A certain American fast food restaurant taught my generation of kids growing up in the 70’s that Wiernerschitzel meant hot dog in German. Imagine all French children believing that pizza is called taco in the US, and you see how much intercultural confusion the chain’s founders caused.
My late mother-in-law not only set me straight on this matter, but taught me the fundamentals of making the German fried cutlet. She believed – and rightly so, I must admit – that the perfect Schnitzel can make your day at least 50% better. After making and eating it for over 15 years now, I’ve come to believe its power is even greater than that. When that elusive crispy and deeply golden brown on the outside and juicy on the inside state is achieved, a Schnitzel can do more than satisfy the stomach. It can slay dragons, launch a thousand ships, bring strongmen to their knees, and inspire poets to reach for the heavens.
As they are with many other matters, Germans are precise when they talk about Schnitzel. A proper Wienerschnitzel is always made from veal. And this is by decree of the German and Austrian food committees (for real). If it’s made of pork, it must be called out as a cheap imposter, as in “Schnitzel Wiener Art” (Viennese style Schnitzel). Covered in brown gravy and mushrooms, it becomes “Jägerschnitzel” (Schnitzel of the hunters). And, as my father-in-law informed me recently, Schnitzel smothered in bell pepper and paprika sauce is no longer called “Zigeunerschnitzel” (Gypsy Schnitzel). Rather, the more politically correct but completely misleading “Schnitzel Mexikanisch” (Mexican Schnitzel) has become the more acceptable name.
Ask my German born partner, who has eaten literally thousands of Schnitzels in his lifetime, who might as well have been sucking on Schnitzel juice since he was a babe, where to find the best one in the world, and he doesn’t bat an eye before betraying his native land. The best Schnitz, he says, is the Japanese Tonkatsu.
There’s no hard evidence that the Japanese Tonkatsu’s lineage traces back to some primitive, alpha Schnitz. But “katsu” is the transliteration of the English word cutlet, which derives from the French “côtelette,” meaning “meat chop.” And, well, there are just so many German foods that have embedded themselves deeply into Japanese cuisine, including bāmukūhen (Baumkuchen ) and Bīru (Bier).
But Japanese foodies know better than to call the Tonkatsu some second rate imitation of western food. Regardless of its origins, it has become the perfect embodiment of Japan: both down to earth yet sophisticated, local yet global, modest yet life-changing. While the German Schnitz’s plate mate is typically some form of potato, like fries, the Tonkatsu is eaten with miso soup, rice and cabbage, which aids in the digestion of the deep fried goodness. Tying everything together is the Tonkatsu sauce, a complex mix of tomatoes, prunes, dates, apples, lemon juice, carrots, onions and celery, along with 10 spices, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.
But the Schnitz/Tonkatsu’s journey didn’t stop there. Japanese immigration brought the Tonkatsu to Hawaii, where it is more often than not made of chicken. A staple of the plate lunch, Chicken Katsu often comes with a scoop of rice, a scoop of mac salad, and some kimchee or poke on the side. It’s the food of workers and surfers and any of us who need an extra couple thousand calories to make it through the day (for the record, writing takes a lot of energy).
My late mother-in-law was a traditionalist when it came to German food. She saw no need for experimentation or fusion. But I suspect she would have recognized these as the immigrant descendants of her beloved Schnitzel across space and time. And she would have approved, knowing that more of the world was at least 50% happier with their bellies full of Schnit-su.
(Oh, and the photo? The best Tonkatsu in the world, courtesy of Ginza Bairin in Honolulu. If I get to choose my last meal in this world, that would be it.)