least an hour, or overnight in the refrigerator. Put the water and konbu in a pan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and put in the sababushi; simmer for two to three minutes. Strain through a sieve.

Finely chop the ginger and slice the other vegetables. Pour boiling water over the atsuage, and cut into bite size squares (you can use boneless chicken instead if you prefer). Saute the onion and ginger in 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan for three minutes. Add the other vegetables and saute for another three minutes, then add the dashi stock, mirin, soy sauce and atsuage. Heat to a boil, then simmer over medium-low heat until the vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Make the roux: Heat up a small frying pan with the butter or oil, and add the flour. Keep stirring over medium heat until the flour turns a light brown. Add the curry powder and, if you like, cayenne pepper and stir. Take off the heat immediately.

Take the pan with the vegetables off the heat and stir in the curry roux until dissolved. Add the udon noodles to the broth. Heat through while stirring, and serve hot.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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