When Todd was in high school, he convinced his parents that it was a good idea to let an unchaperoned sixteen year old spend a summer in Mexico. During the day he participated in community services and at night, he enjoyed curfew-less freedom with his buddy Seth in San Miguel de Allende.
While deep in central Mexico, teenage Todd went to his first Japanese restaurant and ordered “Pollo Empanizado,” which literally translates to breaded chicken in Spanish. Oddly enough, it was in Mexico where Todd’s passion for Japanese breaded chicken cutlets, chicken katsu, began.
Like most college graduates, Todd and I barely squeaked by our first year after graduation. Todd’s entrepreneurial spirit was itching and I was the only one with a sustainable income for 8-10 months while his start-up got off the ground. If you’ve ever done a household budget, then you know that after rent, food is one of your primary monthly expenses. If we wanted to maintain a non-zero bank account while subsisting on something more nutritious than ramen and more appetizing than PB&J, we had to learn to cook. I went to the library and copied down recipes from Joy of Cooking. However, Todd’s visions of cooking were less traditional. To him, it meant a quest to make only one dish that he could eat every night, chicken katsu.
At the time, katsu seemed overwhelming. Deep-frying requires a lot of equipment (thermometer, a tall pot, a splatter guard, a thermometer, lots of peanut oil) and back then, we didn’t have oven mitts. We discovered an Asian restaurant supply stores in Milpitas for our first utensils (most of which I’m still using today) and we also stopped by Home Depot to splurge on a $20 fire extinguisher (which I fortunately haven’t used to-date).
Our first home-cooked chicken katsu meal was accompanied by rice and orange slices. We were so excited by this accomplishment that we emailed a picture of our plates to Todd’s parents. Looking back, they must have been really confused.
This time last year, we were in Tokyo, a mecca of Tonkatsu. This was my first visit to Japan and prior to our trip, Todd researched and mapped out all of the noteworthy Tonkatsu locations throughout the city. In one day alone, we ate Tonkatsu three times at three different locations.
Our most noteworthy Tonkatsu locations included Mai-sen who specializes in black pork katsu.
And also, Kimukatsu who creates a cutlet from thinly-layered meat and offers an amazing cabbage accompaniment.
Clearly the highlight of our katsu journey was Mai-sen. Mai-sen is best known for their black pork and really, the preparation and meat was spectacular. However, our attention was drawn to the sauce on the crispy outer breading. It was something we had never seen before – it was homemade.
In all other restaurants and at any time we’ve prepared katsu, we’ve always doused it with off-the-shelf Kikkoman Tonkatsu sauce. I hold Kikkoman’s Tonkatsu sauce in high-regard, but <a href=”Mai-sen’s sauce is a totally different level, popping with thick crisp apple’y goodness. It is the perfect accompaniment to Panko-breaded chicken. We begged our Japanese-only speaking waiter for the recipe. We took brochures of the restaurant that happened to have pictures of the sauce in a corner. We went back twice to see if we could guess the ingredients. No dice.
On the anniversary of our Mai-sen discovery, I asked Todd what he wanted for dinner and he said, “chicken katsu.” The holidays provide a few more hours for gourmet experimentation and we set out to see if we could either meet or beat the flavors of the Kikkoman sauce.
You can find recipes for Tonkatsu sauce fairly easily (including this one in Japanese Cooking). However, it’s always bothered me that the katsu sauce recipes always call for a large helping of tomatoes (usually ketchup) whereas the back of the Kikkoman bottle lists apple ingredients first. I’ve tried traditional recipes before and they’ve never held up to Kikkoman, much less Mai-sen.
Here were the key factors we identified while replicating the sauce:
- Thickness: For Tonkatsu, half of the dish is about the texture of the light, crispy breading against the juicy, moist chicken. If your sauce is too thin, your breading turns to a disappointing floury mush. We wanted the sauce to sit on top of the breading without seeping in.
- Spices & Flavoring: the cloves, allspice, and mustard powder power most of the aromatic flavor. The savory bits come from the Worcestershire sauce and I also needed a little bit of tomato paste (I think I might be able to do it with carrot juice too) to deepen the flavor. The vinegar brightens everything.
- Sweetness: we experimented with adding two types of sweeteners: sugar and apple cider syrup. The apple cider has the advantage of also providing thickness and more apple’y flavor.
- Saltiness: I was surprised how much soy sauce we added to approximate the same Kikkoman flavor. Recipes that include ketchup probably benefit from the ketchup’s extra helping of salt. If I did this again, I’d halve the soy sauce and add salt instead. This would give more flexibility to work with the flavorings without sacrificing thickness.
We tried about five different experiments in total. I started with one of the only recipes I could find online that called for tomato paste instead of ketchup: first recipe However, its wine flavors overpowered everything and even after trying to boil off the alcohol, I threw it all out and started over.
Our subsequent efforts entailed starting with the flavors we liked (allspice, mustard, applesauce) and then doing a side-by-side taste test with ingredient adjustments until we had the flavors right.
There were many times when I thought I had achieved the perfect Kikkoman-like flavor but it just needed a little bit more salt. I’d add the soy sauce and then realize that my sauce was now running too thin. In the end, I found myself in a tug-of-war battle between soy sauce flavor and tomato paste thickness. I finally achieved the right texture by adding a little bit more tomato paste. It was 98% of where I wanted it but I knew I couldn’t push the recipe much farther without the tomato paste becoming overwhelming. I also stopped because I could just start to taste the tinniness of the canned tomato paste.
This was the final recipe that I used to approximate Kikkoman. For more Kikkoman flavor, I’d try halving the soy sauce, adding salt which won’t thin your sauce, and reducing the tomato sauce by a teaspoon.
Kikkoman-like Tonkatsu Sauce
- 6 teaspoons soy sauce
- 6 teaspoons apple cider syrup
- 4 teaspoons unsweetened applesauce
- 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 4 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 cabbage with outer leaves removed and quartered into 4 segments
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
Chill the cabbage for an hour in an icy water bath. This step is necessary to reduce the bitterness in the cabbage. Slice the chilled cabbage quarters with a mandolin or knife. If you have a salad spinner, give the cabbage a final rinse and spin the cabbage to dry.
Combine the sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard in a small bowl. Drizzle on top of your sliced cabbage and toss. Serves approximately 4-6 people.
Here are pictures of our chicken katsu preparation:
However, now that I’ve experimented and understand the flavors and texture behind the Kikkoman Tonkatsu sauce, I’m ready to join Todd on his quest to create a sauce that has apple’y pop and freshness like Mai-sen. We’ll start with homemade applesauce and continue using the apple cider syrup as a sweetener. Something to look forward to.