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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


Tofu July 26, 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 “Tofu” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-tofu

Tofu can easily be considered one of Japan’s national foods.  While tofu isn’t originally from Japan, it has grown by leaps and bounds to become something unique.  Many people will look at tofu and think that it’s nothing special.  In China, tofu is something that is added to various sauces to make it more flavourful.  In Japan, the tofu has been created with such care and attention that it often doesn’t require a lot to make it taste good.  Many people who think tofu is nothing more than healthy filler tend to enjoy tofu a lot more when they visit Japan.  You cannot easily get the same quality of tofu in any other part of the world.  While in the simplest terms, tofu is nothing more than a cheese made from soy milk.  In reality, it is much more, and yet, completely different.  There is no one way to describe tofu, and there is no one way to see it.  It can come in various shapes and forms.  Depending on the type of tofu, it can either be soft or hard, deep fried, or steamed.  It’s up to your imagination to decide how to prepare or eat it.

In Japan, fresh tofu is by far the best.  A plain type of tofu is generally very soft.  It is so soft that it will melt in your mouth as you eat it.  You often need a spoon, or very good chopstick skills to eat it nicely.  Otherwise, you will end up shovelling it in pieces into your mouth.  Either way, it’s very delicious.  Tofu is often made in specific regions to utilize specific sources of water that can add new characteristics to the tofu.  The natural water contains various combinations of minerals which create subtle changes in the tofu’s taste and texture.  For most people, this won’t matter.  It’s difficult to taste the very subtle differences between different types of tofu unless you are a professional or grew up eating tofu every day.  One of the most common ways to see soft tofu in Japan is to have it served on a bamboo plate with a side of katsuoboshi (bonito flakes), green onion, grated ginger, and soy sauce.  It’s a very simple and lovely combination that enhances the natural flavours of the tofu.  You can find this sort of tofu in many restaurants.  It’s common in izakaya and many teishoku restaurants will serve this as part of their set meals.  It is also often eaten for breakfast as a quick and healthy meal.  If you feel adventurous enough to make it yourself, in Japan, it’s very easy.  Department stores often have the best tofu, grocery stores have a decent selection, and convenience stores have the basics.  Even the basics can taste better than tofu sold in America, which tends to be more Chinese.  Soft tofu also has small variations where they add black sesame, or other subtle things to change the characteristics of the tofu.  Sometimes you can get a spicy variety, but this will inevitably overpower the taste of the tofu.

One traditional way to eat tofu is to make Yuba Tofu.  It’s similar to bean curd in Chinese cuisine, yet extremely different.  Generally, Yuba is the coagulated tofu skin that forms as you heat and cool soy milk.  There isn’t much taste to this, and it’s mainly used in traditional Japanese cooking.  It’s easy to find in Kyoto and Nikko if you visit these places.  If you visit Kyoto, they traditionally serve it cooled on a plate.  It’s not for everyone as even many Japanese people don’t enjoy it as much as regular soft tofu.  If you are lucky enough to visit during the winter months, a visit to Nikko can provide a nice experience.  Some shops offer you the chance to eat fresh yuba.  Usually, yuba is made fresh everyday for restaurants, but in Nikko, some shops allow you to eat yuba from the “pot”.  Yuba is usually made inside a square wooden “pot”.  You are essentially given a long toothpick from which you are expected to skim the top of the simmering soy milk, pick up the yuba, and eat it.  I’m sure this will taste much better than eating it in Kyoto, but unfortunately, I haven’t had much experience with yuba.  I have eaten it in its cold form in Nikko, and it wasn’t as good as regular soft tofu.

Fried tofu is another method of enjoy tofu. Aburage, fried tofu, is a very common topping on Japanese soba.  It has a slight soy taste to it, and makes a good combination with soba or udon.  There is no need to add any meat or tempura as the abuage itself is more than enough.  Aburage itself is linked with foxes with legend stating that the god, whose image is a fox, loves to eat aburage.  How this started is unknown to me, but many of the dishes that use abuage have references to the fox.  Inarizushi is one such dish.  This is taking the fried tofu and wrapping it around a ball of rice making it into a piece of sushi.  It’s a delicious combination that is nearly limitless.  The basic style is to put plain rice inside the aburage, but you can easily add more to the rice.  Common rice mixtures include sesame seeds, burdock, and or mushrooms.  I would highly recommend trying inarizushi as it’s cheap and delicious.  It also makes for a quick, healthy, and cheap snack.

These are some of the more basic ways to eat tofu in Japan.  Of course, there are more ways that are inherent in Japanese cooking.  You will find various types of tofu within miso soup, nabe, and other soup dishes.  You can see it in Japanese-Chinese cooking.  It’s hard to go a day in Japan without eating tofu or at least seeing it on the menu.  Even if you don’t like tofu, I would still recommend trying it at least once while you are in Japan.  It’s just too good to pass up.

Tofu Videos:

Yuba Tofu:

Tofu Information:

Tofu: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tofu
Aburage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aburaage
Yuba: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuba_%28food%29


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