As you probably noticed, It’s Crunchy Today has entered a little bit of a dry spell since I last wrote about making Imaginary Lemon Udon. In the meantime, I haven’t stopped cooking, but I have found a part-time job and taken a long trip to Japan. As with all our vacations these days, this one consisted mostly of riding around on trains, eating a lot, and visiting dozens of playgrounds. And for the third year in a row, we spent some time in Nagoya. For some reason, Nagoya seems to be looked down on a bit, certainly by foreign visitors — it seems like nearly everyone I know has visited Japan in the last couple years, and I think zero of them have stopped in Nagoya — and maybe even a bit by Japanese people. Before we visited it for the first time, I guess I also imagined it to be little more than an especially large collection of Toyota factories sprawling around the northern end of Ise Bay. But when I first told a friend that we were considering staying there — on the way from somewhere to somewhere else — I was surprised to hear her say that two days wouldn’t be enough time. “Enough time to do what,” I asked. “To eat,” she said.
The local food is called Nagoya meshi (名護屋めし), a very creative moniker that means “Nagoya Food.” It’s maybe not the most refined food you’ll find in Japan, but it is some of the tastiest. It’s distinguished by very strong flavors, possibly excessive use of a distinctive local miso, and heat. Not heat like spicy, but heat like the food is literally just very hot. It’s also, obviously, impossible to find anywhere near where I live. So, I’ve decided to learn to make it at home, and to record my attempts on It’s Crunchy Today.
First up, miso katsu. Breaded and deep-fried pork, called tonkatsu (とんかつ), is a pretty standard food all over Japan, and one of the few types of Japanese food I remember regularly going out to eat with my family when we lived there. Because everyone likes deep-fried pork. But of course Nagoya has their own style of tonkatsu. Specifically, drowned in a delicious miso sauce. At Yabaton, a chain of miso katsu restaurants in Nagoya, you can order a pork cutlet on top of chopped cabbage on a heated iron plate (鉄板とんかつ), with miso sauce poured over the whole thing at the table. I don’t own an iron plate (yet), but that’s what I’m trying to make at home.
To do that, I had to learn to make a decent tonkatsu first. The basic recipe is easy enough. You start with one of two cuts of pork, either loin (ロース) or tenderloin (ヒレ), dredge it in flour, coat it with beaten egg, roll it in panko, and deep fry. But I’m probably on my tenth attempt at this by now and I still don’t have a perfect tonkatsu. (Strangely, no one in my household has objected to eating fried pork once a week while I figure out the recipe.) First, I decided to use loin, because I like the little bit of fat on it and it’s much cheaper than tenderloin. Then I encountered some difficulties. Difficulty #1: how thick to cut the meat. I like a nice thick tonkatsu, but I wanted to tenderize the meat first, which ended up making it kind of thin, like a schnitzel (this is also a legitimate thing, called waraji tonkatsu at Yabaton). So I had to dial back the tenderizing a little bit to keep it as thick as I like. Difficulty #2: how to fry it. For such a thick piece of meat, I want to double-fry it so the outside is crispy. I found a pretty convincing recipe suggesting that tonkatsu should be “cold fried” — starting the frying in cold oil, which I also discovered is a trendy way of cooking fries — but every time I tried that my tonkatsu came out a little soggy. So I went back to regular double-frying, once at a low temperature to cook the pork, and once at a higher temperature to crispify the breading.
Having made a somewhat passable tonkatsu, next I had to try to recreate Yabaton’s sauce. The most important part of this was procuring the distinctive local miso, something called hatcho miso (八丁味噌), which is darker and even stronger-tasting that regular miso. (To learn all about hatcho miso, I strongly recommend this delightful article from, for some reason, a Japanese language school, which explains how the miso must be fermented in a vat under a “3 tonne pyramid of river stones.”) I overpaid fairly egregiously to order a small packet online a few months ago, then bought some more at a supermarket in Nagoya that I still sometimes dream about.
Yabaton obviously doesn’t share their recipe, but their English-language website says that “Our red miso is natural mature in the cask that is placed stone as a pyramid on top for a several seasons…” (so, hatcho miso) and “we make our miso sauce by boiling it with pork and some materials for long hour” (so, some kind of pork soup). Most of the recipes I found online used dashi for the liquid, along with mirin, sake, and sugar, kind of like a very sweet, thick miso soup. After many failed attempts — one tasted like I had literally dropped a bowl of soup onto the tonkatsu, another tasted like eating plain miso with a spoon — I finally figured out what I thought was a decent recipe. And then went all the way to Nagoya to eat the real one, only to find out that theirs was still much sweeter than mine. So, more sugar!
Anyway, I’m still experimenting with it, and still in the market for some iron plates, but this is the recipe I’m using right now.
- Pork. One cutlet per person. I usually buy a big old pork loin and slice it myself, but the pre-sliced pork cutlets in the store are fine too.
- A little flour.
- 1-2 eggs.
- Enough panko to coat however many cutlets you’re making.
- Oil. This has to be deep-fried, so you’re going to need a lot of oil.
- 3tbsp hatcho miso. If you don’t feel like flying to Nagoya or getting ripped off on Amazon, red miso is probably the next best substitute, though the flavor is pretty different.
- 140ml dashi. You can also use water and the appropriate amount of instant dashi powder. The miso and sugar are so overpowering in this sauce that homemade dashi isn’t really necessary.
- 2tbsp mirin.
- 1tbsp sake.
- 3tbsp sugar. I started with much less sugar than miso (1:4 ratio) the first time I made this, and slowly increased it. After visiting Yabaton again, I made it even sweeter. It’s possibly theirs has even more sugar than this, but a 1:1 ratio tastes pretty good to me.
- Some pork trimmings. I just cut off a few small bits of extra pork from the cutlets. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t notice if I skipped this step, but it’s on the Yabaton website, so I’m doing it.
- 1 cabbage. I use a small green cabbage.
- Thinly chop cabbage. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to peel off the leaves, roll them up, and slice thinly with a very sharp knife. Also a mandolin slicer or cabbage slicer (which is a thing) works too.
- Put thinly chopped cabbage into a bowl of cold water.
- Drain and keep cool until serving. I usually just leave it in the water unless I’m preparing it way in advance.
STEPS: Miso Sauce
- Heat the dashi in a pot.
- When boiling, add the pork and boil for a while until the soup is, um, suitably porky. Remove and discard the pork.
- Mix some of the hot soup with miso in a small boil or ladle, and stir until the miso is smooth.
- Add the miso, mirin, sake, and sugar to the soup.
- Cook until the sauce is slightly thick. It should be like a thick liquid, not like a paste. Keep it warm until you’re ready to serve. If it thickens while keeping warm, add some more dashi or water to thin it out.
- Cut the pork into relatively thick cutlets. (Or, you know, just remove the cutlets from the package.)
- Tenderize the pork. I used to have a meat tenderizer, but at some point I guess we got rid of it. So I just whack it a few times with the back and side of a knife. I should probably buy another tenderizer.
- Generously salt the cutlets. The site that told me about the cold-frying recommends 0.8% of the pork’s weight in salt. I haven’t tested this and I don’t usually measure, I just put what seems like quite a bit of salt on there.
- Dredge in flour. The flour should be even and not too thick.
- Dip in egg. Let the egg drip off before moving on to the panko.
- Roll in panko.
- Heat oil until you see small (small!) bubbles around it when you stick a chopstick in. Fry the cutlets one at a time for 2-3 minutes, flipping over halfway through.
- Put on a rack and let sit for about 10 minutes. If you don’t have a rack, you can use paper towels, but that may sog up your katsus.
- Turn the heat up on the oil until it’s a bit hotter than it was last time — slightly larger bubbles around the chopsticks — and fry the tonkatsus again for about 30 seconds each, or until the outside is golden brown and crispy.
If you happen to be lucky enough to own an iron plate, heat that thing up. Cut the tonkatsu into a few manageable-sized strips (crossways) and lay that on the plate. Either on top of or next to a big pile of cabbage. Just before eating, pour the miso sauce over the tonkatsu. I usually move it from the pot to a small pitcher or something for easier pouring.