When I first discovered karēpan (curry bread) existed in Japan, I was very happy. My dad is a keen sandwich maker, and a typical after-work snack for him is to use leftover Indian takeout as a filling. So if anything, karēpan is somewhat a taste of home.
Karēpan combines two staples: karē (curry) and bread. Curry was first introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by the British (via the Indian subcontinent), who had by this point in time had their own nascent affinity for Indian food. Japanese-style curry retains that antique (some may say inauthentic) curry-powder taste, and has become a comfort food across the country; it’s a popular school lunch menu item and a weekly tradition for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.
You’d be hard pressed to dream up a more convenient delivery system than bagging that curry up in dough. Traditionally, karēpan is deep-fried and covered in panko breadcrumbs for extra crunch, and is therefore not the healthiest of snacks out there. But to satiate a stomach yearning for grease, dough and curry, there’s nothing quite like it. Evidently many people feel the same way: The Japan Currypan Association has held a Currypan Grandprix since 2016 to determine the best of the best.
From originators to usurpers and upstarts, Tokyo’s karēpan scene is varied. Here’s a roundup of some of the capital’s (deservedly) famous karēpan purveyors to kick off your epicurean adventure.
The forefather of them all, Cattlea (founded in 1877) claims the karēpan creation crown. Over 90 years ago, back through the swirling mists of time when it was known as Meikado, the store filed for a trademark on yōshoku-pan (Western bread), which may or may not have been like the karēpan we know today. In any case, karēpan combined the two most popular yōshoku (Japanized Western cuisine) dishes at the time: curry rice for the filling, and the crispiness of katsuretsu, now simply called katsu (cutlet).
Its reputation remains. Cattela’s ganzo (original) karēpan (¥230) is rich and expertly crafted: The curry fills the thin, slightly sweet dough right to the edges (virtually no air pockets), like some sort of delicious deep fried edible balloon. The winner? Maybe…
Morishita 1-6-10, Koto-ku 135-0004; 03-3635-1464; cattlea-bakery.com
Kinmugi’s offering marks a delightful difference in the realm of karēpan: It’s baked, not deep-fried. Though it’s not necessarily healthy, the lack of needing to wipe greasy fingers is a definite perk.
That said, it’s a bit strange to see karēpan that’s white all over — almost uncooked in appearance — rather than fried until golden, but the result is a soft, sandwich-esque outer shell that complements the fragrant, spicy curry inside. The affordability (¥190) is a bonus to this karēpan’s uniqueness, though it is on the small side. There’s also a smaller, sweeter version for children (¥130). Both have been a popular option at this Shirokanedai neighborhood establishment since it opened in 2002.
Shirokanedai 5-11-4, Minato-ku 108-0071; 03-5789-3148; kinmugi.net
Boulangerie Seiji Asakura
Opening its doors in 2009, Boulangerie Seiji Asakura has maintained a position on food review site Tabelog’s Hyakumeiten (100 Famous Stores) shortlist in the pan (bread) category since 2017. Even more awards adorn its windows. People say it has the best croissants in Tokyo (¥290 each, unforgettable), but we’re not talking about croissants.
Seiji Asakura’s cheese karēpan (¥360) is filled with melt-in-the-mouth eggplant, bell pepper and zucchini, giving it a Mediterranean mellowness to complement the mild curry flavor. Cushioned in light, fluffy dough — created using natural yeast made from grapes — and topped with Gruyere cheese, this one certainly lives up to the “bread” part of the equation. If you really want to be wowed, opt for the gyū-cheese karēpan (¥430). With pine nuts and eggplant on a bed of thin-cut beef, it’s a showstopper.
Takanawa 2-6-2, Minato-ku 108-0074; 03-3446-4619; bit.ly/seijiasakura-ig
This Setagaya Ward staple has been serving up its speciality tsuboyaki-karē (Japanese curry cooked in a ceramic pot) since 1986. But leaving the thundering cars on Route 3 behind and stepping into Bistro Kirakutei feels like entering a world that’s weightier than just 35 years. With its chunky dark wood furnishings, muted lighting and overall retro yōshoku restaurant aesthetic, Kirakutei is a charmer.
It’s also famous for karēpan, of course, which comes in two varieties: normal spicy or really spicy. It’s a meal in and of itself (and, at ¥280, a steal) — thick, deeply flavored curry ensconced in such a thin skin of deep-fried dough it’s a wonder it doesn’t fall apart as you take a bite.
Ikejiri 3-30-5, Setagaya-ku 154-0001; 03-3410-5289; www.bistro-kirakutei.co.jp
Boulangerie La Saison
Karēpan is most definitely fair game for experimentation, and within walking distance of Meiji Jingu Shrine you’ll find a pretty interesting take on the tried-and-true recipe.
Boulangerie La Saison thought it would be a good idea to raise the bar when it comes to the panko that often coats karēpan and swap them for whole croutons, giving the bun the appearance of a pixelated hedgehog. In soup, these little guys are great, but deep-fried? Something else entirely.
They’re remorseless on the roof of your mouth, but otherwise they add a satisfying crunch to contrast with the soft dough and quite spicy curry innards of these gorgeous monstrosities (¥194 a pop). There’s a sister store in Hatsudai offering them, too.
Yoyogi 4-6-4, Shibuya-ku 151-0053; 03-3320-3363; takeout available; www.la-saison.jp
Did Cattlea really invent karēpan in 1927 or was it Denmark Bakery in 1934 instead? We may never know. Denmark Bakery certainly stakes a claim on authenticity, however, using ghee and 12 spices in its curry roux. Its yudetamago-iri karēpan (¥172) features a whole boiled egg in the mix.
Bonjour Bon sits unassumingly along the Sun Mall Shotengai leading into the hobbyists haven of Nakano Broadway. There are a few different karēpan here, one with egg, one with a pork cutlet inside and even one for vegetarians. Note: It’s a busy spot, and sells out quickly.
A Nakameguro success story, Transparente has come on leaps and bounds since it opened in 2008. With two other stores — one in Toritsu-Daigaku, the other in Gakugei-Daigaku — and a handful of outlets and sister ateliers, it’s certainly popular. Its karēpan comes in two versions: spezie (spice; ¥269) and red kidney bean (¥283). The latter is almost like a mini calzone: Its chewy, savory bread casing is topped with panko and grated cheese, and the beans inside give it a quasi-Mexican flair.
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