Imagine a critical moment in time when a nation goes through a major overhaul in political and social structure, affecting the lives of so many of its people, in so many different ways…including their jobs, dress/ hairdo styles and yes, even the food they eat.
Such a time took place, in Japan, during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), as it began to engage in a transformation from a feudalistic society with a hierarchical social structure to a modern, industrial, capitalist nation. It was an era of change in the fast lane, as the last Shogun was toppled and a young, new Emperor took control of Japan, in an attempt to modernize and westernize this nation.
Although a fictional tale, loosely based on some actual characters and events, but not intended to be a duplicate of history, the movie The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, gives you some perspective on the background and time frame, strictly in an entertaining manner.
The film’s plot is based on the earlier part of the Meiji Era as the new government establishes trade-friendly policies, and adopts Western technology and weapons under the leadership of the new Emperor, who attempts to abolish the Samurai. And, as the government tries to eradicate the Samurai, it confronts violent rebellion from a group of them who oppose the modernization, resulting in uprisings.
So basically, it was a critical time, especially for the Samurai, who had their previous, elite status abolished. Some fought back and chose death, while some struggled with unemployment and poverty. But some adapted and became military officers in the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army or found themselves making the transition, into a new elite status, by joining the government bureaucracy. Still others simply made a living as school teachers and such.
But it wasn’t just the Samurai who had to deal with modernization. The commoners also had to adapt to a new wave of change as well, and one of the transitions they had to deal with was the close encounter of the edible kind, in this case, the entity being…Unfamiliar Food Objects.
Some significant factors came into play prior to and during this era. First, Japan had just emerged from 200 years of self-imposed isolation. It did have some contact with the outside world, albeit restricted, namely with the Dutch and the Chinese, at limited locations, during the isolation period, until Commodore Perry steamed into Tokyo (formally Edo) Bay requesting the opening of trade in 1853. It wasn’t until a few years later that a treaty, for trading rights, was finally signed between the United States and Japan, followed by treaties with other western countries, resulting in the opening of Japan’s ports.
There’s a story about a group of Japanese being invited to one of Perry’s ships during a visit to Japan. On board, they were offered some wine but when they saw the reddish liquid being poured into a glass, they thought is was blood, freaked out and ran away. I don’t know the level of truth to this story but things like this can happen when humans encounter...Unfamiliar Food Objects.
In any case, after a little over 150 years since the end of its seclusion, who would have thought that Japan would have the largest number of McDonald’s restaurants operating next to the United States?
Another interesting fact is that the prohibition against eating meat, which lasted for 1,200 years, was lifted. During this taboo, for the most part, the Japanese diet consisted mainly of rice, vegetables and seafood. It is generally understood that the Buddhist influence played a role in this taboo, but perhaps the scarcity of animals for human consumption and other cultural aspects may be responsible, as well.
But the new Emperor Meiji encouraged Western dietary habits and is said to have made an example by eating beef and drinking milk, himself. As a part of this modernization, he hoped to make his people nice and hardy...like the Westerners. So, it wasn’t like the majority of Japanese were eating Kobe Beef and Teriyaki Chicken Bowls for thousands of years!
Along with these factors, the government, media, academics and advocates campaigned and promoted Western cuisine and urged the public to eat...Unfamiliar Food Objects. Supposedly, there was even an anti-Western food riot…we can only imagine the intensity of this movement.
The Meiji Era not only, quite rapidly, changed the face of Japanese political, economical and social structures, but it also made a significant impact on its food culture. What’s significant here, is how the cooks and society, in general, adapted to this movement. Obviously, people’s food habits and acquired tastes can’t be changed that easily, in such a short time.
The public made an effort, for the most part, to adapt to the situation by taking the Unfamiliar Food Objects and incorporating flavors and cooking methods the Japanese were familiar with. For instance, meats were prepared and seasoned with traditional ingredients to satisfy their palates, and often to match their main staple, rice.
Some Western foods sustained pretty much their original form but some transformed into a slightly different dish, where the term Japanese-style Western Food is more appropriate. All in all, these are typically referred to as Yoshoku (洋食), which basically means Western-style Food in this case. The word shoku (食) suggests food or cuisine, and in contrast, Washoku (和食), refers to Japanese Food. It is said that approximately 30% of the Japanese diet, today, consists of Yoshoku and most importantly, it is an essential part of Japanese food culture.
Then, you have dishes that transformed so much, that they became uniquely Japanese in their own right. One such dish, which happens to be one of my old-time favorites, is Tonkatsu. The English translation of Tonkatsu, in many cases, is Pork Cutlet. The word Ton (sounds like “tone”) refers to pork and Katsu is short for Katsuretsu, which is basically Japanese for Cutlet. So, in terms of word games, the translation is not that off.
But what’s missing here, in the translation, is of how this Western-styled Pork Cutlet morphed into a uniquely Japanese dish, where after some serious debates, it is considered more Washoku than Yoshoku. You see, this transformation didn’t take place overnight. It was a result of due process, which happened through a series of human and cultural interactions, making it become original in its own way.
The Story of Tonkatsu in a Nutshell:
The root of Tonkatsu begins towards the end of the Meiji Era. A French restaurant, owned by a Japanese national, called Renga-Tei opens its doors to the Tokyo public in 1895. I can only imagine that the cost of beef, at the time, to serve such dishes as Cotelette de Veau (Veal) and the ingredients used in traditional French meals did not sit well with the average Japanese customer.
In a struggle to meet the customer’s tastes, Renga-Tei adds Pouku Katsuretsu (Pork Cutlet as we know it today) to their menu in 1899. A thin slice of breaded pork was fried and served with bread and cooked vegetables. A few years later, due to the shortage of kitchen staff that was drafted into the Russo-Japanese War, cooked vegetables were replaced with shredded, raw cabbage (less labor-intensive). This turned out to be a good match and the customers loved it. There is mention that a restaurant employee, on break, was observed eating rice by a customer, who then requested some with his order. Thus, according to these accounts, the current form of Katsuretsu served with shredded cabbage and rice was born.
Another restaurant owner started serving Katsuretsu with rice, but unlike Renga-Tei, chopsticks were used instead of forks and knives. The pork was sliced into bite-sized pieces, prior to serving, for easy chopstick eating. The owner had worked for the Imperial Household Agency, as a chef, specializing in Western cuisine and in his case, the idea of Katsuretsu was inspired from the traditional Austrian dish, Wiener Schnitzel. Once again, initiated by a comment from a customer, this restaurant owner later started using thicker cuts of pork (1~1 1/2 inches) for his Katsuretsu. According to one theory, among a few others, it’s said that this thick version of the Pork Cutlet, was named Tonkatsu.
So, from what I understand, the origin of Tonkatsu, as we know it today, can be traced back to European dishes such as Cotelette de Veau (Veal Cutlet) and Wiener Schnitzel, combined with the frying method that the Japanese were familiar with at the time (such as the deep- frying method used for Tempura, for instance), which was used to cook vegetables and seafood. Along with this, a special sauce was refined to compliment the rice.
It wasn’t until DECADES later, in the 1930s, that Tonkatsu became popular among the Japanese population, and that restaurants specializing in Tonkatsu started to appear. Speaking of Tonkatsu specialty restaurants, I always make sure to visit one while I’m in Japan. Even though I live in an area, in Los Angeles, where there are various types of Japanese restaurants available, a restaurant specializing in Tonkatsu is close to none.
There are certain foods I prefer to eat at restaurants. When it comes to Sushi, Tempura and Tonkatsu, I choose to let the specialists do the work. As simple as it may sound, slicing fish and frying breaded seafood or pork can often require experience and expertise, to really enjoy and appreciate these dishes. When it comes to Tempura and Tonkatsu, the combination of the perfect doneness of the ingredients and the crispiness of the breading…is key.
So what does a Tonkatsu lover do when there is no Tonkatsu restaurant available? Well, maybe you just want to get messy and do your best by making it yourself. We may never reach the level of specialist…but we can always try. With a little luck and a lot of passion, we may surprise ourselves. So, let’s get started.
If you have access to a Japanese grocery store, I suggest you get your pork there. Many of them have cuts of pork available especially for Tonkatsu. Check the labels.
Typically, the Loin Cuts are used for making Tonkatsu. Loin Cuts are from the upper portion of the pork beneath the Back Fat, between the Shoulder (Shoulder Butt/ Boston Butt) and the Rump (often referred to as the leg or ham). To be a little bit more specific, the Loin basically consists of three parts. The middle part of the Loin, which is called the Pork Center Loin, often scores high points for being moist, tender and flavorful. The part closer to the Shoulder is called the Blade End (where Pork Chop end cuts come from) and it tends to be fatty, which is not such a bad thing for some Tonkatsu lovers, and then you have the part called Sirloin, located towards the Rump but just as flavorful. So basically, any of these parts from the Loin will do and is just really up to your preference.
The boneless slice (typically 1/2 to 3/4 inch in thickness), usually with slight fat attached, from the Loin Roast is often referred to as Rousu Katsu (ロースカツ/ Roast Katsu – perhaps the Japanese had trouble picking up the “t” sound).
If you want to go even leaner, perhaps Tenderloin is your choice. Not only is it tender, as the name suggests, it’s also lean. It’s the muscle that lies on both sides of the spine against the ribs, at the distal end of the Loin and is shaped like a cylinder. According to the National Pork Producers Council comparison chart, Tenderloin is nearly as low in saturated fat as chicken breast. Not only that, according to the National Pork Board, Pork Tenderloin has almost 1.5 times the iron, twice the zinc and 10 times the amount of Thiamin/ Thiamine of the equivalent serving of chicken breast.
This is typically referred to as Hire Katsu (ヒレカツ/ Filet Katsu) at Tonkatsu restaurants because Pork Tenderloin is also called Pork Filet (Filei – Hirei; get it?). Whole Pork Filets are long (and some can be really thick, also) so slice them into thinner, smaller pieces.
If the cut is too thick, it’s going to be hard to get the meat cooked through without burning the breading. At the same time, you don’t want to overcook these guys – they tend to loose their tenderness. This is the difficult part.
But if you prefer chicken to pork, no problem! Just get a nice Breast of Chicken instead of a Pork Loin. Katsuretsu made with Chicken is simply called Chicken Katsu.
Now, while you’re shopping for your pork or chicken, make sure to get some wheat flour, eggs and Panko (“paw” not “pan”). For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s a type of breadcrumb used for breading Tonkatsu and other Japanese-styled fried foods. Its popularity
and usage has spread and can be found at most major U.S. supermarkets.
And last but not least, you need cooking oil and a frying pan to deep fry the breaded pork. If you’re a deep-frying virgin, here’s a tip. First, deep-frying means submerging food in hot oil, so you basically need a pan deep enough for the food to go scuba diving in. Yet, you don’t want to pour the oil all the way to the top of the pan. There’s going to be a lot of bubbling action and it can also be very dangerous, so make sure the oil is less than 3/4 to the top (safety measure).
Next, like many other deep-frying food projects, you want to choose a light, refined oil such as Canola, Sunflower, Corn or Peanut. These guys will give you a higher smoke point, which basically means that they can take a higher temperature before they start smoking. You don’t want oil smoke ruining your food. Also, if it makes you feel less guilty, Canola oil has the lowest saturated fat content among the oils mentioned above (almost 1/3 of Peanut oil and 1/2 of Corn and Sunflower oil).
Some people mix in some Sesame oil. Prior to WWII, Sesame oil was used for deep-frying in Japan. The smoke point is lower compared to the oils mentioned above, but it’s still in the normal deep-frying temperature range. Some suggest that if you mix in some Sesame oil, the breading turns out crispier. I personally don’t do it, but if you have and like the flavor of Sesame oil, give it a try.
Now that we’ve got all our stuff, let us commence operation Tonkatsu Dive.
Preparing the Pork for Tonkatsu:
Clear off that counter or kitchen table and get the following ready in order to prep and dress the pork.
Container with cuts of pork. Now, my cuts of pork have been soaked in Beer and Sake (as usual!). They’ll help to tenderize the pork. Some people even pour a little bit of vinegar on the pork to tenderize it. It’s your call. Still others also pound the pork with a meat mallet and/ or trim the edges to prevent the filet from curling in the oil, but I usually eliminate these steps. To me, making Tonkatsu is already such a big hassle that I try to cut corners wherever possible. Wipe off any moisture with a paper towel and do a little salt and pepper action on them
The wife will NOT be happy if I don’t mention this. Please wash your hands thoroughly with, soap and hot water, after handling raw meat (before touching anything else – even the salt and pepper…whew! I think I’m safe, now). Safety comes first, especially when dealing with raw pork and chicken.
Sift the wheat flour into a tray, enough to cover all the meat. You’ll need a bowl for whisking the eggs. It depends on how much Tonkatsu you plan to make but for 2~3 people, I usually use about 3 eggs. I even add some Beer or Sake to the mix, or even both, to make the batter a little thinner. A small disclaimer here – some people have their own little secrets but this is how I do it…add water if you don’t have any Beer or Sake. For me, it just seems to work better if liquid is added to the mix. Whisk and mix well, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Pour the Panko into a tray, again, enough to cover all the meat. Prepare a clean plate/ tray for the dressed pork.
Pre-heat the cooking oil to around 320 degrees F (160 degrees C). I don’t have a thermometer but through my experience with my electric stove, I set it between the numbers 6 and 7 on the gauge. For your reference, my gauge number goes up to 8, followed by the maximum indicator, of High. Some people deep-fry their fish fillets or turkeys anywhere between 350 to 375 degrees F, so I’m guessing that the temperature for Tonkatsu is generally a little lower. It also depends on the thickness of the cut and other elements. This is where you need to acquire the experience to achieve the right doneness of the pork and the crispiness of the breading.
Okay, let’s get messy. First dip the pork into wheat flour and give it a nice, cover-to-cover, powder treatment. Once it's coated with the powder, let it soak in the egg mix and enjoy the treatment. Finally, take it to the Panko room and coat it well. After the Panko treatment, gently place it onto another tray for stand-by.
Now it's time for some deep-frying action! Try not to over-crowd the pan with breaded pork. Too many scuba divers can lower the temperature resulting in a greasy, soggy piece of swine. It obviously depends on the size of your pan, but if it’s a steak-sized cut, I usually do one at a time.
Once submerged, the breaded pork will go through some bubbling action. Using a fine-scoop net, get rid of any layers of extraneous stuff that forms on the surface of the oil. As it starts to float up to the surface, it’s pretty much done. Carefully turn it over once and let it cook for just a little while longer. The breading should be slightly dark brown and crispy. After cooking the other side, check the color and texture of the breading with a utensil, and if appropriate, scoop it out and place it on a rack. Let the excess oil drain (let it stand on one of its side edges so both flat surfaces have a chance to drain the oil) and then slice it into bite-sized pieces, while still hot.
Scoop out any remaining residue at the bottom/ surface of the pan before diver #2 takes the plunge!
It is this deep-frying action that is one of the key factors in making good Tonkatsu. By this, I mean the combination of the right doneness of the meat and the crispiness of the breading. Some people turn the heat up during the final stage of cooking to get the right crispiness.
I also know of a Tonkatsu specialty restaurant, in Japan, that uses two frying pans. One is set at 302 degrees F (150 degrees C) and the second pan is set at 338 degrees F (170 degrees C). Anyway, at this restaurant, they let the heat go through the breaded pork at the lower temperature and then remove it to the higher temperature pan for the finishing touch (crispiness). If you have the resources to do it this way, fine, but otherwise, get closely acquainted with your gas or electric range, and become a master of frying Tonkatsu through experience.
Speaking of experience, I once asked a seasoned Tempura chef about the secret behind deep-frying Tempura. He told me that he relies on his ears and figures out when it’s ready, simply by the sound it makes. The perfect crispiness of the breading and the impeccable tenderness of the shrimp, in this case, can only be acquired by experience. So don’t be too discouraged if your first Tonkatsu turns out to be less than what you expected. It is, by no means, a simple dish, and in my humble opinion, it’s actually pretty DEEP.
In a typical Tonkatsu meal setting, you’d have rice, shredded raw cabbage and Tonjiru (豚汁), a Miso Soup with chunks of pork, among other ingredients. Other elements such as lemon and Japanese-styled mustard, called Karashi, can be part of the mix, but most importantly, a sauce condiment, conveniently called Tonkatsu Sauce (とんかつソース), is the big side-kick. It’s this thick, vegetable and fruit-based sauce, that has been refined over time, that gives Tonkatsu its unique taste.
It’s similar to BBQ Sauce in the sense that the overall experience just isn’t the same without it. Like many BBQ establishments, Tonkatsu specialty restaurants make their own secret Tonkatsu Sauce and quite similar to BBQ Sauce, there are a variety of brands available at Japanese grocery stores. Some brands are available on-line, including our store, so check it out.
You can use the sauce to dip or pour onto the Tonkatsu. The sauce is so critical that if I had everything ready for this special Tonkatsu moment and found out that I’d run out of Tonkatsu Sauce, I’d go totally berserk! In my opinion, there’s really no substitute for Tonkatsu Sauce, especially when it comes to this typical setting.
But, if you can’t get any Tonkatsu Sauce for whatever reason, don’t worry. Grated Daikon with Shoyu (Soy Sauce) or Ponzu goes pretty well in this setting, as well. In fact, some people prefer it to Tonkatsu Sauce. By the way, the pork (above photo) may look a little too pink for some of you, but it's thoroughly cooked through. Believe me, the wife wouldn't eat it, otherwise.
No Tonkatsu Sauce? No Daikon with Shoyu or Ponzu? Well then, I’d probably change the setting altogether under the circumstances and seek other sauce alternatives. After all, the history of Tonkatsu is all about adapting. It’s just amazing how Tonkatsu goes well in different settings, with different types of sauces. Here are some examples.
One alternative setting is Katsu Kare (Curry with Cutlet). Curry is also said to have made its appearance in Japan during the Westernization period, supposedly through the British, and has become a very popular meal known as Kare Raisu (Curry Rice). Tonkatsu, as a topping for Curry Rice, became so popular that you’ll often find Tonkatsu or Chicken Katsu Curry served in Japanese-styled Curry restaurants.
Now, for some of you, making or acquiring Curry Sauce can be just as difficult as finding Tonkatsu Sauce. So, let’s go for a setting that’s more Americana. How about a Tonkatsu Burger? This is my version. Ketchup works well, here, but it even goes quite well with BBQ Sauce, in my opinion! This was a Hungry-man meal, let me tell you!
Okay, since Tonkatsu can work with BBQ Sauce, what about Taco Sauce? Well again, if you change the setting, why not. How about a Chicken Katsu Taco?
Tonkatsu Burrito anyone?
A Loco Moco lover? Why not Tonkatsu with gravy and eggs?
Here, I present to you, Tonkatsu Spaghetti! Both the Rousu Katsu and the Hire Katsu versions!
Some people love Pork Loin Rib Chops, you know, with the bone? Boneless Pork Loin is the norm for Tonkatsu, but why not try the bone-in version? Here’s a Rib Chop (thin-cut) Tonkatsu served with garlic-fried rice. Sauce? I used Tartar Sauce mixed with Wasabi! The wife thought this dish was da bomb!
And last but not least, why not go back to the roots for a bit. A hybrid of Wiener Schnitzel and Tonkatsu! That’s right, I pounded away at a Pork Loin Sirloin Chop, gave it a nice Panko treatment and deep-fried (even added some Sesame oil to the Vegetable oil) this baby. I’m no Wolfgang Puck but this is my version of fusion food. I suppose, in this case, the lemon is the sauce. So good, let me tell you.
As you’ve just witnessed, Tonkatsu can be vastly versatile. After all, it went on a journey of being inspired by Western dishes, then being modified into Yoshoku, and eventually evolved into Washoku, joining the ranks of some of the most popular dishes in Japan, today.
Although the Meiji Era has influenced the modern Japanese food scene, I believe that the Japanese always had their ways of adapting and modifying foods and ingredients, whether they came from other regions within Japan or other countries. And, significantly enough, the adaptation and modification processes often took place simply as a means of survival.
In my case, JapaneseFood@Home basically represents survival cooking and dealing with what you have or with what’s available, and trying to create the best scenario or setting for it.
Tonkatsu is just one, small example and I suppose the evolution and journey of Food Culture will continue as long as humans strive to accommodate their needs, cravings and curiosities.
Whether a social or political structure requires you to do so or not, food has the potential to adapt to different settings and circumstances, feeding our needs and imaginations.
So, for better or for worse, Food Culture, as a whole, is on a journey that is still evolving.