Karē Pan (Japanese Curry Buns)

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Put your hands up for the savoury doughnut.

When I dream of doughnuts (which is more often than I care to admit), they’re filled with thick, chunky strawberry jam, vanilla custard and, only very occasionally, salted caramel sauce. I have pretty conventional doughnut needs really. So when confronted with a savoury curry-stuffed version in Japan, I was more than a little taken aback.

These ‘macho’ doughnuts are known locally as ‘karē pan’ or simply ‘curry breads’, and they’re hugely popular. Traditionally deep-fried but occasionally oven-baked, they come filled with thick curry sauce, curried vegetables or curried meat. The ‘curry’ is one of Japanese origin, the sort that’s also often served with rice and ‘katsu’ (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet) or ‘udon’ (thick noodles). Curry was supposedly introduced to the Japanese by the British (surprise surprise); the Japanese version typically contains curry powder and garam masala.

Unlike their conventional sweet cousins, curry breads are filled prior to frying; once the dough has been stuffed with curry sauce and sealed, it is egg-washed and rolled in Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), before being left to rise. Once cooked they are texturally perfect; there’s something amazing about Panko, the King of all breadcrumbs, to whom ‘karē pan’ owe their supreme crunchiness. You should be able to find Panko in any Asian supermarket; they have a lighter, crispier texture than most other breadcrumbs, as they resist absorbing fat when fried.

To make 8-10 buns:

For the dough:
370g plain white flour
7g dried yeast (normally 1 sachet)
2 tbsp caster sugar
1.5 tsp salt
2 large eggs, beaten
160ml milk
40g butter, at room temperature

Panko breadcrumbs
An additional splash of milk (for the egg-wash)
An additional egg, beaten (also for the egg-wash)
A deep pot of vegetable/sunflower oil (for deep-frying)

For the filling:

Any sort of leftover curry will do just fine, although perhaps nothing too wet and saucy (so probably not butter chicken or lamb rogan josh). We curried some cauliflower with lots of onion, garlic and ginger. A dryer vegetable dish would be suitable – try saag aloo or aloo gobi (cauliflower). You’ll need at least 1 tablespoon of cold curry for each bun.

Prepare the dough:

1) Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl with the sugar, salt, dried yeast and softened butter. Rub the butter into the flour to combine, then add the beaten egg (remembering to reserve some for the egg-wash). Make a well in the centre of the mixture, then pour in the milk. Bring the dough together in the bowl, then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
2) Shape the dough into a neat ball and return it to the mixing bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for at least an hour (and perhaps 90 minutes) until it has doubled in size.
3) While the dough is rising, prepare the curry filling; if you’re worried that whatever you’ve chosen still looks a little sloppy, reduce the liquid by cooking gently in a saucepan. Our cauliflower mix was already fairly dry, especially since being chilled overnight, and so all I needed to do was portion out 8 small piles, of approximately 1 large tablespoon in size. Make sure that the curry is fridge-cold before attempting to fold it into your dough.
4) Knock the dough back by pressing it down lightly with your fist. This action just expels some of the gas that’s formed within the dough, making it easier to work with.
5) Divide the dough into 8-10 pieces (8 if you want the buns fairly large – remember that the dough will also expand in the hot oil). Roll each piece into a tight ball, then leave to rest for 15 minutes under a damp cloth or sheet of plastic wrap.
6) Add a splash of milk to one beaten egg to make an egg-wash, then start shaping the buns. With a rolling pin, flatten out each ball of dough into a thin disc, then using a pastry brush or your finger, paint the edges very lightly with egg-wash. Place a small mound of curry in the centre of each circle. Gather up the edges of dough, sealing each bun into a pasty-shape (see photos below). Pinch the edges firmly to ensure they are well-sealed, then turn each bun upside-down, pressing the sealed edge directly into the work surface (so that the seam becomes the base of the bun).
7) Once all the buns have been stuffed and sealed, prepare the ‘pané’ line (get ready to coat the buns in breadcrumbs). You’ll need two similarly-sized rectangular containers – one to hold egg-wash and the other to hold the Panko – plus a large clean tray lined with baking paper.
8) Dip each bun in the egg-wash, making sure it is thoroughly and evenly coated (it can also be brushed on if you find this easier). Work with one at a time to avoid crowding the buns in the trays. Shake/brush off any excess egg-wash, then transfer to the tray of Panko, tossing thoroughly in the breadcrumbs to coat. Once well-dressed in crumbs, place the bun onto the lined baking tray. Finish coating all the stuffed buns before covering the tray lightly with cling film. Leave the buns to rise for one last time – in a warm place for about 30 minutes.
9) Heat the vegetable/sunflower oil in a deep pot to about 175°C.
10) If the buns have developed any holes along the seams then pinch them tightly closed before frying them. Carefully lift each bun off the tray and transfer to the hot oil (lower the buns gently to avoid splashing yourself with oil). Depending on the size of your pot, you might be able to fry two at a time – but take your time as overloading the pot will cause the temperature of the oil to drop. Fry the buns until golden brown on both sides – this shouldn’t take longer than 5 minutes per bun. If they’re colouring very slowly, the oil may be too cool. Likewise, if they’re browning almost immediately on contact then it’s likely that the oil is far too hot, and the doughnuts will not cook evenly throughout.
11) Remove each bun using a slotted spoon and transfer immediately to a plate/tray lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess fat. If you’re worried that the heat has not fully penetrated the curry in the centre, then they can be baked in the oven afterwards, for about 8-10 minutes at 150°C.

Roll the dough into balls……

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Put a heaped tablespoon of cold curry into the centre of each disc…..

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Seal into a pasty/gyoza-shape…..

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Turn upside-down to hide the seam…..

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