All this talk of butter and laminated dough the last couple of weeks has made me want to pick up and dash to Paris. Yet it’s fairly common knowledge that nowadays some of the best laminated pastry in the world is being made in Japan. Odd, isn’t it? Japan is not an historic wheat culture. It is even less an historic butter culture. Yet they’re turning out some of the finest flaky baked goods in the world these days. What’s the fascination with traditional Continental pastry? It’s a mystery.
The peoples of the Far East have been famous for their disdain of dairy since the earliest days of their civilization in China. Sedentary agrarian rice growers, they were constantly being harassed by nomadic herding peoples from the barbarous tribal brew pot of central Asia. These wanderers, lacking permanent settlements, depended entirely on animals for their sustenance. As such they had all sorts of disgusting habits, notably milk drinking (which gave any self-respecting imperial subject the shivers just thinking about), but also butter making. This greasy, vile substance they used for all sorts of disagreeable purposes, not the least of which was spreading over their skin where it served as an insulator in winter and bug repellent in summer. Exposed to the open air in this way, the butter quickly turned black with rancidity. For the comparatively fastidious Chinese, such people could barely be distinguished from the animals they rode in on. Their smell alone (a piquant body odor/animal hide/rancid butter combo) was reason enough to put up a wall and be quick about it.
Yet in time the cultures of the far East would encounter other rank peoples: Westerners, coming around the long way by ship, whose body odor they likewise ascribed to a diet rich in milk and butter. The Japanese, being especially sensitive to the stink of Western men (who in reality do have more sweat glands) even fashioned a special racial slur for them: bata kutsai, “reeking of butter” also translated as “butter stinkers”. To this day the term is used to describe anything or anyone that emits either the literal or metaphorical odor of Westernization.
Yet today Japan is awash in dairy (cows were introduced there as far back as the mid-nineteenth century). They eat cheese, drink milk, they even smear butter on their skin to keep warm (OK, no they don’t). But they do eat a fair amount of butter in the form of croissants and other types of French pastry, the popularity of which has exploded in recent years. What to ascribe this to, other than we butter stinkers may have had a pretty darn good idea after all.