Is Katsu Curry Really a Japanese Dish?

By Liv, DMT Collaborator on 20th May 2022 (updated: 9th May 2022) in Blog

Katsu curry is one of Japan’s favourite Western-style foods, a phrase that confuses many UK and US food lovers. 

Katsu curry’s versatility, quick and easy preparation, rich flavour and adaptability to suit meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike make it a popular weeknight supper for families in Japan and beyond.

If you thought katsu curry was traditional Japanese food, you thought wrong, but you wouldn’t be the only one. 

Chicken katsu with curry sauce being spooned over it in the Windsor outdoor seating area.

Intoku Windsor’s Chicken Katsu Curry 🐓

 

Katsu + Curry – The Basics 

What we think of as ‘katsu curry’ actually refers to two separate dishes: Japanese curry and katsu.

The word ‘katsu’ describes a breadcrumbed cut of meat, similar to European dishes like schnitzel and escalope. 

In Japan, it is often served with rice, miso soup, shredded cabbage, sauce and/or pickled vegetables. The two main varieties are called Tonkatsu and Torikatsu – pork fillet and butterflied chicken thigh.

The most popular version of the dish by far, both in modern Japan and further afield, is katsu curry, wherein the deep-fried meat cutlet is paired with a rich, thick and flavourful curry sauce often with rice and pickled ginger accompanying.

This ‘curry’ aspect of the dish is a thick spiced sauce, a world away from Indian curry. It is made by frying together curry powder, flour and oil into a roux and later enriched with meat and other ingredients. 

Japanese curry is usually served with sticky short-grain rice and bulked out with vegetables like carrot, potato and onion. This meal, minus the katsu, is simply referred to as ‘curry rice’.

So, despite Western supermarkets’ mislabelling of Japanese-inspired curry sauce mixes and flavoured noodles as ‘katsu curry’, there is, in fact, nothing ‘katsu’ about them!

The Surprising History of Katsu Curry 📖

How did katsu curry come about? Does this now beloved dish have a long and storied history, a favourite with ancient emperors and samurai warriors?

Well, not exactly. Katsu and its counterpart curry are actually a relatively modern invention, despite the traditional Japanese associations Westerners hold.

Katsu 🥩

The oldest aspect of katsu curry is the meat cutlet. 

During the Meiji era, from 1868 to 1912, Emperor Meiji aimed to make Japan a more modern world leader, encouraging development through the embrace of Western influence. He believed this would increase Japan’s presence on the global stage alongside dominant players like the US and the British Empire. 

Ths impacted cuisine, including increasing the consumption of pork and the adoption of deep-frying as a cooking technique. 

Pork katsuretsu was invented in a Tokyo restaurant in 1899 and was considered a Japanese take on European cuisine, for which the Japanese use the word ‘yōshoku’. 

Before this, it was more common to prepare katsu-style meat with beef, but by the 1930s, pork katsu was widely adopted along with the name ’tonkatsu’. 

In the last century, katsu has evolved beyond its origins, with common variations now including chicken, fish, sweet potato, aubergine and more.

Curry 🍛

Japanese curry has a similarly short and perhaps even more surprising history.

What we now know as Japanese curry is, in fact, an early example of a true ‘fusion food’. 

Before the Meiji Restoration period, curry didn’t have a presence in Japan. In the period, it was introduced by, of all people, the British navy. 

The British navy had been using a watered-down version of Indian curry to feed its sailors for years. It kept well during long sea journeys and avoided offering versions of British dishes that would last a long time but were sub-par quality to what the sailors were used to at home. 

The navy had created a generalised curry dish, loosely inspired by Indian spice mixes but thickened and with whatever meat and vegetables were available.

Legend has it, one day, a British navy ship was shipwrecked on the coast of Japan, and the sailors were rescued by Japanese fishermen. When they came ashore, their rations included curry powder, which they shared with their rescuers, introducing this hybrid curry dish to Japan.

In reality, while this is a romantic story, it’s much more likely that the Japanese navy was inspired by the British navy, leading them to adopt the ‘curry’ dish for their own sailors. 

Curry provided the perfect solution to catering for large numbers of men with cheap, nutritious and filling food that was easy to cook. The dish also avoided any potential conflict or complaint among sailors as it was neutral, favouring no single region of Japan.

For the same reason that western curry was adopted by the navy, it soon began to pop up in school cafeterias and later in supermarkets as a convenience food to make at home.

Chicken katsu curry

Katsu curry may not be old, but it’s certainly classic!

Katsu Curry in Japan Today 🇯🇵

Curry is a vastly popular dish in Japan today, outranking even our favourite, sushi!

According to Morieda Takashi, a Japanese food writer, the average person in Japan reported eating curry more frequently than both sushi and tempura as of the year 2000. Curry has become somewhat of an unofficial ‘national food of Japan’, with a survey of almost 10,000 Japanese concluding that most eat curry and rice at least several times a month.

Thanks to its popularity, there are many variations of katsu and curry-inspired dishes available in modern Japan. These range from a sandwich filling, known as ‘katsu sando’, to ‘katsudon’, a donburi variety. Different regions of Japan have adopted their own katsu curry, changing the meat and sauce depending on the ingredients most available.

The most common form of katsu curry found in the modern Japanese home begins with curry sauce made from instant curry roux, which is available in the form of powders, blocks and pastes at pretty much every shop and supermarket. It’s even available in ‘boil in the bag’ packaging, just like convenience rice dishes in the UK.

The good news about Japanese curry is that these ‘instant’ brand versions are almost the only way to achieve the authentic flavour associated with the dish since it was first popularised in this form. Most katsu curries start with a curry block, even those served in restaurants!

Katsu Curry Around the World 🌍

Despite its relative newness to the global food scene, katsu curry has taken the world by storm. Western restaurants, both big chain brands and small local businesses, have embraced it. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that we Brits love katsu curry? We are, after all, partly responsible for its creation. We even have a National Katsu Curry Week every November to celebrate it!

One of the great things about fusion food dishes is that they’re always open to interpretation and adaptation, birthing experimental new versions and varieties. Nowadays, no two katsu curry dishes are the same, and every chef and home cook has their own secret ingredient or method that they claim makes theirs the best.

Katsu curry is accessible and simple to make, whether you have a passion for cooking or prefer convenience. Katsu curry blocks, powders and kits are widely available in the global foods section of UK grocery stores as well as specialist Asian supermarkets. Why not try making your own?

INTOKU’s Katsu Dishes 🌸

At INTOKU, we understand the value of a hearty, tasty katsu. No one should be left out of the flavour experience. That’s why we offer this Japanese comfort food fave in multiple forms, including:

Meat 🥩

Chicken Katsu Curry

This classic katsu is panko-breaded and served atop steaming boiled rice with classic java brand curry. Simply unbeatable.

Vegan 🌿

Aubergine Satsumai Katsu

We just couldn’t let the vegans miss out. Our panko-breaded aubergine and sweet potato are miso-glazed, proving that meat does not always equal flavour.

A katsu curry inspired sushi roll

Chicken Katsu Uramaki Roll 🍱

Sushi 🍣

Chicken Katsu Roll Uramaki

Katsu flavours rule. It seemed a shame to limit them to the classic curry form, so we injected some katsu creativity into this sushi-style dish. With Japanese rice and nori, breaded chicken katsu, shredded cucumber and togarashi powder, this fish-less roll is sure to get your appetite going.

Now, if you ever visit Japan, you’ll know your katsu from your curry and never make a fusion food faux-pas again!

Take your pick of our katsu curry dishes. Book a table at INTOKU Chelsea or Windsor, or place an order for collection or delivery.

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