There are dishes we cook, and then there are dishes we cook toward. These are the meals that follow us in memory — sometimes annoyingly, sometimes enticingly — after we’ve washed the dishes, or the next morning over coffee, a quick flickering before we’re battered by the day. These recipes expand and contract, growing right beside us. They’re like the idea of home.
Lately, my home has been built from korokke. The dish is a Japanese iteration of the French croquette: a patty of mashed potatoes, simmered vegetables and protein. That mixture is molded into a mass, until the mounds are breaded and fried to crisp, golden perfection. In ‘‘Japanese Soul Cooking,’’ Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat note, ‘‘While easy to cook at home, korokke in Japan are also commonly sold from stalls and, especially, in butcher shops.’’
When making your own, you could opt for gyu korokke (beef croquettes). Or curry rice korokke, subbing out the potatoes entirely. Kani cream korokke binds crab meat with a béchamel sauce, coated and fried in little logs, perfect for bolting by the truckload. Or, well into your korokke journey, you could turn to its distant, meaty cousin, menchi katsu. No matter your route, korokke is a dish that changes alongside you; whether you’re looking to eat a little less meat, or perhaps trying to impress a date — or even conjuring a comforting meal for one.
No matter your route, korokke is a dish that changes alongside you.
The dish likely 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 as Yoshoku (Western-style dishes) entered Japan’s culture. Such meals included kare rice (brought to Japan by the British Royal Navy), tonkatsu (which began as thinly sliced pork cuts sautéed and baked in 1899) and Napolitan (which surfaced in Yokohama’s New Grand Hotel, upon the head chef Shigetada Irie’s attempts to emulate a meal of spaghetti and ketchup).
In Japanese, hoku hoku is an expression for dishes that are textured, flavorful, warm and starch-laden; no matter the variety, korokke fit the bill. You could eat one or two or 10 on their own. You could pair them with shredded cabbage. And, with the croquettes nestled between slices of milk bread and lavished in kewpie mayo, a korokke sandwich is a revelation.
But actually cooking these hand-held marvels is a genuine act of love: It’s hardly a dish that you just whip up on a whim. You’re scrubbing and mashing the potatoes. You’re washing and chopping the vegetables. You’re molding each croquette one by one, rounding the edges with your palms. The croquettes are chilled afterward — they’ll come undone in the oil if you cook them at room temperature — and you’re left to fill the 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 approachable.
But it requires patience. Early attempts left me burned by oil. I’d add too much filling. I wouldn’t add enough. I’d roll them in too little panko, or entirely too much. The frying oil was too hot. The oil wasn’t hot enough. Most devastating, the korokke’s eventual shape looked nothing like the crisp, tidy rows from the homes of friends’ mothers, who insisted that the only way to get better was to keep cooking it (they were right).
But even if I couldn’t pull off the ideal korokke myself, there were always beacons out in the world. Like the paper-bag-bundled korokke in the center of San Jose’s Mitsuwa Marketplace. Or a flight of kabocha croquettes at San Francisco’s Izakaya Rintaro. And most recently, from a strip-mall restaurant in Los Angeles called Delish.
The building was tiny and tucked away. I’d driven by it for months, always meaning to visit. But this time, after a week that could only be described as unbearable, I finally pulled over. Just outside the entrance, some folks sat yelling in Italian, while a group of guys laughed at one another in Korean just inside. Earth, Wind & Fire crooned from the speakers. A Japanese woman directed two younger men behind the kitchen’s curtain. The scene felt warm — very much like someone’s home — and when the host finally sat me down, I ordered korokke and a bowl of noodles.
What does it mean for a dish to be done? For me, the answer keeps changing, but there’s something enticing about the meal that gets away from us. After each of these korokke encounters, I took what I learned back to my own attempts: varying the filling, making my own panko, chilling the croquettes just a little longer. I never quite found myself reaching those ideals — but occasionally, I’d find one of my own. It felt a little closer to where I actually was coming from. That feels a lot like home.
On this particular evening, the chef brought me her korokke, grinning and waiting a beat while I took the first bite. I’m not sure what face I made, because she immediately asked if I was all right. Before I could answer, the Italians brought their party inside, laughing. ‘‘After the Love Has Gone’’ rolled into ‘‘That’s the Way of the World.’’ The city’s chill crept in from the open door. It all felt like a reminder that, if we’re lucky, the many homes we occupy can change with us.
Recipe: Potato Korokke