You Can't Make Japanese Curry Without Japanese Curry Powder

A can of kare-ko deserves a place in your pantry.
japanese curry powder
Photograph by Isa Zapata

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Here’s an incomplete list of some foods that most people would never attempt to make at home: Pirate’s Booty, Pringles, Japanese curry powder. 

While ambitious home cooks and professionals might blend, toast, and grind their own spice mixes for various kare-flavored dishes, these homemade blends are very different from the kare-ko (Japanese curry powder) sold in stores. So different, in fact, that the store-bought kare-ko has remained a popular pantry staple for decades, cited in recipes without question or embarrassment. Much like Heinz (or Kagome if you’re Japanese), Kewpie mayonnaise, and Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce, kare-ko is a commercial product with nostalgic appeal and too many ingredients to easily recreate.

Much has been written about the Japanese love of kare-ko and its many applications that deviate from its South Asian origins. A super-savory, not-so-hot mix of spices featuring turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, and, perhaps most prominently, cumin, kare-ko was first offered in Japanese stores at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

In her essay on the origin of Japanese curry, the writer and artist Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik explores how a mix of spices known as curry found its way into so many beloved dishes, from “curried goat in the West Indies, cà ri in Vietnam, sauce au curry in France, currywurst in Germany, curry powdered coronation chicken in Britain” to kare in Japan. A stew thickened with commercial blocks of curry-flavored roux (another pantry staple), kare features, at its most basic, onions, carrots, and potatoes and is served on top of a large pile of white rice. It's a dish so popular and ubiquitous that it’s taken on the name of the spice blend with which it’s flavored.

While this stew is perhaps the most well-known dish that showcases Japanese curry powder, it’s far from the only one. In Japan, you’ll find ramen or udon in bowls of thinner kare broth; Hokkaido soup curry, which is topped with chicken and vegetables and not thickened with roux; and even savory deep-fried buns filled with a thick kare-flavored sauce. (Known as kare pan, they're also a popular children’s cartoon character—the Japanese love for kare runs deep.) All of these kare-flavored dishes are commonly served in Japanese diners and old-school cafés with more than a little bit of retro flair.

So what kinds of kare-ko are available? While the food industry giant S&B (pronounced Esubi) is the most popular kare-ko available in Japan (both in market share and according to at least one Internet ranking), it is not the oldest. That honor belongs to Hachi, which began producing its kare-ko in 1905 (as opposed to 1923 for S&B). They each offer their spice blends in a charmingly retro red can, with labels that list turmeric, coriander, and cumin as their top three ingredients. S&B boasts that its popular red can of kare-ko contains over 30 types of spices and herbs, a tall feat to replicate in a home kitchen. (The S&B oriental curry powder more commonly available abroad contains 17 types.) Not to be outdone, Hachi stresses its longer history and blend of 22 spices.

S&B Oriental Curry Powder

The choice is yours—the varieties offered by S&B and Hachi aren’t even the entirety of Japanese curry powders available on the market. And that’s not even accounting for the many other spice blends, like Madras curry powder, that would make a delicious—though distinctly non-Japanese—seasoning for any Japanese curry dish. 

Let’s end this by saying that even though freshly-ground spice blends are fabulous, commercial kare-ko deserves its place on your shelf. A popular use that will transport you to a Japanese café? Sprinkled into your next batch of fried rice and topped with a thin omelet. I promise you won’t regret it.

Get the recipe:

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Chihiro Tomioka buys chocolate chip ice cream for the chocolate chips and has written about all things Japanese at Food52.