Get comfortably crumbed with tonkatsu
In essence, tonkatsu is just a schnitzel. Which is true, in as much as it is a crumbed and pan-fried piece of meat. But it is also more than that. In Japan, specialist restaurants exist serving nothing else: different grades of pork, differentiated by marbling and age, in cutlets or loin, always with shredded cabbage and tonkatsu sauce. Some of these restaurants boast their own breed of pork, such is the seriousness of the dish.
In the Shibuya district of Tokyo, Maisen is perhaps the world’s greatest tonkatsu restaurant. In a world where restaurants open and close, there is something comforting about sitting in an institution that is thoroughly unchanging. Set in an old bathhouse, serving breaded pork for 50 years, they have become exceedingly good at it. There is the quality of their produce, the ease of all that experience, but what really elevates the dish is their tonkatsu sauce.
Broadly speaking, tonkatsu sauce is a kind of Worcestershire sauce bulked out with apple. The dish itself is a Japanese expression of Western influence – one of many, and a happier result than forays into curry and mayonnaise. Every tonkatsu restaurant has its own house sauce. Maisen now sells theirs. I’ve never come back without a bottle in my luggage.
The Western influence on tonkatsu goes a step further to its realisation as a sandwich, often forgoing the cabbage. Apart from efficiency, the serving of pre-made tonkatsu sandwiches with beer or sake is a highlight of the country’s train system. I’m sometimes asked what my first tip is for travellers to Japan, and it is this: don’t eat on the plane, and savour the first bites of a tonkatsu sandwich on the train from the airport.
Many cultures have a breaded and fried dish, from Viennese schnitzel to parmigiana, and one of the great things about tonkatsu are the crumbs themselves. Where breadcrumbs often tend to soak up oil, the magical quality of panko crumbs tend to hold out against the oil.
This dish is fairly simple in its elements, but you can do various things to the pork before it is crumbed. I’ve had pork marinated in shrimp paste and then crumbed, which was very good. You could also layer a shiso leaf between slices of pork, which would add a sharpness of taste.
– 400g pork loin, skin off and sliced into 4 even slices
– sea salt
– ¼ cup flour
– 2 eggs, lightly beaten
– 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
– 4 tbsp grapeseed oil
– 8 slices thick-cut white bread
– 2 tbsp butter, softened
– tonkatsu sauce (see recipe below)
Lightly season the pork slices with salt and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Place the flour, egg and breadcrumbs into separate shallow bowls.
Remove the pork from the fridge and pat dry with a piece of kitchen towel.
To crumb, dip a piece of the pork loin firstly in the flour, then into the beaten egg and finally into the breadcrumb mixture, pressing so that the crumbs adhere. Repeat this process with each piece of pork and return the crumbed pork to the fridge.
In a shallow frypan heat the grapeseed oil. When hot add the pork loin and cook over a moderate heat until golden (about three minutes). Turn the pork loin and continue to cook a further three minutes or until golden. Remove the cooked pork and repeat the process with the other three crumbed pork loins, adding more oil if necessary.
Lightly butter each slice of bread and spread four slices with one teaspoon of tonkatsu sauce. Season the pork and place it on the bread. Top each piece of pork with one teaspoon of tonkatsu sauce and the remaining slices of bread.
Place a plate on each sandwich and leave this gentle weight on for 30 seconds to “set” the sandwich.
Remove the crusts and slice in half. Serve immediately.
– ½ brown onion, finely chopped
– 1½cm piece ginger, grated
– 1 clove garlic, crushed
– 3 medium carrots, finely chopped
– 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
– ½ Granny Smith apple, peeled and grated
– 4½ tbsp ketchup
– 3½ tbsp Worcestershire sauce
– 4 tbsp rice wine vinegar
– 2½ tbsp mirin
– ¼ tsp ground allspice
– pinch of cinnamon
– pinch of ground clove
– ¼ cup brown sugar
– 1 tsp Dijon mustard
– 5 tbsp water
Combine the ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to room temperature. Puree the sauce in a blender or with a stick blender, before passing it through a fine sieve.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Comfortably crumbed". Subscribe here.