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Western Roots, Japanese Taste: Tonkatsu

What kind of meal satisfies when sushi won’t hit the spot? When soba or udon are not quite what you crave, and the thought of Western food fails to tempt? Maybe it’s time to consider something in-between, a little bit Japanese, a little bit Western. . . something like tonkatsu.

There exists a unique category of food in Japan which comprises certain Western dishes that have been reinvented with a delicious Japanese flair. This intriguing Japanese-style Western cuisine includes curry-rice, croquettes, omuraisu (omelet rice) and tonkatsu.

A popular stand-out in this category is tonkatsu—the word is reputedly a combination of Japanese ton, pork, and the English word “cutlet.” Tonkatsu is a thick pork chop that’s been sprinkled with some salt and pepper, coated with flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs, then deep-fried. This hearty dish is usually accompanied by chopped raw cabbage and topped with Worcestershire or special tonkatsu sauce to taste, and garnished with wagarashi, Japanese hot mustard. Tonkatsu may be inherently Western, but it goes quite well with miso soup and rice, and is generally served in convenient bite sizes that can be plucked up easily by chopsticks.

The origins of this cuisine lie in the Meiji era (1867-1911), when the Westernization of the country overturned a centuries-old social ban on eating meat. Breaded pork cutlets were probably first served in a Ginza restaurant in 1895 and began to enjoy a boom until, by the early twentieth century, they came to be considered one of the three most popular Western foods, along with croquettes and curry rice.

Culinary legend has it that in 1929, a Western-style restaurant in Tokyo first served what is known today as tonkatsu. Until then, diners had eaten their cutlets with knife and fork, but this dish was cut into small pieces perfect for handling with chopsticks. Japanese came to view tonkatsu as a Japanese-style Western food that could be eaten casually with chopsticks, rather than as a decorous exercise in foreign utensils and cuisine.

The next step in the assimilation of the pork cutlet involved its sauce. Inventive Japanese chefs tinkered with the savory Worcestershire sauce that typically accompanied cutlets and created their own unique version known as “Worcester.” Following the Second World War, a unique tonkatsu sauce evolved when vegetables and fruit were added, resulting in the thick, rich-tasting sauce that holds sway today.

Tonkatsu specialty restaurants are found throughout Japan, and with set meals costing only about 1,000 yen (US$8.50), one of these thick juicy cutlets is considered very good value. Not only for this reason, thrifty students often eat tonkatsu before exams, as katsu is a homonym of the Japanese word for “victory.”

Tonkatsu taste and quality differ in the hands of individual chefs, and the name of the dish changes depending on the cuts of meat used; for example, diners may select juicy, tasty rosu-katsu (loin), but for a leaner, healthier cut, many opt for hire-katsu (tenderloin). Some restaurants use large, thick fresh bread crumbs to create an extra-crunchy deep-fried texture; others offer famous brands of pork, or regional variations such as Nagoya’s miso-katsu, served covered with miso sauce.

For those who can’t get enough of this simple cutlet, there are plenty of dishes made using tonkatsu. Aficionados can enjoy katsu-don (pork cutlet rice bowl), katsu curry rice (curry and rice with pork cutlet) or katsu-sando (pork cutlet sandwich). Whatever the appetite may demand, tonkatsu seems to fit the bill.