Kare rice is for celebrating, and kare rice is a current for living, but mostly kare rice is for lunch. Seasoned lightly (or heavily), served alongside accouterments (or solo), the dish is wildly accessible. It can be cooked by the most experienced chefs or beginners just finding their way in the kitchen. It’s a meal that can exist in the background of your weekly revolutions, or as the marquee event of your evenings. Kare rice holds the imprints of a cook’s hands and influences, yielding delicious results regardless of whose stove it’s bubbling from.
Kare rice is also one of Japan’s most widely eaten dishes. By some estimates, people in Japan eat curry nearly 80 times a year on average. But its origins stem from international foodways. Curry was introduced to the country during the Meiji era, in the late 1800s, after Japan’s opening to the world after centuries of isolation. As widespread changes of modernization and Westernization rolled through swaths of the country — including railroads, European-style baking and telegraphs — British-style curry powder came to Japan. The earliest of the country’s curry versions resided with other Western meals constituting yoshoku (Western-style dishes) and gradually folded themselves into the contours of Japanese flavors and ingredients.
Much of Japanese curry’s ubiquity stems from its accessibility, which is broadened by the many different ways it can be prepared: As Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat note in “Japanese Soul Cooking,” “You’ll always find carrots, onions and potatoes, but also apples or sometimes other fruits to add sweetness.” Curry can be prepared with oysters and scallops. Beef curry is simmered until the dish’s protein gives way to a silky, mouth-melting texture. You could cook a vegetarian curry, or a lamb curry, or ladle udon noodles into your curry bowl, which, as Masahiro Kasahara notes in “The Ultimate Japanese Noodles Cookbook,” is generally “served at a traditional washo Japanese (washoku) restaurant.” And as ever, there’s curry as a sort of fridge-clearing exercise, allowing stock and powder and time to bind odds and ends into something entirely beyond.
But it’s hard to think of a dish as foundational to my sense of culinary possibility, or as reliably satisfying, as kare rice. The vehicle for your curry creates endless options in itself: You could use the blocks, which can be found in just about any grocery store; or you could choose to form the curry powder from scratch, coming up with your own blend of spices. While the block offers guaranteed flavor (it really is perfect; a compact bundle of ingenuity), sometimes I find myself cooking for a crowd with a spicier tolerance, or if I’m looking to fold the curry into pastries, maybe I’ll want something a touch sweeter. And then there’s the flexibility inherent in your cooking liquid: Whether water or stock, you’re allowed nearly infinite possibilities. In Sonoko Sakai’s “Japanese Home Cooking,” for instance, the author uses a base stock of “cold-brew kombu and shiitake mushroom dashi, which can, like the curry brick, be made ahead of time.” Curry rewards flexibility, and if one version doesn’t work out, you can just change it the next time around.
My own introduction to kare rice came from a Japanese restaurant near where I grew up — the place served pan-Asian fare to accommodate the neighborhood, but their menu held what I have to say was the curry of my dreams. Its sweetness contrasted with the Jamaican curry I’d had until then. The spice sat below the Thai curry I ate at friends’ homes on weekends. So I continued ordering it, until I moved away, and the restaurant closed. I became aware that what I’d taken for granted was actually a proper miracle. And while my early attempts at re-creation were horribly unsuccessful, I still loved them. The further I strayed from my idyllic curry, the more I began to see that the curry of my dreams could take many different forms.
Over the last few years, kare rice has entered a singular pantheon of dishes in my life — somewhere between the meal that holds a spot in my repertoire, to the dish that I turn to when all else turns to dust. When the pastry flambé my boyfriend and I have conjured turns out to be moot? I turn to curry. If I’m hosting friends, but I’ve managed to nap away whole hours of preparation time? I turn to curry. When the whims of this country overwhelm me, curry is one elixir I can reliably count on. It won’t fix everything, exactly, but it’ll warm me until I’m ready to put my feet back on the ground again.
And as for actually cooking kare rice? It’s stupefyingly simple — just prep your proteins and vegetables. Get some rice going in the cooker or your stove. Sauté and sprinkle your fillings, then add your stock until it simmers, allowing time — our most important ingredient — to meld the individual pieces into a larger whole. Taste the curry. Season accordingly. Adjust for your friends or your partner or yourself. You’ll find yourself thinking of the next bowl before you’ve finished the first.
Recipe: Kare Rice (Curry Rice)