Pan: East-West Fusion
Just as no traditional Japanese meal would be complete without a bowl of piping hot white rice, bread is considered the "staff of life" in many Western cultures. Its role is growing and developing in Japan's rapidly changing food culture.
While traces of bread culture remain from as far back as the Stone Age, bread first arrived on the shores of Japan with some Portuguese in 1543. Pan, the Japanese word for bread, derives from the Portuguese word pão.
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), uniquely Japanese forms of bread began to appear. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, a new process was introduced by which bread is leavened with a sake by-product in place of yeast. The most famous type is an-pan, although most an-pan available today is leavened with yeast.
Bread consumption soared during the '70s and '80s and today there are more than 5,000 bakeries all over Japan, ranging from small, local businesses to mass production factories. In particular, bread for breakfast is becoming increasingly popular nationwide. Japanese breads are mainly produced with imported ingredients and techniques, but new and unique varieties of bread have been developed.
While soft, white rolls and sliced loaves have supported the increase in Japan's bread consumption, small neighborhood bakeries play a vital role in the development of pan. These shops offer a tempting array of breads, rolls and pastries, both sweet and savory, and varying from the familiar to the bizarre to the Western eye. The unwary foreigner can easily slice into what appears to be a hamburger bun and discover an, jam or custard cream. The range of surprising roll and sandwich fillings is extensive.
At the other end of the spectrum are more traditional European style bakeries that produce world breads such as French baguettes, Italian panini, German breads and bagels. Some of the most orthodox, however, also cater to the Japanese palate by providing melon-pan sweetbread and mentaiko France-pan, baguette seasoned with spicy fish eggs.
Bread enthusiasts and hobbyists are flocking to cooking classes where they can learn how to produce their own breads. In recent years, many of the truly ambitious have trained in Europe to become licensed bakers and return to Japan to open their own, authentic bread shops.
According to Japan's Food Agency, about 1.25 million metric tons of bread are produced annually in Japan. This quantity has remained relatively stable over the past ten years, but the nature of the bread produced has changed. As the trend toward healthy eating continues, calcium-enriched and additive-free breads are more commonly available. Breads flavored with vegetables and containing dried fruit or nuts are popular. There is also a growing number of local bakeries producing organic breads leavened with wild yeast. Despite the high cost of organic flour and the sensitivity of wild yeast, natural and organic breads are popular with both bakers and consumers.
In hand with the trend toward healthier bread, great attention is being paid to plainer, simpler foods with high quality ingredients. From sweet an-pan to chewy and nutritious organic loaves, the spectrum of breads available in Japan is both delightful and intriguing. However you slice it, the enticing aroma of fresh bread has great allure, no matter how unexpected its fillings may be.