I was first assigned “Kitchen” to read in a freshman world literature, required-to-graduate-elective-option class, many moons ago in college. I didn’t know what to think of it, but excitement oozed out of every pore as I saw this opportunity to celebrate my hertiage a bit more. Certainly, I hadn’t read any contemporary Japanese authors so this was going to be a stretch for me – since I usually don’t wind up caring much for the contemporary authors of the world at all, and it really didn’t seem like it was going to be a short novel that I could appreciate. But by the end of the first few pages, I was hooked!
Knowing there was going to be a greatly detailed test, I read every word carefully, kept track of the plot and characters and enjoyed every inked morsel on every page. The ending was amazing and I made a mental note to ask my mother to make katsudon the very next time I went home for a visit. Afterall, I had enjoyed a long German tale of two men swapping wives and it had incredibly hard to pronounce and looked like the next name, last names to remember and keep straight! Was it a cruel joke of an author long ago to make two characters with devilishly similar names save one syllable?
So what is this story about? I will give you a brief overview, for if you have never read one of Banana Yoshimoto’s books, this is the one most reccoment you start with. First published in 1987, the narrator, Mikage – a young woman moves into an apartment of a friend whose mother is murdered, after loosing her own grandmother. The story is of Mikage becoming a young woman, confronted with unique characters – who explore death, loss, transsexuality and food together. This novel is written in two parts; the main story is in “Kitchen” and the second, sequel type, shorter tale is found in “Moonlight Shadows” that is written in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez style of magical realism but with Banana Yoshimoto flair. “Kitchen” uses soup as a sort of emblem, that signifies family connection and the traditional family in a modern world where the ties are ragged and uncertain, using ramen, soba and katsudon in pivitol parts of the story to help bring the characters and their sad tales together.
I love katsudon by the way, because it is piping hot, served over fresh rice (which is the best! I love eating paddlefuls of rice straight out of the rice cooker just as soon as it is finished cooking), with a broth that has a touch of sweetness that leaves me licking the bowl when Im done. And the ultimate best part of the dish? It is made with tonkatsu – a fried pork cutlet! It was a childhood reveared dish that is only good with tonkatsu sauce and lots of mashed potatoes served ona bed of thinly sliced cabbage.
I first made katsudon for my husband when I was pregnant and we ate it for almost a week straight. Tesco just happened to have a family value pack of pork chops on sale and I bought them knowing exactly what they would become. I made way more rice than I normally would for two people, knowing I love having huge bites of rice with each bite of sweet, salty broth, egg and onion on a bit of pork. Settling down to have my first bite, I poised my fork over the bowl held in one hand, while curiously watching my husband have his first bite. A smile came over his face and the fork immediately went back into the bowl, lifting up an ever larger second bite. Satisfied, I put my own fork to my mouth and was immediately enveloped in the goodness that brought joy to insides and even caused my bouncing bundle of Mei – still months from ready to leave the womb, stop kicking wildly and wiggling about. Coincidence? It was that good.
Once I received the box of Japanese goodies and staples that I bought while at Uwajimaya in Seattle with Mei, I knew what I had to make first. I had been dreaming of making katsudon since we left Seattle – where my mother made us oyakudon (basically the same donburi dish, but with chicken instead of pork). Mei and I made a special trip to Tesco just for the pork chops and some green onions to garnish the dish with and headed straight home to make some katusdon for dinner.
Since katsudon is such a simple dish, it is imperative for each ingredient to shine and to be handled impeccably. It is the only way to enjoy a perfect bowl of happiness!
The tonkatsu can be made ahead of time, up to one or two days ahead of the
katsudon. In fact, katsudon is a dish you can make with leftover tonkatsu if you would like the best of both worlds! Once the tonkatsu has been made, cut it into slices 1/2 inch wide and set aside. Whisk an egg, assemble the broth and thinly slice the green parts of the green onions and set aside, slice an onion and set aside. Once the broth and onions are ready, you can gently place the tonkatsu in the pan and bring the meat to temperature, pour the whisked egg over the tonkatsu and wait for perfection to be achieved! Once it is done, sprinkle the green onion over it and carefully slide the katsudon and broth over a bed of rice in a bowl. This is where the happiness dance occurs in your mouth and soul. Your soul can in fact rest easy that you have simply achieved perfection and satisfied that drooling mouth of yours!
Back to “Kitchen” I will tell you how katsudon ties into the story. Mikage, who has found a career in food, mulls over Yuichi’s destructive behavior while she is on shoot in a mountain inn in Izu. Upset, she walks into town and stumbles into a restaurant, where she orders katsudon: “This katsudon“, she says, “encountered almost by accident, was made with unusual skill, I must say. Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and onions handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up in the broth–it was flawless.”
On a whim, Mikage orders takeout and hires a cab to drive her, at great expense, to Yuichi’s tofu hideout. It’s locked up tight, so she climbs up the
side of the building with the katsudon, badly cutting her hand in the process. Ultimately, though, she is reunited with Yuichi. “Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?” Mikage says, “Could it be that you’re satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?” “No way, no way, no way!” he said, laughing. “It must be because we’re family.”
A short note. Many have asked me over the years how I make sticky white rice and what rice to use. I personally use the Nishki brand of white rice, but you can use any rice that is not a rice meant for risotto, Indian or Moroccan cooking such as basmati rice. If you wash the rice properly, which rids the rice of any additional starches and “dust” clinging to each grain, the washing will polish each grain, allowing it to become “sticky.” I like to cook rice for tonkatsu with just a tiny bit less water than usual, to creat a stiffer, drier rice to soak up the broth from the katsudon without becoming soggy. To view a video posted by Harris Salat on his blog on how to properly wash rice, click here.
- 4-8 pork chops, tenderized with a meat tenderizer, tiny slits cut into the fatty layer
- Panko bread crumbs
- 2 eggs, whisked together
- flour, for dredging
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 50 ml water
- 1 TBS of Mirin
- 1 tsp of Dashi broth
- 1 TBS of Soy sauce
- 1 tsp of sugar
- one small onion, sliced
- one green onion, green parts very thinly sliced
- one egg, lightly beaten
Pat dry the pork chops with a pepper towel, season with salt and pepper. Dredge each pork chop in flour, dip in the whisked egg and coat evenly and thoroughly with Panko bread crumbs, set aside.
In a frying pan with vegetable oil, bring the oil to temperature, 340F, and fry the pork chops, two at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan. Fry each pork chop until each side is golden brown. Drain on a drying rack over paper towels. Slice into 1/2 inch wide slices.
Congratulations! You have just made tonkatsu! You can stop here and enjoy this with tonkatsu sauce (a brown vegetable sauce meant for pork) over a bed of thinly sliced cabbage and a side of mashed potatoes or continue on to make katsudon.
In a separate pan, pour in water, mirin, soy sauce, dashi and onion slices. Cook over medium-high heat until the onions are soft. Carefully slide one fried pork cutlet into the broth and onion mixture and cook for two minutes to bring the tonkatsu to temperature. Then pour the additional beaten egg over the tonkatsu and cook, covered on medium-low heat until the egg is cooked through. Carefully slid the katsudon and broth on top of a heaping bed of rice in a bowl and serve immediately. Garnish with the green onion slices.