While it’s different from the Indian curry that most people are familiar with, Japanese curry is one of those dishes that's a weeknight staple at the Japanese dinner table. It's simple to make, warm and comforting. But what is different about Japanese curry and why are so many people crazy about it? In this Guide to Japanese Curry in Tokyo, we cover the history of Japanese curry, types of curry dishes, and introduce the restaurants with the best Japanese curry in Tokyo.
The Evolution of Japanese Curry
Japanese curry is made with ingredients such as potatoes, onions, carrots, and meat. It's a stew-like dish, with a broth that is thickened by Japanese curry roux (a mix of flour, fat, and spices). First introduced by the British Royal Navy during the 19th century, curry in Japan was first classified as yoshoku (Western-style Japanese cuisine) along with other dishes that were reinvented to suit the Japanese palate, like croquettes (korokke) and omelets (omuraisu).
The earliest curry recipes in Japan appeared in 1872 and a few years later the dish started to make appearances in Japanese restaurants. But Japanese curry wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today; only the wealthy could afford it because curry powder had to be imported from Britain at that time. When cheap curry powder became readily available, Japanese curry sales skyrocketed, and today curry is a comfort food found in Japanese restaurants, convenience stores, and on the dinner table at home.
Today, Japanese curry roux is commonly found at supermarkets across Japan, in solid block-like form which includes the thickener and concentrated meat and vegetable flavors. Now, it's a staple of Japanese households. Advances have been made since, and instant curry was invented in 1969. You can buy a bag of instant curry, heat it up in hot water, and top off your rice in just minutes!
Types of Japanese Curry Dishes
Because of the versatility of Japanese curry, variations other than the usual rice-and-curry dish are available in restaurants across Japan. Whether you like it on top of steaming rice, a filling in your bread, or in your hearty udon bowl, curry is the kind of dish that’s here to stay.
Here are 3 fantastic dishes that incorporate Japanese curry!
- Kare Raisu (Japanese Curry Rice)
- Curry Udon
- Kare Pan (Curry Bread)
1. Kare Raisu (Japanese Curry Rice)
Kare raisu (curry rice) is probably the most popular Japanese curry dish. The dish consists of your choice of meat (pork, beef, or chicken) and vegetables (typically onions, carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes). If you feel adventurous, you can always use shrimps and other seafood ingredients. Kare raisu can also be made vegetarian, just use a plant-based roux and skip the meat mix-ins. Sometimes, breaded pork cutlet (tonkatsu) is added on top. This variation of kare raisu is called katsu kare. When ordering it in restaurants, you can always ask if they can adjust the spiciness of your curry. Typical Japanese curry is on the milder side, so you can ask them to increase the spice level if you're feeling adventurous.
For some recommendations, check out these 5 Best Curry Rice Restaurants in Tokyo, including one restaurant that received the Bib Gourmand title from the Michelin Guide!
2. Curry Udon
If you fancy some hearty and filling noodles, you should try curry udon. Instead of a broth, curry udon is covered in savory, fragrant curry! It's a popular Japanese winter dish, as curry udon is super warming on a chilly day. Making curry udon is a great way to use up leftover Japanese curry, too.
3. Kare Pan (Curry Bread)
Another popular Japanese curry dish is kare pan (curry bread). Typically found in convenience stores and bakeries, this delicious and filling bread is made by filling the dough with curry and coating it with breadcrumbs. You can have kare pan either baked or deep-fried, but we highly recommend the deep-fried one! It is a staple of Japanese bakeries, and you can even find it in convenience stores in Japan.
Best Japanese Curry Restaurants in Tokyo
A long-time favorite, curry is a dish that calls for just a few ingredients and can be easily whipped up at home. After all, nothing beats freshly cooked meals. But if you don’t have time to cook and are craving something spicy and satisfying, you can always dine out and visit restaurants that specialize in Japanese curry dishes.
Here are some great Japanese curry restaurants in Tokyo that are sure to satisfy your curry craving!
- Yoshida Curry
- Kitchen Nankai
- Curry Bondy
- Udon Maruka
1. Yoshida Curry
If you're on the hunt for Japanese curry in Tokyo, stop by Yoshida Curry, an unusual little restaurant which only has 7 seats, but that doesn’t stop customers from lining up. Though it's located just a 5-minute walk from Ogikubo Station, this tiny Japanese curry restaurant is a little hard to find. But it's worth looking for, offering a lot of customization options, with three varieties of curry (sweet, spicy, or combination) and several different toppings. You can choose from fried cheese (a crowd favorite), keema curry, fried onion, egg, or natto. Their curry can be quite addictive and regular keep coming back for more.
2. Kitchen Nankai
Kitchen Nankai is a casual little Japanese curry restaurant with affordable prices in Jimbocho, the town famous for second-hand bookshops and eclectic cafes. Now, if you like something extra crispy atop your curry, try their katsu curry (fried pork cutlet curry). Kitchen Nankai serves some of the best katsu curry in the city (and claims to be the birthplace of katsu curry), with just the right spice level. But if you’re not keen on tonkatsu, you can always order their original black curry rice.
3. Curry Bondy
Bondy is another Japanese curry restaurant in Jimbocho, which is a bit hard to find as the entrance is located on the second floor of a secondhand bookshop (just one of many bookshops in Jimbocho). Once you’re there, you might be surprised by the number of people in line. Unfortunately, they don’t accept early reservations and though their curry dish can be a bit expensive, it’s definitely worth it. The unusual thing about Bondy is that before your curry even arrives they serve you two potatoes with butter. Enjoy it as an appetizer or wait for your main dish to arrive so you can dunk it in the curry. There are also a variety of condiments at the table, like pickled shallots, raisins with coconut shards, and fukujinzuke (a crunchy type of relish often made with daikon, eggplant, cucumber, or lotus root). Bondy's Japanese curry is delectable and hearty, delivered in generous portion sizes.
4. Udon Maruka
If you’re in the Jimbocho area (even if you're not, it's worth a trip) craving some udon noodles and Japanese curry at the same time, why not go and order curry udon at Udon Maruka? This well-known curry restaurant is beloved by its patrons. Serving up Shikoku-style sanuki udon noodles which are made in-house, Udon Maruka is a humble little shop whose curry packs big flavor. Their curry udon is to die for and it’s highly recommended to add a poached egg on top or may some crispy tempura on the side.
Manten (translating to "perfect score") lives up to its name. It's everyone’s go-to restaurant for Japanese curry in Tokyo because of how delicious and affordable their curry is. What’s more, it comes with free coffee. The combination may sound a bit strange, but the loyal patrons who have been coming here for years say that it actually works! They serve curry rice and you’ll be surprised about how generous their servings are. Though the cooks don't speak English, they are very kind, often saying hello to regulars who they know by name. Unlike the rest of the Japanese curry restaurants on this list, the line at Manten goes quickly. At most, you'll wait for around 15 minutes, so if you've got somewhere to be and need a quick but delicious bite, Manten should be your go-to restaurant for Japanese curry in Tokyo.