Sunday 26 June 2022

Katsu Curry, the Katsu Curry Police, and Tonkatsu Heaven

When asked to name Britain's national dish, most Japanese would probably cite fish and chips, gravy, or roast beef. Afternoon tea - scones, cakes, and cucumber sandwiches - is also seen as quintessentially British (there is now a Japanese version of the Great British Bakeoff!). Consequently, most Japanese are taken aback when I say that, in terms of how much is actually eaten and the number of restaurants, curry has a good claim to be the national dish. Indeed, in 2001 then foreign secretary Robin Cook called Chicken Tikka Masala (invented in Glasgow!) the nation's favourite dish and there is even a national curry week in October. However, in recent years one dish has emerged - on restaurant menus, workplace canteens, and supermarket shelves - that seems to be giving Chicken Tikka a run for its money: Japanese-style katsu curry.

Katsu curry in the UK: Cauliflower katsu curry, Wagamama’s take-out chicken katsu curry, and roasted vegetable katsu curry
The problem is that British-style katsu curry is not the katsu curry found in Japan. Indeed, a #katsucurrypolice have emerged on social media desperately trying to point out to anyone who will listen that #itsnotkatsucurry. Even the Japanese Embassy in the UK got into the act, creating a video to correct the misconception. As the video points out, katsu is an abbreviation of katsuretsu
which was how the Japanese heard "cutlet" when the European-style breaded and fried meat arrived in Japan at the end of the 19th century (ironically, curry itself was introduced by the British around the same time!). In typical Japanese style, this is shortened to katsu and is usually preceded by the kind of meat (ton or pork katsu being the most common). Tonkatsu sandwiches (pictured) are a convenience store staple, for example, and these slabs of pork are distinctly curry-free! Katsudon is another staple - a pork cutlet with egg and vegetables on a bed of rice - while katsu burgers abound (check out this KFC chicken fillet and minced meat=menchi katsu mountain). If you want to talk about the mild light brown vegetable-filled curry sauce on rice, the Japanese simply call this curry rice or karē raisu. As the most popular meal for kids and even, reportedly, the Japanese emperor's favourite, following the example of Chicken Tikka in the UK it would not be a stretch to call it Japan's national dish!

I visited the tonkatsu specialty chain Wako (和幸) the other day and enjoyed the full Japanese katsu experience. The dinner menu is full of katsu in all shapes, sizes, and fillings but the key decision is whether to go for the hirekatsu (a tender high quality pork fillet low in fat) or the rōsukatsu (slightly cheaper pork loin). The katsu all come with rice, pickles (tsukemono), miso soup, and grated cabbage with a dollop of mustard on the side. There are a variety of sauces to put on the tonkatsu, with a fruity Bulldog sauce style sauce being the standard but with tangy Yuzu dressing also an option. The juicy tonkatsu covered in fruity sauce, dipped in mustard, and eaten with cabbage and rice is a winning combination! In fact, the Japanese often eat katsu the day before an important test, match, or interview to bring luck since the word katsu (勝つ) is also a verb which means to win or be victorious!

For those of you in the UK who want a genuine katsu curry experience, Curry House Coco Ichibanya recently opened branches in Bond Street and Leicester Square and is highly recommended (simple Coco inspired recipe here). However, even this esteemed Japanese institution has not escaped the jaws of Britishification: they are currently offering, for a limited period, Mac & Cheese Curry, a culinary monstrosity that is surely enough to make the #katsucurrypolice engage in ritual disembowelment. Much better is my friend L's original Coco inspired half and half katsu curry - perhaps one to add to the menu, Coco? Do please share your katsu curry thoughts and experiences in the COMMENTS below!


Lesley Phillips said...

Hi Chris. I have often seen a Katsu dish in my local supermarket ( obviously not authentic Japanese curry ) but I have never bought it as I wasn't sure of the taste and whether it is mild or hot. I don't like creamy curries and usually have a fairly hot Pathia or Jalfrezi. How hot is a Katsu curry? I may give one a go next time . The photo of the meal with chips looks really tasty.

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for the comment! Glad the picture got the taste buds tingling. No, katsu curry is generally pretty mild and has a fruity armoma with a marked sweetness (many Japanese add honey). On the other hand, at curry shops like Coco Ichibanya you can choose the level of spiciness from standard through to level 5 (the latter being 12 times spicier than level 1!).