At Ginza Sembikiya in the ritzy Mitsukoshi-mae Building, a Beethoven concerto fills the bright, lofty room of the high-end fruit retailer. Supermodel melons, strawberries and peaches lie in jewellery store-like displays, carefully cushioned, glass-trimmed, and illuminated by a soft white backlight.
Fruit in Japan is traditionally regarded as a luxury item. At the entrance to Ginza Sembikiya, a store clerk waits with a plate of gleaming mango cubes on toothpicks. The mango, a Kanjuku mango from Miyazaki Prefecture, is one ‘that you won’t forget once you eat it’, says its placard – nor will you forget the price tag, ¥4,320 ($57 AUD).
Ginza Sembikiya was one of a wave of ‘fruit parlours’ that were opened by luxury fruit retailers in the early 1900s. The ‘mobo-moga’ (modern boys and modern girls) of Japan’s roaring 20s frequented these European-style cafes, ordering menu items like fruit punches and parfaits.
“It was a fashionable new way of consuming fruit,” says Shimizu Shibata, a spokesperson for Ginza Sembikiya.
At the dessert counter inside, there are always two fruit sandwich options (“fruits sando”, locally) – one featuring a seasonal specialty, like the Kanjuku mango – and the house classic: a combination of fresh kiwifruit, melon, peach, apple and sweet stewed chestnuts. The crustless sandwiches, cut into slender fingers, are filled with precisely sliced fruit held together with silky whipped cream, and come packaged in dainty containers with the store’s name inscribed in gold. The sandwich portions are can be neatly eaten; so soft you barely have to bite. Fortunately, the store’s fruit sandwiches come in around a more reasonable ¥1,100 ($14).
When two trends become one
Following the decadence of the Taisho Era (1912–1926), Japan entered the Showa-era (1926–1989), a period for its wartime and Great Depression-conscious pragmatism. The rapid adoption of food and culture from the West at the time saw sandwiches make a storming entrance into Japanese cuisine. Shibata says that while the exact point sandwiches and fruit collided is unknown, it is believed to be the 1940s.
“It seems that fruit sandwiches grew out of accessibility,” says Shibata, “They’re not as sweet as cake, and they don’t crush, so can be eaten more easily.”
It is also speculated, as Shibata confirms, that the considerably lower sugar content – an ingredient that was at a premium in the post-war era – may have contributed to their conception and popularity. Fruit sandwiches provided a little luxury, but not as much as cake.
Over the years, with economic and social change, the image and availability of fruit sandwiches has changed.
Meg Yoshida, a baker in Tokyo, tells me, “when I was a child, fruit sandwiches had a luxury about them. Now, they have a more affordable image.”
“I’ve never actually tried one of the fancy ones,” says Yoshida, “but even the convenience-store ones, which cost around ¥250–350 yen ($3.30–$4.60), are good”.
Between the two ends of the luxury spectrum, fruit sandwiches can be found on cafe menus, in department store food halls, at supermarkets, and, increasingly, in specialty fruit-sandwich stores.
One such specialty store is Futsu ni Fruits in Kamakura (a seaside city just south of Tokyo). Store manager of Futsu ni Fruits, Kyohei Mikama, says the shop was opened with the belief that fruit should be eaten more casually, not just for dessert.
Futsu ni Fruits features an 1980s art-deco exterior and inside, bluegrass country music plays. A fruit mobile hangs alongside a wealth of other fruit paraphernalia. The seat is a single wooden beam painted sky blue that runs the length of the tiny room – a far cry from the white walls and glittering chandeliers of Ginza Sembikiya. The front counter is stocked with the days’ fruit sandwich offering – grapefruit, melon, mixed fruit, and coffee-banana – ranging from ¥380–450 yen ($4–6 AUD).
Obeying the fruit sando rules
Fruit sandwich ingredients, regardless of status, are variations on a theme: fruit, a creamy casing, and the bread holding it together – although, as Meg says, it’s surprisingly harder than it looks to get right.
The fruit must be at absolute peak ripeness, for optimum colour, sweetness and flavour. The cream filling is slightly sweetened whipped cream, but it may also be whipped mascarpone, or a blend of the two; it’s whipped to a texture known as fuwa-fuwa (cloud-like) in Japanese. Some stores add a layer of custard to one, or both, sides of the bread. The bread, also slightly sweetened, is sliced not too thin nor too thick, with crusts invariably cut off; they would demand too much chew and interfere with the overall softness.
“The fluffiness of the bread is critical, and the cream can’t be too sweet, so that the sweetness of the fruit comes out,” says Mikami.
The final form may be halved or quartered horizontally or diagonally, or in fingers, like at Ginza Sembikiya. But whatever the form, the fruit is meticulously arranged to ensure an artful cross-section.
The fruit sandwich may seem like a curious assemblage of ingredients to the unacquainted, but it's one that works, and its appeal seems to be enduring.
“Even nowadays, fruit sandwiches are popular with the younger generation,” says Shibata, “so it could be said that the fruit sandwich is one of the representatives of Japanese sweets.”
It seems the whimsical sandwiches are beginning to make an appearance in Australia and can be bought at Coppe Pan Japanese Bakery in Melbourne.
Melbourne-based food writer Audrey Bourget said that, although she had her interest in fruit sandwiches piqued when visiting Japan, didn’t have the chance to eat one. But with the opening of Coppe Pan Japanese Bakery, she snapped up one of theirs.
“I was curious to try one and ended up liking it much more than I expected. Because the bread is fluffy and slightly sweet, it almost feels like a light sponge cake; and the fruit gives a little acidity so it prevents the sandwich from being sickly-sweet.”
5-5-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
1-3-4 Komachi, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture 248-0006
1-1-71 Nakameguro, Meguro City, Tokyo 153-0061
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