Tonkatsu Sandwiches with Homemade Panko

Tonkatsu – breaded and beautifully golden-fried pork cutlet – is real-deal Japanese soul food. In my favorite old-school neighborhoods of Tokyo east of the Sumida River (their version of the Bronx), you find tiny shops specializing in just this one dish. But tonkatsu is not just restaurant food; it’s a snap to cook up at home too.

Okay, first things first: What makes tonkatsu, well, tonkatsu is panko, which are light, airy and extremely crispy Japanese-style breadcrumbs. But when my friend and chef Tadashi Ono dropped by to do a little cooking, he introduced me to something new, namely nama panko – fresh breadcrumbs from slices of fluffy, slightly sweet Japanese “milk bread.” This bread, with its roots intertwined in Japan's adaptation of Western influences, brings a tender softness to the panko, ensuring an even crispier, airier coating for the pork. This bread, a symbol of culinary fusion, has a story as rich as its texture, dating back to the Meiji era in the 19th century when Western baking methods were first introduced to Japan.

Now, tonkatsu with nama panko, sounds amazing, but it gets even better (if that’s possible) when the tonkatsu cutlet is slathered with sweet-tangy Japanese Bulldog tonkatsu sauce and transformed into a sandwich nestled between, you guessed it, two fresh, fluffy slices of milk bread. Check out the recipe below.

What is Tonkatsu?

Tonkatsu, a quintessential dish in Japanese cuisine, has its roots in the late 19th century, a period marked by Japan's rapid Westernization during the Meiji Restoration. Initially inspired by European cuisine, particularly the breaded and fried meats of countries like Germany and France, Tonkatsu started as a type of yoshoku (Western-influenced Japanese food). Originally called "katsuretsu" (meaning cutlet), the dish evolved into "tonkatsu" - 'ton' meaning pork, and 'katsu' from the word cutlet. Over time, this dish, with its crispy panko coating and juicy pork interior, became a beloved staple in Japanese households and restaurants, a symbol of cultural adaptation and culinary innovation.

What is Panko?

Panko, a key ingredient in dishes like Tonkatsu, has an intriguing history. Originating during World War II, panko was initially made from bread baked by electric current, which resulted in a loaf without crusts. This unique baking method was a practical solution for making bread in a submarine, where traditional ovens were impractical. The resulting bread was light and airy, which, when ground, created fluffy, crispy breadcrumbs. These breadcrumbs, known as panko, have since become a beloved element in Japanese and international cuisines for their distinctive texture that adds a delightful crunch to fried foods.

What is Milk Bread?

Japanese Milk Bread, or Shokupan, is a testament to Japan's unique ability to adapt and refine foreign culinary influences. Introduced in the 19th century during the Meiji era, when Japan embraced Western techniques and ingredients, milk bread evolved from European breads. Its distinct soft, fluffy texture, slightly sweet taste, and milky aroma are results of the 'Yudane' method, where a portion of the flour is mixed with boiling water before adding to the dough. This technique, inspired by similar methods in Chinese and Taiwanese baking, alters the starches in the flour, resulting in a softer, lighter loaf that has become a beloved staple in Japanese households.

What is Bulldog Tonkatsu Sauce?

Bulldog Sauce, a savory, slightly sweet, and tangy condiment, is an integral part of Japanese cuisine, especially when it comes to dishes like Tonkatsu. Created in the early 20th century, it represents Japan's adaptation and innovation of Western-style sauces. The unique blend of fruits and vegetables mixed with vinegar and spices created a sauce that perfectly complements the rich, fried flavors of dishes like Tonkatsu. Over the years, Bulldog Sauce has become a household name in Japan, loved for its ability to enhance the flavors of a wide range of dishes.

Tonkatsu Sandwiches with Homemade Panko (Recipe)

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 12 slices of Japanese milk bread (for homemade namapanko), plus 8 slices to make the sandwiches
  • 1 pound pork shoulder (Boston butt), sliced into 4 equal portions
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • Flour, for dredging (about 1-2 cups)
  • Homemade nama panko (made from the milk bread)
  • Vegetable oil, for deep frying (about 6-8 cups, adjust as needed for the size of your pan)
  • 1 small head of white cabbage, about 1/2 pound, shredded and added to a mixing bowl of cold water (firms up the cabbage)
  • Bulldog sauce, for serving

Instructions

  1. Prepare the Panko: Start by removing the crust from the milk bread. Cube the bread and pulse in a food processor until roughly processed. Be careful not to overprocess; we're aiming for a light, airy texture. Do this in batches and set aside.

  2. Prepare the Pork: Pound the pork slices gently with the back of a skillet to about a quarter-inch thickness. Season each side with salt and pepper, and set aside.

  3. Dredging and Coating: Set up your dredging station with separate plates of flour, beaten egg, and homemade nama panko. Coat each pork slice in flour, dip into the egg, and then press into the nama panko, ensuring an even, crumbly coat.

  4. Frying the Tonkatsu: Heat the oil in a deep pan to about 340°F. You want to keep it airy and fluffy. Deep fry the pork for about 4 minutes on each side, then increase the heat to 370°F and fry for another 30 seconds on each side for a golden, crispy finish. Don’t crowd the pork; you can cook in batches. Let the tonkatsu drain on a paper towel.

  5. Prepare the sandwiches: Drain the cabbage and place a bed of shredded cabbage atop a slice of bread. Lay the tonkatsu over the cabbage and finish with a generous drizzle of Bulldog sauce. Place the other slice of bread on top and cut the sandwich in half. Repeat for the remaining sandwiches.

A few notes:

  • We like pork shoulder because it’s a fatty and super flavorful cut, but you can use pork loin or another cut if you prefer.
  • Make sure there’s enough oil for deep frying so the pork floats, and the nama panko doesn’t get compressed.
  • If you want to serve the tonkatsu the traditional way, prepare 4 plates this way: place a mound of shredded cabbage on a plate, slice each serving of tonkatsu and lay it on top of the cabbage, generously drizzle Bulldog sauce over the meat, and serve!