You wouldn’t think that Japan would be a country for great bread, given its preference for rice over any other starch. And yet the bakeries here regularly turn out excellent confections, from chocolate croissants to sugared toast.
Here are some of the usual suspects you’ll find at the local bakery, some of which have a uniquely Japanese twist:
1. Anpan (bread filled with sweet bean paste)
You haven’t experienced Japan until you’ve had your first anpan. This flour-based bun, always topped with black sesame seeds, is filled with a filling made of sweetened red adzuki beans. The first anpan were allegedly made by Kimuraya, a bakery that delivered sweets to the Imperial family for centuries. Anpan is so ubiquitous in Japan that one of the country’s most popular cartoon characters is a superhero with anpan for a head.
2. Currypan (fried rolls stuffed with curry filling)
Currypan (or kare pan, if we’re getting technical) falls into the category of okazu, or savory breads. It’s a bit different from the other typical treats due to the fact that it’s deep-fried. Curry anything is a hit in Japan (curry rice is like the peanut butter and jelly of the Japanese kid’s lunchbox) and this is a perpetually popular choice at bakeries. I find the curry to be totally bearable for my wimpy taste buds (my preferred spice level is -2).
3. Melonpan (melon-flavored bread)
Melonpan can be tricky to identify. Often, they are colored green or have a swatch of green icing or sugar baked into their top. Sometimes, however, they’re simply plain white and you have to really on the name card to steer you right. The best melonpan I’ve ever had were at a rest stop in Saga Prefecture, at a bakery that is actually quite famous for the treat. Now buyer beware – they don’t always taste like melon. In fact, the bread got its name from the shape and common crosshatching that appears on the top (which resembles a cantaloupe). You can have a chocolate melonpan, for example, that has no hint of melon whatsoever.
4. Choux cream (cream puffs)
I’m not sure what it is about these little balls of glorious taste that make them so popular here in Japan (and also, apparently, Taiwan). My own bakery was sold out of them this week when I went to get the photo for this blog post (hence the lack of picture above). While the outside of a Japanese cream puff is made of a rather dense cake flour, the inside is reminiscent of a Dunkin’ Donuts’ Boston Cream Pie donut from my youth, that slightly yellowish custard that isn’t too syrupy sweet but more like a rich pudding. Being Japan, I have also stumbled across matcha (green tea) cream puffs.
5. Shokupan (White bread)
What? Simple white bread? What on earth would make this a top treat? Well, if you have lived in Japan for any length of time (and happen to be either American or used to American-style loaves of bread), you’ll start to realize why the Japanese don’t eat a lot of sandwiches. Nobody sells any bread! Or rather, they do, but not the thin slices that immediately come to mind for most of us. No, Japan’s white bread (and I have yet to ever stumble across a sliced loaf of wheat bread) involves large pillowy squares which only come five or six in a pack. It’s rarely used for sandwiches – other than the fried pork cutlet delight of katsu-sando that my husband devours on every domestic airplane ride we take – and is mostly reserved for breakfast, slathered with butter or possibly jelly. To me, it’s both tasteless (air being the predominant flavor) and yet OH so much better than American white bread.