At a kissaten (a retro Japanese diner) in Ginza, an elderly Japanese man unfolds the newspaper across the walnut-timber table, takes a sip of his coffee from a gold-trimmed china cup, and orders some 'pizza toast' from the neatly dressed waitstaff. The toast soon arrives; a three-centimetre-high slab of white bread topped with slices of capsicum, black olives and tomato, and draped in melted cheese and a sprinkle of aosa (seaweed).
Pizza toast is just one of the popular ways to serve shokupan, a bread that is a staple of Japanese cuisine (shoku, meaning food; pan, meaning bread) – although, outside Japan, the loaf is more commonly known as Hokkaido Milk Bread.
The first shokupan is thought to have been sold at a bakery in Yokohama in the 1880s, made by a British baker for expats and naval guards. Bread in all forms grew in popularity, along with all things Western, during the Meiji era (1868–1912). Then, in the post-war years, when rice was scarce, American aid came in the form of wheat; bread was served as part of kyushoku (school cafeteria meals) and became a popular breakfast food in homes, fortifying its place in the Japanese diet.
"Shokupan has become very popular with Japanese people over the years," says Shun Hashimoto, owner-baker at Azuki Japanese Bakery in Newtown, Sydney.
"I would say shokupan is the most important bread in Japan."
Shokupan is characterised by a moist, creamy interior and fragrant crust. Advertisements often show a loaf being ripped apart, with the pillowy white interior slightly stretchy.
Shinji Nagata, general manager of Morethan Bakery in the Nishi-Shinjuku district of Tokyo, calls this texture 'mochi-mochi', a Japanese onomatopoeic word used to describe food that is soft, springy and slightly chewy – taken from the texture of traditional mochi rice cakes; he says that good shokupan will be encased by crisp and fragrant 'pan no mimi' (literally, 'bread ears').
"Although it's white bread, it conveys the scent of wheat and has fluffy mouthfeel," says Maiko Nishiki, organiser of popular Tokyo artisanal bread festival, Aoyama Pan Matsuri.
Shokupan typically comes in two shapes, yama (i.e. 'mountain,' with a lofty top) and kaku (the square-cornered style loaf). Milk and-or fresh cream are typically added for creaminess, or, for an extra smooth loaf, as at Morethan bakery, mascarpone is used.
While the dairy component plays a crucial part in the smooth, long-lasting moistness of shokupan, what elevates it – as well as adding the moist, bouncy texture in the process – is the use of the yudane (or tangzhong) method of bread-making.
"It's a production method that increases the moisture content of dough; this high water content means the bread retains a fresh, smooth texture," says Nagata.
Specifically, the yudane method involves making a roux of flour with water or milk (or a mixture) in a 1:5 ratio and cooking it to 65°C so that the starch in the flour gelatinises.
"I use the yudane method because it makes bread more sweet, soft, moist and kind of chewy – in a good way," says Hashimoto.
"It makes bread taste more like rice, which is familiar to Japanese, and why the method is so popular in Japan."
Contrary to the image of white bread being an industrialised loaf – and as it was for many years in Japan – artisan bakers now take as much pride in their shokupan as they do in their naturally leavened rustic loaves of Campagne, or their sourdough croissants.
"There is a growing trend for high-quality bread," says Nagata. "Customers are paying a bit extra for artisan products made with local ingredients."
The ways shokupan is eaten are endlessly variable, at modern artisan bakeries and old-school kissaten cafes, and in homes. Although it’s most popular toasted and topped with butter for breakfast, the toppings and fillings are approached with the creative will of a country relatively new to bread cuisine and free from preconceptions: toasted shokupan might come topped with shirasu (whitebait) and cheese; egg and fine strips of nori seaweed; or corn and natto (fermented soybeans) mixed with mayonnaise; or the bread may be sliced and used for the famous Japanese egg sandwiches or fruit sandwiches.
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For more on Asian baked goods, watch Donal's Asian Baking Adventure, Sundays 8.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33, then on SBS On Demand (or watch the episode above). Get Donal's recipe for Japanese milk bread here.
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