Perfecting Tonkatsu

Any long-time reader knows that I’m slightly obsessed with pork and pork dishes. One of the first “restaurant” dishes that I fell in love with as a child is tonkatsu, and it’s eggy variant katsudon. I say “restaurant” because this crisp breaded Japanese pork chop dish was something I couldn’t get at home. Japanese recipes were definitely outside my mother’s culinary wheel house. So I could only enjoy a tonkatsu when the family went out for Japanese (which fortunately was quite often, Japanese being my mother’s favorite cuisine, outside of Chinese that is).

My own kids are a little more fortunate in that Su-Lyn and I have dedicated a fair portion of our lives to learning a cookbook’s worth of global recipes that appeal to our little ones (and to us as well). So when T1 demands shabu shabu, a penne Bolognese, or a four cheese pizza, he gets fairly authentic versions, with almost everything made from scratch.

But when I was a kid, ordering a tonkatsu or katsudon was a treat. These were also my preferred go-to dishes in Japanese restaurants until I was about 13. While my parents were sushi lovers, and my brother started appreciating raw fish at an early age, the idea put me off for years. I simply refused to eat it until one day, during my thirteenth year, I suddenly realized that maybe I was missing out on something delicious. I boldly ordered a sashimi deluxe, much to the surprise of my family. Plus a warning from my mother, who said that I should have ordered just one or two pieces to try and that I had to finish the entire “deluxe” platter “or else!”.

Today, I’m still a huge tonkatsu fan. I’m constantly looking out for awesome versions, both here in Singapore and overseas. The best I’ve had, or at least my favourites, have been at Butagumi and Katsuzen, both in Tokyo. What I look for is a moist, tender, flavourful pork cocooned in a crisp yet still somewhat fluffy batter. The color of the crust is really important too; it can’t be overcooked, i.e. too dark and tasting a little burnt.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally dabbled with making tonkatsu at home, but because we can get pretty great variants here in Singapore, I never really got serious about it. And partly because of that (and partly because of a lack of proper research), the ones I made at home never matched what I’d eaten in better restaurants.

This past week, however, I decided to get serious. The superwife was going to be out, which gave me time and the opportunity to experiment in the kitchen. I also finally decided to skim a few recipes, both in cookbooks I own and online.

I also remembered that 5 years back, Su-Lyn and I learnt how to make a delicious crisp fried pork loin noodle soup dish (pakomen) from the chefs at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu. What struck me about that pork preparation was that the marinated loin was dredged in potato starch.

I decided to do that this time as well. I had marinated my pork loin for a few hours in soy sauce and sesame oil. Having wiped it dry, I pounded it flat with a kitchen mallet; not so flat that it would tear, but at least 50% flatter than it was originally. I then dredged the pork in the potato flour and dipped it into beaten eggs, making sure it was entirely coated. I then placed that into a bowl with panko.

Now, I’ve found that when you do a simple flour-egg-panko breading, sometimes when you fry your meat, a lot of the panko breaks or falls off in the hot oil. On those occasions, the crumbs simply haven’t bonded sufficiently. I’d also read that a moist panko crumb sticks better. So, after coating my pork lightly but evenly with panko, I dipped it back in the egg, then returned it to the panko. The resulting crust had just the right consistency, i.e. the right thickness and it seemed to hold together well.

I then placed the breaded pork on a tray lined with baking paper and let it sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. I’ve learned also that it’s good to let breaded meats rest for a bit. This helps the crust to settle and stay together when frying.

Before frying, I took the pork out of the fridge and let it rest for another 15-20 minutes, mostly because I didn’t want the internal temperature of the pork to be too cold. In the meantime, I got a pot ready and heated up my oil. You want the oil to be able to almost submerge the pork when you fry it. I also prepared a wire rack, placed over a tray.

Once the oil was ready (test it by tossing in a few panko crumbs — it should start to bubble right away), place your pork carefully in. Fry for 90 seconds then flip the pork carefully and fry for another 90 seconds. Remove the pork and place on the wire rack. Wait for 5 minutes.

Just like with French Fries, if you want a crispier tonkatsu, the secret is in double frying. The resting time between fries also allows the pork to gently cook. After 5 minutes, place the pork back in the oil, cooking for 2 minutes, then flipping and cooking for another 2 minutes. Take the pork out, shake off excess oil carefully and return it to the wire rack. Let it rest for another minute and then you’re ready to cut it up and wolf it down.

Now, this might seem like an awful lot of steps to make something as simple as a breaded pork cutlet, and it is. Which is why it’s sometimes simpler to head out for certain dishes. But I’m happy I’ve finally perfected this. As are my kids, both of whom like tonkatsu (although probably not as much as I do). And now I know I can make this for the rug rats at home whenever they want, which makes the time and effort to do this properly totally worth it.

I hope this works for you as well. Happy eating.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!