Oh boy.
I feel like there's an essay somewhere in all this for the modern food historian ready to write it. I have absolutely no time for that kind of project, so I will twitter thread instead. https://twitter.com/CJSlaby/status/1319825082294874112
Christopher, your instincts are completely correct! Japanese sweets baking is (relatively) recent phenomenon, heaving influenced by French baking from the nineteenth century onwards, with a lot of growth and change after WWII.
If GBBO had said asked: We are doing a Japanese bake-off episode, what would you recommend? I would actually look to the host of incredible postwar innovations in Japanese desserts. For instance, Japanese souffle cheesecake would make a great technical challenge!
I've often thought that the Western dessert-world is missing out on wagashi, particularly the varieties made from beans and tubers that shape beautifully and taste amazing. Better than marzipan, better than edible modeling (I will die on this hill) amazing decorating
I've done some wagashi workshops as a home cook and made beautiful things. Unfortunately, both inside and outside of Japan, these kinds of wagashi are treated as sacred things that can only be made by multi-generational confectioners. (This, I think, silly).
So, perhaps these were overlooked as an option. Also, they're not baked items! But I think it would have been incredible to see highly capable home cooks attempting to sculp from these ingredients, combining them with jelly, gelatin, or even cakes in show-stoppers.
If one was looking for a baked item that has been in Japan for a "long" time, I think kasutera would be worth consideration. (If grilled was acceptable, senbei would tie in with numerous cracker-related challenges in the past).
However, I would be remiss if I didn't confront something that makes me uncomfortable in this whole conversation around this incident. I actually don't have a problem with steamed buns being in a "Japanese" food episode. Man have been eaten in Japan since the medieval period.
Among Japan food historians, there are discussions around whether the buns were sweet or savory and when... but actually these steamed buns predate many of the "traditional" wagashi sweets that people think of as "Japanese'!
Many food-prep techniques travelled from the Continent to the Japanese archipelago in the classical and medieval eras. The earliest sweets were fried and steamed, initially based off of Continental recipes. These techniques are older than the US, China, or England.
Our obsession with what constitutes "Japanese," or "Chinese," or "traditional" was created in the 19th century, by numerous, frankly, racist and imperialist ideas.
Japan was in many ways a culinary melting pot, and our modern concern with picking this stew apart is, in my opinion, a nationalistic waste of time. Steamed buns predate the goddamned modern tea ceremony.
Kasutera came originally from the Portuguese. Many modern innovations derive from the French. These don't make them any lesser, because generations of Japanese cooks have innovated on these things.
Within Japan, many eaters are delighted when cooks can bring in flavors from other parts of the globe and combine them with older, prestanding Japanese technique. So, I think so long as a cook is respectful, innovation from other culinary traditions is definitely valued.
That said, in the West, we have to do more work to educate people on culinary traditions in other parts of the world: techniques, core ingredients, and innovations. None of these things are static, so it will fall to historians to emphasize the change over time.
If I had been on the GBBO production team, I would have pitched senbei for the first, souffle cheesecake for the technical, and wagashi for the final. I think all these things would have provided opportunities for respect and innovation. I think man would be okay too for #1.
While we voice our frustrations with what we see as failures in education, we must also guard against Orientalist tendencies to treat the non-West as unchanging, bound in the "traditional" defined by modern, racial notions. Food-preparations travel and change.
Despite the best efforts of Orientalist traditionalists, Japan is an excellent case study for this.
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