January 26, 2017
The toast of Japan
Ah, the heroine in a hurry running out of the house with a piece of toast in her mouth. One of anime's tried and true tropes. Modern, fast, and tasty, toast is the ideal breakfast substitute for a girl on the go.
The category of "breakfast cereal" never took hold in Japan. A supermarket may stock a few boxes but not an entire aisle. The whole idea of a "sweet" breakfast is recent too. A "traditional" breakfast might include fish and rice and miso soup and natto (the grossest food ever).
On the culinary cultural spectrum, natto is at the opposite end of the scale as toast. A good many Japanese can't stand the stuff either. I would hazard that you see more natto eaten in television dramas than in real life because it just screams "old school" and fairly eccentric to boot.
French toast, on the other hand, is a dessert. As are pancakes. Both are somewhat exotic and yet easy to make. And so can be endlessly modified without much fear of failure. And, yes, there are countless French toast and pancake connoisseurs in Tokyo.
The daily melodrama series Toto Nee-chan devoted a week's worth of episodes on the magazine staff figuring out how to explain pancake-making to their readers in the late 1940s. In the end, a recipe wasn't enough. They had to use photographs, a real innovation at the time.
There is a simple and pragmatic reason for the popularity of French toast and pancakes. Few homes in Japan are equipped with the kind of kitchens that grace even the average apartment in the U.S. A full-sized oven is rare, counter space limited. Refrigerators are still small by comparison.
If they wanted, most Americans could make the dishes shown on America's Test Kitchen. Far fewer Japanese have the room for the basic equipment. A bakery is the only place where an enthusiastic baker can bake. And enthusiastic bakers are enthused over, as in Midnight Bakery.
The typical cooking shows concentrate on the rice cooker, frying pan, sauce pan, microwave, and toaster oven. Somebody baking at home is probably using a countertop convection oven.
Here we get back to French toast (and pancakes): anybody can make it with the utensils and ingredients on hand.
The same goes for curry over rice (karee raisu), another visitor that's gone native. Curry rice is a 19th century import that seems older. The Japanese navy likely got the idea from the British navy (who got it from India), and universal conscription made it the national dish.
House Foods sold the first curry roux in 1926 and currently has a 60 percent market share. Their big seller going back to 1963 is "Vermont Curry." It is sweetened with apple paste, and apparently apples were associated with Vermont even in 1963.
Again, anybody can make curry anywhere with practically anything, as on all those anime school field trips.