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.

Meals on Wheels: The “Kitchen Cars” and American Recipes for the Postwar Japanese Diet

By Nathan Hopson

From 1956 to 1960, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) sponsored a fleet of food demonstration buses in Japan (“kitchen cars”) to improve national nutrition and fuel the nation’s economic recovery with more “modern” and “rational” cooking methods and, most importantly, ingredients (i.e. American agricultural surpluses: wheat, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent meat, dairy, etc.) The concept was first floated to the US by Dr. Ōiso Toshio, chief of the health ministry’s nutrition section, 1953-1963. Along with the school lunch program instituted under the US occupation, the kitchen cars became one of the most important tools for marketing American farm products in Japan. The school lunch program, centered on bread and (reconstituted skim) milk until the 1970s, taught young Japanese new tastes. The kitchen cars taught their mothers to reproduce those flavors at home.

The initial fleet of a dozen buses, operated by the Japan Nutrition Association (a semiprivate organ of the health ministry), reached over two million people in towns, villages, and apartment blocks across Japan. The nutritionists staffing the buses put their professional imprimatur on the many novel foods they demonstrated, and distributed samples, nutritional pamphlets, and the day’s recipes to their audiences of mostly housewives. The kitchen cars were wildly popular. When US funding expired, local Japanese governments built their own to meet public demand; the number exceeded 100 by the end of the 1960s. Though it is difficult (impossible?) to quantify, the kitchen cars contributed in subtle but profound ways to transforming the postwar Japanese diet.

Despite their popularity at the time, today the kitchen cars are mostly forgotten. When they are remembered, it is mostly for destroying “traditional” Japanese dietary patterns and contributing to the “Westernization” of the diet during the period of high economic growth. This backlash stems in part from the fact that American financing was hidden not just from the public, but also from all those who staffed or assisted with the kitchen cars. Still, in the short run, these buses were a win-win for the US and Japan. America’s Cold War “Food for Peace” campaign put agricultural surplus to work supporting a critical ally, and Japan received enormous amounts of free or cheap food and generous development loans.

Figure 1: Kitchen car demonstration in rural Aomori, year unknown (probably 1950s). Courtesy of the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

The photo above shows a typical scene from a day in the life of the kitchen car. The audience crowds around the back of bus, which opens up like a thrust stage for the nutritionists to perform upon. The gathered women listen intently, some taking notes. The kitchen installed in the rear of the bus is the state-of-the-art chrome and gadgetry emblematic of the new postwar “bright life” of happy consumerism. The nutritionists in their white lab coats bring the authority of science. The foods they are preparing may not seem like the stuff of American farm surplus propaganda, but as Ōiso himself observed, “Propaganda is truly effective when people don’t notice it.”[1] To wit, the noodles are most likely soba: buckwheat mixed with (American) wheat. Even subtler is the use of sautéing, undoubtedly in (American) corn or soy oil. This kind of gradualist approach, expressed in slogans such as “Flour-based food once a day,” helps explain both why nobody suspected American involvement and why the kitchen cars were so popular and effective.

Few detailed records of 1950s’ kitchen car menus remain, but those that do are consistent with accounts from the 1960s. A list of favorites from mid-decade Okayama prefecture includes milk donuts, udon stew, sautéed amaranth leaves with liver, fried meat and vegetables with ketchup, vegetable cream soup, fried soybean fritters, chicken and peanuts in tomato sauce, bok choy with peanuts and mushrooms, and cheese sponge cake. Roughly simultaneously, the prefecture’s public health center sponsored competitions for original, tasty, nutritious, economical foods (about ¥20 each) using ingredients like soy, skim milk, and flour. Winners included vegetable omelets, fried tofu-wrapped sardines, fried sardine balls, and mysterious entries such as “nutritional bread” and “nutritional fried dumplings.”

These lists lend credence to the remarks of Richard Baum, Ōiso’s initial American collaborator. In a 1978 documentary, Baum expressed immense satisfaction at the kitchen cars’ success. As he explained, “the housewives would come out and gather around and learn how to make different wheat foods. And then they would get to sample the wheat foods. And they found these very delicious and so they would say ‘Oishii desu. Mō sukoshi’ [This is delicious. A little more, please].”[2]


[1] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Amerika komugi senryaku: Nihon shinkō (Ie no Hikari Kyōkai, 1979), 106.

[2] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Shokutaku no kage no seijōki: kome to mugi no sengoshi (NHK, 1978).


This post is part four in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here. This entry is based on his article “Ingrained Habits: The ‘Kitchen Cars’ and the Transformation of Postwar Japanese Diet and Identity.” Food, Culture & Society, November 2020.

January 2020: a Taste of “Before ‘Farm to Table'” Part II

Dear Recipes Project community,

Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.

What can you expect to learn? Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?”  And next up, below: Julia Fine explores the ways in which the general public contributed to and engaged with the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition.

-The RP Editors
*****
Food culture and First Chefs: Appreciating the layers of meaning behind food in Shakespeare’s world and our own

By 

In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio grabs a leg of roast mutton and throws it to the ground. Doing so, he exclaims, “it engenders choler, planteth anger,/ And better ‘twere that both of us did fast.” As food anthropologist Leigh Chavez-Bush writes of this statement in Atlas Obscura, this line was not a throwaway. Rather, “eating the right foods in the proper quantities, 16th-century Britons believed, balanced mind and soul.” Here, Petruchio is invoking this idea of balance, referring to the notion that food could imbalance the humors which were thought to impact the body. In Shakespeare’s plays, then, “roasts, ales, and pies are not props, but clues to characters’ souls, moods, and motivations.”

Whether we look to Shakespeare’s world or ours today, food represents something more than mere sustenance. Food is instead a universal ritual, one in which everyone takes part. Thus, food and eating, according to Sidney Mintz in his pathbreaking work Sweetness and Power, act as “foci of habit, taste, and deep feeling,” across different cultures and times. In this sense, eating is about more than just nutrition; food evokes the feelings, memories, and stories baked into each bite.

The Folger’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibition, which ran from January through March of 2019, demonstrated the different functions that food served in the early modern British Atlantic world. The exhibition shared the stories of several First Chefs, people like Hannah Woolley, the first English-language woman food writer, and Hercules, a chef enslaved by George and Martha Washington. After encountering these stories, visitors were invited to reflect on their own experiences with food in a special area of the exhibition devoted to food and memory, and many wrote down their favorite food reminiscences, recipes, and stories.

The textual and culinary delights that guests shared with us spanned time and space. We received recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian, written by children and grandparents alike. Some detailed how food shaped their lives, acting as a catalyst to immigrate to America; others discussed yearly rituals surrounding food that united their families. Some people left recipes for cookies passed down for generations; others detailed the joy of opening a box of Kraft mac and cheese.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

To give you a taste, here are some of our favorite food memories shared at the First Chefs exhibition. As you read, we ask that you reflect on what stories, beliefs, and histories are encoded within these texts. What does food tell you about people’s lives and cultures? What information can you glean even from the most straight-forward of recipes?

Want to learn more about our visitors and their responses to First Chefs? Read the rest of Julia’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/11/01/food-memories-culture-first-chefs/#food-memories

Around the Table: Research Technologies

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Christian Reynolds, a lead investigator on the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network. Since the Recipes Project is a partner organization to the network, we wanted to encourage all our readers to become acquainted with this effort to make food-related digital materials more accessible. We hope that after reading about the project, you will visit this survey to assist the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network.

Could you describe the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network to Recipes Project readers? What kind of information are you collecting and what will be available through the network?

A cook is standing in a kitchen with food in pans on the tables in front of him. Coloured lithograph. Source: Wellcome Images.

Food has become an increasingly popular subject of study due to its inherently multidisciplinary nature. Food’s universal pervasiveness allows it to become an accessible window into every culture and time period. The materials and texts concerning food offer a continuous resource that spans thousands of years of human civilisation, with a massive corpus of written manuscripts, printed documents (books, pamphlets, menus), and other material culture and ephemera (including images and sound recordings) available for study.

Many cultural institutions (such as libraries, museums, galleries, archives, etc.) have large collections relating to food. Some of these collections are now (partially) digitised, and accessible to the global research community. However, knowledge of the existence and depth of many of the collections is limited, and there is a lack of communication between cultural institutions and researchers.

The AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network is a platform for US and UK higher education institutions, libraries, other cultural institutions with food-based materials and collections, as well as the researchers who use these collections. 

In this pilot stage of the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network we will be collecting information about the researchers who use food related materials and collections – and what materials they would like digitised as a priority, as well as identifying the range of cultural institutions that have materials currently available for research.

There is also additional funding for digital scholarship research activities between US and UK researchers coming from the AHRC until 2023. This network would be happy to support any other food related researchers and cultural institutions in applying for funding from this scheme.

Is the network focused on certain chronological, geographical, linguistic, or other collection scopes? Or is it inclusive of any food-related digital materials?

Persimmon, axial view, MRI. Alexandr Khrapichev, University of Oxford. Source: Wellcome Images.

AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network is inclusive of all food-related digital materials across the interdisciplinary food system, to include a wide variety of digitised corpuses and artefacts ranging from digitised cookbooks and food texts, collections in archives (medicinal texts, food manuals, menus, social media interaction archives, etc) and libraries, through to the use of, and interaction with, digitised economic botany, agricultural, and museum collections. The main limit (due to funding) is that we are currently concerned with only cultural institutions in the US and the UK. However, the content within these digitised archives can relate to any chronological, geographical, or linguistic food related materials.

Will the completed network be open-access for anyone to use? When do you expect it will be available?

The outcomes of the network (reports, webinars, etc.) will be open-access. We hope these will be available in early 2020. We are asking librarians from many of our partner intuitions to provide a short introduction webinar about their collections.

Are any future projects or events planned in coordination with the network? What kinds of future collaborations and research do you envision?

Food warmer, England, 1801-1850. Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images.

1)The AHRC is planning to fund additional UK-US digital scholarship activities until 2023. As a network we would be happy to support other researchers and groups wishing to apply for this funding.

2) There is a lot of research that can be done with the content currently digitised, however, many archives only have less than 5-10% of their holdings digitally available. Getting this content online, and in a searchable format is a high priority. In this regard, additional funding could be used to run scanathons and transcribathons, to allow more digital content to be unlocked for researchers. This could also encompass citizen science projects to transcribe archives and recipes. Another next step is creating standardised tagging and meta data systems for recipes to allow searching across collections.

3) We are currently conducting a survey among food researchers to map what archives and materials the food research community currently uses, and what we – as a community – want digitised. This will allow us to go together (researchers and archives) to funders with a plan for digitising the most needed content.

Are you welcoming suggestions for inclusion of other digital collections? How can our readers contribute?

We are very much welcoming suggestions of other digital collections to include in our list.

The best way for readers to contribute to the network is to fill out the 20 question survey that is mapping the research interests and materials and archives used by the food research community.

This will allow us to identify what archives and materials are being used, as well as see what the community is needing digitised as a priority.

Thanks, Christian, for sharing information about the AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network! You can reach Christian and the network team on Twitter @AHRCfoodnetwork or via email. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.