I didn’t know they even ate cheese there! But in fact they do. Despite what we here in the West hear about Asian disdain for beef and dairy, the fact is that both are now quite common in the Far Eastern regions of the globe. In fact Japan has become famous for besting the French at their own game, producing some of the finest brioche and laminated pastry in the world. Quite a reversal from the old days of barbarian invasions and butter stinkers, wouldn’t you say?
But when did the Japanese start eating cheesecake…or cheese for that matter? Though there’ve been cows in Japan for hundreds of years, cheese itself only became popular a few decades ago. Cream cheese was among the first cheeses to gain acceptance in Japan, primarily because of its mild taste and smell. Manufacturers from the US and New Zealand began marketing cream cheese there around 1980, and it wasn’t long before enterprising chefs started baking with it, creating chiizukeiki‘s that bore more than a passing resemblance to tofu. Indeed it’s said that a big reason cheesecake took off in Japan is because it incorporated well into Japanese food aesthetics: it could be cut into neat shapes and colored in cool, pastel shades.
In the 1980’s cheesecakes started appearing in coffee shops frequented by young, professional women (the sweet-eaters of Japanese society), and soon became a full-blown fad. Recipes started appearing in Japanese fashion magazines, and by the mid-80’s chiizukeiki was everywhere. Nowadays cheesecake is a fixture of contemporary Japanese cuisine, and while it may not be quite as popular as, oh, ramen noodles are here, it’s safe to say it’s firmly embedded in the culture.