accessAtlanta

City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

It’s just cabbage, isn’t it?

katsu-cabbageA little while ago, I had dinner with a friend and her family where she prepared homemade tonkatsu with steamed rice. Tonkatsu is deep-fried, panko-covered pork cutlet generally served with Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce and spicy mustard for dipping. It is a dish influenced by European cuisine, but wholly embraced by the Japanese and a delight to eat with a bowl of miso soup and a selection of tsukemono (pickled vegetables).

Being the Japanophiles that we are, my friend and I wondered 1) what purpose does the mound of sliced cabbage that accompanies tonkatsu serve, and 2) how do you achieve the crisp texture like the versions you find in restaurants? The book, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, states the cabbage is a salad accompaniment to tonkatsu. A friend of mine who runs a Japanese restaurant confirmed this and also mentioned that this “cheap salad/pickle alternative” serves secondarily as a prop because he likes “to raise his food.”

So now I wondered, why does the cabbage salad at Japanese restaurants seem so crisp and delicate on tonkatsu dishes, but rubbery when I try to make it? My chef friend revealed that 1) it should be cut thin where it is almost “translucent,” and 2) soak it in cold water minimally for thirty minutes to tenderize it (and no need for salt).

If you read this post up to this point it may sound a little ridiculous that I’ve devoted this much thought to a mound of tasteless shredded cabbage that people generally discard uneaten. But I’m making a point here – this is the exact sort of detail that Japanese cooks have already given to this katsu accoutrement.

The fun doesn’t stop just yet. I picked up a head of white cabbage at my local Publix and went to work. First, I attempted to get the recommended thin strands of cabbage with my just-sharpened Western-style chef knife. For some reason, I just couldn’t get the slices thin enough (or “translucent” as my chef friend stated).

For my second batch, I used my MAC Santoku knife – a razor sharp cutting edge fashioned after a Japanese general-purpose kitchen knife. After a series of slicing motions, I finally was getting some thin cabbage shavings akin to light curled flakes that float off whittled pieces of wood. After soaking this for thirty minutes in cold water, I gently dried a sample mound in a paper towel and gave it a try. Eureka.

Gene-Lee-Tagline- by Gene Lee, Food and More blog

– Gene Lee writes about International Cuisine for the AJC Dining Team. He also publishes his own blog, Eat, Drink, Man… A Food Journal.

11 comments Add your comment

Bruce

March 30th, 2011
9:36 am

Gene,

Try Chinese cabbage. It has the texture you are looking for. It looks like a mutant version of the regular green cabbage but is surprisingly delicate and crunchy. Look for it at places like the Buford Highway Farmers Market near the Apples and mushrooms.

drummerpop

March 30th, 2011
9:55 am

Another chef secret – a mandolin. It makes see thru thin slices easy and consistent.

Kar

March 30th, 2011
10:12 am

My understanding is that they use the cabbage to wick away the grease from the food, similiar to the Chinese trick with lettuce. Sure, crunchy cabbage slightly cooked by hot meat and enhanced with grease is is edible but that’s not the original purpose.

Gene Lee

March 30th, 2011
11:14 am

@drummerpop – Ah yes, the mandolin. In my queue.

1164mgc

March 30th, 2011
11:44 am

I always wondered if you were supposed to eat that cabbage with the meat (or whatever else it accompanies). I’ve tried it with whatever-is-resting-on-top and never liked it. Pickled shaved carrot strips is another story altogether though;-)

Kar

March 30th, 2011
12:43 pm

1164mgc, it’s basically a more attractive presentation than serving your food on say a piece of paper saturated with grease. When I’ve gotten tempura or fish and chips presented that way I felt more aware of the fat when you’re left with a huge grease spot or a handful of soggy paper.

Gene Lee

March 30th, 2011
1:08 pm

@Kar When I’ve been served katsu, there’s usually a singular piece of lettuce separating the cutlet from the mound of shredded cabbage, which I have always eaten (cabbage not lettuce) and have been told that it is indeed meant to be eaten.

I’ve always seen tempura served on paper (although I don’t doubt it is sometimes served on vegetables). I’m wondering if that’s because cooled vegetable would sort of moisten the crunchy exterior.

Kar

March 30th, 2011
1:28 pm

Gene, I usually have katsudon on a bowl of rice myself. I know it’s supposed to be an interpretation of weiner schnitzel but I prefer the Japanese version myself. Especially with the brown sauce. I think someone told me that the paper for tempura was to illustrate how non-greasy the food is but I think I’ve been getting it at the wrong places.

I’ve also seen pastries and sweets served that way in Japan so I don’t know if it’s partly presentation too.

Favorite leaf and meat combo would probably be Korean barbecue. You’d think greasy lettuce and hot grilled meat wouldn’t go together but they really do.

JesusFreak

March 30th, 2011
4:08 pm

Please recommend a good Japanese restaurant where we can try this, OTP or ITP, or anywhere else, it doesn’t matter so long as it’s good. Thanks!

huck from marietta

March 30th, 2011
4:19 pm

sometimes the cabbage is slightly dressed with thousand island dressing… yum!!!

1164mgc

March 30th, 2011
7:24 pm

Hmmm… still don’t know whether you’re expected to eat the cabbage or not – I guess it depends on the cook. It IS more attractive than a grease-splotched piece of paper. I just wish they made it taste better with whatever is resting on top of it. A little vinaigrette goes a long way!