Say Ohm: Japanese Electric Bread and the Joy of Panko

By Nathan Hopson

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.

Figure 1: Type 97 field kitchen interior structure. Courtesy of JACAR.

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).


Sources Cited

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.

The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

 
The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

 
Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”

My Soda Bread

By Kathleen Lynch

There was something wrong about the package that was delivered to me at work one early spring morning years ago. It was addressed to me, and the return address also had my surname. But I didn’t recognize the name as a family member, and I didn’t know anyone in the town in Connecticut on the address. So I opened it with some sense that this package wasn’t intended for me, and that sense was amplified when I found inside a pair of house slippers, a zip-top plastic baggie that seemed to hold some dry ingredients, a recipe for Irish soda bread, and a note signed “mom.”

Why did some other Kathleen Lynch’s mom send me her soda bread recipe, never mind the slippers? That was the question I asked when I found a phone number online and called to report that this mom’s package had gone to the wrong Kathleen Lynch. In conversation, the mom assured me that she had addressed the package to her daughter correctly, and that said daughter was in Washington for a congressional internship, staying on East Capitol Street. A closer look at the package’s address confirmed that Kathleen was staying right across the street from my workplace, Folger Shakespeare Library, and that the package had been misdelivered, not misaddressed.

I rewrapped the package, added a note of apology, and left it on the doorstep of a townhouse across the street. I must have asked about her family’s soda bread recipe, noting that mine featured raisins to her caraway seeds. The next day, I had a charming note in return, discussing that Kathleen’s grandmother’s approach to soda bread, “equal parts deference and rebellion towards the old way.” What we shared was an appreciation for a simple bread, easily prepared, best eaten warm out of the oven, and laden with memories of our grandmothers, and for me, a recipe I will always call Aunt Pat’s. But were either of our breads true soda breads? I knew both could be dismissed as “tea cakes,” not soda breads. For some, it is an adamantly held distinction.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the history of soda bread in Ireland. In particular, I wanted to know if the oral history was true that I had heard many decades ago when I spent a year at university in Cork: the British government denied yeast to the Irish. In any Irish cookbook I pick up now, I read the headnote to breads to see if they introduce the history. Though Colman Andrews prefaces his Country Cooking of Ireland with “A Note on Geopolitics,” addressing the still contested terminology for national boundaries and county names, it does not address the specific trade regulations or coercive practices that framed rural subsistence diets. In My Irish Table, local chef Cathal Armstrong calls these “quick breads,” and notes that “yeast would have been too expensive for people in the countryside in the time of the British occupation” anyway.

Multiple editions of Aunt Pat’s soda bread recipe. Credit: author.

 

Whatever the longer history of Irish hearth-based home cooking of breads in ‘bastibles’ or cast-iron, three-legged pots, the soda bread recipe took its recognizable shape in the mid-nineteenth century with the introduction of baking soda into Ireland. Combined with sour milk or buttermilk, this agent worked to create “a very light and palatable leavened wheat bread that can easily be produced at home,” as Regina Sexton reported in A Little History of Irish Food. And as Armstrong adds, “most households in Ireland have their own recipe for quick breads passed down through the generations.”  In stressing ease and simple ingredients and tools, these authors all lightly skirt the question of impoverishment in old Ireland. For the spread of this breadmaking through Ireland also tracks the years of famine, death, sporadic relief efforts (including by English Quakers), the introduction of maize meal by the British government to offset the failing potato crops, and mass emigration.

I still don’t know the documented history of yeast in Irish baked goods. None of Sexton’s historical recipes in her “Cereals” section include it. I do understand how the oral history holds open the wounds of oppression. At the same time, I see welcome new cooking traditions taking hold in Ireland. They are based on the riches of land and seas, and often influenced by the work of the Allen family at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork. Each of the authors above gives credit and expresses gratitude to that family. These new traditions speak powerfully to the work of nourishment and healing that food can do.

Slices of soda bread. Credit: author.

 

Memories are slippery things, formed and reformed over time and across experiences. In looking for a printed copy of “Aunt Pat’s” soda bread, I had to consider if I shouldn’t start calling this “Aunt Maureen’s” recipe, given that Aunt Pat—my mother’s sister—told me once that she adopted her recipe from Aunt Maureen—my father’s sister. So maybe it’s a Lynch recipe rather than a Gibbons one. On finding multiple printed copies of a recipe I haven’t consulted in years, I was also taken aback that Aunt Pat listed shortening as the fattening agent. That doesn’t make the bread any more satisfying to a purist, but it holds the memories of poverty closer. Or does it only speak to its time? Kathleen wrote to me that her mother made so many substitutions in the name of a healthier loaf that the “result was a dry, unpredictable rock.”

If in its purest form, soda bread does without even sugar and butter, is that not also a reminder of resourcefulness of the subsistence farmer? If Kathleen and I and all the sisters and daughters of our economically-deprived foremothers add those embellishments for a richer loaf, don’t we do it to carry forward traditions rather than be bound by them? In sitting down to a cup of tea and a slice of steaming hot soda bread with generous dabs of butter, don’t we keep their memories alive?

Irish Soda Bread

  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2 cups seedless raisins
  • 1 ½ cup buttermilk (or substitute whole milk with 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar per cup milk)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. baking soda

Simmer raisins in pan of hot water. Mix and sift flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Work in butter with fingertips until it resembles coarse corn meal. Stir in drained raisins. Combine buttermilk, egg, baking soda. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture until just moistened. Do not overmix. Bake in greased medium baking dish at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

I think of this as my Grandma Gibbons’ soda bread recipe, and I’ve adapted it from the recipe my Aunt Pat contributed to her garden club cookbook years ago. But Aunt Pat tells me she took it from my Aunt Maureen on the Lynch side of the family. So I pass it along from both the Gibbonses and the Lynches of County Mayo.


About

Kathleen Lynch researches and writes about the Protestant spiritual autobiography and the communities of devotion that gave rise to them. She is the executive director of the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She tweets @thatklynch. Her only regret about a year spent in Cork, Ireland as an undergraduate is that it predated the opening of the butter museum there.

Garcinia Longings

By Rini Barman

My digestive tract goes for a toss once seasons are about to change in Assam. I am speaking of that eerie intermediary period when the winds, too, aren’t very sure which direction to follow. With rising temperatures and global warming each year, weaker tummies only go from bad to worse. One cannot predict when the ghastly phenomena of multiple burps or dumps might occur. I have tried everything—eating bland, working out, sleeping early, chucking out midnight Netflix, and even taking mild antacids. 

Mother used to say I have a cursed tummy when none of her ‘gut’ suggestions worked. And a sour stomach is a lot to deal with. Imagine the dreariness amidst the super fast-paced nature of life—the speeding cars under the terrace, the local shopkeeper screaming to set up his tiny outlet of edible greens, the small children taking their dolls to the street for they now have no place to play. No time to slow down a bit and look back at the concrete urban disasters one has cooked for oneself.

When I asked their parents about their nonchalance, they told me the grapes are all sour. I had invited them to my terrace—I thought, well let’s have some thekera (garcinia peduncalata). Most of them had homes outside Assam. They’d not really tasted it and thought it was some black-coloured leaf.

Dried garcinia pieces. Credit: author.

 

My weekends are now often occupied in drying fresh thekera and storing it in small containers. I befriended a local fruit-seller; he too knows that an ill person has a dozen medical bills and he’d rather not fleece them. His name is Hemendra Deka, Hemen for short. His wife left behind twin daughters whom he has to feed by selling fruits and veggies by evening and milk by day.

Tangy Liaisons

Local proverbs tell us one shouldn’t eat anything sour alone: ‘sakala tengati okole nakhaba’. Doing so irritates the tummy more. The idea here is that sourness stimulates enzymes and makes one crave it more—greed, after all, is a vice. Thus, sharing sour fruits and vegetables is a sign of caring for each other—a kind of intimacy even. Elderly women also believe harsh tanginess can be injurious to health, and must be balanced out with sweeter stuff (like sugar syrup and jaggery) at weddings and social events. But to totally cut it out is to miss out on the spice of tanginess altogether. The term ‘tenga hoi gol’ implies it has gone all to waste—this is used liberally from rotten food to relationships. There’s also ‘tenga lagise’ as a synonym for tiredness to mean ‘I am now bored and sick of it.’ The reference to unpleasant tastes and rotten food as having gone ‘sour’ is quite interesting. 

Tanginess Spectrum

Basking in the winter sun isn’t a distant memory to me. I still find excuses to do it while peeling lemons, oranges, tamarinds, and other stuff like mixing chillies and salt with robab tenga, our very own pomelo (Citrus Maxima). The locals also consume the tender leaves of the edible garcinia and add them into their curries. A slight addition also adds a distinct flavour. The Northeastern region of India is home to a lot of piquant species—there’s a tanginess spectrum and a rich, rich palette. One cannot pin it down to an either/or.   

Sun dried garcinia pieces turn blackish. Credit: author.

 

To me, the sourness of thekera isn’t like lemon or the abundantly available elephant apple, ou-tenga—both of which are mostly consumed raw. But thekera is usually sun-dried and for usage later on. Amongst the diverse sour plants and fruits, thekera has a kind of moderate tanginess—the reason why it balances the stomach. Available and consumed across Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, it works wonders with reflux ailments. Powdered thekera is a medicinal potion to ease digestive problems like dysentery; it also helps menstrual aches heal. 

No Quick Fixes

During that time of the month, I crave some tangy eating, unlike my cousin sisters who don’t have lemons or anything sour to prevent too much bleeding. What I do is dip one or two slices of thekera into boiled lentils or my fish curry. For those who enjoy more tanginess, you can soak thekera overnight in water and use it as a souring agent in your dishes the next day. My mother used to add thekera in case other kinds of vegetables like tomatoes were not as sour as she expected them to be. It worked as a quick fix back when I was a child. 

But life now is very far from such quick fixes. Hemen told me new fruits in the market are mostly chemically-ripened and that there is cutthroat competition. Local sellers are desperately juggling to make ends meet. “Raising daughters is no mean feat—you too must be careful, don’t eat tangy stuff all the time, tummies can be delicate at this age”, he advises me with his ‘fatherly’ basics, as he puts some thekera into my bag. 

I think of him dearly very often, wondering what his daughters might look like and how difficult it is to make do without a parent. My summer evenings are no longer filled with rum and whiskey but with thekera-flavoured water. Perhaps life too is going to be more of the same—a choice between dried tanginess and raw acidic toxins. I guess one has to keep swimming! 

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

The Thekera Cocktail

Ingredients

  • 3 slices of dried thekera (soaked overnight in water)
  • Ice cubes
  • Rock salt
  • Sugar or honey
  • 1 medium glass of chilled water

The next day, strain the water  into a separate glass. Mix 4-5 tbsp of that into a glass of water. Add honey/ sugar and salt to taste. Add the ice cubes. Your humble cocktail is ready.

Thekara cocktails on the terrace. Credit: author.

 


About

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher based in Assam. Her interests include art and culture, ethnicity, folklore among others. Her essays have appeared in esteemed national dailies and magazines. She tweets @barman_rini.