Learn the secrets of how to make to make Japanese curry that’s inspired by the iconic, Coco Ichibanaya House Curry. This homemade Japanese curry sauce is savory-sweet, rich and creamy with a rude amount of flavour. Pair with various types of katsu, vegetables and toppings for the ultimate comfort meal. (Vegetarian / Vegan)
If you’ve been to Japan before, you’ve probably seen CoCo Ichibanaya House Curry with its big yellow bold sign. Curry rice is a highly popular and loved comfort food in Japan, loved by kids and adults alike. If you ask any Japanese person where to go for curry rice, they’ll direct you right to CoCo Ichiban.
CoCo Ichiban only offers curry (and some sides), but with a variety of spice levels and toppings. From classic katsu, seafood, egg, a huge range of vegetables and even natto! Not to mention, they are incredibly quick and affordable.
What makes CoCo Ichiban different is that their curry is luscious, glossy and saucy. It has a delicious kick that a lot of other places don’t often achieve. Their curry sauce is so flavourful it tastes delicious as is with a bed of rice.
We don’t have CoCo Ichi here in Canada, so it was a luxury for us to eat there every summer when we visited Japan. Our go-to was of course, the katsu curry.
Since going vegan, I haven’t had CoCo’s curry in a few years. In 2017, they came out with a katsu curry (pictured above) made with soy meat. I originally developed this recipe in 2021 based on memory, but since visiting CoCo in 2022, have slightly updated it to make it even better. Although it is not a complete replica of CoCo’s curry, I think it’s pretty close! Below is the vegan curry with natto and then the curry with vegetables and a soy hambagu (Japanese hamburger patty).
To describe the taste of this curry… it’s bitter-sweet thanks to the fried and caramelized onions. Then you’re hit with a bit of heat from the white pepper and togarashi (or cayenne), and then as you prepare your next bite, you get a hint of tang and sourness (the good kind!) coming from the vinegar, coffee and cocoa powder.
History of Coco Ichibanaya
CoCo Ichibanya dates back to 1974, when Tokuji Munetsugu and his wife, Naomi opened a coffee shop named Bacchus. They added curry to their menu as a way to increase sales, and that led to opening a third restaurant that specialized in curry. They decided on the name Curry house Coco Ichibanya to as a representation of their curry that its the best and most delicious (ichiban = number one). The first store opened on January 1978 in Nishibiwajima. From there, the business took off and the number of stores was expanded throughout Japan and even overseas.
Now I won’t lie, there are quite a few ingredients that go into this curry sauce… but I promise you each play a roll and is well worth the outcome. A lot of the flavour and umami in diner curries come from the poultry used, like beef and pork and their stock. So, we have to incorporate other ingredients to make this curry just as flavourful.
- onions: preferably yellow or Spanish onions
- red bell pepper: you may substitute with more carrots
- butter: I use Miyoko’s cultured vegan butter. If you prefer a creamier, less buttery curry, you may substitute the butter added at the end with dairy free cream or half and half.
- plant based bacon or beef: I used Light Life plant based bacon. If you are not vegan, you may substitute with your choice of bacon or thinly sliced beef. Alternatively, you may also completely omit it, it still tastes good but please keep in mind it will taste slightly different!
- vegan chicken bouillon: or replace the water with vegetable stock
- Bull Dog Worcestershire sauce
- Bull Dog Fruit & Vegetable Sauce: may substitute with ketchup
- apple: or 1/2 small (40 g) banana
- mixed fruit chutney: may substitute with jam, 1 tbsp of honey or sugar
- peanut butter
- Japanese curry powder: S&B or homemade
- Japanese curry roux cubes
- rice vinegar
- instant coffee: or substitute with cocoa powder
- red miso: may substitute with white miso or 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- dark soy sauce: optional, however this is to enhance the colour.
- white pepper: or black pepper
- togarashi: or cayenne
Which brand of Japanese Curry roux mix is best?
Growing up, my mom bought whatever was on sale— however we did have distinct favourites: torokeru & house java. However, here is a breakdown of their flavour profiles to help you find which may be the best for you:
- Golden Curry (S&B): the oldest & most traditional brand. Basic curry flavour with no additional sweetness— offers a vegan option. I love using this one because you can adjust the seasonings and add a variety of ingredients to your liking.
- Torokeru (S&B): sweet, savoury and the perfect amount of spices to balance everything out. It’s also not as thick so you have the ability to add richness as you cook the curry without making it greasy or heavy. Also offers a vegan option (which I used for this recipe).
- Java Curry (House Foods): similar to Torokeru but has a slightly more of a spicy kick to it. This is the one that Coco Ichi is said to use.
- Kokumaro Curry (House Foods): also quite similar to torokeru but on the sweeter-side.
- Vermont Curry (House Foods): thick, smooth with a fruity sweet flavour.
- Zeppin (Glico): thick in texture and quite sweet, with an intense flavour from the spices used.
How to Make Coco Ichibanya-style Japanese Curry Sauce
Making the curry is quite easy, but does take a bit of time. It’s a labour of love that is well worth it 🙂.
- Fry the onions: a slightly different flavour profile than the caramelized onions with a more savory and smoky note (you may do this process simultaneously while caramelizing the onions). Fry the onions until a little past golden, it’s okay if a little gets burnt.
- Caramelize the onions: this process takes about 45-60 minutes, but is essential and adds sweetness and complexity to the curry. However, if you are in a rush, you can make pretty good caramelized onions in 15-20 minutes (see below).
- Cook apple and carrot: Once caramelized, add the grated carrot and apple and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Once cooked down, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- Deglaze pan: Add 1 cup of water and use the back end of a wooden spatula and
- scrape off the caramelized onion remanences. Set aside.
- Roast bell pepper: this can be done over a gas stove or in the oven.
- Cook: In a large pot, cook the plant based bacon and remaining onions for about 3-5 minutes (the onions do not have to be really cooked down). Add the water from the caramelized onion pan and remaining 4 cups of water, and bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
- Blend the seasonings: Add the consomme, dashi granules, caramelized onions, fried onions, bell pepper, peanut butter, mixed fruit chutney and curry powder.
- Strain: while this step is optional, it makes a very smooth curry.
- Add roux and seasonings: chop up the curry roux cubes and dissolve them in a ladle to ensure there are no chunks of roux. Finish with butter, Worcestershire sauce, Nakano sauce, miso paste, instant coffee, cocoa powder, rice vinegar, salt and white pepper. Then simmer over low or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.\
- Let the flavours mature: Rest the curry at least for 3 hours, ideally overnight.
- Re-heat: Add the curry back into a pot with water and bring to a low simmer. Stir in dark soy sauce and vinegar.
- Serve: Make any toppings you want to serve with your curry. Serve over rice with fukushinzuke and ryakyo (Japanese pickles).
The sauce will darken the more and longer you heat it. The colour is highly based on the brand of curry roux cubes used, how long it has been simmered, amount of water used and darkness of the instant coffee and dark soy sauce used.
What to serve Japanese curry with
You can truly serve this curry sauce with anything your heart desires. If you’ve ever looked at Coco’s menu, you’ll see they have a huge variety of toppings to choose from. Here are some ideas:
- your favourite katsu (pictured is for tofu katsu)
- karaage: tofu karaage
- korokke (Japanese croquettes)
- hambagu (vegan recipe for Japanese hamburger patty)
- fried vegetables
- hot dogs: plant based as necessary
- egg (vegetarian)
- spinach (cooked into the sauce)
- potato salad
In addition, serve with fresh rice and fukushinzuke (pickled sweet daikon) and ryakyo (pickled scallion bulbs).
Quicker Caramelized Onions
You can’t beat caramelized onions that are cooked long and slow, but sometimes when I’m in a rush I use this microwave plus stove top method to make it in about 15 minutes with similar results.
- Add the thinly sliced onions to a microwave safe bowl with butter. Cover with cling wrap microwave on high for 3 minutes, stir and microwave on high for another 3 – 5 minutes. It should be translucent and soft.
- Heat a pan over medium to medium high. Add the onions and spread across the pan. Let it heat up and slightly brown on the bottom. Stir occasionally to prevent it from burning and continue to cook until caramelized and jammy. Deglaze the pan with a little water as needed.
Tips for Delicious Japanese Curry
- Curry texture: Coco Ichi’s curry tends to be very smooth and more-so on the liquid-y side. This is personal preference, but if you enjoy a very loose curry you can strain the ingredients through a fine mesh sieve after blending. Alternatively, you may also add more liquid. If you prefer a thicker curry, simmer for slightly longer until your desired consistency.
- Add the flavour boosters at the end and keep on simmer: add the instant coffee, cocoa powder, miso and rice vinegar at the end to preserve its favour.
- Make extra: double the recipe to have leftovers. Why? Because second day curry tastes even better. The ingredients continue to marinate and break down and time allows the flavours to mature and blend together.
How to Store Leftover Curry
Once the curry cools, you can keep it in the pot with the lid on and store it in the fridge. If it is a smaller amount, transfer to a air tight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Reheat on the stove over low heat.
To freeze, transfer to freezer safe containers and keep in the freezer for up to one month. When ready, thaw in the refrigerator overnight and then on the stove over low heat. You may need to add water to desired consistency.
- How does the vegetarian/vegan CoCo Ichi curry compare to the one made with beef/pork? I had my mom compare the two and she said that the two are quite similar and incredibly flavourful. The main difference being that the vegetarian one has a slightly fruitier flavour. She also noted that the veg one is less oily and after eating it, it also felt less heavy on the stomach.
- How does this recipe compare to the CoCo Ichi curry? Of course, this is not a complete replica of CoCo’s curry since they have their own secret blend of spices and ingredients, but I think quite close. I think the main difference is that this curry has a less of a greasier mouth-feel. You can really taste the depth of flavours coming from the jammy-sweet onions, fried onions and cooked onions.
- Can I add other vegetables to the curry? Yes! If you prefer family-style curry with chunks of potatoes and carrots, you can try this Japanese vegan curry :).
- What can I use instead of plant based bacon? The next best vegan alternative would be mushrooms. However, if you are not vegan you may substitute for bacon or thinly sliced beef. Additionally, swap the water for chicken stock.
- Do I have to strain the curry? No. Coco’s curry is quite smooth but if you don’t mind a little texture no need to strain, especially if you are using a high speed blender.
More Japanese Curry Recipes to Try
- Japanese curry powder
- Japanese kabocha curry
- Tofu katsu curry
- Curry udon
- Yaki curry
- Kare pan (deep fried Japanese curry buns)
- Curry fried rice
SAVE IT FOR LATER! ↓
If you recreate this CoCo Ichibanaya-style Japanese Curry recipe let me know how you liked it by leaving a comment and rating below or by tagging me on Instagram @Okonomikitchen, I love seeing all of your tasty recreations!
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