Tonkatsu kare is part of a Japanese fusion food style (yoshoku) that goes back over a hundred and fifty years. It’s a pork cutlet curry that brings a bold, richly spiced flavor to the table. The spicy curry sauce is full of Anglo-Indian influence. And like European schnitzels, the cutlets are crunchy on the outside and juicily tender inside.
Adored in modern Japan, tonkatsu kare (literally meaning pork cutlet curry) is just one of many dishes from an immensely popular, highly distinctive style of cooking known as yoshoku — Western food. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite to Japan’s traditional, long-established, etiquette-rich cuisine, which is called washoku — meaning Japanese food.
Based on Western dishes that were modified to suit Japanese tastes, yoshoku’s roots are in the late 1860s. That was when Japan embarked on a drive to modernize itself. Links with the West were officially encouraged as part of this drive in a period known as the Meiji Restoration.
And the welcoming to Japan of once-shunned foreigners was certainly extended to food from the West. The result? The birth of yoshoku, an entirely new form of Japanese cuisine. But this wasn’t some groovy riff on Japan’s long-favored foods. It was far more fundamental than that. Its cornerstone was a previously forbidden ingredient — meat.
Early in 1872, Japan’s modernizing Emperor Meiji, effectively reversed a centuries’ old ban on eating meat. He proclaimed that he’d had a nice bit of beef — and suggested his subjects should do the same.
This was big news — really big. The top dogs of Japanese society followed the Emperor’s carnivorous lead, and meat eating became super-classy and ultra-fashionable. And because they didn’t really have any of their own, they looked hungrily to the West for meaty recipes — especially ones that would go well with rice.
Yoshuko goes mainstream — but, weirdly, only in Japan
By the late 1940s, yoshoku was losing its trendy, expensively elitist status, and gaining a much broader fan-base right across Japanese society. Today, it’s a mainstay of the country’s home cooking, and is everyday fare in many restaurants throughout Japan.
But yoshoku dishes like tonkatsu kare haven’t spread much beyond Japan — unlike, say, globe-trotting Japanese favorites such as sushi, teriyaki, and tempura.
Tonkatsu kare — The next big thing in flavor-packed comfort food?
The fact that it remains comparatively unknown is weird because our tonkatsu kare is like a big hug from someone you love. It’s comfort food right out of the top drawer.
Here’s why. The curry sauce has flavors that epitomize a sort of catch-all, Anglo-Indian curry. It’s generously spiced with cumin, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, ginger, and cardamom. Then there’s onion and garlic, plus a sweetening of apple. Cayenne peppers provide the essential fire (fresh green, not the ripe red), and the sauce gets its hearty weight from some potatoes and carrots.
And then there’s the schnitzel. The pork cutlet — the tonkatsu. A good, ½-inch thick, boneless, loin chop is encased in a golden-fried, crispy coating of protective panko breadcrumbs. The result? A classic combo of succulence with crunch. Hats off to tonkatsu.
Now, panko crumbs are a must here. They’re the Japanese take on breadcrumbs, and they definitely give this cutlet a crusting that’s way better than the often sadly soggy coatings on many Euro-style schnitzels I’ve suffered in the past.
Put the pair together — cutlet and curry — and the contrasts between the crisply delicate pork and hotly robust sauce are outstandingly good. Surprising? Perhaps. But, outstanding nevertheless.
Tonkatsu Kare (Pork Cutlet Curry)
For the cutlets
- 4 pork loin chops see note
- 4 ounces panko breadcrumbs
- 1 egg large, beaten
- 2 heaped tablespoons white flour
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 5 wooden toothpicks I used these to form the chops into fairly neat discs — and keep them that way as they cook
- 2 cups sunflower oil for frying — sunflower oil recommended, but a neutral oil in general works
For the spicy curry sauce
- 4 cayenne peppers unripe green variety (is best), sliced into 1/8 discs, seeds and all
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled and chopped into 1/4 inch dice
- 2 all-purpose potatoes medium-sized, peeled, and cut into a roughish 1/2 inch chunks. Use potatoes that have a balance between floury and waxy — Idaho or similar will be just grand.
- 2 carrots medium-sized, peeled, and cut into ½ inch chunks
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 1 apple medium-sized, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4 inch dice
- 2 heaped teaspoons ginger root grated, skin and all
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cilantro
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 star anise whole piece
- 6 cloves finely crushed
- 6 green cardamom pods slightly crushed
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons sated butter
- 1 heaped tablespoon white flour sieved
- 4 cups water
For the rice
- 2 cups Jasmine rice cooked according to the package instructions (see note on timing in notes)
Making the curry sauce (takes the longest, so we start here)
- Use a saucepan that’s easily big enough to hold all the sauce’s ingredients.
- Add the butter and set your pan on a medium-high heat. As soon as it starts to foam, stir in the onions. You want the onions to fry for long enough so that they soften and just begin to take on a bit of browning color. That’ll take about 6 minutes with a few watchful stirs on that medium-high heat.
- Stir in the carrots, garlic, chilies, ginger, salt, and pepper, together with all the spices — the cumin, cilantro, turmeric, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and cardamom pods.
- Stir-and-fry for 3 minutes, then add the flour. Stir thoroughly — and I mean thoroughly — so that the flour becomes completely absorbed into your buttery mix.
- Now add the water, and, keeping the heat on medium-high, stir until it’s completely combined with your curry mix. When the sauce starts to bubble, drop the heat to low, cover the pan and let the sauce simmer gently for 10 minutes with a few stirs.
- Add the apple and potato, and let the sauce simmer for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are just cooked through.
- Taste for saltiness — the potatoes will have absorbed a fair amount of salt, so adjust to your taste. Good, that’s the sauce done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce sit while you prepare the cutlets.
Preparing the cutlets — shaping them, a little pre-cooking, and coating them.
- For the sake of appearances, I formed the de-boned and rindless chops into neat looking, slightly oval-shaped discs. It’s worth the little effort it takes to fold the fattier tag end or tail of the chop around the meaty eye and pin it into place with a couple of toothpicks. It’s easily done.
- Now, because they’re fairly thick, the chops do need a little pre-cooking before they get panko-coated and hot-fried fairly deep and fast. This pre-cooking is important because the crumb-crust turns beautifully golden after just a few minutes frying — and that would be way too little cooking for the chops.
- For this pre-cooking, I heated the sunflower oil in a deep-sided, 9-inch skillet over a medium-high heat. Two cups of oil in that size skillet meant the oil was about 1 ½ inches deep — that’s ideal.
- As soon as the oil starts to shimmer — but before it gets anywhere near smoking — add two of the chops. Let them fry on that medium-high heat for two minutes on each side. Then remove them with a slotted spoon and set them on a kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil and to cool a little. Repeat the process with the next pair of chops. Good. Time now for coating them.
- Combine the flour, salt, and pepper into a seasoned flour mix for coating.
- For coating, I use three dinner plates lined up next to each other — one for the seasoned flour, one for the beaten egg, and one for the panko crumbs.
- Begin by giving each chop a good coating of flour so that it sticks to them all over.
- Now dip each one into the beaten egg, making sure that their entire surface is drenched with egg — that’s important because it’s this liquid coating that the panko crumbs are going to stick to.
- Finally, lay the chops on the plate spread with the panko crumbs. Take some care here, and use your fingers to firmly press the crumbs into that eggy surface. Keep pressing the crumbs onto the surface until no more of them will stick to it. Good coating done — they’re ready to be fast-fried.
Cooking the coated cutlets
- Heat the oil in your skillet on a medium-high heat until it reaches that hotly shimmering point. Gently add the cutlets two at a time, and let fry them on each side for about 2½ minutes.
- Now, don’t fiddle with them as they fry. That’s important because you want the coating to stay intact and allow it to really firm-up as it fries around its inner chop. So, just let them sizzle away until each side turns a lovely golden color. Done.
- Remove the cutlets to a cutting board and let them rest there for just a few minutes while you heat the sauce ready for serving. You’ll find that the panko coating hardly absorbs any oil, so there’s no need to bother draining them.
- That few minutes of resting the cutlets actually adds to their crispiness. And it also makes them easier to slice nice and cleanly ready for serving on warmed plates.
Serving your tonkatsu kare
- After the cutlets have rested for a few minutes as the sauce is heating, use a very sharp carving knife to cut each of the cutlets into slices about 1/3-inch thick. Good. Time for plating.
- Add a serving of rice to each diners’ plate. Keep the rice on one half of the plate so the other half is clear for a handsome helping of the sauce.
- Now carefully arrange a sliced cutlet over the top of the rice. Then add the sauce so that it fills the vacant half of the plate. Finished. Serve at once.