Tonkatsu dates back to the late Meiji era

Tonkatsu dates back to the late Meiji era (1868-1912). Initially called pork cutlet, the dish was later renamed tonkatsu around the early Showa era (1926-89).

“When Japan began assimilating Western cuisine, Japanese cooking methods like nabe hot pot were employed in the introduction of beef as in gyunabe hot pot. As tonkatsu is deep-fried in oil, it can be considered akin to tempura,” said Prof. Nobuo Harada of Kokushikan University, who specialises in Japanese lifestyle and cultural history.

As in the case of tonkatsu, distinct wayo-setchu Japanese fusion style dishes have developed. These menu items are often categorised as yoshoku, Western-style cuisine.

The first recipe for pork cutlet carried in The Yomiuri Shimbun in 1915 does not specify the amount of meat needed. So in preparing the dish based on this recipe, about 70 grams of meat — equal to the average amount consumed by one person before World War II — were cut into bite-sized pieces and deep-fried in vegetable oil. The thinly coated batter created a crispy texture, and the meat was moist and flavorful.

However, the snow peas served as a side dish were a little greasy. It was not until 1922 that The Yomiuri Shimbun published a standard recipe for cutlet with sliced cabbage.

The dish is praised in the book “Meiji Yoshoku Kotohajime” (The origins of Meiji-era Western-style food) written by Tetsu Okada and published by Kodansha Ltd. According to the author, it “represents accumulated creative knowledge” and “deserves the title of ‘the king of yoshoku.’”

Origins of creative cuisine

Rengatei, a restaurant in Tokyo&’s Ginza district, offered cotelette in the late Meiji era. But the heavy dish of veal grilled with oil was unpopular.

In 1899, after much consideration, the restaurant&’s chef invented fried pork cutlet. However, the sauce was changed from a rich demiglace to a light Worcester sauce. At the request of customers, it was eventually served with rice instead of bread.

By the early Showa era, pork cutlet had fully evolved into tonkatsu — a thick slice of meat that is deep-fried. According to Showagakuin Junior College President Keiko Hatae, who specializes in gastronomy, loin and some other parts of pork, unlike beef, can be served soft even when the slices are thick.

The fried cutlet is usually cut into bite-size pieces before serving and eaten with chopsticks. This style of serving has contributed to it becoming a common dish on dinner tables.

Tonkatsu can be enjoyed in a variety of ways: “katsudon,” a bowl of rice topped with pork cutlet; “oroshi tonkatsu,” tonkatsu served with grated daikon radish; and “mille-feuille katsu” made with meat from the belly of a pig that is thinly sliced, layered and deep-fried.

“Japanese people&’s consumption of meat has already exceeded that of seafood, and many younger people tend to prefer meat,” Harada said. “The ways of eating tonkatsu may further expand to better suit the tastes of Japanese people.”

Our recipe for tonkatsu


1. Cut pork in the same manner as for hot pot cooking.

2. Season the cubes of meat with salt and pepper, then dust them with flour.

3. Add small amount of water to egg yolk. Dip meat in the egg wash before coating it with bread crumbs.

4. Fry the pork pieces in beef tallow.

5. As each piece is small, it is not necessary to place a knife next to the dish. Place about five pieces in each individual&’s dish.

6. For a side dish, boil snow peas, seasoning them with salt and pepper, and saute with a little butter.