It's about time for a pastry overview post, methinks. One of my main goals for my time here was pastries.
There's no shame in a life of pastries.
I'd actually been planning on doing research on Japanese food history, food history being my new favorite topic and dream job, but I haven't really done any "research."
European pastries and pastry shops are fairly prevalent in Tokyo, as are traditional Japanese/Asian sweets stores. My mom and I found this out when we came to Tokyo 3 years ago, and I've wondered why this is ever since. This, in fact, is what I had wanted to research.
I haven't gotten very far, as I have no experience doing real research and don't really know where to look. I know what to eat, though.
Pierre Herme's Raspberry Ispahan, a large macaron pastry, from the Pierre Herme shop in Aoyama.
My friends took me through Omotesando and Aoyama on my birthday, on a walking tour of Harajuku and Shibuya, and we passed by a branch of Pierre Herme. Pierre Herme is perhaps one of the world's most famous pastry chefs, especially when it comes to macarons (next to Laduree, who is accredited with the invention of the modern French macaron, and who has a branch in the Shinjuku train station), so I couldn't not go inside. I almost flooded the store drooling over the ware, and my friends offered to buy me some macarons, so I chose 6 to try.
Beware, though, as macarons are relatively expensive. You'll find that Asian sweets aren't very expensive, for the most part, but European ones can easily push someone's budget a little too far. Granted, Japan has some of the world's best pastries, so if it's something you can't get wherever you live, you may as well give it a shot.
I just give everything a shot. I think I have a problem.
Viron, in Shibuya, was recommended in a CNN article by Yukari Sakamoto. It's a boulangerie, specializing in bread, that also serves sandwiches, coffee and expensive pastries. This was actually my first destination, conquered during orientation. I got a chocolate tart and strawberry meringue cookies. The chocolate tart was deadly. In a good way, though, as I'm a sucker for a good chocolate tart.
The bakery back home, that sells to many coffeeshops and restaurants where I live (called Guglhupf, in Durham, NC) makes chocolate ganache tarts with chocolate cookie crust. I'll devour a half of one, bask in the overwhelm, and then selfishly devour the other half. This was like that. I went back to Viron today while I was lost in Shibuya, and bought a coffee eclair. Not the best (for eclairs, find a branch of Cozy Corner, or go to Sadaharu Aoki in Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi), but enjoyable nonetheless. The coffee flavor wasn't very strong in the custard, and the coffee frosting tasted more like powdered sugar than anything else, but the choux pastry (the bread-y part of the eclair) was perfect. Cozy Corner eclairs are massive, and you can get many different flavors. The first time I went to Sadaharu Aoki, I got a yuzu (citron) eclair (Yuzu also happens to be my favorite Japanese band...of the two to whom I listen :P). The yuzu eclair was quite an experience.
To get to Viron, leave Shibuya station through the Hachiko exit, and walk right immediately, towards Men's 109. It should be a few blocks down that street....or the next street over. There's a Cozy Corner across the street from the Hachiko exit, on the corner next to Men's 109. And for anyone in Saitama, there's a Cozy Corner right outside the east exit of Kita-Urawa station, and one outside the ticket gate of Akabane train station.
One of the first weekends, my host sister and her friend took me to Ueno Park to go to the zoo (too crowded, so we didn't go in), and see the cherry blossoms (just starting to open, not yet "mankai"), and then around Ameyoko Promenade (the shopping promenade that runs along the train tracks), and Mihashi, a sweets shop that specializes in anmitsu.
"An" comes from "anko," meaning "red bean paste," or just "sweet bean paste" (sometimes it's made from white kidney beans, and called "shiroanko,"), and "mitsu," meaning "syrup," comes from "mitsumame," meaning "honey and boiled beans." Therefore, "anko mitsumame" is a dessert of red bean paste (I think it's usually strained to remove bean skins), jelly, boiled red beans, and some type of syrup, plus fruits, creams, ice cream, and whatever else. According to my host sister, Mihashi has the best anmitsu in Tokyo. I went to another anmitsu shop in Tokyo Midtown, and spent nearly twice as much for fewer ingredients, and no difference in quality...so I'd definitely recommend Mihashi, and don't bother buying the more expensive anmitsu in Tokyo Midtown.
Mihashi is just outside Ameyoko, facing the park and the large wall of lanterns.
Throughout the semester, I've been asking my host family for recommendations of places to go and things to do, so I asked for pastry recommendations. For famous Western pastries, my host father recommended Shirotae (pictured above and below), and for Asian pastries, he recommended salted daifuku, from Sugamo.
A few Fridays ago, when I was done with classes, I took a friend to Shirotae, located outside the metro station in Akasaka-Mitsuke, known for its cheesecake and cream puffs. Since I started practicing choux pastries December, I've been trying to eat cream puffs more often, so I ordered one here. Neither of us got a cheesecake, but between the two of us, we got 2 cream puffs, a slice of a cake topped with caramel (I don't remember the name), and a chocolate cake.
The cake had a slice of hard caramel on top, and layers of soft sponge cake and sweet whipped cream. I want that for my wedding.
The cream puff was everything I thought it would be. Japanese versions of Western pastries are softer, fluffier, and sweeter than American versions, which are sometimes dense, more subtle, and thicker. I have to wonder why this is. It's interesting to note, on a tangent, that Japan is one of the world's largest importers of instant coffee and canned coffee, and a major purchaser of coffee from Hawaii and Jamaica (probably due to location), while America is full of Italian-style cafes and coffee drinks. specialty coffees, and watered-down American versions of traditional drinks. Canned or bottled coffee is almost taboo, unless it's a Starbucks Frappuccino. It would be interesting to figure out what causes these types of cultural differences.
Back to the puff: the custard was smooth, unlike when I make custard (the yolks always cook too fast), and perfectly flavorful, but not cloyingly so, while the choux pastry was light and sweet, but not overpowering.
Also, this place is cheap-ish, in comparison to most Western pastry shops in this city. It's one block from the station, going west, and surrounded by bars, funky architecture, souvenir shops, and food.
Niru and her cream puff.
Going way back in time, back to my pre-birthday celebration. We celebrated my birthday a few days early because one of our friends was out of town on the day of, and then we celebrated again the next night. Well, I celebrated every day that week. We started out at Sweets Paradise in Shinjuku right after classes got out on Tuesday, and attempted to consume as much pastry as we possibly could to justify the expense.
I tried to wake up my stomach by eating a plate of curry noodles before dessert. A stupid idea. And, as always, my eyes are larger than my stomach, so I took too much food and couldn't finish. The concept of Sweets Paradise ("Sweets Para") is an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet. We paid Y1400 for 70 minutes. Tokyo has all-you-can-eat sweets places (Sweets Paradise), as well as "Vikings" (AYCE regular food). I haven't been to a Viking yet, but, judging from past experience with my stomach, it might not be financially efficient. The catch is that these buffets have a time limit, and sometimes an extra stipulation (like, you have to order a drink, or spend a certain extra amount of money on something else in addition to the main thing.)
There are multiple Sweets Paradises, but this one was in Shinjuku, and there's one near the Shibuya station.
During orientation, we spent a lot of money on sweets and food, and a lot of time walking around. Initially, sweets were almost a requirement for any day, until we realized that we had 4 months and not enough money to keep up. One of our earliest discoveries was Japanese crepe shops. Why are crepes so popular?
And again I ask the popular questions, why do they love French pastries so much??
We found a crepe place on Takeshita Street, in Harajuku, and then another one outside the Shinjuku train station. I'll never eat crepes again.
Ironically, there's a store in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles that specializes in crepes and tea.
We had worked up quite the sweat from karaoke, so we needed to refuel with....crepes. They have branches of this store all over the city. This one was in Shinjuku, like I mentioned above.
Soy-milk based steamed red bean bun, in Nikko.
The above is a type of manju, a pastry adopted from Chinese mochi. It was originally called "mantou" in Chinese, but the name was changed to "manju" when it came to Japan in the 14th century. Manju is made from steamed bun of flour and rice powder, and a filling of anko. In China, they're called "baozi" now, instead of "mantou."
There are many regional varieties and also ingredient varieties. For example, Miyajima in Hiroshima is known for "momiji manju," shaped like maple leaves ("momiji"), and where I live, Saitama Prefecture, is known for "jumangoku manju" (meaning "100,000 stones manju"). I have yet to try one of those, but I brought back a box of momiji manju for my host family from Hiroshima.
Another type of manju is deep-fried manju, "age-manju," which I found at the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa. We all know deep-fried foods are a requirement for fairs and carnivals, and it seems Japan is no exception. In America, you can find deep-fried bananas, ice cream, and candy bars. In Tokyo, you can find grilled mochi, octopus, fish, squid, meat, and deep-fried manju, as well as a plethora of other foods. This one was green tea-flavored.
As they say in Japanese:
どうぞ、salivate してください (please, go ahead and salivate)
They don't actually say that. They say "please, go ahead and try it."