A 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.
- 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.