“Hokkaido”, “Milk”, “Bread”…Doesn’t Add Up

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.

12 thoughts on ““Hokkaido”, “Milk”, “Bread”…Doesn’t Add Up”

  1. Hi Joe,

    I’m following this milk-bread-thread intensely! I’m not Japanese, but more of a Nipponophile, and Hokkaido region is, indeed, famous for their dairy and (peculiarly) corn. For e.g. ramen speciality from Hokkaido always have a pat of butter and corn in it. In fact, recently there has been a butter shortage in Japan and here’s an interesting snippet from NPR (not sure if I’m allowed to share, but do know that I do not have any financial interest in posting an NPR snippet).


    So, yeah, bread + hokkaido + milk = adds up for me!


  2. Interesting. This reminds me of the show “yakitate ja-pan!” which is about bread in Japan. Mostly, anyway…

  3. I really enjoy your discussion around bread in Asia! It’s fascinating to me since I grew up on Taiwanese-style bread from bakeries in Southern California.

    Can’t speak to Mainland China, but baked bread, including sandwich-style bread, is pretty popular among the Chinese in Taiwan and that might have been an influence of the Japanese during WWII. Corner stores there like 7-11 or 85C often sell “???”, generally translated as “sandwich” but particularly a kind that uses crustless white bread with ham, egg, and a sweet mayo. It’s a simple comfort food, and looks like this: http://eats.pinjing.net/2010/09/23/light-lunch-at-85c-taichung-taiwan/

    The boba (bubble-drink) cafes there also sell “snacks” like brick toast, which is basically the majority of a loaf brick of sweet white bread topped with ice cream, fruit, and chocolate syrup. Even though this sandwich bread doesn’t come in slices, it’s definitely something to see: https://www.google.com/search?q=brick+toast&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS516US516&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=yxI3VZXZFor7sASK0oDYDQ&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=1366&bih=667

    More popular though I think are baked bread buns, like the well-known Japanese melon pan, but my childhood favorite was a kind that was filled with sweet mayo cream and topped with fuzzy salty-sweet pork floss, a very Taiwanese/Chinese ingredient: http://www.michaelturton.com/Taiwan/bakery05.jpg
    There are bakeries with rows upon rows of different variations of these buns (baked white bread, mostly not steamed or fried) and soft sandwich bread around every corner–they’re extremely popular. When I was visiting in 2013, the hot new bakery in Taipei was a German-style bakery with loaves of the heavier whole-wheat stuff, so that sort of thing might be catching on too.

    If you look at SE Asia too, Western-style sandwich bread there becomes increasingly prevalent. Kaya (coconut jam) with butter on white toast is a breakfast staple down there, and of course there’s the French baguette in Vietnamese banh mi. My friends and I all loved banh mi–incredibly tasty, and it used to be $1.50 in LA before it got so trendy–but our more traditional Taiwanese/Chinese parents disliked the hard shards of crust.

  4. I know that you mentioned buns but I wasn’t sure whether you were just speaking of baozi or whether you knew of mantou: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantou

    It’s white bread, but not sandwich bread and it’s very popular in Northern China. I’ve had it rolled up with green onions too.

    1. I was speaking specifically about those, but they definitely count!

      Thanks, Sherri!

      – Joe

  5. I can’t speak much for the mainland Chinese regarding their consumption of Western bread. All I know is that Chinese wheat bread, in the form of steamed mantou, has been a part of their diet for a very long time. But for the overseas Chinese who lived through British colonization, British style white sandwich bread is a popular part of breakfast. However bread is still not held in high esteem. If someone is seen having bread for lunch or dinner, the people around them will feel sorry for them that they are not having a ‘proper’ meal, ie without rice or noodles.

  6. I’m not Japanese and I’m not from China or Japan (I’m Chinese and from Canada), but having visited Asia and being an avid asian grocery store shopper, I can say that the Chinese prefer filled-buns over loaves of bread. The buns themselves are always on the sweeter, milkier, eggier side, and the fillings range from sweet red bean, coconut custard, to curry chicken, and tuna and cheese. In Hong Kong, it is hands down the pineapple buns which dominate the bakery (made from zero pineapples, they get their name from the crackled cookie-topping on the bun), sandwiching a slice of cold butter – the best way to enjoy them.
    Regarding bread loaves, the most popular are the fluffy 90-degree-edged white ones made from pullman tins!

  7. I lived in rural Northern China for 2 years and the big issue was access to ovens (and butter to a certain extent), in that there wasn’t really any. In order to get what I recognized as bread, I had to buy a mini-oven, about the size of a microwave, and make it myself. Mantou is steamed, so doesn’t rely on access to ovens, and there wasn’t any sandwich bread available (though I did see someone make a sandwich with mantou once). Throw in the fact that raw vegetables aren’t really safe to eat, and sandwiches are generally right out.

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