Japanese Milk Bread Is Coming for Your Lunch
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- For anyone raised on the packaged white bread that lies around on America’s supermarket shelves for unspecified amounts of time, the concept of Japanese milk bread is both a dream and an affront. Known as shokupan, Japan’s standard alabaster loaf resembles its U.S. counterpart in generally being long and cut into square slices. After that, the similarity ends.
Shokupan is extraordinarily fluffy and sweet, with a center that could double as a cloud. The best versions have a bronzed, resilient crust that adds a delicate textural contrast. The origin of milk bread is obscure, but it’s believed to be based on a Chinese technique for making delicately sweet buns with a water-paste starter—which yields a similarly soft texture—that the Japanese adapted in the 20th century. It became more popular after World War II with the influx of American wheat amid rice shortages. The dough is a combination of flour, milk, butter, and/or eggs and has approximately seven times the fat of its American cousin. There are even $270 toasters to ensure the perfect experience.
Another part of milk bread’s allure is the extravagant thickness of the slices. (Prepackaged sliced breads average around half-an-inch thick.) Cha-An Teahouse in Manhattan’s East Village, which bakes about 60 loaves a day, serves 3-inch-thick pieces for toasts with simple toppings such as smoked salmon and two kinds of butter—red bean and miso—to gild the richness. Cha-An’s bread is also key to the popularity of the Japanese pork sandos at neighboring Hi-Collar, one of the most in-demand sandwiches in New York City.
More than anything, it’s these sandos, the disarmingly simple-looking snacks, that have helped jump-start milk bread’s popularity in the U.S. Konbi in Los Angeles became an Instagram staple for its egg salad-filled versions, made with bread specially commissioned from the esteemed bakery Bub and Grandma’s. The sandos are compelling enough to earn Konbi the No. 1 spot on Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant list. Katana Kitten, New York’s hot Japanese pub, takes an Italian-inflected approach with mortadella-stuffed bar bites. Thanks to shokupan, white bread sandwiches are as in demand today as they were in Queen Victoria’s heyday. The bread is also showing up at elite sushi counters. At Shuko in Greenwich Village, the cake-like milk bread on the $225 tasting menu is almost better than the bowl of toro tartare with caviar it accompanies.
But the ingredient is becoming most visible on non-Japanese menus. At Orsa & Winston in L.A., chef Josef Centeno makes sandwiches—from porchetta to tuna niçoise to less conventional raspberries and mascarpone—with his homemade loaves, while Carpenters Hall in Austin uses its milk bread in a mean turkey club as a sort of highbrow Texas toast.
Chefs in San Francisco, sourdough’s spiritual home, have particularly taken to shokupan for dishes that have a strong American DNA. “It keeps its softness when it’s toasted, which is perfect for sandwiches,” observes Sarah Rich, co-owner and co-chef with her husband, Evan, of Michelin-starred Rich Table. She uses it as the base for fried soft-shell crab po’ boys. Prairie’s chef, Anthony Strong, likes it so much that it frames his brunch service Impossible Burger and comes as a dessert slathered with salted maple butter and Vermont maple syrup. At the Progress, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski’s new-American dining spot, milk bread stars in an off-menu riff on the most American of dishes: a double-smoked hot dog.
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