In 1998, the New York Times introduced readers to an exotic new ingredient described as “a light, airy variety [of breadcrumb] worlds away from the acrid, herb-flecked, additive-laden bread crumbs in the supermarket,” with a texture “more like crushed cornflakes or potato chips” than its plebeian brethren (Fabricant 1998). That ingredient was panko, which has since become a staple for American home and professional cooks alike. In 2007, panko accounted for only 3% of US breadcrumb sales, for instance. Five years later, one in six American households regularly stocked panko in the pantry. Panko caught on because it is crunchier (and stays crunchy under restaurant heat lamps), absorbs less oil, and adds more volume than traditional breadcrumbs (Nassauer 2013).
Why are these Japanese breadcrumbs different? How did they get to be that way? The story told by American manufacturers such as LA-based Upper Crust Enterprises―an ironic name given that the secret to panko is crust-free bread―is that “Japanese soldiers during World War II discovered [that] crustless bread made for better breadcrumbs as they cooked it with electricity from tank batteries, not wanting to draw the enemy’s attention with smoke from a fire”(Nassauer 2013). Upper Crust’s president, Gary Kawaguchi, affirmed this account in a recent interview.
This is a cool story. Turns out, the truth is just as cool.
Japanese inventors had tinkered with electric cooking prototypes since at least the 1920s. Then in 1933, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) commissioned a “field kitchen that can prepare both rice and bread”(Aoki 2019, 11). Cost was no object and time was of the essence. As Katarzyna Cwiertka has noted, the military generally advocated bread, but there was a special urgency in light of the logistical difficulties of supplying rice to new front lines in Siberia and Manchuria. In 1937, paymaster captain Akutsu Shōzō’s design became the “Type 97” field kitchen, first deployed with the IJA’s First Independent Mixed Brigade that year (Uchida 2020, 2–4). The 97’s cooker was an insulated wooden box with electrode plates attached to the base and four sides of the interior. The highly efficient cooking process Akutsu used goes by several names, including ohmic and Joule heating. It is a form of electroconductive heating that passes electric current through foods to heat them rapidly and uniformly, quickly producing a light, yeasty, crust-free bread.
After the war, companies such as Sony began selling rice cookers and bread machines that adapted these wartime technologies, and DIY home bread makers were showcased in magazines and newspapers. Influential women’s magazine Shufu no tomo and the inaugural issue of boys’ DIY magazine Shōnen kōsaku both featured instructions for bread makers derived from Akutsu’s design in 1946, reflecting the popularity of electric power in light of consumer fuel shortages and, conversely, excess generating capacity with military factories shut down (Uchida and Aoki 2019, 484).
In the 1960s, the new postwar frozen food industry hungered for high-quality breadcrumbs. Wheat had poured into Japan after 1945, the result of food aid; the use of bread and other wheat products in Japan’s school lunch program; and endless marketing promotions. Although ambitious American visions to recenter the national diet on wheat were soon abandoned, US agricultural imports and food technologies remained critical to Japan’s changing postwar food systems. Improved and upscaled food processing equipment met a market awash in cheap wheat, enthusiastic consumers (about half of whom owned electric refrigerators by the mid-1960s), and improved logistics. Frozen foods were among the shiny new things of postwar Japan’s shiny new “bright life,” and the mass use of frozen foods to cater the 1964 Olympiad and 1970 World’s Fair made them even more attractive symbols of Japan reborn.
These factors spurred rapid growth in breadcrumb demand, which was met in large part by the industrial-scale use of ohmic heating to create “electric breads” that were airy and uniform, and fried up crisply and uniformly when made into panko (Uchida and Aoki 2019, 485).
Aoki Takashi. 2019. “Denkyokushiki chōri no hatsumei kara panko e tsuzuku rekishi oyobi saigen jikken.” Science Journal of Kanagawa University, no. 30 (June): 9–16.
Fabricant, Florence. 1998. “From Japan, the Secret of Crunchy Coating.” New York Times, December 1998.
Nassauer, Sarah. 2013. “Panko Tries to Find a Place in Every Pantry.” Dow Jones Institutional News, March 7, 2013.
Uchida Takashi. 2020. “Suihan o kigen to shi panko seizō ni tsuzuku denki pan no rekishi (1): Rikugun suiji jidōsha to Kōseishiki denki suihanki to Takara ohachi.” Tōkyō Yakka Daigaku kenkyū kiyō, no. 23 (March): 1–14.
Uchida Takashi, and Aoki Takashi. 2019. “Suihan, denki pan, pan seizō ni itaru Nihon no denkyokushiki chōri no rekishi: Rikugun ‘suiji jidōsha’ o kigen to suru denki pan jikken.” Nihon Yakugaku Kyōiku Gakkai ronbunshū, no. 43: 483–86.
This post is part five in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here.