Korokke, the Japanese version of the breaded and deep-fried morsel that’s known in France and elsewhere as croquettes, are a familiar sight in Japan.
Head to the the frozen food and ready-to-eat takeout aisles of any supermarket, or to the glowing and heated deep-fried-snack display cases at convenience stores and you’ll see them there, golden and delicious. They can even be seen in sandwiches, smothered in a Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce and stuffed into a soft, hot dog bun-like koppe roll with shredded cabbage.
For such a familiar and ubiquitous food item, the origins of korokke are surprisingly murky. Even the etymology of the word “korokke” is uncertain; although most food historians say it comes from the French “croquette,” there are those who claim it comes from the Dutch “kroket.” The earliest mentions of something called a “kuroketto” appear in cookery books from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), so it probably entered the culinary world in Japan with the first wave of seiyō ryōri, cuisine from the West.
There are actually two types of korokke: the down-to-earth mashed potato-based version with ground meat, corn kernels or other inexpensive items mixed in, and the bechamel sauce-based kuriimu korokke (cream korokke) that usually contain crabmeat or shrimp and are considered to be fancier.
For a while, some claimed that cream korokke were imported and the potato korokke was a Japanese invention. That doesn’t ring true though, since potato-based croquettes are eaten in Europe too. What we do know though is that kuroketto, which evolved into korokke, used to be an expensive, aspirational dish, only available at higher-end restaurants.
That changed when the potato korokke was adapted by an enterprising chef-turned-butcher called Seiroku Abe in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. He hit upon the idea of using leftover meat scraps by grinding them up, mixing the meat with potato, and offering them to customers as cheap, ready-to eat, deep-fried items. He used lard, which was also cheap and readily available to a butcher, to fry the breaded delicacies. Potato korokke became a staple offering at butcher shops for decades afterward.
When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember making early evening runs to the local butcher for a few korokke when my mother suddenly needed one more item on the dinner table. Unfortunately, neighborhood butcher shops are slowly disappearing, as are those unhealthy, yet delicious, lard-fried korokke. But that hasn’t sounded the death knell for the foodstuff as a whole.
In the 2000s, korokke lore took a strange twist when it became associated with typhoons. It started on the notorious and influential online community 2channel or 2ch (now 5channel) in 2001, when a user posted “Just in case, I bought 16 korokke. I’ve already eaten 3 though,” to show how he (or she) was getting ready for an approaching typhoon. This somehow caught the imagination of millions of 2ch denizens, and has persisted as a tradition of sorts to this day. Even during the latest typhoon in early September, Japanese social media was filled with mentions and photos of korokke.
Although this year’s typhoon season is approaching its end, potato korokke are so easy to make that it’s well worth giving them a try at home, and they are delicious when freshly fried. Although mostly carbohydrate, potato korokke are usually eaten as a side dish with rice.
Classic Potato Korokke
Ingredients (makes 8-10)
• 4 medium-large potatoes (600 grams)
• 1 small onion
• 200 grams ground chicken or a pork/beef mix (aibiki)
• 2 teaspoons butter
• 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon salt
• Black pepper
• 1 egg
• 2 tablespoons plain flour
• 2 tablespoons water
• 2 to 3 cups panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs)
• Oil for deep frying
• 4-5 cabbage leaves, shredded
• 1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
• Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce
Peel the potatoes and cut into pieces. Put into a pan with 1 tablespoon of salt and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook until tender. Drain, and return to the pan. Shake the pan around over low heat until the potatoes have dried out. Mash with a fork or a potato masher.
While the potatoes are cooking, finely dice the onion. Heat up a frying pan over medium heat, and melt the butter. Saute the onion until it is translucent, then add the ground meat and cook until browned. Season with the remaining salt and black pepper. Turn off the heat.
Combine the mashed potatoes and the meat mixture in the frying pan. Leave until cooked enough to handle, and divide into 8 to 10 equal portions. Form into patties.
Beat the flour, egg and water together with a whisk. Coat the patties in the egg mixture, then in the breadcrumbs. Refrigerate for at least an hour if possible (they can be frozen at this point for up to a month). This prevents the breading from coming off while frying.
Heat oil to 170 C — a few breadcrumbs dropped in the oil should sizzle and whirl around quickly. Fry the patties without crowding the pan, turning once, until a light golden brown.
Place on a plate with shredded cabbage, tomatoes and optional Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce.