Su Scott, author of the recently published cookbook, Rice Table: Korean Recipes and Stories to Feed the Soul, fondly remembers her first taste of donkkaseu, a thin slice of lean pork, typically cut from the loin, breaded and plunged into seething hot oil until golden and crunchy, then drizzled with a brown sauce similar to thick gravy.
Donkkaseu is often compared to Japanese tonkatsu, a panko-coated pork cutlet that’s served sliced, though the Korean version is served whole. Scott remembers her first donkkaseu being blanketed under “thick, rich brown sauce” which, she writes is “loosely based on demi-glace”, a reduction of beef or veal stock used as the base of countless French sauces, with a perfect touch of acidity. The fried pork shared the plate with cold macaroni salad and shredded cabbage swirled with vinegary ketchup and mayonnaise.
Scott first tried donkkaseu as a child in Seoul, where her family enjoyed weekend dinners at gyeongyangsiks. These restaurants, which were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, served Korean food with Western twists; dishes were eaten with a knife and fork as opposed to chopsticks. It was at one special gyeongyangsik where Scott had that memorable first bite of the crispy pork cutlet.
“The place always felt so special to me as it was the very first time I’d experienced something entirely new,” said Scott. “The strong memories of the restaurant and how it made me feel at the time stayed with me but sadly, the place no longer exists.”
Donkkaseu is still served in restaurants around South Korea, but it’s also easy to make at home. Scott shares a recipe for her take on the dish, called Old-School Pork Cutlet, in her cookbook.
Scott’s food career began after moving to London in 2000 when she was 19, but it really took off after winning an Observer Food Monthly Award in 2019 for a recipe based on her mother’s kimchi jjigae. The rustic, spicy stew, typically made with pork belly, tofu and kimchi, was voted Best Readers’ Recipe by The Observer’s food magazine.
“At the time, I was struggling with [an] identity crisis and recovering from post-natal depression after the birth of my daughter. It was the dish that first brought me back the taste of home that I really missed. The recipe was very personal to me, carrying so many layers of emotion, which eventually became the reason and motivation to further explore my heritage through memories of taste,” said Scott.
Rice Table came about as a result of Scott’s identity issues with the heavy responsibility of being the sole bearer of Korean culture and heritage to her half-Korean, half-British daughter. When writing, she drew inspiration from donkkaseu and other dishes from her childhood.
“I was too busy and too eager to integrate [and] make a new home for myself in the city that I madly fell in love with,” Scott explained. “In the process, I had lost all that makes me Korean, including my ability to speak my mother tongue fluently. It was only through cooking the dishes of my own childhood [that] I was able to reconnect and rebuild my Korean heritage.”
In Rice Table, Scott outlines a series of recipes known commonly as bapsang, representing what she describes as a “very ordinary spread of daily home-cooked meals that sustain us”. Scott added, “I wanted to celebrate how food can connect the small pieces together to make us feel whole.”
One of those dishes is donkkaseu, which was first brought to Korea during the Japanese occupation in the 1930s. It is believed that donkkaseu is heavily inspired by European classics such as Italian veal Milanese, French escalope and Austrian and German schnitzel. At the time, the dish was enjoyed exclusively by wealthy people in Korea; pork was expensive, as was the vast amount of oil needed to fry the cutlet. But today, two versions of donkkaseu are eaten throughout South Korea – the thin cutlet popularised by the spread of gyeongyangsik restaurants, and a thicker version introduced by American soldiers during the 1980s, following the Korean War.
Scott’s thinner version of the old-school pork cutlet recipe is a fairly simple, deeply comforting dish. Although the pork needs to be deep-fried, it takes just four minutes to cook once marinated for 30 minutes in the fridge. To tenderise the meat, Scott recommends using a meat mallet or a needle-bladed tenderiser to flatten the pork, though a rolling pin or the back of a knife can be used. She also strongly suggests following the recipe steps precisely to recreate the dish exactly as it was when she first experienced it.
Once pounded, the pork is marinated in a blitzed mixture of milk, onion, garlic powder and salt to season and help further tenderise the meat before it is dredged in flour, beaten eggs and panko breadcrumbs in preparation for frying. While the pork marinates, a simple sauce is made, striking a precise balance of sweet, savoury, bitter, spicy and acidic notes. It’s then poured over the pork and served alongside shredded cabbage salad, just like the one accompanying Scott’s first donkkaseu.