Monday, May 21, 2012

Likes and Dislikes: Bread in Japan

Hi there.

So, I want to talk about bread in Japan.

First, maybe I should mention my experience with bread in the US.

You can get white bread, wheat bread, sourdough bread and various other sorts of non-sweet loaves of bread in great assortment. There's the pure white stuff that has had most of its nutritional value beaten from it with a stick (this stuff also comes in hot dog and hamburger bun styles). On the other end of the spectrum is the bread that has so many whole grains, nuts, and seeds in it that it's almost turned into a granola bar. All these various sorts of bread come in good-sized loaves, usually pre-sliced, and you get anywhere from, oh, a dozen to a couple dozen slices per loaf. This is the kind of bread you use to make sandwiches or toast, for the most part.

Besides this standard loaf-style bread of dozens and dozens of varieties, there's
buns and rolls and sticks of french bread, bagels and baguettes and such, and sometimes they might have raisins or nuts in them or herbs crusted on the top, and bagels might come in blueberry or something, but they are generally unsweetened and are considered food--not dessert.

Dessert "breads" in the US would be pastries, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, muffins, and cakes, for starters, but do Americans consider any of those to be "bread"? I think, most Americans draw a line between what bread is--for meals, for health, for actual good food--and what treats and snacks made from wheat products are. Those treats and snacks are not considered bread.

The Japanese, however, seem to have taken the idea of bread--without ever really looking at how the west does it--and started making bread their way, with their own embellishments, all on their own.

This act has both lost some (what I consider) essential aspects of bread-making, and added some fantastic new aspects that I've never seen in the west and will miss sorely should I return to the US.

So, what did bread lose when it hopped the Pacific?

It lost the big loaves of a couple dozen pre-sliced slices of dozens of varieties. The bread intended for sandwich making over here comes in a small plastic bag of either six or eight (or sometimes fewer) perfectly square slices of bread. There's no heel: no shape that would indicate a loaf of bread at all. Also, these mass-produced precisely measured servings of six or eight slices rarely come in any variety other than pure white. Sometimes you can find variation in the crust color--from white to tan. If you look hard, you can find some bags of slices that are labeled as "rye." This rye bread is still perfectly white, but it has a handful of whole grains mixed about in it.

Wheat bread (or "brown bread" for our British friends) is available, but not all stores carry it (I could not find it in Morioka, but most stores I've visited in Yokosuka have some). It is usually twice as expensive as the white stuff, or more, and sometimes comes in fewer slices. On the back of the package of every bag of wheat slices that I've seen, is the "Roman Meal" logo, suggesting to me that it's a foreign owned company. Would any company that's purely Japanese ever produce a bread that uses the whole grain? I do wonder.

If you're crazy about having lots of munchy grains and seeds and nuts in your bread--the kind of bread that takes care of your daily fiber needs with one slice--you will be deeply disappointed. I have yet to find such a thing in Japan. I still often wonder where the Japanese get their fiber from. It is certainly not coming from whole grains, as I don't think they eat any.

As for french bread and its cousins, they seem to have transferred to Japan fairly well, so you can get your nice long, skinny loaves of french bread for your kids to pretend are swords--no problem. I have not yet seen sourdough, however.

So Japan lost about 98% of the whole grains and seeds when they brought in bread. They have, however, run off in a new direction the likes of which I have never seen in the US, and it is one of my most beloved things about Japan.

They made bread into snacks and treats. Yes, they have muffins, cakes, pastries, and all that just like the US (though never as large), but they have taken white bread in a hundred different shapes, and added a hundred different flavors and creams and icings and fillings to it to make the most munchable yum-yummable bread-goodies that I've ever seen.

The dozens of varieties of melon bread alone are astounding! Melon in Japan is not like melon in the US. We think of cantaloupe or honeydew or watermelon, but they have a different sort of orange melon here that they just call "melon" and they put it in bread. Some melon bread is just flavored with it. Some is also tinted green or orange. Some has sugar crusted on the top. Some is super squishy. Some has actual melon or melon cream inside it. Some is in a doughnut shape and some in a twist or a folded up star shape. Everything they do with melon, they also do with chocolate and cream.

Then there's the green tea flavored bread. Usually, it's green. It comes in all kinds of shapes, too. Sometimes there's cream or red beans (which ruins it, in my opinion) in the bread, too. You can get bread that is perilously close to cake, sandwiching various fruit flavored creams. There are also swiss rolls of bunches of flavors from chocolate to melon to vanilla to maple to mocha. There's what seems to be a slightly dense hot dog bun with cream and chocolate in place of the hot dog. Beyond that, the hot dog has also been replaced with soba noodles, egg, cheese, ham, bacon, minced meat, tuna, and bunches of other stuff, suggesting a possibly healthy snack.

Bakeries, which are often included in grocery stores, and sometimes stand alone as well, have their own creations from the savory to the sweet: bagels (flavors include chocolate, green tea, red bean, blueberry, strawberry, and more), doughnuts (often filled with red beans to make sure that I won't eat them), individual slices of pizza with creative toppings (including corn and broccoli, but alas, rarely mushroom or Italian sausage), bread sticks of various flavors, rolls and buns (filled with red beans, cream, cheese, melon, apple, chocolate, and more), inspired by the cinnamon roll various flavors (including apple, orange, cream, maple)--the list goes on and on.

So bread lost a lot and gained a lot when it came to Japan. If the Japanese would just consent to using whole grains, and consider adding oats and seeds and other crunchy goodness to the breads--think of the hundreds more combinations they could make! It seems to me, however, that the Japanese view bread as needing to be gentle, soft, and sweet. The hearty thickness of a true whole grain bread must somehow be off-putting.

Or perhaps it's the same issue that they have with rice. Rice must be white, because brown rice is peasant rice. Never mind that brown rice is processed less, so it should be less expensive, and retains the 90% or so of the health value that is polished off when it becomes white rice. If the Japanese all switched from white to brown, I wonder if the rising rates of diabetes and obesity would slow? I'm no expert; I'm just wondering based on stuff I've heard and read.

I wish the Japanese could appreciate the pleasure of sinking their teeth into a thick, whole grain roll or sandwich. They don't know what they're missing. It's textured and wholesome and satisfying--unlike the squares of white bread that give way like mush.

On the other hand, I am making an effort to enjoy as many varieties of melon bread as I possibly can while I'm here. It may not be particularly filling, but it's certainly a delight for the palate.

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