Just when you thought the sourdough overlords had consigned white bread to the bin of shame – Japan is re-exporting it as the next must-try nosh.
Unlike many Western tastemakers who disparage the denuded wheat kernel, white bread is finding a new audience among Japan’s gourmet set. It has even become a hot-ticket export, with Americans lining up for a slice of Japanese white loaf that is so far removed, they say, from the pap of the processed industrial version, they are paying $18 (£15) for one baked in Los Angeles.
A satellite of its famous progenitor in Tokyo, Ginza Nishikawa’s Californian bakery sells out its “shokupan” milk bread each day in seconds, says Noriko Okubo its co-owner.
“I’m told that shokupan came from the UK via the US where they made it completely square for storage purposes,” she says. “We believe our bread is superior to any white bread out there, but you can be the judge of that.”
The Ginza shop itself is a shrine to the white loaf. The naked blocks of starch are presenting in a stark Zen-like fashion. The secret ingredient, apparently, is a dollop of honey.
Those firmly in the brown bread camp (well, perhaps except for the occasional sortie into the Mother’s Pride isle for chip or bacon butties) would be puzzled to see the long queues for what looks like unsliced Wonderloaf outside Ginza Nishikawa’s original bakery.
But Japanese swear by their shokupan and will have little truck with anything else. Of the seven breadshops-cum-bakeries in one local high street in Tokyo, not one is in the slightest part interested in the mighty wheatgerm or bran. Sourdough might as well be a dirty word.
“In Western culture, bread tends to be chewy and crunchy, which complements hearty, savoury dishes very well. But shokupan should be the focus of the occasion,” says Japanese food writer Akiko Katayama.
“You don’t want to serve shokupan with a steak. It is ideal to enjoy shokupan’s texture and flavour simply with butter, for instance. The classic “fruits sando” [fruit sandwich] is another example to make the most of its delicate nature. The bread nicely absorbs the fruits’ fragrant juices and the sandwich tastes like a sponge cake.”
Apart from enjoying the odd “sando,” toasted shokupan is the norm for breakfast in Japan, with doorstep-thick slices.
So sweet and light is shokupan it comes across more brioche then bread. And like its French cousin, it contains unholy alliances such as milk, butter and in some cases – lard. It’s a far cry from what probably arrived in Japan by accident when the Portuguese shipwrecked there in 1543 carrying with it missionaries, guns and of course, bread. From those new interlopers, Japan went on to adapt bread into shokupan, cod fritters into tempura, and pancakes into okonomiyaki with Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise.
“This globalised shokupan phenomenon, I see it as a return-globalisation,” says Japanese food researcher at Boston University, Professor Merry White. “Bread went to Japan and comes back… transformed!”
Nor is bread alone in being reinvented abroad, with katsu-curry making a stealth takeover of UK menus. A rehash of a Viennese veal cutlet combined with the curry sauce the Brits imported with themselves to Japan in the 19th century, it might seem like selling coal to Newcastle. The difference is that in Japan, katsu-curry is largely seen as a cheap, comforting junk-food dish favoured by salarymen on the hoof and hard-up students. Although some like Professor White prefer the term “soul-food.”
As shokupan makes its way to British shores, the UK may well be receptive to the “blissful” bake. Approximately 60-70 per cent of the bread Britons eat already is uber-processed and industrial white, according to UK flour millers. It’s already available at Happy Sky Bakery in London, among others.
Japan’s pale champion loaves may be more milquetoast than working-class white, but they are certainly making white-sliced respectable again.