Better Than Ramen: Kare, Japan’s #1 Food

Japanese curry or kare (カレー) is one of Japan’s most beloved dishes: 92% of Japanese give it the thumbs up, and on average eat it more than once a week. It’s no surprise considering it’s a regular fixture of school lunches, and is even part of the official menu of the armed forces (the Japanese navy apparently have curry for Friday lunch.)

katsu kare

Photo by ekkun

Rawr, get in my mouth now!

There are many variations on kare as we know it today, but the textbook description is basically this: it’s a mild pork, beef, or chicken dish with carrots, onions, and potatoes, smothered in a thick sauce of pure awesomeness. This version is known as kare raisu, or simply kare. Add a breaded, deep-fried cutlet or katsu to it becomes katsu kare.

Well, technicalities aside, kare is commonly served over rice with a side of pickles, and, as indicative of its non-Japanese origins, is usually eaten with a spoon.

Kare: From Indian To British To Japanese

There isn’t one single factor solely responsible for the rise of kare, but the most important one has got to be the British.

At its height, the British Empire included a sizable chunk of the Asian continent, including India. By the time the Meiji Restoration rolled around, the British had already adapted Indian curries to suit their palate – and this Anglicized curry had become a regular meal for the British navy.

The Japanese navy has released several cookbooks that include kare. One of the recipes is demonstrated here.

The Japanese navy decided to copy their British counterparts, and began serving curry as well. Not without adding their own little twist of course: they added roux to their curry, because a thicker, harder-to-spill sauce was just that much more uniform-friendly in rough seas. The fact that the wheat in the roux provided some much-needed vitamin B1 also helped some. Et voila! The kare was born.

How Did Kare Get So Popular?

Nowadays, curry’s popularity rivals that of ramen, thanks to the availability of relatively cheap, instant curry bases — hell yeah no more sweating over a hot stove for hours! You can even find them outside of Japan quite easily these days — even if it’s just an international food section in your local supermarket, I’m willing to bet there’s at least a House or S&B curry base available.

instant curry roux

Image source: me, syare

Left: at the supermarket down the road; Right: that ain’t chocolate, that’s what instant curry base looks like out of the box.

House and S&B are, as you’ve probably guessed, the big players when it comes to instant curry bases. Heck, they’ve got an 85% market share between them! This wasn’t always the case, of course. Back in the day, the British Crosse & Blackwell or C&B brand was the one to beat.

curry powders

C&B were bought out by Nestle; if you squint you can make out the Nestle logo on the C&B tin. Not the big cheese anymore!

Until the 1930s, the gold standard for curry powder was the British C&B brand, which was imported and therefore expensive. Some crooks, smelling an opportunity too good to pass up, refilled empty C&B tins with el cheapo curry powders by local producers like House and S&B, and sold them at C&B prices.

When the British found out, they were furious! The whole thing escalated into an international scandal, which was awful for diplomacy but great for House and S&B. The Japanese realized they couldn’t actually taste the difference between the expensive stuff and the cheap stuff – so why keep paying top yen for C&B?

After that, well, House and C&B’s explosive growth was pretty much inevitable – and thank goodness for that! The first instant curry base by S&B came on the market in 1954, and the rest is history. Even more awesome? House is set to make history too, and is going to provide a special curry for the astronauts on the International Space Station.

Get Your Kare On

In terms of popularity, the number one spot of course goes to the classic curry with rice variant, which I described earlier. However, the Japanese have also come up with all sorts of ways to get their kare fix.

Let’s start with some lesser known curry and rice combos. First off the bat, a Kitakyushu specialty, yaki kare: rice topped with curry, cheese, maybe a raw egg, and the whole thing baked in the oven. Then there’s dorai kare, which, depending on who you talk to, is simply a dry minced-meat curry served with rice, or a pilaf, or curry-flavoured fried rice. Take your pick.

yaki kare, dorai kare

Image source: 1, 2, 3

Then there’s the kare and noodles combo. There’s curry udon and curry nanban, which is simply udon or soba noodles served with a soup spiked with curry powder and kare roux. There’s curry ramen, which is a similar sort of dish, except it includes the classic ramen toppings of nori and chashu pork. Oh and curry pasta, mustn’t forget curry pasta.

kare udon, kare ramen, kare pasta

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

Kare of course also goes really well with bready things. There’s the anime favourite, kare pan: basically a bun filled with curry, then breaded and deep-fried, or baked. Then there’s the steamed bun version, kare man and curry pie, which isn’t exactly bready… but meh, close enough.

kare pan, kare man, kare pai

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

If your tastes lean towards the finer things in life, there are also regional specialty kares. There are fruity curries: apple and nashi pear curries from Nagano and Shimane. Black pork curry from Kagoshima. Whale curry from Wakayama, natto curry from Ibaraki… the list goes on and on.

The Japanese are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to kare.


Well, all those food pictures have made me hungry, so I’m going to go find something to eat.

But before you go, what types of curry foods have you tried? Have you been lucky enough to try some specialty curries? Care to recommend any hole-in-the-wall places that serve awesome kare? Let us know in the comments!


Statistical data is admittedly not that recent, and is from here and here.

  • William Sumners

    My RE teacher has a chaotic addiction to curry.

    And you know what? I can’t blame him. Curry is all sorts of delicious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    Why did you have to post this AFTER Coco’s has stopped delivering for the night and the trains have stopped running?! *sobs*

  • Greg

    I loves me some curry and kare, but I still shudder when I think of my first kare pan. I was in Tokyo several years ago, and I stopped at a Mister Donut for breakfast. I was just starting to learn Japanese, but I was able to say, “one of these and one of these please”, pointing at a chocolate ring and this other donut that looked good. I didn’t look at the sign, but it was the size of a jelly donut, but it had these brown crunchy things on top, so I guessed that it was an apple cinnamon donut. The waitress then pointed to the same thing I was pointing at and asked me something. My listening skills are bad now but they were terrible then, so I didn’t get a word of it — I just nodded and said, “Hai”. Well, apparently my accent was bad enough that she thought I said “futatsu” instead of “hitotsu” (what counter do you use for donuts, anyway?), because I got two of each. Whatever, I’m going to be walking all day, I can eat four donuts.
    So I ate the two chocolate ones first, then I took a bite of the other. It wasn’t necessarily that it was bad, it was just the reaction of “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHAT IS IN MY MOUTH?!?”. I glanced over at the donut case, and even though I probably knew about 5 kanji back then, I could read the Katakana characters for “KARE PAN” and figured it out. If I’d been in America, I would have just tossed them in the garbage, but of course they don’t make you bus your tray there, so there was no garbage can. I thought it would be rude if I left 1.9 uneaten donuts, so I used the last of my coffee to wash the first one down, and wrapped the second one in napkins and put it in my backpack until I could find a garbage. I forget which shrine or temple I went to next, Kanda Myojin maybe, but I was glad that there was one of those temizuya basins where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth — purify the soul and get rid of the curry taste in one step.
    I’ve had kare pan since then and I do like them, just not for breakfast.

  • http://twitter.com/jadescreation Jade Rivera

    Did I just catch a GD reference in your post? “Kare on”/”CrayOn”? :)

    Curry is delicious.. I eat it all the time, though probably not as much as they do in Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/malydok Marek

    Having a nice warm カレーパン while driving home from onsen on a summer night is one of the best memories I brought back from Japan. Lovely.

  • stefafra

    Well, I managed to look to a very similar program one morning in Japan this summer, it was showing how “kare” is made for a whole ship full of people.. So I guessed a “naval connection” for the recipe. Best bit was when they showed how the onions and potatoes are stored under the benches in the mess-room (lift the seats and underneath there is a sort of very big aerated compartment, full of food).
    I had only “kare pan” from a very nice bakery, not real curry (it was just to warm for feeling like what is, basically, a stew), and it is very yummy, well you could smell what they where at a distance, even before picking them up, so no problem guessing what was inside them (they where just fried, and hot). I think I could have them for breakfast, I love savoury things in the morning.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Lol yes! After watching Gangnam Style on YT I started randomly clicking links (as you do) and found GD.

  • DAVIDPD

    I just made House Brand Curry last night. Timely! I like mine with red baby potatoes, onions, carrots, green bell pepper, and some chicken drumsticks or thighs. It’s damn good. Curry Ramen and Curry Udon are badass too. // KUROSHITSUJI!!!

  • HatsuHazama

    Well, this looks a ton thicker than our usual Indian style curry, but at least we tend to use quite basic ingredients for everyday cooking. Japanese curry looks like a sweet change and interesting to try, coming from a dude who has about a 99% chance of eating curry each day.

  • Tora.Silver

    Whenever there’s a Tofugu post on food, I always make that food on Thursday(the only day I’m allowed to cook). I’m so upset that I read this AFTER buying the ingredients for another dish.
    (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=29619565 Mary Ann Moss

    I make a tasty curry if i do say so myself. beef, onions, potatoes, and carrots, and beef broth cooked all day, add the boxed curry roux, butter, instant coffee, chocolate, sake, milk, curry powder, ginger powder, shiracha, and chili oil. Serve over rice, eat and enjoy. Rather addictive!

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Because I’m mean like that, ho ho ho ; ) Just head down to the nearest Lawson’s?

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Why aren’t you allowed to cook on other days?

  • http://twitter.com/jadescreation Jade Rivera

    I knew it!! Haha :) I’m glad Gangnam Style brought some new people to GD and kpop. :3

  • MrsSpooky

    I can’t get enough curry! We have some Indian restaurants near me that have killer curry, but I’m afraid I couldn’t name the dishes. I just eat what’s in front of me in bliss. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Echowake John Stevens

    Family Mart, awesome curry for a cheap lunch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.hurd Joshua Hurd

    I had some really good kare in the basement of Kyoto station. Tiny little place with a bar and a couple tables, but a pretty big selection. mmmmm curry.

  • Just John

    Man, I miss Japan. Have you any idea how many delicious meals I’ve had at CoCo? Now I’m hungry again…

  • Tora.Silver

    I love G-Dragon! Not a fan of PSY, though. I prefer 2NE1.

  • Tora.Silver

    I like to cook a lot of foreign foods, like French, Japanese, and Italian food. My family doesn’t really like foreign foods though, and they only let me cook once a week unless I’m cooking dishes they want me to.

  • Knicky

    I LOVE curry…I make it at home all the time and my hubby and little girl love it too! We like to make our own “kare pan” at home to bake in the oven (we love potato curry the best) and sometimes we make little tiny ones to put in the fryer (it’s a one serving frier so we can’t fit to much in it).

  • http://www.myjapanesegreentea.com/ Ricardo Caicedo

    I’ve tried making the curry sauce from scratch (without using the curry roux) but haven’t been successful so far. The reason I’m trying this is because unfortunately in my country no one sells Japanese curry :(

  • Mai Nguyễn

    I super love curry. In my country, curry is a kind of very-thick sauce made from sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, curry powder and meat, often served this sauce with bread or rice vermicelli. But this is not a daily dish. We have this in party, festival’s meal.

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    That looks delish!

  • DAVIDPD

    South East Asian curry is legit. The original curries from Thailand, like Red or Green curries, can blow your mind if you get good versions of them. Also, laksa, from Malaysia or Singapore can be a transcendental experience if taken at the right stalls. Are you from Vietnam, by chance? I have not had many curries from there, admittedly. Maybe one or two.

  • DAVIDPD

    Japanese curry is thickened with a roux (flour+oil or butter). Kare is amazing. I’d recommend starting off by buying a Curry Block or Roux. They come in rectangular boxes and the two biggest brands are House and S&B.

  • DAVIDPD

    Oven baked kare pan! I make a shortcut version with Grands biscuit dough. Mmm…those things are scary addictive.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Yeah.. Vietnamese curry is pretty legit. For a baguette dipping dish, nothing beats bò kho

  • Mai Nguyễn

    Come here and try more. You’ll love it :)

  • WhiteRIce

    I didn’t know what curry was until I was in high school. My friend was like ” what! you don’t know what curry is?!” I found out it’s what people call Indian food. Since my childhood I’ve been eating Indian food almost every day, so it was interesting to hear that term. But, Iv’e got to say, it’s pretty hard for me to find Indian restaurants that serve good tasting curry. Maybe it’s because I was spoiled with all the good tasting Indian food my family can cook. Not to say that there aren’t some tasty restaurants out there. I like two so far. One is called Shan and the other is called Kabab and Curries. On a side note, I’m slowly learning how to make the foods that I like.

  • http://twitter.com/brightest ◕ ◡ ◕ thea

    Now I’m craving for some katsu kare but I have to withhold this craving until tomorrow. Japanese curry is comfort food at its best, warm, slightly tingly, and homely. I have tried S&B and House brands but while I prefer House a bit more, S&B is more readily available here than the other one. I wish Manila will get on the kare thing too so that we can possibly have our own franchise of Coco Ichibanya.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    So the banner image makes a lot more sense when you read it left to right.

  • grimpoteuthis

    Never get tired of yasai katsu-kare, kare-pan, or kare-udon! :p

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    By the way, besides “kare raisu,” don’t forget “Hayashi raisu,” which is also very popular, too. Like kare raisu, Hayashi raisu is also eaten with a spoon….

  • http://www.facebook.com/Bradbot Bradley Warren Hanstad

    I have cooked several Japanese dishes, but I have yet to cook curry somehow. I need to get on that, sukiyaki is just too good. Dat sweet saauuwwwwssssss

  • CelestialSushi

    Mmmm… curry. Like you pointed out, I love how the S & B blocks are available at some local supermarkets (mine carries them :D Now if only the supermarket would carry okonomi sauce… my whole family has fallen in love with it X3 FANTASTIC on ground beef dishes, IMHO) They’ve even got pre-made single-serving sauce packets from S & B too… but it was like people discovered them and made a run on all the mild ones because usually only hot–and sometimes medium–is left >_< I don't mind the medium but I really like the sweetness of the mild one.

    Anyways, I just wish I could make curry more often for my family, but really, me and my brother are the curry fans. My parents? Not so much.

    And if you're out near the US Air Force Museum (near Dayton, OH), there's an authentically Japanese owned-and-operated restaurant that serves katsu kare (you get the rice and the pork cutlet on a plate, and the curry sauce comes in a gravy boat on the side, so you can adjust the amount of curry sauce to your liking :D But seriously, who wouldn't just dump the whole thing on their plate? XD) among other things. It's called Akashi Sushi Bar. I don't know where in Ohio John is, but maybe he's heard of it?

  • shiro

    I have this conversation with my (Japanese) husband every week:
    “What do you want for dinner?” “Curry.” “Okay… what else?” “Just curry.”

    His secret weapon is to put mentsuyu in it. I like to add soy milk, myself.

  • Zain

    oh unfortunately i haven’t tasted the curry yet
    can anyone send an useful link to make a curry :)

  • Zain

    LOL Kpop fans :3 i like ‘em too

  • Genkakuzai

    God I miss Coco Ichiban :(

  • galokjai

    why do all Vietnamese people promote their food on every blog…lol

  • Zanoske

    This was amazing just because THAT IS RORONOA ZORO FROM ONE PIECE!