I have never been one for fried food -- in fact, around my house growing up, we took it as a matter of gospel that fried food is bad for you. Right? I never knew a family who had a deep-fryer at home until I spent my last year of high school in Chile, and saw my friend's mother fry up batch after batch of fresh empanadas de queso from a mysterios aparato that she stored under her countertop. Since then, I have not given much thought to fried foods, other than to join in the general American sentiment that such things are bad for you: fritters and hushpuppies and codcakes and french fries and schnitzel and corndogs have an almost immoral air about them in this age of glorified food frugality.
Last night we had tonkatsu for dinner, those Japanese breaded pork cutlets that are often seen at run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurants and, I have learned, are a Japanized version of Western food (Yes, they take our food and make it theirs too, just like we fusion this and fusion that.). Tonkatsu seemed like the perfect addition to our repertoire of rice bowl meals. Rice bowls are simple, hearty dishes where rice is scooped into a large bowl and the rest of the ingredients (meats, sides, vegetables) are piled on top. There is nothing so comforting, after a long day at work or studying, than digging one's chopsticks into a rice bowl piled high with fragrant meats and delicate greens, the juices leaking down into the rice below.
The recipe for tonkatsu came courtesy of Maki at Just Hungry, the best website that I have found on Japanese cooking for home chefs. I bought the pork rounds at an Asian grocery store earlier this week; they were labeled expressly for this dish, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to try yet another Japanese meal-in-a-bowl. I prepared the recipe exactly as indicated on Maki's site, down to the last panko breadcrumb, and the result was just what you would want from a pork cutlet: crispy, flaky crust on the outside surrounding a juicy, tender interior.
So, the question that I keep asking myself: why haven't I fried foods earlier? Unknowingly I have stumbled upon another category of food that had been prohibido and now, quite suddenly, has added a whole new dimension to what I can make in my kitchen. Tomorrow or the next day I have plans to make vegetable tempura with my finds from today's farmer's market: pumpkins, turnips, sweet potatoes, and apples (to be really daring). I'll slice them into rounds, dip them in batter, and fry away! Or I could make Indian samosas, or Brazilian cod-balls (bolinhos de bacalhau), Chinese morning fry bread, or even bring back the Chilean empanadas. There's a reason that fried foods appear across cultures: they are easy to make (just be careful with the hot oil!), filling, and delicious (fat makes everything better, I think).
Oh, and a note about the frying itself: I am pretty careful about which oils I use for cooking, what with hydrogenated-this and trans-that creeping up everywhere. I use olive oil and butter for sauteed and searing, but for higher heat I prefer coconut oil or grapeseed oil. For the tonkatsu I filled a small, high sauce pan with about two inches deep of grapeseed oil. The small pot was just large enough in diameter to hold one cutlet at a time, and its small size allowed me to scrimp on the precious oil, while the walls were high enough that the oil didn't splatter on my hand or the stovetop.