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Tonkatsu August 16, 2011

Posted by Dru in Food.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tonkatsu” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-tonkatsu

Tonkatsu is a recent Japanese food that was “stolen” from Western cuisine.  It was introduced to Japan in the 1890s and was finalized as what it is today, around the 1930s.  Tonkatsu was originally a pork cutlet, a breaded and deep fried pork steak.  Today, it has changed in many ways that can genuinely make it a true Japanese dish.  If you are out and about in Tokyo, it’s actually quite easy to find a decent tonkatsu restaurant.  They aren’t very intimidating to enter and they can be found in almost every department store and shopping mall.  However, the question is of variety.  Tonkatsu, or any “katsu” can come in various shapes and forms.  It can be difficult to tell one from the other, aside from a large piece of meat that had been breaded and deep fried.

The “traditional” way to eat tonkatsu is to go to a tonkatsu restaurant.  When entering, you will get a variety of options.  There are two basic cuts of meat to choose from.  The first is the “hire” (hee-re), which is a fillet cut.  It is sometimes spelt “fire” (fee-re) to reference the type of cut.  This tends to be the more expensive option, but not necessarily the better option.  I prefer the rosu (row-su), sirloin cut, which is cheaper and generally more delicious.  In reality, you can’t go wrong with either cut.  They ultimately taste similar, but it’s the texture that changes between the two.  The next thing to think about is the type of pig.  There are several varieties of pig to choose from, but the majority of restaurants will not give you a choice, the choice lays in which restaurant you enter.  In the major chains, you will probably be given a standard type of pork.  Some smaller shops will offer black pigs, or rather, the Berkshire Pig.  It contains more fat within the meat which allows the meat to be juicier due to the long cooking process.  It can take 20 minutes to cook one piece of tonkatsu.  While I do recommend the basic tonkatsu for a first try, or only try, there are several variations on the basic tonkatsu.  Several varieties add cheese, shiso, or other fillings into the centre of the tonkatsu.  Personally, I find this degrading to the actual dish and I tend to order it as part of a set, rather than a full piece on its own.

Tonkatsu is always served with tonkatsu sauce.  It will always be at the table, ready for consumption.  There can be anywhere from one to three types of sauce.  Generally, there is the “regular” sauce, the spicier one, and sometimes a sweeter one.  Usually, I can’t tell the difference between them, but they are delicious.  You can put as little, or as much as you’d like on top of the tonkatsu.  A couple of restaurants will offer ground up sesame seeds to be added with the sauce.  Sometimes you can grind them up yourself, other times you just add it to a dish and mix with the sauce.  This is a great variation of the traditional sauce, and since I’m a big nut for sesame, I love it when they give me this option.  Do beware that, if you put too much sauce on the tonkatsu, it will obviously become too soggy and change the texture.  Do note that there is also a small dish of Japanese mustard.  Beware that this is very spicy, similar to wasabi.  You can also put as much, or as little of the mustard, on the tonkatsu as well.

After choosing which tonkatsu to get, you also get to see the basic side dishes that come with it.  Going to a tonkatsu restaurant will mean you get a set meal.  You will usually get a large tonkatsu, cabbage, rice, miso soup, and tsukemono (Japanese pickles).  The cabbage is sliced thinner than coleslaw and it comes with no dressing.  Generally, the dressing is on the side, or at the table.  The most common way to eat it is to squeeze out a bunch of Japanese mayonnaise; or add a western style salad dressing; or add the tonkatsu sauce.  Adding either of these three sauces are fine, but they do come with various side effects, such as a larger waistline.  If you do go to a large chain, you should be aware that the rice and miso soup are usually free.  If you want more, you just have to ask your server.  It’s pretty simple to do so, but it might be difficult at times if the restaurant is busy.  If you are thinking that a big piece of pork is not a good meal, tonkatsu shops tend to offer a variety of foods.  Many shops will offer some deep fried vegetables, chicken or beef instead of pork, or seafood such as shrimp.  Often, they have mix and match plates that include a taste of the major foods, but I generally prefer the basic roast cuts.

Tonkatsu itself can be a little expensive.  Generally, it starts from around 800 Yen per meal.  You can easily get a katsu sandwich, which is a tonkatsu stuffed between two slices of bread.  There is also the katsu curry.  This is often served in curry houses, but the quality of the tonkatsu is usually not very good.  It tends to be a little thinner than a traditional tonkatsu restaurant and it does get soggy.  Often, they put the tonkatsu next to the sauce, instead of covering it with sauce, as a happy medium.  For those on a budget, katsudon is a donburi style of tonkatsu with a slightly cooked scrambled egg on top.  This is a good quick and cheap dish that is often served in bento shops.  If you are ever in Nagoya, they serve a misokatsu, which is tonkatsu with a miso based sauce on top.  I would liken it to the Chinese hoisin sauce, if you have ever tried that.  If you aren’t visiting Nagoya, you will be hard pressed to find it.  There are several other variations of tonkatsu, such as ramen with tonkatsu, but they tend to be less popular than the previous ones.

The biggest question is where to go.  Tonkatsu is everywhere and every city has at least one tonkatsu shop.  The department stores are the safest option, along with the shopping malls.  For the average tourist, these are the best places to go as you can get a variety of tastes on the same plate, for a reasonable price.  For those who live in Japan, it’s a good idea to try out a few of the smaller shops.  While I don’t like the small hole in the wall shops, some of the smaller café sized shops do have excellent food.  If you see a shop with a lot of wood, and seats for about 10 or less people, this might be a good place to stop for a meal.  You could be lucky enough to enjoy watching the chef prepare and cook the tonkatsu in front of you.  It’s a fun experience to watch, especially if it’s an old man, as you can see him take care of the pork.  The breading process and frying processes are simple, but the care and the technique are amazing.  It can feel like you are watching an artist.  The chef must tend to the cut of pork for most of the time as each side should be browned at roughly the same colour.  If you head to a larger chain, the process is done behind a wall, and I’m sure they have automated the system somewhat by now.  If you can’t find a nice small shop to enjoy it, don’t worry too much.  Generally, the tastes are the same, at least for me.

Tonkatsu Video:

Typical smaller style Tonkatsu Shop:

Commercial for a shop:

Tonkatsu Information:

Tonkatsu (Wikipedia):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonkatsu
Tonkatsu (Wall Street Journal):  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125134699586862865.html

Berkshire Pork (Wikipedia):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkshire_(pig)

Tonkatsu Restaurants [Note that all sites are in Japanese]:

Foo Moo by Hot Pepper:  http://www.hotpepper.jp/CSP/psh020/doFree?SA=SA11&GR=G004&SK=4&FSF=1&FWT=とんかつ


Teishoku August 9, 2011

Posted by Dru in Food.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Teishoku” complete with photos. http://wp.me/s2liAm-teishoku

Teishoku is about as Japanese as you can get for Japanese food.  It’s a very traditional style of food that is simple, yet flavourful.  It’s reasonable and fills you up.  Essentially, teishoku is a set meal that is not unlike a “bento box”.  A bento is actually something that can be thought of as an entirely different beast, akin to comparing the European and Asian pears.  They may be of the same name, similar in many respects, but completely different when you eat them.  A bento is similar to a packed lunch that you bring from home.  They tend to have a small box of rice, and another box stuffed with various food items, such as meat, vegetables, and tofu.  A grocery store or convenience store will sell bento, which is basically a take out version of teishoku.

The basic definition of teishoku would be a set menu item.  Generally, you get a bowl of rice, a main meat dish, which can be meat or fish, a bowl of soup, and one to two side dishes.  The side dishes tend to be either tofu or some sort of pickled vegetable, usually tsukemono.  Depending on the shop, the food is usually served on a tray from which you can enjoy everything.  There are a variety of sauces that go on each dish, or you can eat things simply as is.  The most common type of teishoku would be a basic grilled or broiled fish.  This may not sound that delicious, but it is.  It’s very simple, but the natural flavours of the fish are brought out during the grilling process, so there is no need to add anything.  Usually, there is a small dish of grated daikon, from which you add a little soy sauce and eat it with the fish as a type of “sauce”.  Other than that, there isn’t much to do.

Thankfully, teishoku is not an expensive meal.  There are a few places to eat teishoku, but the most famous chain would have to be Ootoya.  It’s a large relaxed style restaurant where you order more like a cafeteria.  Generally, you order first then get a seat.  Once seated, the food will come out sooner or later.  There are several shops like this, and ordering at these shops can be a little difficult.  Thankfully, most of them have signs where you can point and choose.  Some shops will even offer free rice and soup as a service.  When you order, you may think that the food itself is a little small and sparse.  This can be further from the truth.  I often end up stuffed with no room to spare for desert.  If there is anything I recommend, I’d recommend avoiding any raw fish items.  These shops generally don’t have the freshest fish in Tokyo.  If you want raw fish, you should go to a sushi shop or a sushi donburi shop that specializes in raw fish.  Getting tonkatsu, or other cooked foods is an excellent idea.

If you are in an entertainment district during lunch, you can sometimes see an izakaya that has converted itself into a lunch time teishoku shop.  These shops can be very interesting.  You generally see office workers rushing in and out at all times.  It’s not for the weak of heart as you need to be a little strong to understand how things work.  Usually, everything is for a set price.  You pay at the front then you can choose what you want to eat.  They usually have a counter where you can pick one of the main items, then two of the side dishes.  Water, rice, and soup are all self serve, but you can get as much as you want.  The quality of the food tends to be good, but the quality of the rice will depend on the shop.  Major izakaya chains probably won’t offer this service, and this service is usually open for just one or two hours a day.  After the service has ended, the shop closes, cleans, and finishes preparing for the after work drinking crowd.  It’s an amazing event to see and something I recommend trying if you aren’t afraid.  Do be warned that the shop’s staffs tends to speak only Japanese, so getting help in understanding what to do can be very difficult.  Just do your best.

There really isn’t much to say about teishoku.  It’s a very simple meal that exemplifies Japanese cuisine.  It’s simple, yet delicious.  If you are in Japan, this is probably the easiest type of dinner you can get every night.  You can visit these shops daily and find new and interesting foods to eat for up to two weeks.  It’s easy to get tired of it after a few days, at least for me, but changing the shop and changing the food will make it bearable.

Teishoku Information:

Simple blog post about Teishoku:  http://ilovejapancul.blogspot.com/2008/08/teishoku.html
Blog Post:  http://www.almostjapanese.com/a-perfect-meal-the-teishoku-set


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