Call me a geek, but I’m a bit obsessed with the history of food. Contrary to popular belief, even the most “authentic” dishes are often influenced by ingredients or techniques from other parts of the world. That’s because the journey of food parallels the journey of humankind, taking unexpected twists and turns, which bring ingredients and techniques continents away from where they originated.
For Tonkatsu (豚カツ) , it’s not entirely clear where the journey started, but deep-frying is not a native method of preparing food in Japan. The first written account of the dish is in a cookbook published in 1872 called Seiyou Ryouritsu (literally “The Western World Cookbook), which describes a breaded and fried dish called Hohru Katsuretsu (Whole Cutlet). The first recorded appearance on a restaurant menu was at Rengatei in Ginza around 1899 going by the name of Pohku Katsuretsu (Pork Cutlet).
The timing coincides with the Meiji Restoration which brought with it the opening of trade with the West along with a constitution that was modelled after the legal structures of the German Empire. The English name suggests it was introduced by the British or the Americans, but the true origin of the dish is most likely the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, or the Italian Cotoletta alla Milanese.
The name Tonkatsu didn’t appear until later and is a portmanteau of ton, which means “pork” in Japanese and katsu, which is an abbreviation of katsuretsu, the Japanese transcription of “cutlet”. Whatever its origins, tonkatsu’s popularity has spread all over Asia with regional variations, such as in Korea, where it’s known as donkkaseu (돈까스).
Since Tonkatsu is a simple dish that only has a few ingredients, the quality of the ingredients matter. The most important component is the pork and you’ll want to splurge here on a tender cut with some fat marbled in. I like using either a loin chop or rib chop but look for a cut with even marbling and without much connective tissue and you should be okay. Heritage breeds like Berkshire (kurobuta) or Iberico are the best since they haven’t had the fat bred out of them.
Traditionally Tonkatsu is served with a nest of shredded raw cabbage, spicy mustard and a sweet fruit-based sauce, but my favourite way of having it is with Japanese curry. There’s something divinely satisfying about biting through the crisp golden breading into the tender juicy pork while the sweet, spicy curry sauce swirls around in your mouth. If you end up with leftovers they’re great in sandwiches (Katsusando), and they can also be used to make Katsudon(Tonkatsu with onions and eggs over rice).
Equipment you'll need:
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