Most people would agree that if you haven’t tried tonkatsu, you’re missing a big part of Japanese food. It can be found on just about every menu at home and abroad, alongside staples like ramen (hint hint). But just what is tonkatsu? Where did it come from? And more importantly, have you ever ordered it, expecting to get a crunchy, juicy plate of fried meat and been met with a table of soup instead!?
Keep reading. All secrets will be revealed.
Insider Tip: Tuck into tonkatsu as part of a special sumo lunch experience in Tokyo!
What is tonkatsu?
Tonkatsu is best explained etymologically. That’s to say, looking at the word itself since it is basically just a description. Like calling ketchup tomato paste, for example. The “ton” in tonkatsu is simply a reading for the kanji 豚, meaning pork. The katsu part is a little more complicated and gets really complicated later, but stay with me.
To katakana-ize the English word “cutlet,” we get カツレツ “ katsuretsu”. Pull out the first part, ‘katsu’, and top it off with the pork ‘ton’, and you get ‘tonkatsu’.
From here, you can probably figure out that tonkatsu is a pork cutlet.
Specifically, it’s a pork cutlet that has been rolled in breadcrumbs and egg and double-fried for that extra-crispy, like-no-other texture. Abroad, the dish has taken on many forms and is occasionally double-named pork tonkatsu, but technically tonkatsu only refers to katsu-style fried pork to begin with.
You might be a little surprised to learn that the katsu part of tonkatsu comes from English, but its culinary origins are even more interesting than that!
The History of Tonkatsu
The first iteration of tonkatsu was served in Tokyo’s glamorous Ginza district in the 1890s under the simple moniker “pork cutlet.” According to the Nihombashi Restaurant Association (whose authority, I believe, personally.) this took the form of a thin slice of pork served aside raw cabbage due to a lack of personnel and funds. It wasn’t until 1929 that today’s melt-in-your-mouth juicy, thick tonkatsu was born in a competitor’s kitchen in Chiyoda, a few train stops away.
Clearly, tonkatsu came out of Japan, which doesn’t explain the foreign name. In fact, plenty of Japanese apparently even debate the classification of tonkatsu as yoshoku (western-inspired Japanese food), because it is so entrenched in the country’s food culture. Thankfully, there’s an explanation for this as well.
About a quarter century before the first tonkatsu ever graced a heap o’ cabbage, the Meiji restoration established policies to popularize Western culture. Along with this came cuisine, such as the French côtelette de veau. Without Europe’s long history of incorporating rich animal products in their diet, the buttery, pan-fried veal of this French dish proved not only expensive but unsuited to Japanese tastes. Fortunately, the Japanese had developed the deep-frying technique of tempura, which wicks off excess oil on the second dip. In this way, Tonkatsu uses the original flour-egg-breadcrumb breading technique of French cuisine but Japanese frying methods to achieve its unique texture. Sounds perfect for something that came out of Ginza, right? Add to that readily available cabbage, a characteristic tonkatsu sauce with its own history, and you get the beloved tonkatsu of our time.
What is the difference between tonkatsu and tonkotsu?
At the start of this article, I asked if you have ever been unfortunate enough to witness this scene: Eagerly, you eye waitstaff coming around the corner, tonkatsu hopefully in tow. Then, in horror and surprise, that same waitstaff places before you or your dining companion a steaming bowl of soup instead of the requested hunk of meat.
The graphic scene I paint here is one that can only be born of experience. And shame.
On my first trip to Tokyo, I had the misfortune of ordering tonkotsu instead of my desired ‘tonkatsu’ thanks to a little language slip. Briefly, let's return to that etymology issue to explain.
We know that ton is pork. So obviously, I had ordered pork something. The kicker is that kotsu-katsu delineation. With a single letter, the whole menu changes.
Katsu, as we have learned, comes from cutlet.
Kotsu on the other hand comes from Japanese originally, and means bone. What I had requested (and you may have too, had I not saved you from this) was ‘pork bone’, which naturally conveys a desire for pork bone soup, a common base for ramen and readily available at most Japanese restaurants alongside its fried, hammy companion.
In brief, tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet dish. Tonkotsu is the name for the rich pork-bone broth used in ramen. Sound similar, very different. Should one order tonkatsu ramen outside of Japan, however, you will probably get tonkotsu soup and not noodles topped with pork cutlet, though that would probably be great.
Variations of ‘ton’katsu
Aside from the original tonkatsu combination of pork cutlet, cabbage, and sauce on a plate, other delicious takes on tonkatsu have been born of novelty and necessity.
- Katsu Curry
- Katsu Sando
Katsudon is a tonkatsu recipe that swaps out the crunch of cabbage and zing of vinegary katsu sauce for an easy-to-eat meal even young children feel at home with. Fried pork cutlet gets simmered with sweetened egg, onion, and sauce, then served over rice. It’s a one-bowl meal popular across the world and brings together some of Japan’s best cooking techniques.
Apparently, the product of a customer’s whims, katsu curry is now a staple in katsu and curry restaurants alike. Slightly spicy, thick Japanese curry meets the crunchy savoriness of tonkatsu in a perfect harmony of texture and flavors.
Some genius came up with the perfect way to enjoy the classic katsu combination of katsu sauce, shredded cabbage and pork cutlet on the go. Pillowy shoku-pan style Japanese white bread soaks up the sauce to prevent drips and softens the prickly crunch of katsu panko. Served hot or cold, katsu sando are a delicious, discrete riff on tonkatsu.
Types of ‘but it’s not really ton’ katsu
Now that tonkatsu has become an international catchall word for katsu-style fried foods, let's look at a few other members of the katsu-family you may come across in Japan or abroad.
- Other Meats
- Bento-box katsu
- Seafood Katsu
Other Meats: Chicken, Steak and Tuna “Rare” Katsu
For the many reasons one might abstain from pork, there is torikatsu. It's what you’ll be getting if you order chicken tonkatsu or chicken katsu overseas. I like to think of it as a katsu that was adapted for western tastes back again….
On the other hand, recently popularized rare katsu takes inspiration from searing to flash fry high-quality tuna or steak in a katsu-style panko breading. The mouthfeel retains the juicy quality and envelopes the rare morsels in crunchy katsu-style goodness. It's the opposite of the humble katsudon and elevates katsu to the luxury dining sphere with wagyu and maguro. Are you drooling yet?
Katsu on a stick! Shove a yakitori stick through just about any bite-sized piece of food, fry it katsu-style, and you get kushikatsu. This style of katsu frying has become popular enough to have its own restaurant chains and is a great way to enjoy many different types of ingredients. Some especially fun takes on kushikatsu are mochi, cheese (mozzarella stick…on a stick. Excellent.), and quail eggs, plus tons of veggies! Kushikatsu is a popular food in Osaka, the city known as the nation's kitchen.
Bento-box katsu: Menchikatsu and Friends
Menchikatsu, a combination of mince-meat menchi and katsuretsu katsu, is essentially a hamburger or meatball that has been katsu deep fried. It is often billed as a “healthy” form of katsu because cabbage and onions are included in the patty. Other bento-box staples like ham cutlet get the katsu treatment too, and korokke use the same panko-frying technique to get their unique soft inside crunchy outside texture.
Seafood katsu: Ebi-fry and Aji-fry, etc.
Although the name is different, the prep method for making these seafood “fries” is the same as making katsu. Since dishes like ebi fry are made from whole shrimp, aji fry from fish filets, and ika fry from sections of squid, they don’t receive the cutlet-shaped delineation of katsu. If you want a lighter taste with the same katsu crunch, try a fry! As a side note, ebikatsu does actually exist - in the form of a katsu-fried shrimp paste patty. Yum!
Hirekatsu: Actually, this one is tonkatsu?
Hire(hee-ray)katsu uses leaner cuts and has a reputation for being popular with women since it's a little more tender, less fatty, and higher quality compared to classic tonkatsu. The characteristic shape of tonkatsu is called "ros" or "roast" katsu, as opposed to hirekatsu. These are still made of pork but tend to come in a nugget or round shape instead of a slab and at a higher price point. The precise cuts for each classification vary depending on where you look, but fat-on pork katsu is usually ros, and lean is typically hire.
How to enjoy tonkatsu
The short answer is: However you like!
Even within Japan, people’s preferences for tonkatsu vary greatly. The classic tonkatsu recipe is simple. Serve a panko breaded and fried sliced pork cutlet with a pile of shredded cabbage and drizzle it with tonkatsu-sauce. In Hokuriku, sauce tonkatsu features a pork cutlet dredged in sauce and served over rice donburi style, sometimes omitting the cabbage altogether. Nagoya is known for its miso-katsu using sweet miso sauce, and of course, you can class the dish up or down as you please. The best thing about katsu, ton or otherwise, is that it is a super versatile and always delicious way to enjoy Japanese food. So go out and explore the wonderful world of katsu!
Fun Facts About Katsu
The official unofficial companion to tonkatsu is bulldog brand sauce, but plenty of restaurants make their own.
On Bulldog’s English website they assert that it is indeed a form of washoku and not yoshoku. Rengatei, the inventor, calls it yoshoku, though! And so the debate continues…
Katsu sauce is based on British Worcestershire sauce, adapted to Japanese tastes. How’s that for cultural exchange?
Originally, julienned carrots and other root vegetables formed the sides of cotolette, but shredded cabbage was quicker to prepare and its antioxidant properties helped break down the oiliness of tonkatsu, so it won out.
Katsudon is similar to oyakodon made with tonkatsu instead of chicken! You can easily adapt an oyakodon recipe into katsudon at home.
A ton of information
The word tonkatsu, born of a combination of languages and lifestyles, has taken on a life of its own. In the modern day, Katsu has globe trotted its way to become one of the most recognizable Japanese dishes on the planet, no matter what form it takes. If you’ve ever wondered, “what is whatever-katsu? Is it the same as tonkatsu? Why did they bring me soup?!” hopefully, this article helped.