Anyone who’s tried making their own panko breadcrumbs will know it’s not worth the effort. Even after removing the crusts from a loaf of white bread, baking it whole, grating it and baking again, you may still be left with a pile of limp confetti or dry shale. In reality, the only way to produce panko’s light, rigid slivers is with electricity.
On a commercial scale, mounds of white-bread dough are tipped into deep, electrically charged metal trenches. The dough is zapped, effectively steaming it from the inside without exterior heat, yielding a crustless loaf that is then air-dried for 18 hours, pushed through a screen to form shards, and lightly toasted. This galvanic method is often attributed to Japanese soldiers in World War II, who baked bread outdoors without an oven.
In Australia, panko is a common pantry item and features on many Japanese menus. Tonkatsu (fried panko-crusted pork cutlet) sandwiches are eaten in restaurants, cafes and even wine bars all over Sydney today, but Cafe Oratnek in Redfern offered one of the first versions, for which it’s still well-known today.
According to Oratnek owner and former Bills’ head chef Kenny Takayama, there are rules for panko-crumbing. Your egg must be well-beaten, or the crumb will peel off. The panko should be applied lightly and uniformly, he says, “and don’t fry straight away, wrap [the tonkatsu] and rest it in the fridge. Take it out half an hour before deep-frying to bring it up to room temperature.” When it’s cooked perfectly, the panko stands upright like lightning bolts sent from heaven.
Panko is a crisp cornerstone of yōshoku, a Western-influenced arm of Japanese cuisine born in the mid-1800s, when the previously self-isolated Japan was forced to commence trade with the West. Through frequent encounters with the US Navy, Japanese sailors were introduced to American food in order to learn Western etiquette.
Up until this point, meat consumption had been banned in Japan for 1200 years, since the introduction of Buddhism from Korea in the 6th century. But after the Meiji Restoration – a political revolution in 1868 that ushered in a wave of trade, modernisation and Westernisation – the new emperor promoted meat-heavy Western food as vitamin-rich, and it caught on. Tonkatsu was one of the earliest yōshoku dishes, invented in 1899 at a restaurant for Westerners in Ginza, when the chef applied the tempura deep-frying technique to a côtelette de veau (veal chop). But it wasn’t until the 1960s that yōshoku really came into vogue.
“I think there was a longing for American culture for Japanese people after WWII,” says Takayama. “Everything coming from the West looked fancy and was admired by Japanese people. In the 1960s at the same time, we had a high economic 'miracle period’ and food became not only something to satisfy hunger, but also for leisure.”
Panko is a crisp cornerstone of yōshoku, a Western-influenced arm of Japanese cuisine born in the mid-1800s, when the previously self-isolated Japan was forced to commence trade with the West.
European and American influence engendered the popularisation of tomato sauce in rice (omuraisu), and dishes like croquettes (korokke) and fried panko prawns (ebi furai), beef patties (hambagu), potato salad, and even curry made with a spiced roux.
Meg Tanaka, founder and owner of Cibi in Melbourne's inner-city suburb of Collingwood experienced these broader cultural changes within her own family unit. "Traditional dishes central to my grandmother's understanding of home-style cooking – braised vegetables, grilled fish – were replaced with my mother's yōshoku-style cooking. [It was] a real cultural shift during the '60s to the '80s."
“These main dishes took over the traditional Japanese main dishes such as braised vegetables, grilled fish etc ... in the ‘60s to ‘80s,” says Meg Tanaka, head chef and owner of Japanese cafe and grocer Cibi in Melbourne, whose menu takes influences from her grandmother’s traditional Japanese fare and her mother’s yōshoku-style cooking.
Takayama says that until recently, Japanese food to Australians was mostly sushi, sashimi and tempura, but since opening his yōshoku cafe in 2015, he’s seen our understanding change.
“It was quite easy to introduce it, [compared to] traditional Japanese cuisine, like eating raw fish. The ingredients of yōshoku are very familiar for Western people, like tomato sauce, demi-glace, butter, cream, cheese and panko.”
While both traditional and yōshoku dishes are beloved here, Japanese ingredients and techniques are always being borrowed, adapted and mixed – whether it’s miso making its way into baked eggs at Cibi, or Aussie pubs crumbing their parmas with panko.
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