There are dishes we cook, and then there are dishes we cook towards. These are the meals that follow us in memory—sometimes annoying, sometimes enticing—after washing the dishes, or the next morning over coffee, a quick flash before we hit the day. These recipes expand and contract, growing right next to us. They are like the idea of home.
Recently, my house was built from korokke. The dish is a Japanese iteration of the French croquette: a pancake of mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables, and protein. This mixture is formed into a mass, until it is covered with breadcrumbs and fried to golden perfection. In their book Cooking With the Japanese Soul, Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat note that “although it is easy to cook at home, korokke in Japan is also commonly sold at stalls and especially in butcher shops.”
When you make your own, you can choose gyu korokke (beef croquette). Or korokke curry rice, with potatoes cut whole. Kani cream korokke coats crab meat with béchamel sauce, tossed and fried in small pieces, perfect for slathering on a truckload. Or, on your korokke trip, you can turn to its delicious distant cousin, menchi katsu. No matter your route, korokke is a dish that changes with you; Whether you’re looking to eat a little more meat, maybe trying to impress a date – or even conjuring up a comforting meal for one.
The dish likely made its way to Japan in the late 19th century, but due to the lack of dairy industry in the country, cooks replaced the potato fillings with cream in croquettes. The first references to korokke appeared when Yoshoku (Western-style dishes) entered Japanese culture. These included curry rice (brought to Japan by the British Royal Navy), tonkatsu (which began as thinly sliced sauteed pork and baked in 1899) and Napolitan (which appeared at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama, when chef Shigetada Eri attempted to So.. simulate a meal of spaghetti and ketchup).
in japanese, Hoku Hoku It is an expression of dishes that are textured, tasty, warm, and full of starch; Regardless of the variety, korokke fits the bill. You can eat one, two or 10 on its own. You can pair it with shredded cabbage. And with croquettes sandwiched between slices of milk bread and drenched in kewpie Mayo, the korokke sandwich is a find.
But in reality, cooking these hand-made marvels is a true labor of love: it’s hardly a dish you can make on a whim. You are washing and mashing potatoes. You wash and chop the vegetables. You are shaping each croquette one by one, rounding the edges with your palm. The croquettes are then cooled—they will break up in the oil if you cook them at room temperature—and you’re left to fill in time with everything else you’ve been putting off, until it’s time to finally fry them in batches. It’s a dish that requires many different skills – all of them are friendly.
But it does require patience. Early attempts left me burnt with oil. I will add a lot of filling. I won’t add enough. I would roll them in a little panko, or quite a lot. The frying oil was very hot. The oil was not hot enough. Most devastatingly, the korokke’s eventual shape is nothing like the brittle and tidy rows of the homes of friends’ mothers, who insisted the only way to get better was to keep cooking it (they were right).
But even if I couldn’t perform the perfect korokke myself, there were always cues in the world. Like a paper bag-filled korokke in the middle of Mitsua’s Market in San Jose. Or a flight from capuchin croquette in Izakaya Rintaro in San Francisco. And more recently, from a restaurant in a Los Angeles mall called Delish.
The building was small and hidden away. I’ve been driving it for months, always meaning to visit. But this time, after a week that can only be described as unbearable, I finally stopped. Right outside the entrance, some people sat shouting in Italian, while a group of men laughed at each other in Korean inside. Earth, wind and fire rang out from the speakers. A Japanese woman brought out two little men behind the kitchen curtain. The scene looked cozy – just like someone’s house – and when the host finally sat me down, I ordered a plate of korokke and a bowl of noodles.
What does the dish mean? To me, the answer is constantly changing, but something tempting about the meal is taking away from us. After each of these korokke encounters, I took what I learned back into my own attempts: changing the filling, making my own panko, and refrigerating the croquettes a little longer. I never found myself reaching for those ideals – but sometimes, I find one of my own. It felt a little closer to where I actually came from. This feels a lot like home.
This particular evening, the chef brought me a korokke, smiling and waiting for a beat as I took my first bite. Not sure what face she made, because she immediately asked if I was okay. Before I could answer, the Italians brought their party inside, laughing. “After Love Is Gone” rolled into “This Is the Way of the World.” A city shiver crept through the open door. It seemed like a reminder that if we’re lucky, many of the homes we occupy can change with us.
Recipe: potato Kuroki