The Free Online Dictionary provides this definition of the word, “loaf”: To pass time at leisure; idle. Of course, this is the 2nd most common definition; the first is a single piece or mass of bread.
Japan’s staple grain, its principle carbohydrate, the primary source of calories in a balanced diet, is, of course, rice. But in the past several decades, the per capita consumption of rice in Japan has shrunk to roughly half from the early 1960s.
While the chart shows that the overall consumption of wheat has not risen substantially during this same period, it is clear that bread, pasta, and other wheat products are making a strong impact on the palates of many contemporary Japanese.
This, in turn, seems to be linked to an alarming trend that parallels the west – obesity. A Washington Post article from October 16, 2007 by staff writer Lori Aratani noted that,
The shift to Western foods has had other implications for Japanese — notably, their waistlines. The trend is most evident among men and children. In 1988, 18.9 percent of Japanese children were considered obese, according to a survey. By 2005, the percentage had risen to 24.3.
But in my 25 years in Japan, I’ve found that one good reason for the decline of rice consump- tion is the high quality of bread that is available in every local community in Japan. I know that it is not just Tokyo, but I’ve found great bakeries in every nook and corner in Japan. But just in my neighborhood, I can count at least a dozen wonderful bakeries that provide a plethora of scrumptious delights, starting with the perfect loaf!
And this loaf – a perfect cube – can be found in every bakery. But the perfect loaf is just a start. I know, it is virtually impossible to find a real baguette, or a good bagel, or a buttery croissant fit for a mademoiselle, but finicky people will find fault with everything.
I find the bread in Japan to be astounding! The bread I find in our neighborhood of Nishi Ogikubo in Tokyo is nothing short of wonderful.
I’ll start first with Burg. The bread here tastes like the recipes haven’t changed since the bakery was started, in 1951. While everything is great, its rusk is phenomenal!
Rusk is a twice-baked bread, often coated with sugar, chocolate, condensed milk, cinnamon, garlic, and other more exotic flavors, such as anise and lemon poppyseed. Rusk is popular in many parts of Europe, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Another favorite in our family is the Patisserie Ansen.
Ansen is noted for its use of both domestic flour and special flour imported from France. The flour from France is used in special baguettes, which are more dense and hard than the ones using domestic flour. Ansen, too, has wonderful rusks; my elder son is particularly fond of their garlic flavored rusk. But the most popular item at Ansen in our family is their Honey, a light and crispy sweet danish.
We are not the only people fond of the Honey. It is often sold out by early afternoon. On this particular day, I was able to purchase 2 or 3; it was a rainy day and, with fewer customers, their supply held out to late afternoon.
Finally, one of the most popular new bakeries in our town is the humorously named, Boulangerie Soo See Ji (pronounced like sausage in Japanese). This bakery is most famous for its use of – as one might easily guess – sausages and meat. On the other hand, the bakery also has some famous cakes, too.
Soo See Ji 03-6454-2577
Recently, at the elementary school our boys attend, the 5th graders made advertisement posters for shops in the community. These advertisements followed a project in which the 5th graders interviewed in groups shops in the community and then helped with promoting the shops by busking for them in the area in front of the local train station. This project helped the kids to develop a sense of what aspects of a shop and products to feature – quality, price, warmth (it was a winter project), etc.
When the 5th graders made their individual advertisements, several of the 73 5th graders made ads for Soo See Ji, more than for any other shop. This is particularly surprising, because the shop is not only fairly new, but located fairly far from the station, where most foot traffic congregates.
A World of Bread
As can be assumed from the names of the shops, the bread found in our neighborhood is quite diverse. Burg is quintessentially Japanese, I think. It has elements of post-war occupied Japan western flavor, with some parts mimicking the United States and others the United Kingdom, in particular. But like any good mimic, the things that are personal and unique are what gives Burg its charm.
Ansen, no doubt, borrows most of its origins to French style baking. Still, there is no mistaking Ansen for a bakery cafe on the Champs-Élysées. Though some of its four may come from France, the style, form, and flavor of its baked splendors is very unique. Ansen is cozy, much as Nishi Ogikubo is a cozy community tucked in the west side of Tokyo. Not exactly urban or suburban, Ansen, like the town of Nishi Ogikubo, combines the richness of international and cosmopolitan tastes with the comfy-ness of home.
Soo See Ji is a Boulangerie. French-styled, certainly, but I find that many elements in its kitchen have some other continental flavor, including German, Dutch, and Danish. But, true to its name, the breads and pastries laced with bacon, ham, and sausages are supreme!
What more is there to say? Not much, really.
Breaking Bread in Nishi Ogikubo