An Ode to Tonkatsu
Tonkatsu. It’s just fried pork cutlet, right? The simplest thing ever, and basically a schnitzel? As with almost everything in Japan, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Tonkatsu was first served in Japan around the turn of the 20th century when Japanese restaurants began to offer more western-style food, known as ‘yoshoku’. ‘Ton’ means pork in Japanese while the ‘katsu’ originally came from the English ‘cutlet’ or French ‘cotelette’.
Tonkatsu とんかつ is made by deep frying thick slices of pork coated in beaten eggs, flour, and panko in oil, and is typically served as part of a teishoku set meal with cabbage, rice, pickles and miso soup or tonjiru (miso and pork broth soup). The cutlet are pre-sliced before serving. The dish is eaten with seasoning of mustard, lemon and tonkatsu sauce. Other variations include served thin tonkatsu on top of a bowl of rice typically sliced and mixed with eggs and onions or together with Japanese curry and rice as part of a katsukare, or as part of a sandwich.
This rather academic description makes the whole thing sound quite mundane, and very simple. Indeed, tonkatsu occupies a spot in a class of cuisine called B-kyu gurume (B-class gourmet cuisine) – down-to-earth dishes, often with strong regional connections served at mom and pop speciality restaurants. Other examples of B-kyu gurume include okonomiyaki, motsunabe, takoyaki and ramen.
Legend has it that Tonkatsu was first developed at Rengatei in Ginza, which had opened in 1895 and was Japan’s first ‘Western-style restaurant’. In 1899, Motojiro Kida, the founder of Renga-tei, added pork cutlets to the menu. At that time, the preparation of the dish was time-consuming: each slice of meat was first sautéed then grilled in an oven. Moreover, the dish was greasy and not very popular among the locals. A new method was needed. Taking a cue from tempura, the meat was successively dredged in flour, eggs and breadcrumbs, then deep-fried in plenty of oil. The next evolution in tonkatsu production took place at Ponchi-ken, a western style restaurant in Okachimachi, in 1929. Shinjiro Shimada, a former chef of the Imperial Household, evolved the tempura method to more ably handle a 3-cm thick slice of pork by adjusting the temperature of the cooking oil to cook the core of the meat. The cutlet was pre-sliced so it could be eaten with chopsticks and it was here that the teishoku style of presentation was first introduced.
Over the past century, the humble pork cutlet has been brought to new heights of taste, texture, and presentation in Japanese cuisine. Rather like ramen, it is the sum of many small parts that transform an ordinary fried pork cutlet into legendary tonkatsu. We can analyse each of the ingredients and discover why a good tonkatsu is truly a work of art:
Tonkatsu is typically made using pork chops (rosu-katsu), which have their fat distributed relatively evenly through the meat. ヒレかつ (hire-katsu) is made with fillets, which have almost no fat. The porkchops have the advantage of being savoury, while fillet tends to be very lean and tender. Both are fantastic, and your choice should depend on your mood and your budget, with hirekatsu typically being more expensive, as higher quality meat is needed to make sure the meat does not become dry when deep-fried.
Panko are Japanese breadcrumbs with a light, flaky texture. In a nice connection with the origin of the work tonkatsu, the word comes from pan ‘bread’, derived from the French, and ko meaning ‘flour’ or ‘powder’. Panko are made using white bread and have an airy, delicate texture that help them crisp as they cook. For tonkatsu these are typically coarse grain. This texture makes them great for fried food because they absorb less grease than western breadcrumbs, keeping food crispier and crunchier. Specialty tonkatsu restaurants use “raw panko”, which has a higher moisture content and leads to a light and crispy exterior. Homemade tonkatsu is often made using dry panko which allows heat to pass through more easily.
Another house secret. Several kinds of oils can be used for frying, for example vegetable and sesame oils, and even lard. The oil must completely submerge the meat. Every restaurant is aiming for the holy grail – a juicy, crispy tonkatsu that is not overtly greasy.
Tonkatsu would not be the dish it is today without the accompanying sauce, and some may argue that it is this sauce which moved tonkatsu away from simply being a western-style fried pork cutlet to a unique Japanese speciality. While the sauce has its origins in English Worcestershire sauce, the flavor was changed to better suit the Japanese palate. You actually see this with a lot of foods – typically it means that they became sweeter and fuller bodied. A true homemade tonkatsu sauce is made by stewing vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes and apples, then blending in vinegar and sugar, salt, and spices. This has the effect of deepening the richness of the sauce. The fruits and vegetables make it highly viscous and suited to deep-fried foods, without getting them too soggy. At a local tonkatsu restaurant the exact composition remains a shop secret, handed down from generation to generation.
Usually, tonkatsu comes served with finely chopped cabbage. The garnish was initially cooked vegetables, but later on, cabbages were chosen because they were available throughout the year. Julienned cabbage was easier to prepare than cooked vegetables, and the refreshing taste of the cabbage went better with the cutlet. Thus, the combination of cutlet and julienned cabbage became a signature menu at Renga-tei and spread all around Japan. Very useful as a source of fibre after the animal proteins and fats from the pork, the Vitamin C present maintains the health of the mucous membranes in the stomach. It also softens the aftertaste of fried food. You can choose whether to top your cabbage with salad dressing, or with the tonkatsu sauce itself.
Even the quality of white rice served as part of the teishoku makes a difference to the meal. For example, some restaurants use award-winning Koshihikari rice from Nita, Okuzumo in Shimane prefecture.
While we are focusing on tonkatsu here, we should give a shout out to its sister variations – chicken, beef, ham, and ground meat, even cheese. Fish katsu also exist, commonly called fry.
So, where are our favourite places to eat tonkatsu? We’re not telling! That is because the places we take our guests do not want to be in the guidebooks nor be overrun with visitors. This is a phenomenon that is actually relatively common in Japan. You may have heard of restaurants rejecting Michelin stars in Tokyo. It is to these sorts of places that we take our guests to eat. Places that have elevated even the humble tonkatsu into an art form.
Let us assure you – a skillfully prepared tonkatsu can soar to the melt-in-your-mouth heights of haute cuisine.
Maction Planet runs Tokyo Food Tours, where tonkatsu forms part of the delicious itinerary. We guarantee that no other tour groups are going to the unique, local areas we are exploring. We are redefining the “off-the-beaten-track” experience in The World’s Greatest Metropolis. Join us! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange yours!