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Japanese curry (カレー, karē) is its own distinct style, made with a roux base, mild curry powder, and grated apples or apple puree.

It also has a well-documented origin, having been introduced by British/Indian sailors during the period of British-Japanese naval alliance. This also includes an explanation for why Japanese curry uses a roux base (the navy wanted to add vitamin B1-bearing wheat to the sailor's diet). What it doesn't include is an explanation for when, how, and why the apples became a key ingredient.

Per Chopstick Chronicles:

The ultimate Japanese curry rice secret ingredients “kakushi Aji”, which literally translates to “hidden taste”, are Apple and Honey. These are well-known Japanese curry rice ingredients among Japanese people so it’s not much of a secret anymore. Adding grated apple and honey gives the Japanese curry rice the signature sweeter flavour and is a staple for any Japanese mother’s home-cooked curry.

Apples are not used in Anglo-Indian curries that I've seen or been able to find online. So this leads to several related questions:

  • Were apples added to standard Japanese curry when it was introduced to the 19th century navy?
  • If so, were they added for nutritional reasons? Or were apples common in British curries of the time (the book "Curry" does not mention this, nor are apples mentioned in Mrs Beeton's)
  • If the apples were added later, how did that come about? Was the Vermont Curry company responsible for it?

Thanks for any leads or ideas.

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  • 1
    I must have eaten hundreds of variants over the years of Japanese kareraisu [in Japan] & never once noticed apple in it. Meat, potatoes, carrots for sure, but sweet, nope, though I would always order the hottest if there was a choice; perhaps the sweetness is only in the mild variants. British "chip shop" curry [revolting sugary goo] always had raisins in it - so perhaps there is a Raj connection...
    – unlisted
    Oct 11, 2020 at 18:12
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    Whether or not you noticed it, it's there. The biggest brand of "curry blocks", sold in Japan and the US, is Vermont Curry, so named because of their use of apples and honey. housefoods-group.com/products/en/vmt
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 11, 2020 at 18:53
  • I have seen a few other supposedly East Asian (but in Britain) curries using apples, sometimes in large pieces - so maybe there is a British origin
    – Chris H
    Oct 11, 2020 at 20:00
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    +1, I like to blend the Java and S&B brands of Japanese-style curry because I can add a little honey and not do any apple. I don't like Vermont because it's too bland for me. But while I recognize apple/honey as a common ingredient in recipes I've seen in blogs and yt videos, I've seen just as many that don't use either. I've just as often read that the use of butter specifically is what makes it sweet... I'll be really interested to see a complete answer to this.
    – kitukwfyer
    Oct 11, 2020 at 21:22
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    @Tetsujin yah, so you probably aren't eating the curries with apple in them. The only place I've had an actually spicy Japanese curry, though, is in the US; the ones I've had in Tokyo were all very mild.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 13, 2020 at 1:52

2 Answers 2

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Curry and apples were both introduced to Japan in the late 19th century. Curry did not receive widespread popularity until the beginning of the 20th century and apples were not introduced to the curry rue until the 1960s (When the sweeter honey and apple curries increased their popularity with children). In 1963 House Foods Corp introduced House Vermont Curry made with honey and apples.

https://gogocurryfranchise.com/the-evolution-and-spread-of-japanese-curry-rice/

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  • Name the company who introduced the apple curry for home cooking, and you have the answer!
    – FuzzyChef
    Feb 8, 2021 at 6:48
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Just to chart how British and Japanese tastes for apple in curry developed:

The first published recipe for curry discovered so far in British recipes is from Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747. Page 101 of 1755 edition, as digitised by Google, has a recipe To Make a Currey the Indian Way, which makes no mention of apples.

From the late 18th century to the early 19th century, as the Georgian era yielded to the Regency in the United Kingdom, the Hindoostane Coffee House in London, opened by Sake Dean Mohamed, became the most famous Indian restaurant, and although these dishes were certainly mild in spice (by modern British standards), no mention of the flavours of apple is made in London's first restaurant guide, The Epicure's Almanack, published in 1815.

Fast forward to 1845's Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton, and we see a range of curry recipes, including tripe curry, chicken curry (which includes the mention of grated coconut), country captain and curry balls. No mention of apples in any of these curry recipes, but there is this tidbit about making curries on page 333, under the heading for "Madras Curry Powder":

In India there is always something acid in the mixture, as lemons, sour apple juice, or green tamarinds.

This reminded me of another beloved Anglo-Indian favourite, the chutney. Chutney, under its various spellings, reached the English language in the 19th century, and apple chutney was certainly "a thing". On tracing its history, the 1853 Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book by a certain Robert Riddell makes no mention of it (its "love apple chutney" refers to tomato chutney), although it speaks about both English and 'native' Deccan apples. Rather, we turn to Georgiana Hill's How to Cook Potatoes, Apples, Eggs and Fish from 1869, where recipe 192 has apple chutney, where raisins and tamarind are used alongside the "sharp apples". Only a recipes down, recipe 200, is apple curry.

Cut some pared apples into large, but not very thick, slices; mix with them an onion chopped up small ; throw this into a pan of butter, which shake over a brisk fire until it attains a rich brown colour. Take the remains of any cold poultry or meat, previously rubbed over with a mixture of one ounce of curry and two ounces of flour ; stir it about well in the pan, and when the butter is quite absorbed throw in a pint of rich gravy or new milk ; simmer it for a quarter of an hour, and serve with sippets of toast dipped into lemon juice.

It was in the 1860s that the Meiji period got underway, and when the Imperial Japanese Navy adopted curry from the British Royal Navy. JapanToday.com covered the earliest Japanese recipe for curry, dating from 1872, in the 西洋料理通 Seiyō ryōritsū (The Expert on Western Cookery) by Kanagaki Robun 仮名垣魯文. We see the establishment of the roux method, but no apples to be seen.

About twenty years later, the 1891 New York-published Tempting Curry Dishes uses apple and applesauce quite liberally in some of its curry dishes, as well as having a recipe for curried apples. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, one domestic servant working at the Manor House in Willerby has in a handwritten notebook a recipe for curry, involving frying "two sour apples", and it is likely this recipe that has been popularised by the venerable "Mrs Crocombe" on English Heritage's YouTube channel. Interesting, the above BBC article reports a comment from head chef of a Yorkshire-based Indian restaurant chain, Mohammed Aslam:

"Lamb and apples is one of the oldest recipes," he said. "It's a southern [Indian] style of cooking, because what they do in the south is seasonal - what they grow, they use, like apples.

Then again, Mrs Beeton's 1861 tome had no apples in the curry recipes; an 1895 cookbook entitled Anglo-Indian cookery at home : a short treatise for returned exiles makes no mention of apples at all. The flavour profile remained, with recipes for British "colonial-style curry" and the revered coronation chicken. These were gradually superseded by a wave of immigration from the Indian subcontinent and a new wave of British curries through the 1960s and 70s.

Thus, approaching the late 20th century, with apple in curry being a regionalism in India and an anachronism in Britain, it appears that a New England take on curry, through one doctor's obsession with honey and apple cider vinegar, a health fad (バーモント健康法 Bāmonto kenkō-hō, the "Vermont Health System") that took off in Japan, intense marketing in the 1960s by House Foods, and now Japanese-style カレー karē is virtually defined by its use of apple and honey. Until the next change in tastes...!

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  • Howdy! While I appreciate all the references, this seems to agree with the accepted answer?
    – FuzzyChef
    Feb 16 at 21:27
  • Thanks for the relevant links in this comprehensive answer. Wish I could add +2 :)
    – Kingsley
    May 4 at 23:41

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