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Cheddar and sweet potato add a twist to tonkatsu

By Mariko Jackson

LAST UPDATED: 6:49 p.m. HST, Jul 16, 2013

My mother was born in Japan, came to the U.S. when she got married and now she takes trips back whenever she can. I suspect it’s partly just an excuse to feast on Japanese foods every day and every meal. She calls me to brag and sends cellphone photos of mouthwatering kaiseki meals.

Japan is a study in self-love as far as cuisine goes, except for the French-trained pastry chefs with bakeries on every corner. Here, our restaurants represent a wide variety of cultures, with a healthy dose of Japanese food, of course. In Japan, there are almost exclusively Japanese foods of different types. Yakitori, yakiniku, ramen, izakaya, sushi, okonomiyaki — there are a million places and each concentrates on a specialty food

There are whole restaurants dedicated to tonkatsu, even. While my childhood friends were eating tuna noodle casserole or meatloaf, tonkatsu is my memory of home-cooked food. Dinner is always a hit at my house when I get this on the table, and it’s a surprisingly quick meal, if a bit messy to prepare.

Tonkatsu is made with pork, not chicken. Chicken katsu is essentially local cuisine. I just can’t resist popping into a “Hawaiian restaurant” when traveling, and I’ll find katsu and mac salad on the menu. Trust me; it’s never as good as the humble L&L’s.

I like chicken katsu, but pork is somewhat easier to work with when making this meal at home. The fat is easy to trim, and when you pound the cutlet flat, little mushy bits don’t fly everywhere. This cut of pork is very lean, so it makes sense to fry since with every other cooking method you’re in danger of dry meat.

When she returns from her visits to Japan, Mom always brings back new ideas for cooking. Japan is steeped in tradition, but there are subtle contemporary tweaks to classics. How can you make a perfect food even better? Cheese was a surprising answer.

In this case, Mom took it a step further and used some locally grown Okinawan sweet potato. The sweet potato and salty cheddar pair so well with the meat in this recipe, I can’t go back to the old way of making it again.

Sweet Potato and Cheese Tonkatsu

8 slices pork loin cutlets or boneless pork chops, about 1/2 inch thick
Salt and pepper
1 pound Okinawan sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup milk
1 cup flour
3 cups panko
4 eggs, lightly beaten
8 2-ounce slices of aged white cheddar
Vegetable oil for frying

With meat pounder or tenderizer, pound cutlets slightly until about 1/3 inch thin. Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper as desired.

In a bowl, mash sweet potatoes with fork. Add in butter and milk and mix.

Put flour, panko and eggs into 3 separate shallow pans. (I use pie pans.)

Pour 3/4 inch of vegetable oil in large, heavy fry pan and heat on medium. Heat oil to 350 degrees; it’s hot enough when meat placed in pan starts sizzling immediately. But if it browns within a minute or two, oil is too hot. 

Hold cutlet in your hand and place slice of cheddar on top. Grab about 1/3 cup of mashed sweet potato and pat it down on top and over the cheddar, kind of binding the cheddar to the pork. Make sure none of cheddar is showing. Press together firmly.

Dredge the stack of pork/cheddar/sweet potato into flour. Place it in pan potato side up and sprinkle flour over and dust it off. Move stack to pan with egg and dip completely in egg, spooning egg over stack if necessary. Be careful to ensure ingredients stay stacked. Finally, dredge stack in panko on both sides. Try to pat and press panko firmly into cutlet without squishing anything out. (Mom says to use one hand for “dry” and one for “wet” to avoid crusts on your hands, but this can be difficult.)

Place cutlet into pan potato side up. Prepare another cutlet and fry 2 or 3 at a time. When bottom is browned after a few minutes, flip gently with tongs or long chopsticks. Cook until both sides are browned and remove to paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat with remaining meat. Skim oil between batches to remove bits of panko that have fallen off.

Before serving, slice tonkatsu crosswise into 3/4-inch slices. Serves 8.

Mariko Jackson of Honolulu blogs about family and food at Her mother blogs about Japanese home cooking at Mariko’s column runs monthly in the Star-Advertiser food section.

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