For foreigners, the types of food often associated with Japanese cuisine do not stray far from sushi and ramen. These two truly are among the prime dishes of Japan but tourists visiting the country will notice a more popular meal present in almost every busy city – the Tonkatsu.
How Tonkatsu (Japanese Pork Cutlet) Started in Japan
Tonkatsu is basically a Japanese dish consisting of a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet. It originates from Katsuretsu or Katsu (cutlet), a fried dish that was invented in 1899 by a Tokyo restaurant - Rengatei. Katsu was considered as one of Japan’s variations of the Western cuisine and originally made use of beef, not pork.
The Meiji Era brought in a lot of Western influence to Japan thanks to Emperor Meiji’s goal of making the country more modern and exposed to foreign development. Among the Western practices introduced and embraced by the locals was the method of deep frying pork. This was incorporated with katsu and later evolved into tonkatsu (ton being the Japanese word for pork) in the 1930s.
It did not take much for the dish to spread across the country like wildfire because many Japanese restaurants saw tonkatsu to be economically beneficial with its few ingredients and easy preparation. Customers were just as glad for the new dish because it came at a cheap price but was incredibly filling. Ultimately, tonkatsu was the best payday treat of the low-end working class. Plenty of tonkatsu restaurants started popping up all over Japan after World War II, some of which still stand to this day.
A Simple Recipe and Guide on How To Make Japanese Pork Cutlet and Tonkatsu Sauce
Tonkatsu is either served whole or in slices with some rice and shredded cabbage. Some people prefer eating it as is but it usually comes with a tonkatsu sauce which is brown in color and has a thick consistency. The dish is relatively simple to make and does not make use of a lot of ingredients. Foreigners who have and have not tasted authentic tonkatsu can easily make the dish at home with this basic recipe:
Tonkatsu Ingredients (serves 4):
- 4 one-inch thick pork loin chops
- Salt and pepper
- 1 to 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup panko (bread crumbs)
- Vegetable oil
- Using the tip of a knife, create shallow cuts all over the pork loin chops.
- Sprinkle an adequate amount of salt and pepper on all sides of the pork loin chops.
- Coat the pork loin chops with flour.
- Dip the flour-coated pork loin chops in eggs then coat with panko (bread crumbs).
- Heat the vegetable oil to 350 ̊F. To check is the temperature is fine for deep frying, drop a breadcrumb into it. If the breadcrumb comes back to the surface after dropping, the oil is ready.
- Deep fry the meat until it turns golden brown in color. Each side should take about 5 to 8 minutes.
- Set aside the tonkatsu to cool for about a minute or two before cutting it into pieces.
Tonkatsu Sauce Ingredients (serves 4):
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 1/4 tsp minced garlic
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp apple sauce
- 4 tsp mirin
- 4 tsp soy sauce
- 4 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 4 tsp rice vinegar
- 4 tsp mustard
- Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and make sure to stir the mixture well.
- Let the tonkatsu sauce sit for 30 minutes so that every ingredient can blend with one another.
Tonkatsu Variations: Alternative Meat
Since the boom of tonkatsu in Japan, several variations of the dish have emerged over the years. A common variation done by the country’s many regions is to substitute the pork loin with different kinds of meat:
- Tori Katsu – a dish that makes use of chicken
- Menchi katsu – a dish that makes use of minced meat
- Hamu Katsu – a dish that makes use of ham
- Gyu Katsu – a dish that makes use of beef
Tonkatsu Variations: Katsu Sando
Katsu sando is another variation of tonkatsu which is usually sold as a to-go meal and is commonly found at train or bus stations. It is a white bread sandwich which makes use of katsu and shredded cabbage as its main filling. Either mayonnaise or tonkatsu sauce is used as seasoning.
Tonkatsu Variations: Katsudon
Katsudon is a common rice bowl dish in Japan. It is made by cooking tonkatsu with an egg mixture and some onions. The dish is often eaten by local students about to take an important exam because katsu is homophonous to the Japanese term for achieving victory.
Tonkatsu Variations: Katsu Curry (with Recipe)
Katsu curry is another variation of tonkatsu which has become one of Japan’s famous comfort food. It consists of a thick curry sauce poured over the tonkatsu and rice and is often served on a huge plate with some pickled vegetables on the side. The dish is quite flavorful and also easy to make. Those interested in making their own katsu curry at home can follow the same recipe stated above for making tonkatsu and combine it with the curry sauce recipe below taken from Nami Chen’s beef curry post on her cooking website, Just One Cookbook:
Curry Sauce Ingredients (serves 4):
- 800 ml water
- 4 to 5 cubes of Japanese curry
- 1 large onion
- 1 large potato
- 1 carrot
- Chop the onion, potato, and carrot into small dices.
- Put the diced vegetables in a pan halfway filled with water. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer until the vegetables become soft.
- Turn off the heat and add the Japanese curry cubes.
- Set the heat to a low setting and allow the sauce to simmer for 10 minutes while continuously mixing until a smooth and thick consistency is achieved.
The Best Japanese Tonkatsu Restaurant Options
Of course, nothing beats eating authentic tonkatsu made by Japanese chefs who have dedicated years of their life in perfecting their own unique recipes. Tourists who will be visiting Japan should make it a point to at least try one of the following tonkatsu restaurants:
- Ginza Bairin
Ginza Bairin is located in the Ginza, Tokyo and is known to be the first restaurant to specialize in tonkatsu. They are also responsible for inventing the katsu sando. Ginza Bairin also has several other branches across the world.
Suzuya has been serving tonkatsu for nearly seventy years and continuous to maintain a traditional ambiance amidst the busy city of Tokyo. Their signature dish is called the Tonkatsu Chazuke where tea is poured over the whole dish. It comes with an unlimited serving of rice, miso soup, cabbage, and tea.
Wako is one of Japan’s largest tonkatsu chain restaurant, having multiple branches across downtown Tokyo such as in Shinjuku, Ginza, Roppongi, Akihabara, and Shibuya. Their menu has a wide variety of options including tonkatsu, crabmeat croquette, and menchi katsu with cheese. All their dishes come with an unlimited serving of rice, cabbage, and miso soup.
Tonchinkan’s appeal stems from their big servings of meat priced relatively cheap. The restaurant’s space is quite cramped and there is often a long line of customers outside, but their tonkatsu is absolutely worth it the hassle. The dish comes with the usual serving of cabbage, tea, and pickles while rice and pork broth are unlimited. Tourists looking for a satisfying meal in Shinjuku should include this on their list.
Yabaton, located in Ginza, Tokyo, is the perfect place to try Misokatsu, a tonkatsu dish that uses Red Soybean Miso Sauce instead of the usual tonkatsu sauce. They have pork, vegetables, and seafood options for customers to choose from.
Akebono is located in Tokyo and is famous for their katsudon. They put a lot of effort into making their dishes and do not make use of any modern equipment. The restaurant is often packed during lunch so tourists are advised to get there by 11:00 AM.
Ouroji started in 1921 and continues to stand strong amidst the many other tonkatsu restaurants in Shinjuku. They are famous for their katsu curry rice dish, Tondonburi, as well as their katsu sando. Tourists can expect to get more than what they pay for.
Genkatsu can be found on the 3rd floor of the Ginza Act Building in Tokyo. Their tonkatsu consists of thin layers of pork, making the dish easier to chew and making the restaurant especially popular with the ladies. Their best-selling dish is the Genkatsu Zen which comes with rice, pickles, shredded cabbage, and miso soup.
Niimura is located in Shinjuku, Tokyo and uses high-quality black pig meat, kurobuta, from the Kagoshima Prefecture for their tonkatsu. It is situated in Kabukicho’s nightlife zone and is open past midnight.
- Wagokoro Tonkatsu Anzu
Wagokoro Tonkatsu Anzu is located on the 11th floor of the Mitsukoshi Ginza store in Tokyo. Their signature dishes include tonkatsu, beef katsu, and a vegetarian katsu set. Tourists will not have a hard time ordering as they have an English menu.
Maisen has 8 branches spread across Japan and also has their katsu sando and lunch sets sold at supermarkets and convenience stores. Their famous branch is located in Omotesando where many tourists flock to for a taste of their tonkatsu, katsudon, katsu curry, and sashimi.
Tourists visiting Ryogoku for a trip to the Edo-Tokyo Museum should remember to eat at Hasegawa, which is just a 2-minute walk away from the Ryogoku station. Their pork comes from a famous brand from Yamagata which makes their tonkatsu significantly juicier and more flavorful as compared to the others.
- Tonkatsu Kappou Katsuzen
Tonkatsu Kappou Katsuzen is headed by Etsou Nagai who spent years of his life perfecting his tonkatsu dish. Their tonkatsu sauce has a distinct flavor and is what makes them stand out from the many tonkatsu restaurants in Ginza, Tokyo.
Marugo is located in Akihabara and is among Tokyo’s famous tonkatsu restaurants. It has been standing in the same place for roughly 40 years and has accumulated a large number of fans and loyal customers. Their meat is extremely juicy and is coated with a crispy batter. Their Toku Rosu Katsu is highly recommended.
Imakatsu is located in Ginza, Tokyo and offers sasami katsu, a dish that consists of chicken breast strips coated with a lighter batter as compared to that used for regular tonkatsu. The sasami katsu is quite juicy and is popular among locals.
Proper Table Manners
Before heading to any of Japan’s restaurants, though, tourists should be mindful of the basic table manners practiced by the locals. It is not necessarily something that travelers should worry or stress about so much so that they might not enjoy their meals anymore. Knowing the basics is just a good way to understand the actions of the locals:
- Customers are often provided with a wet towel upon their arrival at the restaurant. This towel is a form of refreshment used to wipe one’s hands. It should be placed back on the same tray it was served on and may be used again from time to time when needed.
- Making noise while eating is considered rude except when eating noodle or soup dishes. For the said exceptions and for drinking tea, noisily consuming the product shows a sign of content for the service.
- If food needs to be passed to another person, it is best to place the food on a plate instead of passing it from chopstick to chopstick. Food held by two pairs of chopsticks is believed by the locals to attract bad luck as it is similar to the practices done at funerals. In addition, tourists should avoid sticking their chopsticks vertically into their food as this reflects the offering ritual for the deceased.
- Using one’s hand as a sort of safety net to catch any falling food is considered bad manners in Japan.
- When pouring a drink or being poured one, both hands should be used in holding the container. By doing so, respect is given to the other person.
- Leaving a tip is not customary in Japan. Tourists who want to show their gratitude for the service given to them should, instead, give a polite thank you by making a deep bow. Bowing is a common way of saying hi in Japan but can also be used to thank, apologize, or request a favor from the locals.