I wrote in a previous entry how the Japanese take pride in being a country of rice eaters. Despite the popularity of various types of noodles, bread never became a part of the Japanese diet until after the country’s big push for modernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now, bread is thought of as strictly a “Western food”. But that doesn’t mean modern Japanese people eschew bread. In fact, it’s is quite popular. Though, like most foreign foods, it’s given a strong Japanese twist.
While you can always buy your bread (or “pan” in Japanese) off a grocery store shelf, even in Japan, it’s a lot more fun to get fresh bread at a real bakery. Bakeries are surprisingly common in Japan, perhaps even more so than in many parts of the US. Larger grocery stores also tend to feature full bakeries (much nicer than the “bakeries” found in your local Safeway or City Market).
When shopping at a Japanese bakery it’s important to follow the proper procedure. First, when you enter the bakery you’ll find a stack of trays and a rack of tongs. Take a tray and some tongs before you start. The bread itself is arranged on trays on shelves around the store, often with signs noting the most popular kinds. When you see something you want, pick it up with the tongs (don’t use your hands) and put it on your tray. Once you’re done, take your tray to the counter and they’ll bag the bread for you (often using far more bags than seems necessary). If you get a loaf, they’ll even let you choose how many slices you want it cut into. But anyway, enough about shopping. Let’s talk about the bread itself…
Dinner bread is your typical loaf of sandwich bread. It’s pretty similar to standard US white bread, though it’s perfectly rectangular without any sort of rounded top. You can find whole wheat and rye dinner bread as well, though they’re a bit uncommon, and I’ve seen raisin and chocolate versions as well.
Because of the Japanese tendency to buy small portions of fresh food every day or two instead of stocking up, most dinner bread is sold in packs of 3 or 6 slices (4 is an unlucky number in Japanese), rather than as an entire loaf. As an interesting note, said packs never include the heal of the bread. The slices themselves are often thicker than what you’d see in the US. Sometimes it’s not a very big difference, but it’s not uncommon to see bread slices that are a full inch or two thick either.
Other Loaf Breads
While dinner bread is the primary “loaf bread” in Japan, many bakeries have a few of their own. French breads of various types (such as normal “French bread” and batards) are fairly common, but you’ll also find many that are obviously Japanese. Some of the more interesting loaf breads I’ve encountered include: satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) and black sesame bread, green tea bread, and rice bread (a personal favorite).
As a side note, Japanese breads tend to be a bit softer and moister than their Western counterparts (either from the US or Europe). In fact, Japanese people tend to avoid dry harder foods in general. Pretzels are rare as are all but the softest cheeses.
Buns and Pastries
Now this is where Japanese bread really gets fun. While you won’t see a lot of (if any) cookies, muffins, or scones in Japan, they’ve got quite a lot of buns and pastries of their own. While you’ll see a few familiar items, the majority are original Japanese creations. Nearly every bakery, even ones that are part of large chains, have a few specialty breads which you can’t find anywhere else and it can be pretty interesting to get a few random ones to try, but here’s a list of some of the more common Japanese breads.
Butter Roll: These are similar to dinner rolls, only softer and with quite a lot of butter baked in.
Croissants: Croissants in Japan are about the same as croissants anywhere else, though you’ll occasionally find ones stuffed with chocolate or covered in maple syrup.
Anpan (Read Bean Bread): Anman are buns which are easily recognizable by the black sesame seeds sprinkled on top. They’re filled with sweet red bean paste (a popular ingredient in Japanese sweets).
Meronpan (Melon Bread): Melon bread actually gets its name from the crosshatch pattern cut into the top, which looks like the rind of a Japanese musk melon, rather than its ingredients. Though, if you’re lucky, you may run across some actual melon flavored melon bread from time to time. Melon bread itself is a rather interesting bun created by taking a ball of bread dough and covering it with a layer of cookie dough before baking. When done right, it’s very soft, puffy, and sweet.
Kurimupan (Cream Bread): Cream bread is another stuffed bun (similar to anpan), often with an odd crimped shape, and filled with sweet cream. If you like it, you may also want to keep an eye out for similar breads stuffed with chocolate or apples.
Chiizupan (Cheese Bread): Unlike the sweet stuffed buns, cheese bread has less of a sheen to it and is often similar in shape to an English muffin. Inside is melted cheese and sometimes meat and vegetables as well.
Kareepan (Curry Bread): If sweet and buttery breads aren’t your thing, why not try something spicy? Curry bread is stuffed full of Japanese curry (which I’ll talk about more in a future post), covered with panko (flakey Japanese bread crumbs), and fried. It makes for a great snack or even a small meal and, while it’s good at room temperature, it’s even better right out of the oven.
And that’s only the beginning. If I tried to list all the strange (but good) breads I’ve seen in Japan, I’d be writing for hours. Japan may be a “rice” country but it’s certainly a great place for bread as well. If you’d like to learn more about Japanese bread, and baking in general, I highly recommend the anime (cartoon) and manga (graphic novel) series Yakitate Japan! which peaked my interest in bread and baking several years ago. And, if you’d like to try out some of the above breads without visiting Japan, feel free to drop me a line and I can pass on some of my recipes.