Apply 140 milliliters of hot water on the brown rectangular block, then stir for 60 seconds and voila, a steaming plate of chicken cutlet curry — that quintessential Japanese comfort food — is resurrected from its mummified state, offering instant gratification with minimal preparation.

This is one of the latest inventions of Masato Shimamura, the freeze-drying guru at Amano Foods, the nation’s dominant manufacturer of the shrunken grub often associated with space and military rations.

The 60-year-old and his team at Amano Foods, now a brand under Asahi Group Foods Ltd., have taken the art of freeze-drying to a new level through exhaustive trial and error, offering everyday meals that appeal to the Japanese palate while venturing into more complex dishes, such as coleslaw and nabe hot pots.

“Ultimately we’d like to create entire breakfast and lunch menus, and even in-flight first-class course meals, freeze-dried,” said Shimamura at Asahi Group Foods’ headquarters in Tokyo.

Lightweight and with a long shelf life, freeze dried foods are staples of astronauts and outdoor enthusiasts who value their high nutritional value and easy preparation during long trips in space or the backcountry.

In Japan, however, the individually portioned meals are primarily marketed as a substitute for home cooking aimed at busy, single and elderly households.

“Our emphasis is on quality and taste, and how enjoyable the experience can be,” said Akio Takamine, a spokesman for food and beverage giant Asahi Group Holdings Ltd., the parent company of Asahi Group Foods.

They also come in handy as emergency rations in a nation prone to natural disasters, including frequent earthquakes and typhoons, he said, one reason sales of freeze-dried foods are growing.

Market research company Fuji Keizai Co. Ltd. estimates the market for freeze-dried soup was worth about ¥18.6 billion in 2017, up 5.1 percent from the previous year, and projected that figure to climb to ¥20.5 billion in 2022. Growth is especially pronounced with miso soup, with data provider KSP-SP Co. estimating its market size to have jumped threefold between 2012 to 2016.

Amano Foods, founded in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1947, has been a pioneer in producing freeze-dried miso soup and currently offers about 70 varieties using numerous ingredients and types of miso. It shipped freeze-dried food products worth ¥12 billion in 2017, up 8 percent from the year before, according to Asahi Group Holdings.

The success Amano Foods has been enjoying is the culmination of decades of endless experiments, said Shimamura, who joined the company in 1981.

Freeze-drying technology took off in earnest during World War II, when it was developed to preserve blood plasma for emergencies. It went on to be applied to consumer food products after the war, with instant coffee being one of the first freeze-dried products to be marketed on a large scale, landing in Japan in the 1960s.

When Nissin Food Products Co. introduced the world’s first instant cup ramen noodle in 1971, it was Amano Foods that initially provided freeze-dried toppings such as shrimp and chopped leek. When Shimamura joined the company, one of the first tasks he was assigned by the president was developing freeze-dried miso soup, the Japanese soul food.

Shimamura collected about 30 different types of miso paste from across Japan, mixed the miso to achieve a range of flavors and tried out numerous ingredients and dashi soup stock. He initially made 10 different varieties, but many were rejected.

“The natto (fermented soybean) miso soup was axed because it’s bacteria could contaminate factory equipment, while quality control became an issue for another miso soup using sakekasu (the lees of the sake making process),” he said.

In the end, four types of freeze-dried miso soup — featuring spinach, enoki mushrooms, barley miso and shijimi clams — were produced. But the extensive resources required to make them meant it came with a relatively high price tag — Shimamura said a single pack cost about ¥100 (it still does today). “This was a time when a can of coke was sold for about ¥30,” he said.

Freeze-dried chicken cutlet curry is one of Shimamura's latest inventions for Amano Foods, the nation's leading manufacturer of the shrunken grub. | COURTESY OF ASAHI GROUP FOODS
Freeze-dried chicken cutlet curry is one of Shimamura’s latest inventions for Amano Foods, the nation’s leading manufacturer of the shrunken grub. | COURTESY OF ASAHI GROUP FOODS

For the first year, Shimamura’s miso soups were given to clients as souvenirs. After receiving positive feedback, Amano Foods commercialized the product in 1983 and gradually expanded its lineup.

In the 1990s, freeze-dried egg soup became a hit, and in 1993 Amano Foods launched Japan’s first freeze-dried congee.

In 2008 the company was bought by Asahi, and in 2014 it released Japan’s first freeze-dried hot pot, followed by the nation’s first freeze-dried pasta dishes in 2015. The chicken cutlet curry, which caused a sensation among instant food watchers for the way it somehow retained the cutlet’s crisp texture, debuted in 2017 as a limited-edition product.

These days, Amano Foods operates out of Okayama Prefecture, employing about 400 workers, who produce 270 million meals annually using 21 vacuum freeze-dryers, the largest being the size of a shinkansen car and capable of making 88,000 portions in a single run.

Shimamura, whose official title is technical adviser of the Amano Brand Planning Office of Asahi Group Foods, has his own personal freeze-dryer he uses to try out new ideas, one of the most recent being freeze-dried grilled salted salmon — standard Japanese fare.

He took out a slice wrapped in plastic to demonstrate how it is rehydrated. “You don’t want to overdo it, just dip it in hot water a few times, sort of like shabu-shabu,” he said, referring to a type of hot pot that uses thinly sliced ingredients.

After a few soaks, he laid the slice of grilled fish on a plate for tasting. From the juicy fillet to the crispy skin, it was nearly every bit the salted salmon found in bento boxed lunches and in traditional Japanese breakfasts.

“We still have some work to do on this one,” Shimamura said.

From selecting the right cooking ingredients and fine-tuning the equipment based on the dish, meticulous preparation is necessary in freeze-drying. But once things are set, the process itself is straightforward.

When making miso soup, for example, it will first be prepared inside a large pot before being poured into trays and frozen at minus 30 degrees Celsius for eight hours. The product is then placed inside the vacuum freeze-dryer, where the atmospheric pressure is lowered. Heat is also added to the product to achieve sublimation, the changing of ice directly into vapor without it going through a liquid phase. Once the product is dried sufficiently, it’s sealed in a moisture-free package before being shipped. The entire process takes about one week for Amano Foods, which currently offers over 150 products.

To maintain a competitive edge and differentiate itself from other instant foods, Shimamura considers it essential for freeze-dried products to be rehydrated and ready for consumption in 30 seconds, or 60 seconds at most. Numerous dishes he has tested have yet to clear that hurdle, but Shimamura says he’s certain they eventually will. “We have a treasure trove of past mistakes we can learn from,” he said.

And Shimamura, who has been featured in an educational manga book on freeze-drying, is always up for a challenge.

“Just tell me what you want me to freeze-dry, and I will.”

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