How to make Japanese curry then serve it three different ways

In the pork tonkatsu with Japanese curry, the contrast of the crunchy, fried cutlets and the savory, slightly sweet curry sauce will prove memorable. (Shannon Kinsella/food styling) (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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By JeanMarie Brownson Chicago Tribune (TNS)

While packing up our house of nearly 20 years, I found the bin with all my travel journals. For every vacation, I record our journeys in a small notebook. Actually, they mostly contain detailed notes on every food market we visit and the meal and snacks sampled there.

Wow. The documents prove incriminating. We eat a lot. I star all the dishes I want to recreate at home. I hope I live that long.

Tonkatsu, crispy fried pork cutlets, first enjoyed on a family trip to Japan, regularly graces our table. All of us now embrace the three-step breading process that yields the perfect results.

I encountered a variation, known as katsu curry, on my second trip to Osaka with my sister. Our brother Ken took us to the Umeda Sky Building to see the floating garden on the 39th floor, the world’s highest escalator and fantastic city views.

Truthfully, I went for the food. The building’s lower level boasts a restaurant floor designed as a replica of a typical Japanese town during the early Showa Period. The charming and inviting restaurant choices specialized in traditional Japanese food ranging from sushi to okonomiyaki, hot pots, teppanyaki and curry.

We ultimately chose Katsudon, a tiny place filled with art work. We sat on stools at the counter to watch the cooks build bowls of rice served with their renowned crispy pork tontaksu. We ordered ours with curry. The contrast of the crunchy pork and the savory, slightly sweet curry sauce proved absolutely memorable.

Turns out, curry is nearly as popular in Japan for everyday eating as ramen. Eaten with rice or noodles or tucked into bread, the savory sauce contains vegetables and a bit of sweetness from mirin (rice wine) and fruit. Japanese curry differs from Indian curries primarily because it is based on mild curry powder — not the complex mixtures of toasted spices and chile heat used in traditional Indian dishes.

That’s good news in my kitchen. I’m fond of the flavor of curry powder and always have a jar or two on hand. Like all ground spices, the trick is freshness. The powder should have a rich color and deep aroma — if not, replace it before using. I like McCormick curry powder just fine, but for a real treat I order Madras curry powder online from spicewallabrand.com for its warm flavors of cinnamon, fenugreek, turmeric and cumin.

For convenience, Japanese markets sell boxes of concentrated golden curry mix in mild, medium and hot. The S&B brand is popular; the squares of dense paste (made from flour, oils, curry spices and additives) are meant to be dissolved in broth for the base of the dish. I much prefer to make a simple roux then season it with curry powder for a fresh start to a dish.

Now, that curry regularly factors into dinner at home. I make the curry sauce, packed with vegetables, in advance. For speedy weeknight cooking, the sauce gets reheated to serve over rice or noodles or a topping of firm tofu cubes. For Sunday dinner, I serve it with crisp cutlets for dunking in the sauce.

Serve this hearty, thick curry simply with rice or cooked noodles. A fried egg on top works well. Or, make a tofu bowl with it. For special occasions, serve the curry with rice and crispy pork — fried on the stovetop or baked in the oven. Accompany the meal with chilled sake or beer.

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JAPANESE-STYLE CURRY WITH CARROTS AND APPLES

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: about 6 cups

4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms

4 cups chicken broth

3 skinny carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds

1 piece (3 1/4 inches) fresh ginger, peeled, thickly sliced

1 rib celery, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons mirin or dry sherry or white wine

1/4 cup butter

1/3 cup flour

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 small apple, peeled, cored, diced

2 tablespoons curry powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon soy sauce or to taste

1. Remove and discard stems from mushrooms. Slice caps into 1/4-inch wide strips. Put broth, mushroom slices, carrots, ginger, celery and mirin into a medium saucepan. Simmer over low heat, about 20 minutes. (Refrigerate covered up to several days.)

2. Melt butter in a separate medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in flour. Cook, stirring nearly constantly, until flour turns a pale oatmeal color, about 5 minutes. Stir in onion, apple, curry powder and cayenne. Cook and stir over medium-low heat until onion softens, about 5 minutes.

3. Whisk the broth mixture (with vegetables) into the flour mixture. Cook and whisk until mixture comes to a boil. Then reduce heat to very low; simmer, partly covered, about 15 minutes. Season with soy to taste. Mixture can be refrigerated for several days.

Nutrition information per serving: 146 calories, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 3 g protein, 138 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

CRISPY PORK TONKATSU WITH JAPANESE CURRY AND RICE

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

I put a fork into each bowl to use for the three-stage dredging method to coat the pork slices evenly with minimal mess.

1 pork tenderloin, about 1 1/4 pounds

1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)

Peanut or expeller-pressed canola oil or safflower oil, for frying

3 to 4 cups Japanese-style curry, see recipe, heated until hot

3 cups cooked rice

Sesame seeds

Cilantro sprigs

1. Place pork tenderloin on cutting board. Working on the diagonal and using a very sharp knife, slice the tenderloin into 1/4-inch thick slices. You’ll have about 20 slices.

2. Set a baking rack over a baking sheet. Mix flour and salt in a shallow plate. Mix eggs with 1 tablespoon water in a pie plate. Put panko crumbs into another shallow dish or pie plate. Using a fork, lightly dredge a pork slice on both sides with flour mixture. Then, dip the slice into the beaten eggs to coat, letting excess egg drain back into the bowl. Then thoroughly dredge the slice in the panko crumbs to cover completely. Put the coated slice onto the prepared rack. Repeat to coat all the slices.

3. Let pork stand about 20 minutes, or, refrigerate uncovered up to several hours.

4. Just before serving, heat 1/4 inch of oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough to make the edge of a pork slice sizzle fiercely, add pork slices in a single uncrowded layer. (Work in batches if necessary.) Cook over medium heat (do not let the oil smoke) until nicely golden on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn the pork and fry the second side until golden, about 1 minute more. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Serve right away or pop them into a 200-degree oven to keep warm while you fry the rest. Add more oil to the pan if needed to keep the 1/4-inch oil level.

5. To serve, pile some rice onto each plate. Lay a few pork slices on the rice. Spoon a generous ladleful of the curry around the pork and rice. Serve garnished with sesame seeds and cilantro.

Oven-baked cutlets: Use 1 1/2 pounds boneless extra-thin top loin pork chops or cutlets. Coat with flour, eggs and crumbs as directed. Place on an oiled baking sheet. Spray with oil or non-stick coating. Bake at 400 degrees on convection or 425 degrees on conventional oven until crisp, about 15 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving: 793 calories, 41 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 185 mg cholesterol, 67 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 39 g protein, 383 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

CURRY BOWLS WITH TOFU

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

3 to 4 cups cooked white or brown rice (or cooked quinoa, farro or small pasta)

1 block (14 ounces) extra firm organic tofu, diced into 1-inch cubes

3 cups Japanese-style curry, see recipe

2 green onions, ends trimmed, thinly sliced

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Divide the rice among 4 deep serving bowls. Top each bowl of rice with one quarter of the tofu. Spoon one quarter of the curry sauce over each bowl. Microwave, covered, on high, until steamy hot, about 2 minutes per bowl. Serve garnished with green onions and cilantro sprigs.

Nutrition information per serving: 348 calories, 12 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 16 g protein, 110 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

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