Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cooking katsudon for the first time

When I was a very little lad, three going on four, my father, who was in the Air Force at the time, received orders transferring him to Tachikawa Air Base, located about 32 km (17 mi) west of downtown Tokyo (now a civil airfield). Since Dad would be stationed in the Far East for three years (half in Japan and half at Clark AFB, which was on the big Philippine island of Luzon near Angeles City), he was given permission to bring his family with him.

Because I was so young, my impressions of Japan are mere flickers of half-seen images: a country full of bright colors. A fish flag waving in the breeze in front of a farm house as we drive past, and my father saying, "That means the mother just gave birth to a son." Sitting in the living room at the house of our maid/babysitter, whom we called "Mama-san", watching kabuki on the television set. (I'm told I could speak the language, but couldn't translate it.) Standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac where our house was, listening to the base speakers broadcast Kimi ga yo, and then "The Star-Spangled Banner", at sunset. Sitting in the living room as Dad takes pictures of all of us in traditional Japanese clothes ... even my little brother, who was born over there.


It's not to stretch a simile too far to say that donburi restaurants in Japan are like our Denny's and Cracker Barrels, in that donburi is a "comfort food": you grow up eating it, so that's what you crave when you want to reconnect with yourself, or when you don't want/can't afford something fancy. A donburi consists of meat and/or vegetable simmered in a fish stock-based liquid and served over rice. There are many variants; katsudon is one of the most popular. According to Eunice Kwon at, Katsu means "to win"; many athletes will eat a bowl before a big game, and many students will have one before an important test.

My father learned how to make katsudon from Mama-san, and made it a few times while we were growing up. Although it's one of my all-time favorite dishes, I'd only had it once or twice since becoming an adult. Most of the Japanese restaurants I've been to in the last thirty years have specialized in sushi and teppan gakki, and don't even have donburi on the menu.

So recently I got the desire to try my hand at it. I used Eunice Kwon's recipe, and it tastes great! Let me walk you through it:

When you plan to make katsudon for the first time, plan to make it for a small number of people, 1 to 3. Why? Because when you get to the final steps, you have to move very quickly; if you don't have any professional kitchen/QSR experience, or if you've never made a dish that required rapid movements, you'll want to keep your burden light. Also, if you don't have a rice cooker (which will keep your rice hot) or traditional Japanese rice/soup bowls with lids, the rice will cool pretty quickly once you shut the burner off; hot rice is essential to the final steps.

There are some ingredients you won't ordinarily have and that you may not be able to find at your usual grocery store or supermarket. Oddly enough, my local Wal-Mart carries not only panko breading but also Kikkoman Aji-Mirin, a sweet rice-based cooking sauce (mirin), and Bull-Dog Tonkatsu Sauce for dipping. Kikkoman is also my soy sauce brand of choice; it has a sharper, more distinctive taste than La Choy. Eunice's recipe is different from other katsudon recipes in that it doesn't require sake, which you can find at Goody Goody or any other good-sized liquor store. But the key ingredient to the donburi simmering sauce is dashi, a fish stock that you can get in a granular form like chicken or beef bouillon; for dashi, you'll have to go to an Asian food market or order it online.

Prep: If you have ramekins (or any extra bowls), it's best to prepare each serving separately except for the rice. For each serving, you'll need:
  • 1 tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet or chop; prep follows)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon dashi granules
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup sliced onion
  • 1 lightly beaten egg
  • 1 cup rice
First, prep your individual portions: Combine the water, dashi granules, soy sauce, mirin and sugar in a ramekin or bowl; whisk to combine, then add the onion. Put the lightly-beaten egg in a separate bowl. Prepare the rice according to directions, but don't start cooking it until about 20 – 25 minutes prior to serving, depending on how long it normally takes for water to come to a boil in the pan you're using and the total amount of rice you're cooking.

The MamaLoli recipe calls for pork cutlets, but that's pretty hard to come by and is pretty expensive when it shows up. You can, however, use a boneless pork chop or (as I did) cut slices off of a whole loin pork roast. First, season some flour (1/4 to 1/2 cup) with salt and pepper; whisk two eggs for your egg wash; and lay out about 1 cup of panko on a plate. In a skillet, heat about 1/4 cup oil to about 350°. Then, if you're using chops or slices of pork roast, put each piece on cellophane wrap, fold the wrap over and flatten out the meat with the flat end of a meat mallet. Lightly dust the meat with the flour; dredge it with the egg wash, and then coat it with panko breading. When the oil is hot, fry each tonkatsu separately, about 4 minutes per side, then set on a paper towel-covered plate to drain.

Now, tonkatsu is pretty tasty by itself, and you can serve it by itself over rice with Bull-Dog Tonkatsu Sauce (or A-1, which has a pretty similar taste), or over noodles, or in a kaiser bun. For katsudon, slice the tonkatsu width-wise or diagonally, in strips about 1/2" wide. Again, set each serving by itself for the final steps.

Final steps: This is where setting up portions individually pays off. You'll need a skillet or sauté pan with a lid. 

When the rice is less than two minutes from being done, put your first portion of the dashi sauce and onions in the pan and heat it on HIGH to a rolling boil. If the timer on the rice goes off before it boils, keep the lid on and keep the burner on the lowest setting possible.

When the dashi sauce comes to a boil, place your first sliced-up tonkatsu over the onions and sauce; pour the lightly-beaten egg all over and around it, and cover it. HERE'S THE TRICK: Only cook the egg about 90% of the way (about 30 seconds or so). Put a cup of rice in a big soup bowl or a plate, if you don't have traditional bowls. Then pour the whole contents of the skillet on top of the rice, letting the uncooked bits of the egg seep into the hot rice to finish cooking. Repeat the steps with every portion; as long as the burner is kept on high, the other sauce portions should come to a boil almost immediately. Serve with soy sauce and Bull-Dog Tonkatsu Sauce; for a side, I suggest some sort of Asian cole slaw.

Once you know how to make katsudon, you can make other kinds of donburi. Chicken donburi (oyakodon) doesn't require breading; you thinly slice a boneless, skinless chicken breast and some shiitake mushrooms and simmer them in the dashi sauce until the chicken is just cooked (about 4 minutes); then you add the egg. Beef donburi (gyudon) is a little trickier, since you don't want to cook it until it appears to be your preferred doneness. All meat tends to cook for a little while after it's taken off the fire, and you still have to cook your egg around it; so if you prefer your beef medium rare, you have to get it just past rare. With gyudon, instead of shiitake mushrooms, top the finished product with some slivered pickled red ginger.

Enjoy! Or, as they say in Japanese, Itadakimasu! (Let's eat!)