BY PATRICIA NYIRI-KOVACS
A famous French chef who currently runs his own restaurant in Japan once said; “the key to the secret ingredient in every dish is love.” As I went through the process myself, I can say with certainty that it truly is that simple. Before moving to Japan, cooking was not among my main hobbies. However, after some months of experimenting and trying to prepare new and exciting dishes for my family every evening, I came to realise that cooking is an art, a philosophy, and a way of life. The transformation was astounding, the curiosity bursting, and so the plunge into creativity began.
Have you ever felt that instant connection when meeting someone for the first time? Allow me to quote the famous French chef again who asks: “Why are we here? Why did we meet? The answer again is simple: It’s destiny.” I believe destiny is the reason—that instead of banking and finance, I am writing my very first article to you about cooking. Allow me to share with you my story through food, through my cooking, and hopefully help you create something delicious.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when thinking of Japanese home cooking? If you only thought about sushi; dzzzz—wrong! Sushi is not a homemade dish. Although seemingly easy to make, Japanese rarely prepare it at home as it takes years and years of experience to become a sushi chef. Thus to eat sushi, people go to restaurants or buy it at the supermarket. Maki and onigiri are usually more common for preparing at home.
Eager to learn what Japanese home cooking means to Japanese people, I conducted a short survey among my Japanese friends. Dishes such as nikujaga, oden, and curry rice were common answers, but one that was rather popular was katsu-don. The reason I decided to start my introduction with katsu-don is that it’s actually a youshoku dish. Due to the European influence it’s rather popular within the foreign community, yet at the same time very authentic.
Youshoku (洋食) refers to the western-influenced cooking that was introduced to Japan during the Meiji period from 1868 to 1912. It was the period of enlightenment with opening up to the west, meaning that different styles of western cuisine started fusing with Japanese cuisine. Before we talk about katsu-don, let us look at tonkatsu, the main part of this dish.
The meaning of tonkatsu is pork cutlet, originating from schnitzel. A traditional schnitzel is made of a big, thin slice of veal that is shallow fried, served with kartoffelsalad (a type of potato salad with mayonnaise, vinegar, and onion). The Japanese version is made with a thick slice of deep fried pork loin accompanied with rice, cabbage, and misoshiru. There are several variations, depending on household traditions, but in most cases you pour tonkatsu sauce (which has a sweet taste) over the meat and cabbage and dip it in hot mustard before eating it with your chopsticks.
As it was more and more ‘Japanised,’ katsu-don was created by adapting the donburi (rice bowl dish) style of serving the tonkatsu. The word katsu is not only like the English abbreviation of cutlet, but also has become the synonym for fried. So if you talk about ham katsu, chicken katsu, or menchi katsu it will be a deep-fried variation of tonkatsu. At home, katsu-don is usually made from leftover tonkatsu slices, so if you are planning to eat tonkatsu, just make a couple more slices and use it for the katsu-don the next day. That way you can save time and have two dinners in one!
The main difference between a tonkatsu and a katsu-don is not solely in the presentation, but also the texture of the meat. While tonkatsu is crispy and sweet, katsu-don is more soft and saucy, giving the impression of being boiled rather then fried.
Furthermore, katsu-don is a mixture of sweet and savoury tastes. Varying from region to region, 95 percent of katsu-don will be the soy sauce-based version found in the recipe below. Other variations include miso katsu, salt katsu, and demi-glace katsu.
Recipe for katsu-don:
Yields: four servings
Time: 30 minutes
Ingredients for the tonkatsu:
• 4 slices of pork loin about one cm thick
• all purpose flour (enough for dredging)
• 1 egg
• 2 Tbsp water
• 1 Tbsp soy sauce
• Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs, enough for dredging)
• salt and pepper to taste
• oil for deep frying
1. Remove any extra fat from the pork and cut along the stringy parts so it does not curl up during frying
2. Tenderise both sides of the pork by pounding on it.
3. Sprinkle salt and pepper over both sides of each slice and then dredge in flour, making sure they are evenly coated.
4. Place the oil in a deeper pot and heat over medium heat. The oil should be enough to cover the pork slices.
5. Mix the egg with the water and soy sauce, then dip the floured pork slices in the egg mixture,
6. Transfer to the bowl of panko and evenly coat both sides by pressing with your fingers. Repeat with each pork slice.
7. When the oil is between 170–180 degrees (you can check this by placing the cooking chopstick in the oil and if the small bubbles are rising fast, it’s ready) gently lower the slices into the oil. Once the cutlets are golden brown, flip over and fry the other side (about two to three minutes each side).
8. While frying you can rotate the pork with chopsticks to get a golden brown colour. Transfer to a paper towel, pat to remove access oil, cut into two cm slices, and leave to rest while you prepare the katsu-don sauce.
Ingredients for the katsu-don sauce (to serve one):
• 50ml water
• 1 tsp of dashi (granulated soup stock)
• 1 Tbsp of soy sauce
• 1 Tbsp of mirin
• 1 tsp of cane sugar
• ½ a small onion
• 1 egg
Depending on the size of your pan, you need to make the katsu-don one or maximum two at a time.
1. Start by mixing together the water, dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar.
2. Cut the onion into thin slices.
3. Place the liquid you mixed in step one and the onions in a pan and turn up the heat to medium. When boiling, turn to low heat, cook for another three minutes, and then place one entire sliced up pork cutlet into the sauce.
4. Immediately crack an egg, lightly mix, and pour over the tonkatsu. Place lid on pan and cook at high heat for 30 seconds. The egg should still be a little runny when done.
5. When ready, serve the steamed rice in a rice bowl and gently place the tonkatsu on the rice with the help of a spatula so it doesn’t fall apart. Place parsley on the top and serve.
When pouring the egg over the tonkatsu, try and do it in a のの字 (nonoji, or spiral form) to get an even and appealing shape.
Try and find a smaller, possibly flat, lid than your pan so it’s as close to the ingredients as possible (see picture) or buy the Japanese pan specially designed for these types of dishes.
A word of warning to everyone who loves or will come to love this dish…it can be addictive! I have a friend who ate tonkatsu and katsu-don at least four times a week over a period of six months. Just think about the results! He gained 10 kg and literally had to go to tonkatsu rehab. So this is just an extreme case, of course. Feel free to make this as often as you like, keeping in mind the above story!
I would be interested in getting your and your family’s feedback about the recipe. Pictures are also welcome. Please write to me if you are specifically interested in any type of Japanese dish and you would like to learn more.
Contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story, and I will be giving away a free cooking lesson to the lucky winner! Till the next recipe, if you are interested in other Japanese home-cooked dishes please follow me on my blog: www.lovejapanesefood.com.