Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
It is dark outside when we arrive in front of the sliding doors of a tiny restaurant in the centre of Takayama in the Japanese Alps. A few guests are having food at the bar, four others are having drinks, and one of the two Japanese-style tables is waiting for us. We get rid of our shoes and sit on the high floor while the hostess of this restaurant specialised in tonkatsu (とんかつ or 豚カツ) brings us the menu.
If you like… schnitzels or Milanese escalope,
…you will love tonkatsu!
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Japanese restaurants tend to specialise in one dish: tonight, we will taste a tonkatsu made by a chef who has been improving his recipe for more than 25 years.
Tonkatsu, literally pork cutlet, is a thickly cut deep-fried pork cutlet or loin, closely related to tempura. Before the magic of the crispy deep-frying is done, the meat is scooped through flour, dipped in a clutched egg and covered with breadcrumbs.
Then it can come in different ways:
- as a set meal served with a rich and thick brown Japanese sweet-savoury sauce called tonkatsu sauce (close to Worcestershire sauce), rice, shredded cabbage salad and a miso soup,
- as a rice bowl (making it a donburi dish, called katsudon: かつ丼),
- in combination with a Japanese curry sauce known as katsu curry (katsu karē: かつカレー),
- as a sandwich for take-away meals (katsu sando: かつサンド).
We order two different set meals of tonkatsu: the original one and one with cheese. Both are perfect: juicy, tender and crunchy. They remind us of schnitzels adapted to Japanese taste. We are not very far from the truth. Tonkatsu are a perfect example of how the Japanese culture was influenced by Western habits in the 19th century. During the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), the Emperor Meiji was strongly encouraging to embrace Western influences after centuries of quasi total autarchy. This is how meat started being eaten in Japan, and the idea for tonkatsu was influenced by tempura applied to European cuisine, and more specifically the French gastronomy and its veal cutlets.
Today, tonkatsu is one of Japan’s most popular dishes, and it is also very often cooked at home. It is so popular that other katsu can be found such as chicken (chikinkatsu), beef (gyukatsu), ham (hamukatsu) and ground meat (menchikatsu).
Much further North, on the island of Hokkaido, where cold winters call for wholesome food, tonkatsu are often served in hearty curry sauces.
Where to enjoy tonkatsu in Japan: in Tokyo, Butagumi is famous for its tonkatsu and very high-quality meat! The climate of Hokkaido or the Japanese Alps make them great places to try tonkatsu too!
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