Indian, Japanese or Thai? With this curry, you can have it all

There’s nothing better than homemade curry with plenty of rice. – Pictures by CK Lim
There’s nothing better than homemade curry with plenty of rice. – Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 17 — I love Japanese curry.

What’s not to love about cubes of tender meat stewed in a sweet-rather-than-spicy curry and served with hot, steaming rice?

A twist on Indian curry that was first introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun by the British during the Meiji Era, Japanese curry — or just karē to the Japanese — is popular worldwide and rightly so.

Not everyone agrees. For some, Japanese curry isn’t curry at all.

There’s how it resembles more of a roux-based stew rather than a traditional curry. Ah, there are the requisite nuggets of meat and root vegetables, you say, but quite often we detect a hidden ingredient: the subtle sweetness of autumnal apples.

An apple — in a curry! Sacrilege, surely?

Potatoes are essential but why not switch things up by trying different varieties of spuds?
Potatoes are essential but why not switch things up by trying different varieties of spuds?

And offering diners an option of adjusting the spiciness of the curry — from mild (i.e. not pedas at all) to the fiery levels of Korean spicy instant ramyun (think Samyang’s Buldalk Bokkeum Myeon) — would horrify a curry purist.

Surely this is pandering to the masses? Surely this isn’t authentic?

But what is authentic?

In India, we may savour the Malayali curries of Kerala, full of creamy coconut milk and heady mustard seeds, and we may enjoy our chapatis with laal maans, a mutton curry from Rajasthan, made with yoghurt and red chillies.

There is pork vindaloo in Goa, the name hailing from the Portuguese words for wine (vinha d’alhos) and garlic (alho), which help develop much of this curry’s flavour.

When I was a teenager, I read comics written by Peter Milligan, he of Batman and X-Men fame, obsessively. One of his books was called Rogan Gosh, a colourful psychedelic adventure.

I later found its title was a play on rogan josh, a Kashmiri lamb curry that gets its scarlet hue from a marriage of cockscomb blossoms and Kashmiri chillies. (Curries and comic books, who knew?)

Both the book and the curry are delicious, though I’ll have to admit my affinity for the latter has aged better with the passing years.

Fragrant fresh curry leaves add brighter notes to the curry powder and curry paste used.
Fragrant fresh curry leaves add brighter notes to the curry powder and curry paste used.

So many curries, so many different flavours. Each with a different origin, like superheroes with their secret origin stories.

But what is authentic? Surely they all are.

Yet as we travel beyond the Indian subcontinent and venture further, we discover other remarkable and proudly local dishes that are called curries too.

In the United Kingdom, chicken tikka masala is considered the national dish; historians Peter and Colleen Grove speculated that the dish was probably invented in Britain, likely by a Bangladeshi chef, rather than in India.

There is curried goat in the Caribbean and curry tteokbokki, chock-full of chewy rice cakes, in South Korea. Vietnamese curries, called cà ri, is often eaten with a baguette, a remnant of the country’s French colonial past.

Our neighbour Thailand has a myriad array of their own curries called kaeng. You may enjoy your kaeng by colour — red, yellow or green — or by region, from the sweet and nutty massaman curry of the south to the vegetable and herb heavy kaeng khae of the north.

Khao soi in Northern Thailand and ohn no khao swè in Myanmar feature noodles that arrive in a broth that is part curry and part coconut cream, topped with crunchy strips of fried noodles.

It’s a noodle dish, you say, not really a curry. Tell that to our fellow Malaysians, we who love curry laksa. And Malaysian curries — be it Malay, Indian or Chinese — will always taste the best to us.

Various aromatics, from dried spices to as much garlic as you desire.
Various aromatics, from dried spices to as much garlic as you desire.

We might imagine we’ve tasted it all but even in our country there are still treasures to uncover, for some of us. Have you tried Devil’s Curry of the Kristang community or the milder Kari Kapitan, a Peranakan speciality?

What I do know for certain is there’s nothing better than a big plate of homemade curry with plenty of rice, with second and third helpings. (Who wants another ladle of curry... or two? Me, please!)

And in the spirit of celebrating the multitude of ways one can prepare a curry, why not conjure an amalgamation of one’s favourite curry essentials.

For me that means aromatics from dried spices and plenty of garlic; both Indian curry powder and a smidgen of Thai curry paste; a hit of nước mắm, the Vietnamese fish sauce; and plenty of potatoes the way a kari in Malaysia absolutely requires.

But no, I’m not using a block of instant Japanese curry roux. I love Japanese curry and I’ll let that one be, untouched. Which isn’t to say I don’t have a Japanese element to my curry. Read on to discover what it is...

A CURRY OF MANY NATIONS

The following recipe might resemble a hodgepodge of conflicting elements — a culinary disaster waiting to happen — but these ingredients complement each other rather nicely.

Instead of a stark contrast, the subtle tang of Thai curry paste (choose your favourite or experiment with a different one depending on your mood) softens the stronger flavours of an aromatic Indian curry powder.

Replace chicken with tofu to make it a meatless curry – or use both!
Replace chicken with tofu to make it a meatless curry – or use both!

Fragrant fresh curry leaves add brighter notes to the curry powder and curry paste used, offering a different dimension. The fish sauce was an accidental discovery; I typically do the Malaysian Chinese thing of adding a few drops of soy sauce to my curry but ran out, fortuitously as it turns out.

Potatoes are essential but why not switch things up by trying different varieties of spuds? Proteins, on the other hand, are entirely up to you: chicken for the classic route, tofu for a meatless curry, or both if you’re feeling particularly gluttonous.

Call me a glutton then.

So what’s my secret Japanese ingredient? It’s a spoonful of umami-rich miso! Sounds strange? Perhaps but that tiny addition makes all the difference. Truly, this is a curry of many nations.

Ingredients

2 star anise

½ stick cinnamon, broken into small pieces

4-5 cloves

7-8 cumin seeds

3 tablespoons coconut oil

4-5 red potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes

6 cloves garlic, minced

4 shallots, sliced thinly

4 tablespoons curry powder

250 grams Thai red curry paste (or any other Thai curry paste of your choice)

2 sprigs of curry leaves

1kg chicken thighs, cut into pieces

400ml water

200 ml coconut milk

200g tofu, drained from any excess water and cut into cubes

½ tablespoon fish sauce

½ tablespoon miso

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Juice of 1 lime (optional)

 

Method

Using a dry non-stick pan, lightly toast the star anise, cinnamon, cloves and cumin seeds until fragrant. Set aside to cool for a bit before pounding into a coarse powder using a pestle and mortar. This will be our dry spice powder.

Add the oil to a large pot and begin by sautéing the potatoes over a medium high heat. This adds a nice crust to them before we return them to the curry later in the cooking process.

Our secret ingredient: umami-rich miso from Japan.
Our secret ingredient: umami-rich miso from Japan.

When the potatoes have a nice golden brown colour to them, remove from the pot and allow to drain on a wire rack or kitchen towels. There should still be enough oil in the pan; if not, add a touch more oil as necessary.

Next sauté the garlic and shallots, tending to them carefully to prevent burning. When they start to soften, add the dry spice powder, curry powder, curry paste and curry leaves, and stir until aromatic.

Now add the chicken thighs. Stir well to cover every piece of chicken with the spices and aromatics.

Add the water and bring to a boil. Once the liquid has come to a boil, return the sautéed potatoes to the pot. Cover with the lid and simmer for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked.

Add the coconut milk and tofu, and bring the curry to a boil again. Depending on how thick you like the curry, you may continue to simmer for a few minutes to reduce the amount of liquid if necessary.

Who wants another ladle of curry... or two?
Who wants another ladle of curry... or two?

When the consistency of the curry is to your liking, turn off the heat and season with the fish sauce and miso. Stir them in to combine well with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning with some sugar, if necessary.

Finish with a drizzle of fresh lime juice if desired and serve immediately with hot steamed white rice or slices of toasted baguette to dunk in the curry.

For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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