Katsu chicken curry. Delicious. One of Wagamama’s best sellers. No wonder others are jumping on the bandwagon. This product caught my pedantic eye several weeks ago and here’s why it irks me.
I began my maiden guest column on The Cotswold Gentleman ruminating the meaning of authenticity. After I wrote it, I asked my Japanese colleague Toshi what he thought authentic meant in the context of a restaurant. He slept on it and came to me the next day: “I think authentic is when I eat something and it reminds me of what I used to eat at home.”
That made sense to me: authenticity is about taste. Sometimes it is used to distinguish from fusion, but unlike some antonyms, there are grey areas. To label something as authentic ignores the fact that at some point in history, every dish evolved from a creative vision that was probably born out of necessity, the mother of invention.
It is not about what dishes you serve. More times than I care to remember, I have had tackle the assumption that because we are a Japanese restaurant, we must serve sushi. For them, Japanese food is synonymous with sushi. Pizza is one of the most popular takeaway foods in the UK, but no one told Anthony Carluccio or Georgio Locatelli that they must serve pizza.
My most memorable meals in Japan have been in specialist restaurants. Noodle restaurants that specialise in udon, ramen or soba. Kushiyaki restaurants that serve only skewers. Teppanyaki, sukiyaki or shabu shabu restaurants that have perfected the art of tableside cooking. Tempura restaurants where the chef can tell the temperature of the oil by dipping a chopstick into it.
Most of these experiences were not expensive, but they demonstrated to me the breadth of Japanese cuisine. I did not bemoan the lack of variety on any menu, but instead was thankful that chefs willing to spend thousands of days in the kitchen, dedicating themselves to the monotonous task of mastering a particular craft.
Sure, sushi is the poster boy of Japanese cuisine. It is photogenic and unique. There are dumplings across the world, from pasties in Cornwall, dimsum in China and saltenas in Bolivia. There are pasta and noodles from Italy to Vietnam. Virtually every culture that ever had fire has skewers, from kebabs in the Middle East to anticuchos in Peru. And yet, despite all the countries that have access to the ocean’s bounty, no one serves fish quite the way that the Japanese do. Others may eat it raw, but they smoke it first, like the Scots, pickle it like the Scandinavians or cure it with lime like the Peruvians.
I remember filming one episode of MasterChef where Gregg Wallace quipped that someone’s undercooked fish was like eating sushi. The director made him refilm the soundbite, replacing the word sushi with the word sashimi. Sushi is only sushi if it is served with vinegared rice. It doesn’t mean raw fish.
Although I knew this much, I once made a similar mistake at a small neighbourhood restaurant in Japan. From my limited knowledge of Japanese, I fathomed that the chef was asking me if I liked sashimi. I nodded enthusiastically and soon received a selection of raw pigs liver, thinly sliced raw pigs heart, pigs tripe cut into noodles and slices of pork fat. Unwilling to lose face or appear ungrateful, I doused it uncouthly with the accompanying condiments of grated ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce and hoped for the best. I quickly learned that sashimi refers to the way something is cut. It doesn’t mean fish, or even raw.
So back to my stated bugbear: katsu chicken curry. Ton-katsu is a pork cutlet that is coated in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and deep fried. Although it is thought to have evolved from Austrian schnitzels, it has been in the Japanese diet so long that even they debate whether it is wa-shoku (authentic Japanese cooking) or yo-shoku (foreign cooking). Toshi reckons it depends what type of sauce you serve it with. For him, if it’s with a deep and rich miso sauce, then it is wa-shoku. It is often served with a dab of mustard and Bull-Dog Tonkatsu sauce, which is a fruit based brown sauce flavoured with Worcestershire-style sauce. Presumably that’s why the brand is called Bull-Dog – I couldn’t quickly find a company history.
Ton-katsu is an amalgamation of two words. ‘Ton’ is the Japanese word for pork. Katsu is an abbreviation of the word ‘cutlet’. Japanese people found it difficult to pronounce cutlet, so they broke it down into sounds that they could pronounce: ka-tsu-re-tsu. But because two syllables is better than four, it became simply ‘katsu’. Unhelpfully for gaijin (non-Japanese people) there’s also ‘tonkotsu’, which refers to the milky pork broth served with Hakata-style ramen.
Evidently, pork is not the only thing that you can cover in breadcrumbs. Hence, chicken katsu. As nice as anything that’s coated in panko and deep fried is, rice and breaded chicken cutlet is potentially rather bland and dry so the Japanese adopted another alien sauce to make it taste even better: curry (‘ka-re’ to the Japanese). British and Portuguese imported spices from south Asia and the Japanese used them to create a milder, sweeter version to suit their tastes. And so katsu kare became a thing.
Thanks to the popularity of chains like Wagamama, YoSushi and Itsu, katsu has become synonymous with the sauce it is usually served with. The British palate is becoming ever more adventurous beyond the realms of Chinese and Indian food and what happens next is that supermarkets want a piece of Asian action and start selling Katsu Chicken Curry (by City Kitchen, sold in Tesco) or Katsu Chicken Pie (by Morrisons Taste of Asia), with not a katsu in sight. I have no idea whether their R&D and marketing departments bother to look into what katsu actually means, but I guess “Indian-inspired Japanese-style curry sauce that tastes good with Katsu” isn’t quite as punchy on the packaging.