Food & Drink | JAPANESE KITCHEN

The ongoing evolution of Japan's soup curry

by Makiko Itoh

Contributing Writer

Along with sushi and ramen, curry is consistently ranked as one of the top three favorite dishes by all ages and genders in Japan.

As I’ve written about previously, the classic Anglo-Indian and French cuisine-inspired curry that is commonly known as Japanese-style curry, with its rich, roux-thickened sauce, evolved into its current form in the 1960s to 1970s.

But the evolution of curry in Japan has not stopped there. With the influx of restaurants serving spicy curry-type dishes from other countries in recent years, especially from South Asia, the Japanese curry landscape has become even more varied and interesting.

The first major evolution of post roux-based Japanese curry happened in the 1970s in Sapporo, Hokkaido, where a shop called Ajanta had a chicken soup based on yakuzen (Chinese medicinal food theories) on its menu as well as a curry.

Legend has it that a customer suggested combining the two dishes. Initially the new hybrid dish was a mainly liquid soup called yakuzen curry, but it soon evolved to include other ingredients such as chicken and chunky vegetables. In 1993, a restaurant called Magic Spice, also in Sapporo, dubbed it “soup curry,” which is what it’s still called today.

Soup curry has a liquid, soup-like base — usually a chicken bone stock made using Cantonese methods — and, as its name indicates, is not thickened with roux. The type of meat used varies from chicken to pork, beef or lamb.

Another major development in the world of Japanese curry started in 1990s Osaka. Simply called “spice curry,” it was initially created by people who had traveled to South and Southeast Asia and tasted the curry dishes from those regions firsthand.

While spice curry is greatly influenced by these South Asian dishes and is based on blending individual spices rather than commercial curry roux, in Japan it has developed some unique twists, such as using a dashi stock base. In the past few years, spice curry has taken off nationally.

This recipe is for a vegetable-packed soup curry with a little spice curry influence. Dashi or chicken stock can be used as the base — I prefer dashi for a lighter taste, especially in the summer. You can vary the heat by adjusting the amount of chili pepper and sanshō pepper. Or, you can use kabocha squash instead of the potatoes for added sweetness.

Summer vegetable soup curry

Ingredients (serves 4)

For the soup:

• 4 large or 8 small bone-in chicken thighs (about 1,200 grams)

• 1 tablespoon grated ginger

• 1 tablespoon grated garlic

• 2 medium onions

• 3 Japanese eggplants

• 3 small green bell peppers

• 1 large red pepper

• 2 medium tomatoes

• 1 bay leaf

• 4 small new potatoes or 2 medium potatoes

• 1 tablespoon mango chutney (store-bought is fine)

• Vegetable oil for cooking

• 1 liter dashi or chicken stock

• 1 large handful of fresh basil leaves

• 8 green beans

• 2 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half

• Salt and black pepper

The spices:

• 2 tablespoons curry powder

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1 teaspoon ground cardamom

• ¼ to ½ teaspoon red chili pepper

• 1 teaspoon sanshō pepper

• ½ teaspoon or more red chili pepper (to taste)

• Additional sanshō pepper as topping (optional)

Accompaniments:

• Plain steamed white or brown rice

• Green salad or sliced cucumbers

Preparation

If you have large chicken thighs, cut them in half through the bone so that you have two pieces per serving.

Cut the onions into thin wedges. Then slice the eggplants thinly and de-seed the bell peppers, cutting them into chunks. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and roughly dice. Peel the potatoes and cut into halves or quarters. Remove the tops from the green beans.

Next, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs and place them in the frying pan skin side down. Pan-fry the thighs until browned, then turn over and brown the other side. Once browned, remove the chicken from the frying pan and put into a large pot.

Using the same frying pan, stir-fry the onions over medium-heat until just starting to brown, and then transfer them to the pot with the chicken. Add another tablespoon of oil to the frying pan along with the eggplant, and stir fry until just starting to turn limp. Transfer the eggplant to the pot. Stir-fry the bell peppers briefly and transfer to the pot.

Add the dashi or chicken stock to the pot, adding additional water if needed to fully cover the ingredients. Add the bay leaf, chutney and tomatoes and bring the pot to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the potatoes and continue simmering for an additional 30 minutes.

In the meantime, boil the green beans for a few minutes, drain and plunge into cold water. Drain again. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and add the basil leaves. Stir-fry briefly until the leaves are just turning crispy and remove from the pan.

Add the green beans to the same pan, and stir-fry for a minute. Take out the green beans and add the spices, turning off the heat. Stir the spices around in the still-hot frying pan until aromatic.

Ladle some of the soup liquid from the pot into the frying pan and stir to fully dissolve the spices. Add the spice liquid back to the pot and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

To serve

Serve the soup curry in bowls topped with half a boiled egg, fried basil leaves and green beans, and additional sanshō pepper with rice and salad on the side.