What is Tonkatsu Sauce?
You may already know about tonkatsu sauce – but chances are it’s only because of the famous dish of the same name. ‘Tonkatsu’ consists of panko-coated pork cutlets that are deep fried to give them a delicious crunch. Some people love it extra crunchy, achieved by making it double battered with flour and egg alongside the traditional panko breadcrumbs.
The deliciously sweet and tangy condiment of tonkatsu sauce is a perfect accompaniment to the crispy pork, and the thin slices of raw cabbage it’s also often plated up with.
Where Does Tonkatsu Sauce Come From?
First, let’s address the subtle difference between ‘tonkatsu’ and ‘tonkotsu’. The words may be easy to mix up, but they each have particular meaning!
Tonkotsu means ‘pig bone’ and refers to the deliciously thick and meaty broth used in many ramen dishes - hence ‘tonkatsu ramen’.
Now onto tonkatsu! As a whole, the word means ‘pork cutlet’, so the literal translation is ‘pork cutlet sauce’. But here’s where it gets interesting. The ‘ton’ in ‘tonkatsu’ means pork in Japanese, while the ‘katsu’ stems from the English word for ‘cutlet’ – or the French ‘cotelette’. Explaining the reasoning behind this needs a little bit of a history lesson, but it’s a rather fascinating story!
The History of Tonkatsu Sauce
Did you know tonkatsu sauce is over a century old – but that it was only in the 1930s that the term ‘tonkatsu’ began to be used in Japan?
Tonkatsu is said to originate from Worcestershire sauce, which hails from the UK and was invented by two British pharmacists in the 1830s. With its strong flavor and deep umami notes from vinegar, molasses, anchovies and tamarind extract, it’s no wonder that Worcestershire sauce has a kinship with Japan’s tonkatsu sauce. It’s still sometimes referred to as Japanese Worcestershire sauce, because tonkatsu sauce is like a thicker version and less spicy.
In 1899, a chef named Kida Motojiro decided to push the boundaries of a newly Western food that had become popular in Japan: pork cutlets. The dish had been imported from France and was known as côtelette de veau; a veal cutlet coated in breadcrumbs and fried in a butter-filled pan.
Restaurants in the Ginza district of Tokyo (including Motojiro’s restaurant, Rengatei) were serving their customers with thickly cut pork, first breaded then deep fried in a pot of hot oil. Once they made the switch from the Western tradition of stale breadcrumbs to the much softer and fresher Japanese panko breadcrumbs, it suited the local palate even more. Panko is also nothing like normal bread: when deep fried, it has a flaky texture rather than a crumb-like one.
If pork isn’t your thing, why not try an ebi fry recipe which uses the same delicious panko breadcrumbs over shrimp?
What Is In Tonkatsu Sauce?
A beautiful aspect of tonkatsu sauce is that the recipe always changes. Each chef will play with the ingredients to better suit the palate of their customers; some more tomato, less spice, an extra dash of vinegar or soy sauce. These changes are kept secret, meaning some restaurants will hand down their particular and unique recipes from generation to generation.
That said, the staple ingredients that tonkatsu sauce uses remain somewhat similar in all recipes. You’ll find it contains mainly vegetables and fruits: this usually means tomatoes, carrots and onions, along with dates, apples and prunes. There’s a variety of spices, and a healthy amount of condiments too – usually soy sauce and vinegar, sugar and salt.
Of course, you might well say ‘it’s just a sauce’ – and in theory you’d be right. But the Japanese would argue that tonkatsu wouldn’t be the dish it is without the sauce!
How to Make Sauce for Tonkatsu
The versatility of tonkatsu sauce means you can make either an easy or a hard recipe, depending on what amount of time you have at your disposal – and how much effort you’re willing to exert.
Quick 5 minute method: an easy tonkatsu sauce
This recipe imitates the famous and much-loved Bulldog Tonkatsu Sauce, a cupboard staple across Japan.
- Ketchup (1 tbsp)
- Soy sauce or oyster sauce (1 ½ tbsp)
- Worcestershire sauce (2 ½ tbsp)
- Brown sugar or honey (1 ⅛ tbsp)
Combine all your ingredients together in a bowl and whisk. Make sure to keep tasting, and add seasonings to reach a desired flavor: you can play with grated ginger, a clove of minced garlic or a squeeze of sriracha hot sauce.
Traditional method: a restaurant-style tonkatsu sauce
To make a more traditional tonkatsu sauce from scratch, the ingredients you’ll need are:
- Vegetable oil to cook with
- Liquids: Water, soy sauce, sake, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar
- Fruit and vegetables: tomatoes, onion, apple, carrot, garlic and tomato paste
- Seasonings: salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, sesame seeds
First, cook down your onion so it’s soft. Bring the majority of your ingredients to the boil and then simmer for around 30 minutes. Add to a blender then sift out the solids. Serve with your fried pork cutlets!
Tonkatsu Sauce Tips & FAQs
Like many Japanese recipes, you can always experiment with different ingredients: mirin, mustard, cloves and yeast extract may all find their way into your personal tonkatsu sauce recipe.
As a sauce it can be used for plenty of dishes, but the classic tonkatsu meal is served with a bowl of fresh white rice, thinly sliced cabbage and hot mustard for dipping. Along with the traditional panko-coated pork cutlets, tonkatsu variations can include deep-fried shrimp, and potato cakes for vegetarians and vegans.
Eating cabbage with your tonkatsu adds a wonderfully refreshing counterpoint to the rich taste of fried meat too - and the crunchy cabbage salad can be improved in both color and flavor with some thinly sliced red onions and a scattering of chopped cilantro.
While the sauce shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes to prepare, it does taste better after it’s had a chance to marinate. If you can, leave it in the fridge for a day or so, and see the difference!
How to Store Tonkatsu Sauce
If it’s placed in an airtight container, homemade tonkatsu sauce can be stored in the fridge for between two to three weeks. It will also freeze relatively well for up to 3-4 months. Store-bought and bottled tonkatsu sauce will have plenty of preservatives that should ensure a long shelf life though.
Where to Buy Tonkatsu Sauce
Bokksu has plenty of tonkatsu products available on the shelves. Have a look around the Grocery and try out this tonkatsu bento box recipe – or make yourself some katsu curry with a baked chicken katsu!