While my preferred method of eating Japanese curry, the world’s most perfect food, is to fly to Japan and have an expert make it for me, sometimes I make it at home. In all the times I’ve ever made curry, though, I’ve actually made it from scratch — like, scratch scratch — once. And that was mostly my wife doing that. The secret to making curry at home is to just use the curry bricks they sell in grocery stores, but to do it the right way, and then to jazz it up at the end with ingredients they’d never put on the directions on the box. That’s what I’m gonna show ya.
Look, if you want to make it from scratch, go ahead. Just prepare to spend all day doing it. There’s a reason even Iron Chef Morimoto says, in his cookbook, to just use the damn bricks. Their combination of flour, fat, and spices is already perfectly proportioned, and it takes out a lot of the need for precision and timing.
But brick curry tastes a lot like, well, brick curry — it can have a bitter aftertaste, it’s a little thin in terms of its flavor profile, and it’s just miles away from the best stuff you can have in Japan. I can’t make anything as good as the best Japanese stuff, but I can fake it, and so can you.
The best bricks to start with are Vermont Curry. You may have to go to an Asian specialty store to get these, but you can also find them on Amazon pretty easily. This has a sweeter flavor (although it doesn’t exactly taste like honey-drenched apples as the box implies) than the others. And since I like sweet curry, this is a good place to start. (The procedure below will work with all bricks, but really, try to get Vermont.)
Bad restaurants and many Japanese moms like to put gigantic chunks of barely-cooked vegetables into their curry. No thank you! If you like huge veggies in your curry, go for it, but these would be considered an optional topping at a Japanese curry joint, not an essential ingredient.
That said, we can add some rich flavors to our curry with some finely-diced veggies that we saute well in the pan first. (If you have a Le Creuset or other enameled cast iron Dutch oven, this is the time to let it shine.)
Butter is a delicious condiment or just as a snack by itself. Use a bunch to saute the veggies! It’ll all just go into the sauce later and make it delicious.
Don’t just “sweat” the onions and carrots. Really cook the crap out of ’em. If they start to brown too much on the bottom because your heat is too high, throw in some water to deglaze everything. Or hell, throw in some white wine. Might as well start building the flavors now!
When everything is nice and mushy and brown, throw in some salt! Seasoning at every step is one of the things that home cooks often forget to do. My guests often comment on how good every little piece of onion tastes. It’s because they’re seasoned!
Even if you’re going to have katsu curry or other toppings, you still want a nice fatty cut of meat in there, because the fat’s gonna render out and continue to make the curry delicious. This is a chuck steak that I cut into 1-inch cubes and browned in a frying pan. You can do this in the Dutch oven too, just throwing them in once the carrots and onions are done. I just, uh, forgot.
When the beef is brown on all sides, season it with a pinch of salt!
To your carrots, onions, and meat, add the amount of water that the directions on the brick box say to. Should be 3 cups of water for a half-size, 6-brick box, or 6 cups for a full-size 12-brick box. I always make more curry than I think I need. On the incredibly rare chance that there are leftovers, it reheats beautifully.
Bring the water to a boil. And now…
Brick time! Break ’em up and toss ’em in. Stir until they’re dissolved. Now simmer it for about 10 minutes, and watch as the pot of thin brown water magically thickens up into curry. Curry that looks like this:
Now, the box says to just eat the curry as it is right now. And you could. And it would be… okay. Aftertaste-y. Somewhat satisfying. At this stage, try a spoonful and see what it tastes like, for comparison purposes later. Because we’re not stopping here. Note that there are many, many places you could go, but here’s where I’m gonna take you:
Secret ingredient #1: Milk chocolate! I found out about this from a friend of a friend way back in the day, and I’ve never made curry without it since. In this case, I use one standard-size Hershey bar for a 12-brick package of curry. This doesn’t make it taste like you’re eating hot chocolate. What it does is round out the flavors, take away all that bitter aftertaste left by the bricks, and make it taste a bit more like the curry you’d get at a curry shop in Japan, many of which use chocolate in their recipes.
Melt it all in (it’ll take a bit longer than the bricks). Taste again. You’ll immediately get it.
Secret ingredient #2, which I didn’t take a picture of: Honey! As I said, I love my Japanese curry on the sweeter side, but there’s no sweetness in the bricks. You’ve got to add your own, and honey is a great way to do that. For a pot this size, I threw in 2 tablespoons. But again: taste, and try it, and maybe you’ll want more!
Secret ingredient #3: Shredded cheddar! Now, cheese is a somewhat popular topping on Japanese curry in Japan — like, they’ll plate your curry, then throw some shredded cheese on top. Usually, this cheese wouldn’t be something with such a strong flavor as cheddar. That would overpower the taste of the curry. So they’d use something on the order of Monterey Jack — creamy and melty, but something that blends, not overpowers.
But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re melting this cheese into this curry. Do it a bit at a time, melting a pinch of it (as above) fully into the curry, then another couple of pinches. This will continue to add different flavors to the curry, while softening up the texture of the whole thing. Again, taste it after you add each pinch of cheese, and watch it transform bit by bit.
Are we done now? Yeah, if you want to be. You’ll notice in the pic above that there are still some little flecks of unmelted cheese. This won’t be the case if you now do what I did, which was to transfer the whole pot into a slow cooker and leave it on Low for a couple hours prior to dinnertime. Everything will totally incorporate, the hanger-on bits of cheese will melt, and people will be very surprised when you tell them there’s a fistful of cheddar inside the pot, because this will be the best damn “homemade” Japanese curry they’ve ever had, guaranteed.
(Final photo is terrible because we only had a little bit left after everyone was done voraciously eating it.)
Other potential secret ingredients: How about grating some apple into the curry? What about throwing in a cup of strong coffee to replace some of the water? Both of these are common bonus items that I didn’t use this time, but have tried in the past to great success.
A note on toppings: Of course, having the traditional pork or chicken katsu is always nice, although that doubles the complexity of your dinner plans since you have to bread and fry a bunch of cutlets. At least you can make the curry entirely ahead of time, get it into the slow cooker, and have it piping hot and ready to go as soon as the cutlets are done.
If you don’t want to bother with that, another good topping popular in Japan is gyoza, aka potstickers. You can buy frozen ones and they taste pretty good with not very much prep work needed, and they work great floating in curry.