Tonkatsu (豚カツ) is a cutlet of pork, breaded and deep fried until crisp and golden brown. While it’s become a ubiquitous cafeteria staple in Japan, there are many restaurants that specialize in tonkatsu and related dishes.
Maybe I’m just a total geek, but I’ve always been fascinated with tracing the origins of a dish. The journey of food can be epic and it often finds itself quite far from where it started. For Tonkatsu, it’s not entirely clear where the journey started, but most fried foods in Japan can trace their lineage to the 18th century, when the Potuguese introduced a dish, now known as Tempura to Japan.
Tonkatsu has a crispy panko crust that seals in all the juices of the pork, which makes for a moist tender cutlet that’s almost reminiscent of an Austrian Wiener Schnitzel. The name Tonkatsu yields another clue as to its ancestry. Ton, means pork in Japanese, and katsu is an abbreviation of the English word “cutlet” (pronounced ka-tsu-reh-toh in Japanese). This suggests the dish could be a result of the American influence during the mid to late 19th century, which also happens to be around the time Tonkatsu first started showing up on menus in Tokyo.
Whatever its origins, tonkatsu’s popularity has spread all over Asia with regional variations, such as in Korea, where it’s known as donkkase (돈까스).
While Tonkatsu is typically served with a sweet brown sauce, my favourite way of having it is blanketed with Japanese curry. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about biting into a crisp golden piece of pork while savouring the sweet, spicy curry sauce encircling it.
Since Tonkatsu is a simple dish that only has a few ingredients, the quality of the ingredients matters. In this case it’s crucial that you use a high quality piece of pork, otherwise you may end up with a tough leathery chew toy that you’ll end up feeding to your dog. I like to start out with a 1″ thick boneless center-cut pork chop (preferably of the Berkshire variety). Since this is a little on the thick side for deep frying, I give it a good whacking with a chefs knife, which tenderizes the meat while thinning it out.
The leftovers are great in sandwiches (with tomatoes and some shredded cabbage), and they also make great Katsudon (Tonkatsu with onions and eggs over rice).
Tonkatsu (Japanese Pork Cutlet)
4 center cut pork chops (1″ thick)
all-purpose flour for dredging
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg beaten
1 C panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
oil for frying
1/4 head of cabbage shredded on a mandoline (optional)
Tonkatsu sauce for serving (Worcestershire sauce can be substituted)
Shred the cabbage with a mandoline and soak in a bowl of ice cold water for at least an hour. This helps get the cabbage nice and crisp while muting some of the “cabbage smell”.
Prepare the pork by removing any extra fat or tough silverskin from the sides of the cutlet. Use a chef’s knife to tenderize the cutlets in a crosshatch pattern by using a drumming motion across the surface, then turning the meat 90 degrees and repeating. Do this to both sides of each cutlet until they are 3/4″ thick.
Salt and pepper both sides of each cutlet then dredge them in flour, making sure to get an even coat on the sides. The flour combined with the egg in the next step helps the panko adhere to the meat.
Get two shallow bowls and beat an egg in one, and add the panko to the other. Add 3/4″ of oil into a heavy bottomed pot and heat over medium heat.
Coat a cutlet in egg then transfer to the bowl with the panko. Shake the bowl to evenly coat the cutlet, then press on the cutlet to get a nice thick coating of panko. Flip and press on the other side then repeat with the rest of the cutlets.
Once the oil is at 340 degrees F, gently lower the tonkatsu into the oil, being mindful not to scrape too much panko off, while being careful not to deep fry your hand. Once the the cutlets are golden brown on one side, carefully flip them over and brown the other side. Continue cooking until the pork reaches 137 degrees F at its thickest part. Transfer to a paper towel lined wire rack and let it rest of about 5 minutes.
Letting the meat rest allows the internal temperature to continue to rise to around 145 F while allowing the proteins to relax, reabsorbing some of the juices so they don’t run all over your plate.
I like to serve my tonkatsu whole with steak knives, but you can cut them before plating if you prefer. Drain the cabbage and and serve alongside the tonkatsu with some tonkatsu sauce and rice.