Food Porn: The tonkatsu after

Robert Uy
In the land of comfort food, Tonkatsu is a popular dish.

JUMBO TIGER PRAWNS. Photo from Yabu: House of Katsu Facebook Page

MANILA, Philippines – The USGS tsunami warning popped up in my inbox. It was an 8.7. Later, we find out it was a 9.0. A colleague in Tokyo had just told me of some quakes they had felt that morning…4 hours before I saw the warning.

Then the reports trickled in. No one was prepared for what we all saw after that moment. I quickly sent an SMS to all my colleagues in Tokyo to check…but no replies were received. I heard from them much later. They were ok. The shaking was bad. They were able to evacuate. They all needed to walk home since the trains were stopped. No complaints, a lot of concern but they quietly walked home.

Over the next few days, they stayed home while office teams were monitoring for possible radiation spikes. Days later, they were back at work. I knew things were “normal” when my colleague asked me if I wanted tonkatsu on my next Tokyo trip.

Tonkatsu seemed to signal that all was well once again. That it was ok to be “normal” again.

KATSUDON SET MEAL. Photo from Yabu: House of Katsu Facebook Page

House of Katsu

In the land of comfort food, tonkatsu is a popular dish. But, when served by a master, you completely forget your name. In the Philippines, Yabu, House of Katsu is as close to a Tokyo-based master as one can get.

A prime grade deep-fried Kurobuta pork cutlet cut into bite sizes, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour, beaten raw egg and panko is just the start. It has got to be golden. It has to be lightly breaded and fluffy. Served with steamed Japanese rice, a hearty bowl of Miso soup, shredded cabbage that one drizzles with a sesame seed dressing and some pickled vegetables…and you’re as close to Heaven on Earth as you can get.

You have to have the sesame seed dressing for the salad. It is a dangerous thing. Rather than attempt to fill you, it creates this void in you making you want more food. It should come with a warning label that reads: HABIT FORMING.

KUROBUTA. Photo from Yabu: House of Katsu Facebook Page

Pork deity

Kurobuta is to pork as Kobe beef is to beef. It comes from an ancient breed of pig known as Black Berkshire. Said to be Britain’s oldest pigs, the pure oriental strain in Japan is considered the best in the world. Apparently, the pigs were brought to Japan as a gift from the royals. Oozing goodness, as tender as quiet moment, heavily marbled and pink hued, this is not pork – this is pork deity.

The dish gets its name from katsu (a shortened version of the Japanese term for cutlet – katsuretto) and ton (pork). Bluff your way through your next tonkatsu meal and ask for hire (pork fillet) or rosu (pork loin). Tonkatsu is said to have been introduced to Japan by the Portuguese at the turn of the 20th century.

Panko is equally fascinating. It is a kind of flaky bread crumb. But here’s the catch – Panko is made from bread baked by passing an electric current through the dough, yielding bread without crusts, resulting in a crisper, airier texture. Gourmet bread crumbs, if you will.

Not all tonkatsu are made equal. The skill of the chef is shown by the correct portions of the breaded mix, the quality of the ingredients, the kind of oil used, oil temperature, the use of fresh oil for each order, timing and how thin the cutlet is sliced (1-2 cm). Then the proverbial secret sauce appears.

CHICKEN CURRY. Photo from Yabu: House of Katsu Facebook Page

Forget your name

Tonkatsu-ya (Tonkatsu restaurants) have secret sauces that are zealously guarded. It is a type of thick Japanese Worcestershire sauce that uses pureed apples as a principal ingredient. Tonkatsu is also accompanied with a bit of spicy yellow karashi (Japanese mustard) and perhaps a slice of lemon. I’ve had the pleasure of eating at one of Tokyo’s best Tonkatsu-ya called Maisen in Shibuya-ku and they do have a special sauce – a mix of the traditional sauce plus sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar.

The sauce is ladled over a bowl of toasted sesame seeds that must first be ground in a bowl on the table. The aroma released by the grinding is an important part of the meal. After the seeds are ground, ladle the Tonkatsu sauce into the bowl, mix them up and be ready for the fireworks. Lightly dip your fluffy pillow of joy (aka pork slice) into the sauce, admire the work of art and guide it to its final destination.

The mix of sweetness, a tinge of saltiness and a familiar yet equally new taste of all good things explodes. Chase it with a serving of steamed white rice to cut the overwhelming sensation in your mouth and descend into the depths of awesome. Then, experience a brief bout of amnesia as you forget your name.

This time though, it wasn’t about forgetting my name. It was about remembering. It was about remembering that a year ago, tonkatsu signalled a re-start for my colleagues in Japan. It signalled a moment in time when, unable to physically reach out, we had to share good thoughts and prayers for friends thousands of miles away. It was about remembering. It was about remembering that a meal was also about saying “We’re okay.”

Yabu: House of Katsu

2/F Mega Atrium, SM Megamall,

Mandaluyong City, Philippines – Rappler.com

Click on the links below for more.