The thought of meals in Japan usually consist of images of rice as a central dish with several smaller side dishes. Yet, especially in the last couple of decades, bread culture has developed and matured, with many bakeries in the city and rural areas becoming commonplace. As can be expected, the Japanese have taken the basics of baking and have added a few twists of their own. How did Japan's bread culture develop and how did it get to where it is today? Let's take a look at its history.
History of Bread in Japan
The first time bread was introduced to Japan is during the Nanban trade in 1543. Oda Nobunaga, a warlord, actively introduced guns, bread, and Christianity to Japan through the Namban trade route, but because there were strict restrictions on location and items that could be traded, bread culture did not spread to the general public.
It was only after the 1840s that Tarozaemon Egawa, a military scientist, hypothesized that bread was a better food for soldiers than rice. He built an oven in his house and started making bread in 1842. Egawa's interest in bread served as a catalyst, and from the Meiji era (1868-1912) onwards, bread culture spread as a part of Western culture.
The history of bread in general dates back to the Mesopotamian civilization about 6,000 years ago, highlighting the view that producing and consuming bread is a relatively recent development in Japan. The geographical isolation of Japan, separated from surrounding countries by the sea, most likely delayed the introduction of bread. Another factor was that the rice diet had taken root in Japan, establishing itself as the country's staple food. Later, as Japan was defeated by the Allied forces in World War II, the U.S. military took the initiative to alleviate the food shortages following the defeat by introducing school lunches in Japan. School lunches included bread and milk made with wheat and dairy products from the United States. This led to the spread of bread culture and dairy products in Japan.
Today, surveys show that bread is just as popular as rice amongst the Japanese. There are many bakeries and cake shops in the city and all supermarkets and convenience stores sell bread. It is evident that bread culture has spread in Japan over some time now, and has become an indispensable part of the Japanese diet.
Bread with a Japanese Twist
Bread culture spread in Japan in earnest from the Meiji era (1868-1912), with several differences in the types of bread that have evolved when compared to Europe. Breads that you only find in Japan include anpan, curry-pan, and melon-pan.
Anpan is a bread dough formed into a round shape and then filled with red bean paste. The bean paste is sweetened, placing anpan in the pastry category. The paste is not always made of red bean, but white and green pastes are also created by using different color bean varieties. To add complexity to the taste, salt is also added to this sweet treat, another feature found in Japanese sweets.
Curry-pan is a deep-fried bread filled with Japanese curry inside. Records show that curry was first introduced to Japan in the Meiji era. The combination of curry and rice gained popularity, promoting the spread of this meal. Likewise, the combination of curry and bread also gained in popularity, and was called curry-pan, "pan" being the word for "bread" in Japanese. The first curry-pan was deep-fried pork and curry wrapped in bread dough and baked. However, with the passage of time, curry-pan has evolved and is now a popular menu item at bakeries.
Melon-pan, as the name suggests, is a bread that resembles the shape and color of a melon. The sweet surface of the cookie dough and the fluffy bread dough make for a delicious combination. There are many theories about the origin of melon-pan. One is that it originated from a sweet bread called "concha" in Mexico. Another theory is that it is a combination of Russian pirozhki and French galette made by an Armenian chef. The truth remains a mystery.
In Japan, there is also a bread that combines noodles and bread. These are called yakisoba-pan and Neapolitan-pan. These breads are made by sandwiching seasoned noodles between two pieces of bread. This combination of carbohydrates-pasta and bread--is rarely seen outside of Japan.
Differences in Bread between Europe and Japan
What differences can be seen between European and Japanese bread?
Before we begin, it must be said that "European bread" cannot be encapsulated as one concept, and that there are big differences between the bread traditions and preferences between the European countries. WIth that said, a popular type of bread eaten in Eastern Europe, such as in Russia, is black bread. Conversely, breads in France and Italy are often light and crispy. Germany has a wide selection of white breads as well as black breads. In general, there are many different kinds of European bread dough and a variety of advanced production methods.
In Japan, bread culture was introduced and spread from the United States after the war. Basically, most of what is produced and eaten in Japan is refined white bread. It is low in minerals and nutrients and has a monotonous taste. Since Japanese people have been accustomed to white bread since childhood, many have a palate that finds this type of white bread delicious. For this reason, most of the bread found in supermarkets is based on white bread. As the history of bread culture in Japan is only about 200 years old, not much research has been done on all the methods surrounding bread making. Many commercial breads, in particular, do not have much in the way of varieties of dough. People from Europe, where there are many kinds of breads and doughs, may feel that Japanese bread is lacking. On the other hand, there are breads that are unique to Japan, such as the ones mentioned above, and in the future, it is likely that the bread cultures of Europe and Japan will further merge, producing unique breads and production methods.
The Emergence of Bakeries in Japan
It is apparent that Japan's bread culture lags behind that of Europe. Recently, however, bakers and sweets chefs trained overseas are opening bakeries and confectionery stores of high quality in Japan. Especially in metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, there are numerous bakeries and confectionery stores that hold their own. Japanese people are accustomed to white bread in school lunches, but more recently there has been a growing interest in European breads and sweets. The Japanese consumer, with younger women leading the way, are lining up at good bakeries. The price of bread sold in popular bakeries is three to four times the price of commercially available items, which can seem expensive. However, many people buy bread from popular bakeries, saying that they prefer breads with authentic baking methods. Perhaps the reason behind the bread boom is the growing interest in European culture as well.
The Future of Japan's Bread Culture
As we have seen, Japan's bread culture is becoming increasingly influenced by Europe. Combined with the health boom originating in the U.S., black bread has recently been attracting attention for its health benefits. In addition, bread made from Japanese produced rice flour is also appearing. This is a bread culture of local production for local consumption, similar to how French bread in Vietnam is made with rice flour. Bread made from rice flour is stickier and softer than bread made from wheat.
In Japanese cuisine, there is a concept of "one soup, three vegetables", meaning that in addition to miso soup and rice, three side dishes should be eaten together. It is interesting to note that this concept has carried over to include bread as one of the side dishes, and has even garnered a name, delicatessen bread. The aforementioned yakisoba bread falls into this category. Other types of bread include croquette bread, pork cutlet sandwiches, and other combinations of Japanese food and bread. The development and history of Japanese bread making is not comparable to that of Europe; yet, the combination of Japanese food and bread culture has produced original ideas that cannot be found elsewhere. As Japan and European cultures continue to share and show interest in one anothers traditions, the fusion of ideas will likely also continue, resulting in an evolving and new bread culture.
Taste of Japanese Inspired Breads
Japan's bread culture started as a substitute for rice. After the end of World War II, it became a part of the Japanese diet as an alternative source of nutrition to rice. Post-war, Japan was a very poor country and could not produce enough rice, which was the main crop for sustenance. Wheat flour imported from the U.S. and bread made from it became an important source of energy for the Japanese. Nowadays, bread is becoming an alternative energy source to rice and noodles, and is gaining in popularity. There are bakeries and cake shops in the city, most of which are of a high standard. There are also an increasing number of creative breads that would be fun to introduce to the world, such as Japan's own delicatessen breads and sweet breads. We encourage you to try and compare for yourself!