The story of airy choux à la crème – shu kurimu, locally – in Japan is widely said to have begun in Yokohama in the mid-1800s. Yokohama was one of the first ports to open to foreign trade, making it a cosmopolitan hub at the time and a conduit for foreign ingredients and dishes into Japan. When Samuel Pierre, a Frenchman living in Yokohama’s foreign settlement, opened a French-style bakery, his choux à la crème quickly became a hit; Japanese bakers came to him to train, taking the pastry back to their corners of Japan.
Choux à la crème are hollow, inflated balls of choux pastry traditionally filled with thick custard cream or freshly whipped cream. Choux pastry has a high moisture content, which acts as the leavening agent during baking and produces a case that is light and airy. It’s also used to create other French classics such as eclairs, Paris-Brest, profiteroles, and religieuse.
The popularity of shu cream in Japan is enduring; they’re one of the most-consumed desserts, and can be found in patisseries and bakeries, specialty stores, department stores, some cafes and even the humble convenience store, in what could be the ultimate testament to a commodity's success.
A textural preference
“I think shu cream are loved by Japanese people because of their texture and flavor, as [well as] the ease of eating them,” says Ayako Watanabe, who worked as sous-chef at Dominique Ansel Bakery in Tokyo for three years.
The texture of choux pastry ranges from a harder, crisper variety to more soft and a little chewy, depending on the store. Ginza Rockado, a specialty shu cream store in Ginza, serves its choux pastry on the crunchier, flakier side.
Its cases are filled to order, piped with a Madagascan-vanilla pastry cream through a small hole in the base of the puff, making it easy to grab hold of and bite like an apple; each mouthful is a delicious textural contrast between the firm exterior and the silky interior.
“I think shu cream are loved by Japanese people because of their texture and flavor, as [well as] the ease of eating them.”
“We recommend eating our shu cream immediately, for optimum freshness and texture,” says store manager, Yuma Tanida.
At Tokyo outposts of Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki Paris, the pastry is a little softer, and is a slight variation on plain choux – choux au craquelin, or ‘cookie shu’ in Japanese; the choux pastry is topped with a dough of butter, brown sugar and flour that bakes to crack and crumble, and provides an extra texture dimension. Its elegantly arranged shu cream overflow with filling, and are best eaten sitting down – if you choose to dine-in at store’s stylish monochrome salons, you’ll receive your shu cream with a knife and fork.
“Our shu cream are baked with cookie dough on the batter, for a crisp texture; and a little fresh cream is mixed into our custard cream, to add lightness,” says Chinami Sueoka, a spokesperson for the patisserie.
Shu cream in Japan is often filled with this mixture of custard and fresh cream – either combined or served alongside each other – and the whipped cream lifts it to a cloud-like mouthfeel.
“We like textures that are ‘fuwa fuwa’ (light and fluffy) and love the flavours of simple custard and fresh cream.”
As its most essential, a choux cream bun is filled with vanilla pastry cream, but the hollow centre is also a blank canvas for flavour. Popular local flavours include pastry cream accented with matcha tea, hojicha (toasted green tea), a drizzle of black sugar syrup, a little wedge of mochi or bean paste.
Kyoto-based Crème de la Crème sells a region-showcasing shu cream, with Uji matcha-flavoured custard, locally sourced white miso-flavoured cream and sweet red-bean paste.
At Pâtisserie Sadaharu Aoki Paris, in addition to the standard custard cream variety sold year-round, there is a rotating seasonal menu – for 2019, a pistachio custard for spring, passionfruit custard with and whipped coconut cream in summer, chestnut and green tea cream in autumn, and chocolate in winter.
“We like textures that are ‘fuwa fuwa’ (light and fluffy), and love the flavours of simple custard and fresh cream.”
Best sure to keep a lookout in summer for “shu-aisu”, where the choux cream is piped full of soft-serve or ice-cream – anything from choc-mint to wasabi flavour.
It turns out a little novelty doesn’t go astray with shu cream either. At Dominique Ansel, famed for quirky twists on traditional French pastries, Ayako says they made religieuse (a stacked type of shu cream) with a monthly changing form.
“We created interest looking [that] depends on the theme for that time of year. For example, maneki-neko [for good luck in business at the beginning of the year], Santa for Christmas, a frog for the rainy season, penguin for winter, and Cupid for Valentine’s Day.”
Giving the gift of pastry
Gift-giving culture has a firm hold on Japanese customs. There’s the usual gift-appropriate moments such as birthdays, anniversaries, visiting someone’s home for an occasion and thank-you gifts; but added to this, there’s the culture of omiyage – an obligatory souvenir to be brought back for co-workers and family from any hint of a trip (even a meeting in the next city), gifts for New Year (oseibo), gifts to mark the half-year (ochugen), and even presents to say ‘thank you for the gift’ (okaeshi).
Gifts often come in the form of food, and shops are well-equipped to cater for this extensive present-giving protocol. As well as easily transported and shared, the foods must be a “gift for the eyes”. Shu cream are popular gifts because not only do they meet all these criteria, they have the prestige of a French pastry.
Shu cream in Japan
Shin Kokusai Building, 3-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku
4-10-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
225 Shoshoicho, Nakagyoku, Kyoto
Shu cream in Australia
LG19A, 211 La Trobe Street, Melbourne
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For more sweet Asian eats, watch Donal's Asian Baking Adventure, Sundays 8.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33, then on SBS On Demand.
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