Vegan Japanese Curry is a plant-based take on one of the most popular dishes in Japan. This curry is all about balance – there’s no single spice that stands out – but the aroma is intoxicating and the flavor is really comforting. It comes with the classic trio of onion, carrot, and potato but you can customize it however you like.
Yes. It’s a thing. Kind of a big thing, actually. So big that it could be called a national dish of Japan.
My introduction to Japanese curry happened in China, of all places. There was a branch of the Japanese chain restaurant CoCo ICHIBANYA right by where I worked. So I’d eat there a couple times a month. They had some 20 or 30 different dishes. And each dish was a different item covered in their signature brown curry sauce on a plate with rice. They had spinach, asparagus, cheese, potato croquettes, kimchi, even natto served in curry sauce.
You’d think such a menu might be unimaginative. Boring and tiresome, even. You look across the menu and the appearance of every dish is the same. Brown, brown, brown, brown. But because of the balance and savoriness of that curry, it’s really satisfying and doesn’t get old. It’s like your favorite vegetable soup. It just tastes like comfort.
How did curry become a Japanese thing?
Well, long story short – during the late 19th century, the Japanese adopted it from the British, who had wisely adopted it from South Asia. It’s interesting how this came about on a couple of levels.
Technological, agricultural, philosophical, and… culinary revolution
The late 19th century (Meiji period) was a time of very rapid change in Japanese society. The country was adopting all kinds of different practices from all over the globe. In technology, agriculture, philosophy, and government. It impresses me that the evolution of the national cuisine was included in this mass modernization.
Curry as a path to open-mindedness
Before the British introduced curry to Japan, and even before the British adopted curry from the Indian subcontinent, people in the subcontinent had to adopt chile peppers. Those came to them from the Americas by Portuguese traders. And Portuguese traders had to take a chance and adopt them from natives of the Americas.
For us to enjoy this curry dish (and many other modern dishes) today, there was a huge, long string of individuals who had to adopt something unfamiliar. They had to be open-minded and consider that there could be value in what people from faraway lands offered.
This curry helps me take a moment to appreciate that there’s always value in exploring the unfamiliar. Whether it’s food or an idea, don’t be so quick to dismiss it. It could be the next chile pepper.
Some notes before you get started
The curry freezes well and tastes good after spending a night in the refrigerator.
Either vegetable stock or dashi will work. You can use your own vegan dashi recipe or follow the one suggested below.
To make a dashi broth with profound umami, place 1 dried shiitake mushroom cap and 1 small (2-inch square) piece of dried kombu in a small bowl of warm water. Allow rehydrating for at least 10 minutes. Transfer mushroom cap, kombu, and soaking water to a high-speed blender. Blend on low for 30 seconds, then on high for 2-3 minutes until the broth has a uniform texture. Add water as needed so the volume of liquid is 3 cups.
I recommend mild Madras curry powder. You can make the curry spicier if you like by adding more cayenne.
You can substitute ingredients as you like for the carrot, potato, and broccoli. Cabbage, tofu, tempeh, cauliflower, bok choy, zucchini, sweet potato, mushrooms, tomatoes, corn, and winter squash all work well.
Alternatively, you can subtract the carrot, potato, and broccoli and use the curry sauce as a topping for many things. A crispy-pan fried veggie burger patty, for example.
Shown in the photo are roasted portobello mushroom caps. They pair beautifully with the curry.
Spinach works well as an addition in any case – add it just before the soy sauce, sake, and ketchup.
Try some shredded plant-based cheese on the curry. It’s a surprisingly nice pairing.
The garnish shown in the photos is fukujinzuke. It is a mixture of pickled vegetables that goes perfectly with curry.
Vegan Japanese Curry
- 1/2 onion chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 3 carrots peeled and chopped
- 1 potato peeled and chopped to 1 inch pieces
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cups dashi broth or vegetable stock (see note)
- 3 Tablespoons mild curry powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne chile powder
- 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 Tablespoons ketchup
- 2 Tablespoons sake
- Heat oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. When oil is hot, add onion. Cook and stir for 3-4 minutes, until onion is translucent.
- When the onion is translucent, add the curry powder, garam masala, and cayenne pepper. Cook and stir for 2 minutes to toast the spices.
- Add flour. Stir for 2 minutes.
- Add 2 cups of vegetable stock or dashi.
- When the liquid reaches a gentle boil, add potato and carrot. Simmer 8 minutes, covered.
- Stir in the soy sauce, ketchup, and sake.
- Taste the sauce. Add salt as needed. Add broth if the sauce becomes too thick at any point.
- Serve with rice and steamed broccoli.