I first heard of panko in cooking school, around the year 2000, although cooking professionals had been using it for years at that point. They knew what everybody else would later come to learn: Coarsely ground panko was superior in almost every way to regular breadcrumbs: lighter, airier, less prone to absorbing oil. It stayed crunchier, and it was forgiving in the pan.
As far as I can tell, panko arrived in the U.S. in the 1980’s, brought by a Japanese manufacturer with a profitable interest in breaded seafood. But the earliest reference I can find to it in a cookbook was in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine (1988), where it is used in the traditional fashion–breading a tonkatsu. A few years later, Martha Stewart picked it up. But since Martha Stewart wasn’t yet Martha Stewart, it didn’t make much of a difference.
Bit by bit, panko has crossed over from being an exotic seafood crust ingredient to being a default ingredient for any crust. Rachael Ray puts in on mac and cheese. Ming Tsai puts it on eggplant. Ina Garten uses it to top mushrooms.
Panko goes inside stuff too, where regular bread crumbs now fear to tread–meatballs and stuffing, say. Last night I made some meatballs from the Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier. Despite a calorie count that is an argument for cooking from this book only once a month, the pork-and-beef meatballs seemed lighter–proving that panko isn’t always just about the crunch.
I think the final clue, for me, that panko had arrived was the news a month ago that Wendy’s–yes, “Where’s the Beef?” Wendy’s–was offering a Premium Fish Fillet coated in panko, and felt no need to explain what that might be.
It’s not the way every immigrant wants to make his or her name in this country–becoming a star component on a fast-food menu–but I dare say it will help make panko even easier to find on your local supermarket shelves. And for those of us addicted to panko’s easy, crunchalicious ways in the kitchen, that can only be welcome news.