Japan is a country well known for its tranquility and serenity. Perhaps not the whole land and maybe not for the entirely of its history but there are areas of its culture and society that are beyond reverent in stillness and quiet tradition.
Piccadilly Circus is an area of London well known for its buzz and excitement. Perhaps not every single street and maybe not for all the years it’s been there but there are areas that boast more exciting restaurants & world-class theatres than anywhere else on the globe.
Would you put these two together? Probably not and if you’re wondering what they have in common, I’ll let you in on a little secret – on the edge of Shaftesbury Avenue lies the Japan Centre. It’s not quite the placid and hushed corner of Japan that a voyage into the Land of the Rising Sun might actually afford but it is an excellent spot in which to pick up some beautiful Japanese pastries.
Opened in 1976 as a source of familiar home comforts for London’s Japanese dwellers, the centre began life as a simple bookshop and martial arts stockist on the nearby Brewer St. Now, nearly 40 years later, it boasts ready-to-eat fare including a wide variety of fresh sushi, hot food & deliciously soft steamed buns, a supermarket full of groceries & homeware and a bakery, and it was in this last area of the store that I found something new to my eyes and my tummy.
I might be in the minority here but I’d never before correlated Japanese cuisine with baked goods. Fish, rice, noodles, miso and sake were all familiar to me as clean, simple, savoury Japanese foods I’d enjoyed but these indulgently light sweet treats would be the first I’d experienced. They might not look like the most traditional of cakey-type desserts but that’s one of the things I liked most about them.
For our first foray into Japanese baking, J and I tried an adzuki bean paste & green tea sweet roll and to complement that, a roll woven through with ribbons of sweet potato cream. Both were delicate and airy in texture with a sweet taste that was reminiscent of American bread but much more at home here in a pastry than in a loaf of something you expect to be traditionally savoury.
The bean paste was unusual in both flavour and texture but in no way was it unpleasant, it just wasn’t something we were used to. Sweet and succulent, it had a hint of earthiness to it in the same way that beetroot cake often does and the lightness of the tea balanced it out beautifully. I’m a massive green tea groupie and am always looking for new ways to try eating it…I did have to draw the line at a bag of Matcha Kit Kats though as, however much I was tempted, I cannot possibly be trusted to ration out a whole bag!
If you didn’t know it was sweet potato inside the second roll, I guarantee you’d have thought it was some sort of soft peach or apricot-esque fruit, so gentle was the flavour and again, the texture of the bread itself was gorgeously open and fluffy. There was absolutely nothing heavy or stodgy about these; they literally were some of the lightest things to come out of an oven that I’ve ever eaten. Despite my credentials as a rampant chocoholic, I also liked the fact that they were sweet but not cocoa flavoured in any way – an elegant cup of green tea with lemon or a chilled flute of Prosecco would be the most simple yet impeccable companions to these.
Japanese patisserie and baking is set to become internationally renowned, consumed and adored in 2015 thanks to the pairing of their meticulous precision in all things culinary with classic French technique & styling. After dipping my toe into it here, there’s no doubt I’ll be coming back to see, admire and devour it in all its artistry and refinement in as many ways as I can and if you’re a lover of all things Japanese or just fancy trying something out of a different kind of afternoon tea trolley, I highly advocate a trip to Japan by way of W1D.