If you’re new to Japan or to Japanese food, you might mistake a certain loaf found in convenience stores (konbini), supermarkets and bakeries across this island nation as being something tantamount to “Wonder bread.”
But the similarities to that American mainstay end right here.
This is the next best thing since sliced bread, and it’s called “shokupan” (食パン).
Also referred to as Japanese milk bread, shokupan has managed to carve its niche for a remarkable softness and delicate taste. It is probably even more common than sushi or ramen in the Japanese diet, carrying a rich history and unique culinary preparation that stands out from other varieties of bread.
In this edition of the Japanese Taste blog, we’ll explore the characteristics, history, and cultural significance of shokupan. Whether you are a gourmet explorer seeking new flavors or an amateur baker interested in a homemade shokupan recipe, this comprehensive guide offers everything you need to know about the iconic Japanese bread.
What Is Shokupan? What Does It Taste Like?
The term "shoku" translates to "food," and "pan" is the Japanese word for bread, derived from the Portuguese word "pão." This is our first hint as to the ubiquity and popularity of shokupan as an everyday food item in Japan.
Shokupan is the bread most commonly found on the breakfast table or in Japanese sandwiches (have you read our article on the art of the Japanese sandwich?).
It is typically characterized by a fluffy, soft texture and a light, slightly sweet taste. Indeed, shokupan boasts a pillow-like consistency and mouthfeel, making this Japanese bread ideal for sandwiches. The exterior of shokupan presents a beautiful contrast, with its lightly browned crust juxtaposing that starkly white interior.
One attribute that makes shokupan stand out is its subtle yet delightful sweetness. This is the result of milk and sugar (and sometimes, condensed milk) used in the shokupan recipe. While not overpowering, this sweetness creates a flavor profile that enables shokupan to be enjoyed on its own as well as a vessel for both sweet and savory fillings and toppings.
Shokupan's dense yet airy texture and mildly sweet undertones make it an optimal choice to also use in dishes like French toast or bread pudding – meaning your use of shokupan doesn’t end at Japan’s borders but rather can fill in for dishes of North American and continental variety.
If that sounds like a reverse import, it is. But how did bread get to Japan in the first place, and how did shokupan come about?
The History of Shokupan: Japan’s Love Of Bread Spans Centuries
The heritage of shokupan is as storied as Japan's rich culinary culture.
While bread may not be the first food item that many Westerners associate with Japan, shokupan’s history is interwoven with the country's cultural and historical fabric.
The term "pan," denoting bread, entered the Japanese lexicon in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese traders and missionaries. Speakers of Spanish, French, and Italian would also recognize this word, of course. Shokupan's earliest roots can be traced back to the Meiji era (1868-1912), a period marked by substantive Western influence echoing in various strata of Japanese society, including cuisine.
As bread and baking were brought into the mainstream diet in Japan, shokupan emerged to bridge the gap between Western-style bread and the Japanese palate, which has traditionally favored more subtle flavors.
In the aftermath of World War II, during times of rice shortages, the Japanese government actively promoted bread as an alternative, ultimately entrenching shokupan's central position in the national diet, from breakfast tables to school lunch boxes and beyond.
Seen as a symbol of external influence but crafted with a distinctly Japanese sensibility, shokupan reflects this culture’s knack for absorbing foreign culinary traditions, modifying to suit unique taste preferences, and creating a new and delightful product. For well over a century, shokupan has not only continued to celebrate Japan's culinary prowess but has also served as a lovingly baked testament to a storied history.
How Does Shokupan Differ From Other Kinds Of White Bread?
While shokupan may resemble the standard loaf of white bread found in many Western countries at first glance, a closer look reveals an entirely different form.
Shokupan's unique qualities, from the preparation process to taste and texture, distinguish it significantly from other types of white bread.
Firstly, shokupan incorporates what is known as the yudane (湯だね) method in its preparation. In this approach, some of the flour and liquid are cooked together to make a roux before being added to the rest of the dough ingredients. This process, unique to East Asian bread making, increases the bread's moisture content, resulting in a softer, fluffier loaf that stays fresh for longer periods of time.
Also standing out in its category is the flavor profile of shokupan. This bread sports a subtly sweet undertone, thanks to the addition of ingredients such as milk, sugar and/or condensed milk. The balance between sweet and savory plays a big role in the sandwich game, where shokupan is used with various fillings and toppings – and that’s no small wonder!
What’s more, shokupan’s texture is yet again a unique feature. It is unusually soft and fluffy with a slightly chewy consistency, differing significantly from the more aerated and crusty Western white breads. When toasted, shokupan forms a crisp outer layer while maintaining a soft interior – a delightful mouthfeel in every bite.
Shokupan: Consumption, Combinations, Variations & Comparisons
Shokupan’s consumption is as varied as its forms, offering delightful versatility that encompasses not just taste but shape and comparison to other local favorites such as Hokkaido milk bread.
Shokupan is a daily item in many Japanese households, often featured in breakfast and/or lunch. Served on its own or toasted with a simple spread of butter or jam, a sweet shokupan makes good sense for the morning time.
The iconic Japanese bread is also commonly used in making sandwiches for lunch (or beyond). One example is the wildly popular 'katsu sando' or breaded pork cutlet sandwich, in which its softness (the crust is always removed) impeccably complements the crunch of the cutlet). Other “sando” include egg (tamago), different varieties of katsu (such as chicken or seafood)… even fruit!
The Shape of Unique Shokupan
When looking at the shapes, there are two main types of shokupan in Japan: the square-shaped ‘block’ type and the round-top or mountain-shaped type.
While both offer the same delightful flavor, the block variety shokupan provides uniformly shaped slices perfect for sandwiches. In contrast, the mountain-shaped shokupan adds an aesthetic touch, often served as table bread or used for toast.
Hokkaido Milk Bread vs Shokupan
Comparatively, Hokkaido milk bread, another popular variant of Japanese bread, shares similarities with shokupan in terms of its fluffy texture and subtle, sweet flavor profile. The main differentiating point stems from Hokkaido milk bread's incorporation of pure cream or a higher milk content in its recipe, yielding a richer taste and creamier texture.
Which is better? Each one is a star, so why not try both recipes and see which one you prefer?!
Where Can You Buy Shokupan In Japan?
Whether you're wandering through the bustling aisles of a local supermarket or exploring the quaint streets that host artisanal bakeries, you will likely come across shokupan in all its soft, fluffy glory in Japan.
Shokupan is widely available in supermarkets, of course, typically in packaged, ready-to-consume blocks, convenient for everyday consumption. Supermarket variants are often mass-produced, hence offering a more accessible and economical option. You’re virtually guaranteed a consistent taste and texture, fulfilling the requirement for a basic, tasty, and fluffy white loaf every time.
Conversely, bakery versions offer an elevated twist. Artisanal shokupan flaunts a balance of sweetness and airiness, with a focus on quality ingredients. Furthermore, the bakery-fresh loaves often have a richer, creamier taste that merits a slightly higher price point.
Shokupan Boom: Japan’s Bread Scene is Popping Up Big-Time
Recently, Japan has seen a 'shokupan boom,' with an explosion of shops specializing in shokupan. This burst of popularity can be attributed to several factors.
An increased appreciation for artisanal foods and traditional cooking methods has sparked interest in high-quality shokupan. Shops dedicate their craft to perfecting the humble loaf, attracting enthusiasts eager to enjoy an elevated version of their everyday staple.
Additionally, its versatility and inherent comfort have enabled shokupan to thrive in the Japanese food scene. From trendy restaurants serving shokupan with gourmet spreads to cafes offering shokupan sandwiches, the demand for this delightful bread has skyrocketed.
Making Shokupan At Home
Not in Japan? Baking shokupan at home is your next best bet.
In fact, once you’ve achieved success in the shokupan arena, you may never want to buy a loaf at the supermarket again.
We’ve written an article dedicated to shokupan recipes – check it out and get loafing soon with shokupan at home! Also, we’ve got shokupan pans for sale here at Japanese Taste, in both 1.5-loaf and 1-loaf form.
Remember, a good shokupan transcends the confines of Japan and Japanese food; it can be used in Western foods such as French toast, bread pudding, croutons, and many others.
Wrapping Up: The Wonders Of Shokupan
Enriched by history, distinguished by its subtly sweet flavor and soft, fluffy texture, shokupan’s iconic place in Japanese cuisine and culture is certainly sealed. This seamless integration of tradition and versatility make shokupan a staple in the complex culinary culture of Japan.
Whether you're sampling shokupan in its homeland or attempting to create a homemade version, your shokupan experience is sure to be rewarding.
Got any stories about baking or eating shokupan? We’d love to hear them!