So writes reader Ireney. When did the Chinese and Japanese develop a taste for bread? she asks. That’s a good question. For while we’ve already established that wheat has been a part of the Asian diet for many thousands of years, bread is a very different matter. Today Western-style breads are quite popular in places like Japan, but this was not always so.
A lot of popular food history posits that it was American agribusiness that forced white bread down the gullets of Japanese schoolchildren when we occupied the country in the years following World War II. That’s not true strictly speaking, for Western-style bread enjoyed broad popularity in Japan as far back as the late 1800’s.
In fact in about 1900 the Imperial Japanese government tried to establish both bread and milk as staple foods, believing they would make nutritious and “modern” additions to the Japanese diet. That effort failed in broad terms, but it led to a steady rise in the Japanese appetite for fluffy white bread. So much so that by the end of World War II during the American occupation some Japanese people complained that the bread that was being given to their children by the Americans wasn’t fine or white enough.
All that said, bread has never been seen as a staple in Japan. Even well after reconstruction was over, when a large-scale homegrown bread industry became established in Japan, commercial bakery executives despaired of ever making wheat bread as popular as good ol’ polished Japanese white rice. So popular as it is it’s never been their apple pie, as it were.
China is a somewhat different matter. While the Chinese have been rice eaters for millennia they’ve never been big bread eaters in the Western sense. They make buns, fried bread sticks and many other traditional foods out of wheat dough, but sandwich bread — at least as far as I know — isn’t terribly popular even to this day. I know I have quite a few readers in Hong Kong so maybe they can weigh in here as there’s a lot more documentation about white bread in Japan than there is about white bread in China. Any help there folks?
But suffice to say that in the battle to establish where the tangzhong method originated, I’d be tempted to give the nod to the Japanese, if only because they are more avid loaf bakers. I could be wrong.