Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist from a sake-making family, moved to New Orleans in 1884 to represent Japan at the city’s World Cotton Centennial, that year’s World Fair. He fell in love with a local wealthy white woman and they married, an unusual pairing for the time. In addition to his social iconoclasm, Takamine was a shrewd businessman who wanted to promote Japanese culture in the United States. His successes are too numerous to list in a story about koji: He patented the first hormone, adrenaline, which made him fabulously wealthy. With the money from that and other successful businesses, he financed the Japanese government’s gift of cherry trees, whose blossoms still grace Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin every April.
Takamine also introduced Americans to koji. In Japan, he had patented a process to grow koji on wheat bran, and he realized that koji and the enzymes it produced could dramatically speed up the whiskey-making process, its enzymes freeing sugar much faster than traditional malting. So Takamine partnered with his father-in-law in an attempt to transform the whiskey business.
Joan Bennett, professor at Rutgers University and former president of the American Society for Microbiology, believes that Takamine was not exactly welcomed into the world of 1800s American whiskey. Bennett has become somewhat obsessed with the Takamine story and has even written a short piece about him in Inoculum, the newsletter of the Mycological Society of America.
Bennett first discovered Takamine three decades ago, when she was a young scientist, writing her first review article on the genus Aspergillus. While amassing dates on great moments in the fungus’s history in microbiology, she discovered, to her surprise, that Takamine had patented the first fungal enzyme from Aspergillus. Six months later, wandering through the stacks at Tulane University’s library, where she worked at the time, Bennett randomly came across a narrow book about Takamine and wondered what could have been written about the Aspergillus patent holder. She discovered a vanity biography commissioned by his wife, Caroline, after he died.
Takamine did leave one koji-size mark on American history: The patent that Bennett discovered in her research was arguably the first biotechnology patent in the United States, given to him in 1891 for an enzyme created by koji he named Taka-diastase. This is the same enzyme that failed Takamine in the whiskey business, but he thought it could also be useful in aiding digestion, perhaps, says Bennett, due to a popular theory at the time that indigestion was caused by too much starch. Takamine used that enzyme to create and sell a popular Alka-Seltzer-like digestive aid called, appropriately, Takadiastase, which was a hit in late 1800s America and is still popular today in Japan. Bennett calls Takamine a “huge and somewhat overlooked figure in the history of biotechnology.”
The use of Aspergillus in biotech has continued since Takamine’s discoveries. The cholesterol-lowering drug Lovastatin is produced by a koji cousin. Aspergillus niger, used to ferment pu-ehr tea, is also employed industrially to produce citric acid.
But, other than the handful of companies making soy sauce and miso in the United States, koji’s potential as a creative ingredient in food fermentation and transformation has largely evaded American chefs. Until recently.