There are dishes we cook, and then there are dishes we cook in the direction of† These are the meals that haunt us—sometimes irritating, sometimes tempting—after we wash the dishes, or over coffee the next morning, a quick flicker before we’re battered through the day. These recipes expand and contract as they grow alongside us. They are like the idea of home.
Lately my house has been built of korokke. The dish is a Japanese version of the French croquette: a patty of mashed potatoes, stewed vegetables and egg whites. That mixture is formed into a mass, until the mounds are breaded and baked to crispy, golden perfection. In “Japanese Soul Cooking,” Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat note, “While it’s easy to cook at home, korokke is also commonly sold in stalls and especially in butcher shops in Japan.”
If you make it yourself, you can opt for gyu korokke (beef croquettes). Or curry rice korokke, where you remove the potatoes completely. Kani cream korokke binds crab meat with a béchamel sauce, coated and baked in small logs, perfect for being bolted down by the truckload. Or, well into your korokke journey, you could turn to its distant meaty cousin, menchi katsu. Whichever route you choose, korokke is a dish that changes with you; whether you want to cut back on meat, maybe impress a date — or even conjure up a comforting meal.
Whichever route you choose, korokke is a dish that changes with you.
The dish probably made its way to Japan in the late 1800s, but because the country had very little dairy industry, cooks substituted potato fillings for the cream in croquettes. The first mentions of korokke appeared when Yoshoku (Western-style dishes) entered Japanese culture. Such meals include kare rice (brought to Japan by the British Royal Navy), tonkatsu (which started out as sautéed and fried thin slices of pork in 1899), and Napolitan (which popped up at Yokohama’s New Grand Hotel, after attempts by chef Shigetada Irie to emulate a meal of spaghetti and ketchup).
in Japanese, hoku hoku is an expression for dishes that are textured, flavorful, hot and starchy; regardless of the variety, korokke fit the bill. You could eat one, two or ten on your own. You could combine them with shredded cabbage. And with the croquettes nestled between slices of milk bread and topped with kewpie mayo, a korokke sandwich is a revelation.
But actually, cooking these portable wonders is a real act of love: it’s hardly a dish you whip up on a whim. You scrub and mash the potatoes. You wash and cut the vegetables. You knead each croquette one at a time and round the edges with your palms. The croquettes are then refrigerated—they loosen up in the oil when you cook them at room temperature—and you can fill the time with anything else you’ve put off until it’s time to finally bake them in batches. It’s a dish that requires many different skills – all approachable.
But it requires patience. Early attempts left me burned by oil. I would add too much filling. I wouldn’t add enough. I would roll them in too little panko, or too much altogether. The frying oil was too hot. The oil was not hot enough. Most devastatingly, the korokke’s final shape was nothing like the crisp, tidy rows of friends’ mothers’ homes, who insisted that the only way to get well was to keep cooking it (they were right). ).
But even if I couldn’t make the ideal korokke myself, there were always beacons in the world. Like the paper bag bundled korokke in downtown Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose. Or a flight of kabocha croquettes at Izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco. And most recently, from a strip-mall restaurant in Los Angeles called Delish.
The building was small and tucked away. Had driven past it for months, always eager to visit. But this time, after a week that could only be described as excruciating, I finally stopped. Just outside the entrance, some people were shouting in Italian, while a group of boys laughed at each other in Korean. Earth, Wind & Fire reverberated from the speakers. A Japanese woman conducted two younger men behind the kitchen curtain. The scene felt warm – very much like someone’s house – and when the host finally seated me, I ordered korokke and a bowl of noodles.
What does it mean that a dish is ready? For me, the answer keeps changing, but there’s something alluring about the meal that eludes us. After each of these korokke encounters, I took what I learned back to my own efforts: varying the filling, making my own panko, cooling the croquettes for a while. I never found myself reaching those ideals – but every now and then I found one of my own. It felt a little closer to where I actually came from. That feels very much like home.
On this particular evening the chef brought me her korokke, grinning and waiting a while while I took the first bite. I’m not sure what face I was making as she immediately asked if I was okay. Before I could answer, the Italians brought in their party with a smile. “After the Love Has Gone” rolled into “That’s the Way of the World.” The cold of the city crept in through the open door. It all felt like a reminder that, if we’re lucky, the many homes we inhabit can change with us.