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.

Workshop Notice: “Kitchens in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950” (London, 18th Jan 2017)

For all of you interested in kitchens and material culture – this workshop sounds like it’s a must-go! Take note: Registration closes 11th January, 2017.

kitchen-graphic
Koch unnd Kellermeisterey (1550). Image courtesy of the Welcome Library.

The Centre for the Study of the Body and Material Culture is hosting a one-day workshop, ‘Kitchens in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950’, 18th January 2017 at Senate House, University of London.

In recent years the home has come to be the focus of multidisciplinary and cross-period inquiry, yet the kitchen, although seen as the ‘heart’ of the home in some places and periods, is still a relatively under-explored space. Studies of material culture, technology and domestic work all point to the kitchen’s wider social and cultural importance.  Since the early modern period, kitchens have been a nexus of class interaction, and the place of domestic food production. Subsequently, studies of the kitchen have the potential to contribute to social and cultural histories of everyday life. This workshop brings together scholars researching the histories of the kitchen from a range of geographical and chronological perspectives.

The deadline for registration is Wednesday 11th January. For more details, including the programme and how to register please see:

https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/history/research/researchcentres/csbmc/kitchens-cfp.aspx

Questions? Get in touch with the organiser Katie Carpenter @ Katie.Carpenter.2010@live.rhul.ac.uk.

Recipes in space (domestically speaking…)

By Sara Pennell

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. "The Kitchen Companion and House-keeper's Own Book ... [Cover]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1844. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/67adab53-a909-2adb-e040-e00a18065a56
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. “The Kitchen Companion and House-keeper’s Own Book … [Cover]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1844. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/67adab53-a909-2adb-e040-e00a18065a56
What spaces do recipes occupy? They occupy a distinctive place on the page and might take up a few inches of shelf-space, when bound together. But these textual traces are only the runes of practice; as such, while they survive in one textual dimension for us to recover as historians, they occupied space and travelled through it in being transmitted, written out or printed, and of course, made.

In two recent posts, the spaces in which recipes might have materialized have been touched upon. Rachel Rich reported on how dishes realized from recipe books might have sat on imaginary and real Victorian dining tables, in dining rooms that were the recommended place for eating, where domestic space afforded such luxuries. William Cavert took us into seventeenth-century London commercial breweries, to think about the consumption of coal as a hidden ingredient in recipes for beer production.

But the kitchen, the space which one might associate most with recipes and their creation/recreation, is surprisingly absent from the majority of blogposts here. The ‘kitchens’ tag is applied to only three other posts – including one on the technology transformations of the mid-Victorian kitchen; and one on twentieth-century Louisiana creole cuisine. The word ‘kitchen’ crops up in other blogs, but mainly as an unexplored descriptor: ‘kitchen workers’, or as a caption to an image, ‘a kitchen interior’. Recipes have come to embody, but as importantly hide, the physical space of the kitchen. Indeed some authors use ‘kitchen’ to mean cuisine, as in the food culture of a period or place, rather than primarily thinking of it as a space and material assembly.[1]

BEKcoverSerious histories of the kitchen as a domestic space are thin on the ground, at least for Britain before 1800, which may explain in part why recipes have so often been decoupled from where they might be made. In my new book, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 (Bloomsbury, 2016) I’ve reunited recipes, food processing and ‘kitchen physic’–as well as childcare, leisure and domestic religion–with the room which we so glibly call today ‘the heart of the home’. In this way, my book is less about food than it is the spatial stories of the kitchen and how these discourses developed circa 1600 to 1850. Many do involve food and eating, especially in non-elite households without dining rooms, but there are also architectural, technological and cultural strands to unpick.

The distinctions we can make between types of recipe–distilling and brewing, veterinary, dyeing, cosmetic and medical, conserving and preserving–are as much about spaces as processes. Householders’ social status and geography, as well as the ends of production (for home or for commerce?), profoundly influenced where a recipe might be realized: kitchens of different sizes and sophistication, stillrooms, closets and larders, apothecary shops and cookshops, dye houses and breweries…

Even within domestic households, different types of recipes were practised in different spaces. What came out of a kitchen in an aristocratic house like Ham House (Surrey, National Trust) was not the same as what issued from its purpose-built stillroom (still in existence), or its meat larder, as surviving seventeenth-century inventories of equipment kept in these rooms document. (2) And these spaces tell very different stories about the environmental conditions  and technological requirements of production: the stillroom on the ground floor, light but north-facing, well-ventilated to take off the fumes from the charcoal stoves (listed in the inventories); the kitchen at basement level, possibly located there not only as a nod to continental architectural aesthetics, but also to aid delivery of water from the local spring.

The energy transition to coal that William Cavert discusses, was also a domestic revolution. Cooking hearths were transformed by burning coal instead of wood, peat or other fuels. What did this then mean for adapting early modern recipes? Coal ranges meant different hearth arrangements and the potential for new cooking kit, too. Mechanical roasting jacks and flat-bottomed sauce- and stewpans were not just harbingers of culinary shifts, but of technological reorganization. What was elaborate and aspirational for the seventeenth-century well-to-do classes (e.g. instructions for pastryworks or other baked confections), became commonplace by the late-eighteenth century. The later print and manuscript recipes for biscuits and cakes signaled the renaissance of home-baking–fuelled (literally) by the incorporation of ovens into ranges or as separate features in middling kitchens.

Illustrated frontispieces in printed English recipe books from the late seventeenth century onwards fed readers ideas about ‘dream’ kitchens. Few illustrations represented real kitchens–although there is one honourable exception in the mid-nineteenth century [3], just as few menus in the same books necessarily recorded what was actually eaten at elite or middling tables. But the frontispieces themselves are a recipe for the reader: they propose what spatial and equipment ingredients made ‘the compleat housewife’ of the early eighteenth century and the modern systematic housekeeper of the early nineteenth century.

As with all recipes, the reader had to contribute something to the creation of these spaces in real life. Alongside the food preparation and other work that occurred in the kitchen, the aspiring housewife needed to accommodate architectural constraints, technological challenges, domestic service (where it could be afforded) and other household occupants–lodgers, children, dogs and even the odd parrot!  The kitchen may have been the cookery book’s idealized home, but in this crowded space, recipes and their realization were (and are) only one of the ingredients in its spatial story.

To understand recipes as practical texts, therefore, we need to think not only about the words on the page, but also about the spaces and materials that enabled (or no less importantly, inhibited) their making.

[1] E.g. Hannele Klemettilä, The Medieval Kitchen: a Social History with Recipes (Reaktion, 2012).

[2] These are fully transcribed in Christopher Rowell, ed., Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage (Yale, 2013).

[3] George Scharf’s c. 1850 sketch of the publisher John Murray’s kitchen (now in the British Museum) became the frontispiece to the publisher’s 1850 edition of Eliza Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery.