It’s a classic comfort food. It’s simple yet has so much flavour. Tonkatsu is, simply, one of the best Japanese dishes! This pork dish is a loved by people of all ages in Japan and around the world; and while it’s available at restaurants all year round, the great thing is, with the right ingredients and technique it can just as easily be made at home.
Tonkatsu is believed to have originated in the late 19th century. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) was a time when Japan as a whole changed dramatically. It went from being a country ruled by samurai and feudal lords to one open to the world. The Japanese began adopting western culture and customs, including of course, food. Renga-tei in Ginza is known as one of the first western-style restaurants in Japan. They opened in 1895, serving up a variety of fried food including something they called ‘pōku katsuretsu’ (pork cutlet). This new pork cutlet dish grew in popularity so much that other restaurants started adding it to their menu. The term tonkatsu–literally, pork (ton) cutlet (katsu)–is said to have been introduced at Ponta, a restaurant that opened in Ueno in 1905. Gradually, specialty restaurants spread across the country and tonkatsu became a permanent fixature in Japanese cuisine.
So what exactly is tonkatsu? Typically, you can choose either pork fillet (hire-katsu) or pork loin (rōsu-katsu) – both boneless. The fillet is slightly thinner and very tender, while the loin is a thicker cut with a strip of fat on one edge. The meat is breaded with flour, egg and panko (a flaky breadcrumb) and deep fried for around 5 minutes depending on the thickness. Panko is essential to get that airy, delicate texture tonkatsu is known for. Other types of breadcrumbs will make it too crunchy or heavy. The batter locks in the juices, while the outer layer remains crispy.
On top of the cooked cutlet, you drizzle some deliciously sweet tonkatsu sauce. This dark sauce is similar to Worcestershire sauce but with added vegetables and fruit. In addition to the sauce, it’s what is served with the tonkatsu that makes it a ‘Japanese pork cutlet’. Tonkatsu almost always comes with a mountain of shredded cabbage. I used to think it was their way of adding a vegetable to make the dish more healthy… but actually it helps balance out the oil. Remarkably, it really does make a big difference and I’ve noticed so long as I have cabbage with my tonkatsu I can just keep on eating (probably not so great for my waistline)! At many restaurants, you also have the option of ordering teishoku, a set meal that comes with rice, miso soup and pickles. All in all, it makes for a very filling lunch or dinner.
If you want to try tonkatsu in Tokyo, there are an overwhelming number of restaurants to choose from. Personally, I recommend Agefuku in Gotanda or Tonkatsu Tonki in Meguro. I’ve also heard good things about Tonta and Narikura in Takadanobaba, and Maruichi in Kamata.
Have you had tonkatsu before? What is a dish you often crave?