THIS week, we’re heading across the globe to Japan. Of all the places in the world, Japan is right there at the top of my list of ‘must-visits’, largely because of two things – the world’s most impressive aquarium (Google ‘Churaumi Okinawa’, and you’ll see why) and, let’s be frank, the food.
I am hugely keen on Japanese food.
To the uninitiated, when someone mentions Japanese food, the knee-jerk response is to think of sushi and sashimi, and that’s certainly a large part of the cuisine map over there, but Japan is a land of myriad food types, some of which might surprise you.
My interest was first piqued many years ago when I happened upon one of those travelogue programmes one afternoon when I got home from sixth-form college.
I was utterly transfixed by the piece about the most amazing noodle restaurant somewhere up in volcano country, I’m guessing around Nagano.
The place was set on a steep hillside, with beautifully manicured gardens, and a glacial waterfall running down over rocks and boulders past the dining room.
Up the hill a little way was a small kitchen, where a couple of chefs created the most amazing soft ‘somen’ noodles, simmering them in light dashi stock until just tender. Then, the magic bit.
They dropped them into the pure glacial water, which was channelled down bamboo gutters, all the way down the garden, and into the dining room, where customers picked them from the water as they flowed past each table, chilled to perfection, and enjoyed them with various ingredients.
Mesmerising; I’d never seen food made with such a respectful sense of tradition and purpose, nor with such clarity and simplicity.
Years later, I found this to be a tradition called ‘Nagashi Somen’, and now I know quite a bit more about this and many of the other styles of food, it makes the yearning even stronger to go and eat my way around those magical islands.
From the very freshest tuna sashimi to the clear limpid broths, and from the sticky-sweet yakitori skewers to the melting Kobe beef, there’s so much to be tried. Some of the world’s finest restaurants are in Japan, often tiny places run by one chef, where a handful of diners sit at an immaculate wooden counter and get to try the freshest seafood and the tastiest meats prepared right before their eyes, but Japan’s not all about the ethereal all the time.
They like to tuck in, and adore their snack foods. Fast food is incredibly popular, especially in the major conurbations.
One of the most popular snacks is a dish called tonkatsu. It’s the equivalent of the motorway service-station sarnie to Japanese motorists, but it’s also cooked at street stalls and in many chain restaurants. And it’s brilliant.
Essentially it’s a hot sandwich comprising a few vegetables, mustardy mayonnaise, a special fruity-spicy sauce and several crunchy, juicy slices of ‘katsu’, pork or chicken beaten thin, rolled in extra-crunchy panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
The combination of hot, juicy meat in the super-crispy coating along with the softest bread and perhaps a sliver of avocado is a beautiful snack, and relatively easy to make. So we’re going to have a bash at it.
Obviously, this recipe uses a few niche ingredients. Panko crumbs and tonkatsu sauce are readily available at most oriental supermarkets and online, but you can always substitute them with good fresh home-made breadcrumbs and HP’s ‘Fruity’ sauce, which is, oddly, almost identical.
But it’s definitely worth having a crack at this delightfully quirky oriental sandwich. Aprons on!
For The Katsu:
500g pork tenderloin
150g Japanese panko honey-breadcrumbs (or fresh white breadcrumbs)
2 fresh, free-range eggs, beaten
A little plain flour
For The Sandwich:
1 loaf soft white bread
2 ripe avocados
A few leaves of red cabbage
A few leaves of firm white cabbage
A splash of lemon juice
Tonkatsu sauce (HP ‘Fruity’ is a really good alternative)
For The Mustard Mayonnaise:
100ml mayonnaise (fresh or shop-bought)
1 tsp English mustard and a big splash of lemon juice
Sunflower oil for deep-frying
Make up the mustard; whisk the mustard and lemon juice into the mayonnaise and adjust the seasoning accordingly.
Cut several thickish slices of bread and trim away the crusts. Any spare bread and crust can be processed for breadcrumbs.
Peel, stone and finely slice the avocado. Finely shred the cabbages, and toss in a little lemon juice. Chill until required.
Slice the pork loin into 2cm-thick escalopes, then, using a rolling pin, meat mallet or heavy-based pan, bat the tiny steaks out between sheets of greaseproof paper to ½cm thickness.
Coat the meat in flour, pat dry, then dip in the beaten egg, drain the excess and then dredge into the panko breadcrumbs to coat the escalopes evenly.
In a deep, wide, heavy saucepan heat a few inches of sunflower oil to about 175ºC.
Gently lower the escalopes into the hot oil and fry for about 3 minutes. Take out of the oil, drain and rest the escalopes for 1 minute. Then, drop the escalopes back into the oil and fry for a further 2 minutes.
This ensures a crispy coating and perfectly cooked, juicy meat.
Smear the mustard mayonnaise liberally over the bottom slice of bread, and lay the avocado over the bread.
Slice the katsu escalopes diagonally into thick slices. Arrange the slices of katsu over the avocado.
Drizzle a good squirt of tonkatsu sauce over the pork, add the dressed cabbage and make up the sandwich with the remaining slice of bread.
Cut carefully into slices and arrange neatly on a plate before serving.