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)
- To prepare the cabbage salad, separate the leaves from the head, trim off the tough stems, roll a few leaves together and use a sharp knife to slice the cabbage into thin threads. If you have a mandoline, you can leave the half-head of cabbage whole and just mandoline the cabbage and then pick out the tough bits.
- Soak the cabbage in cold water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. This not only crisps the cabbage it tames some of the cabbagy funk.
- Prepare two bowls, one with a well beaten egg and the other with the panko. Prepare a wire rack lined with 2 paper towels.
- Add 1 1/2-inches of oil to a heavy bottomed pot and then add 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil. Heat the oil to 340 degrees F (170 C).
- For the pork, salt and pepper both sides. You can also add other seasonings here.
- Dust the chops with an even coating of flour.
- Dip the cutlet in the egg and coat evenly.
- Transfer the pork to the panko and dust evenly, pressing down gently on the cutlet to ensure you get a good coating of breadcrumbs.
- Fry the cutlets until the panko is golden brown and they register 145 degrees F (63 C) with an instant read thermometer. Flip once to ensure even browning and use a skimmer to remove any foam that accumulates on the surface of the oil. Be sure to remove the katsu from oil before measuring the temperature or you'll end up getting a false reading. Depending on how thick your chops are they will take anywhere from 7-10 minutes to cook through.
- Drain the pork on the paper towel lined rack and let it rest for a few minutes.
- While the pork rests, drain the cabbage and use a salad spinner to remove any excess moisture. Place big mounds of cabbage on each plate.
- Slice the tonkatsu and plate with the cabbage. Serve with Tonkatsu sauce. If you don't have tonkatsu sauce, you can make a simple version by mixing a 1:1 ratio of ketchup and worcestershire sauce.
This is recipe is for a very basic tonkatsu, but if you want to do something a little different you can add seasonings such as grated ginger or garlic or even curry powder when you salt and pepper the chops. Alternatively you can also brine the pork ahead of time to give it even more flavor.