“My katsudon was ready. I perked up and split my chopsticks. Thinking, an army travels on its stomach, I contemplated my meal. Although it looked exceptionally delicious, that was nothing to the way it tasted. It was outrageously good.”
– from Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
A katsudon is considered one of the most plebeian dishes in Japanese cuisine, at least among most Filipinos who have been exposed to Japanese food. You could get a reasonable facsimile of this dish even in the cheapest dives: each one is a variation of the basic theme of a breadcrumbed pork filet or boneless pork chop on top of rice with a scrambled egg, some sautéed onions, and a dousing of sweet sauce reminiscent of the mirin and soy sauce tentsuyu served with tempura. In many cheap dives or restaurants of indifferent quality, the pork is too tough, the coating has sluiced off and has melded irrevocably with the overly sweet sauce, and the rice is cold and hard. At swankier establishments, however the pork is tender and nicely seasoned; the coating retains some measure of crispness despite having been drenched in the sauce; and the rice is nice and fluffy. In both cases, the pork is served on top of the rice in classic donburi style with the sauce, eggs, and caramelised onions poured over it.
The katsudon at Kenji Tei (P 290.00), however, begs to differ with regard to the way it is served. Here. The rice is served in a separate dish and is topped with a little bit of goma-shio or fine salt mixed with toasted kurogoma (black sesame). The tonkatsu and broth, on the other hand, are served in what appears to be a small saucepan / frying pan with a handle that sticks up vertically. What you get is a tender pork filet with a rim of fat around the edge (always a good thing, if you ask me; sheer indulgence and all that flavour!) in a panko coating that doesn’t disintegrate despite getting soaked in a flavourful sauce that has just the right depth of taste: neither too sweet nor salty, just umami enough. The dish is finished off with finely shredded nori and fresh scallions which add a nutty nuance and a fresh, oniony sharpness that strikes a contrast with the softer, sweeter onions and the tender, almost creamy-tasting egg.
I see the practicality of serving it this way: nothing gets soggy, the rice retains some of its bite, and the meat has a slightly longer soak in sauce that makes it more delicious. Honestly, this is the first katsudon that evokes memories of Banana Yoshimoto’s novelette Kitchen: the tenderness of meat, the goodness of the sauce, the quality of the ingredients used, and the manner by which it was served. These all helped to make this more than just a meal, but a rather unique experience.
“…you don’t really want to go back, do you? You’re trying to separate yourself from the strange life you’ve been living, you’re trying to start over… But right now there’s this katsudon. Go ahead, eat it.”