Tonkatsu vs. Tonkotsu: What’s the Difference?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

If Scallops Could Fly

Once in Japan I was on a hike with some friends at dusk. I suddenly pointed to the sky and exclaimed in Japanese, “Look, a scallop!” There was silence, then uncontrollable laughter. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had said hotate instead of hotaru, which is to say that I confused fireflies with scallops. Both are living creatures and only the last syllable is different, so the mistake is understandable.

Well, those same Japanese friends never forgot my cute little error. They chided me the rest of the year by asking if we should order a hotaru (firefly) dish at a seafood restaurant or if my favorite insect was the hotaru (scallop). I took it in stride because I was very aware that Japanese has a lot of similar-sounding words that I jumbled up all the time. Another case in point: Tonkatsu versus tonkotsu. I definitely messed that one up too.

You say Tonkotsu, I say Tonkatsu

Here’s the deal: Tonkotsu is a type of broth made with pork and tonkatsu is fried pork cutlets. Let’s start with tonkotsu. Tonkotsu ramen has a lovely, rich, creamy, whitish broth that owes its unique flavor to pork. Tonkotsu literally means pork bones (豚骨) because they are simmered for hours and used to create a divine soup base. If you like a heartier ramen broth with a richer flavor, tonkotsu ramen is for you.

Muteppo Ramen is a renowned noodle restaurant that is originally from Kyoto and is now throughout Japan. The high quality of their ramen is retained in this packaged version: Kyoto Muteppo Tonkotsu Ramen. The fresh and chewy noodles paired with the deep umami soup base will satiate even the most peckish person.

Kyoto Muteppo Tonkotsu Ramen

Sugomen: Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen is an instant noodle version of tonkotsu ramen. It has thinner noodles, the same delicious pork bone taste, and only a two-minute preparation time. The Hakata style of tonkotsu ramen comes from the island of Kyushu, where pork is plentiful.

Sugomen: Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen

Tonkatsu Explained

Tonkatsu comes from the same pig character ton () and katsu is short for katsuretsu, which is how “cutlets” is pronounced in Japanese. Tonkatsu, or pork cutlets, is made by seasoning and breading pork chops and then deep frying them. They are usually placed on a bed of shredded green cabbage.

When making tonkatsu, the special tonkatsu sauce on Japanese fried pork cutlets is just as important as the meat. Tonkatsu sauce has a rich and unique flavor. It is equal parts salty, umami, tangy, and sweet. Tonkatsu sauce is a thick condiment that can be used as a barbeque sauce for a variety of meats or fried dishes, as well as an added ingredient to curry.

Some Japanese snacks capitalize on the iconic tonkatsu flavor. The Dondon Yaki is an addictive little senbei rice cracker that is marinated in tonkatsu sauce. Try these bite-sized crackers and you’ll instantly see why tonkatsu is such a popular Japanese flavor.

Dondon Yaki

Bokksu Has You Covered

There you have it. Hopefully you will never humiliate yourself by mixing up tonkotsu and tonkatsu, hotate and hotaru, or anko and unko. (That last mix-up is a story for another place and time.)

Whatever ingredient you’re looking for—aside from fireflies—you can find it all at Bokksu Boutique. And if you want to try a wide selection of Japanese snacks, sweets, and teas, consider signing up for Bokksu’s monthly subscription. Each month you’ll receive a collection of curated Japanese snacks so you can explore new treasures or be reunited with old favorites.

By Megan Taylor Stephens

Now that you know the difference between tonkotsu and tonkatsu, let's see what real tonkatsu looks like!

Author Bio

Megan Taylor Stephens interest in the Japanese language, culture, and food goes way back. She was a Japanese exchange student in high school. Then she studied Japanese and linguistics in college, returned to Japan to work through the JET program (Coordinator of International Relations), and was an interpreter and translator for a while. Megan taught English as a Foreign Language in Japan and other countries before getting a Master's degree in ESL and becoming an ESL teacher. She then pivoted to becoming a school-based speech-language pathologist, so still gets to be immersed in the field of applied linguistics and loves working with bilingual students. Megan enjoys writing on the side for companies like Bokksu. A love of language, culture, travel, food, and learning never dies, it only gets more intense--just like cravings for ramen and Pocky!