Growing up in Singapore, my early encounters with Japanese bread began with the anpan あんパン. My mum would sometimes buy these small bread rolls, five in a pack, for breakfast. I would tear the bun into two halves and nibble on the sweet red bean filling, trying to make each one last as long as possible. There was also the Anpanman anime featuring a superhero with an anpan for its head, from which it would pluck chunks to feed those who are hungry, and its powers would be restored whenever the baker puts a freshly baked red bean bun onto its shoulders.
Then there was the hearty panko-covered karepan カレーパン, a deep-fried bread heavy with sweet curry inside. To me, this is like the distant Japanese relative of the curry puffs we would eat in Singapore which are usually stuffed with curried potato and chicken.
Shokupan – which literally means “eating bread” in Japanese, is considered to be “the most ubiquitous type of bread in Japan.” Enriched with milk, butter, and sugar, it is sold everywhere from supermarkets to kombini convenience stores across the country.
Even though there were Japanese department stores such as Yaohan, Daimaru, Sogo and Takashimaya alongside outposts of Japanese bakeries in Singapore, I don’t remember eating the square-shaped shokupan パン when I lived there. I wonder if its physical resemblance to the Gardenia and Sunshine-brand sliced bread that we would buy every week was why we didn’t think to try the shokupan.
In recent years, this fluffy white bread has been popping up in bakeries and cafes from Australia to Canada, and even in France. Aside from globalisation, the rising popularity of this everyday Japanese bread is being fuelled by the thousands of #sando Instagram images of wagyu, katsu (breaded fried pork cutlet), and tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) as well as fruit with whipped cream sandwiched between thick slices of shokupan.
Even though we’ve been to Japan a few times, it was during our last holiday to Fukuoka when I finally noticed the shokupan.
The first moment was when we had stopped at a bakery offering free samples. I didn’t think much of the soft white bread but I was bemused by the individually packed slices displayed for sale like in a retail shop. How very Japanese, I thought, as we left Sakimoto. One year later, Sakimoto opened its first branch in Hong Kong, and it was only then that I learned that this is a famous bakery chain from Osaka that specialises in shokupan.
Our second encounter with the shokupan also left a “so Japanese” impression on me. At Coffee Hanasaka, the owner meticulously prepared a cabbage toast, which was essentially a slice of shokupan topped with shredded raw cabbage and cheese, and toasted in a mini-oven until the vegetable tips were lightly charred.
Even though soft white breads are part of my everyday diet growing up, I prefer crusty, dense European-style breads. However, some foods are better enjoyed with fluffy white slices of bread than with sourdough bread for instance.
In particular: Bak kwa 肉干, sweet-salty slices of barbecued dried pork that are most often eaten at Chinese New Year in Singapore. Whenever I’m in Singapore during Chinese New Year, my breakfast would include bak kwa sandwich, pineapple tart, love letter and a few other classic cookies laid out for the holiday.
DIY Festive Touch
Chinese New Year is my favourite holiday. I’ve many happy memories of boisterous gatherings with my relatives over delicious homemade foods and playing overnight mahjong with my friends.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the excessively stringent quarantine regulations in Hong Kong, this is the second consecutive year that I’ve missed celebrating Chinese New Year with my family and friends in Singapore. To bring some festive cheer amid this two-year limbo of being stuck in Hong Kong, I decided to learn how to make a few of my favourite Chinese New Year foods.
One of them was bak kwa, which AB calls “candied pork jerky” in jest. While I could have bought some in a store in Hong Kong I didn’t want to settle for mediocre bak kwa. So I searched online and mashed together a recipe. Once I had gathered all the ingredients, the rest of the steps were straightforward: Marinate the meat, spread it out on a cookie sheet to dehyrdrate and grill with occasional basting.
It was so easy to prepare that I made it twice in one week. After all, Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days.
However, in the second round, I was making char siu (barbecued pork shoulder) concurrently and accidentally put the minced meat into the wrong marinade! Fortunately, there is significant overlap in the ingredients for both recipes and the bak kwa turned out even better than my original version after the modifications: Spicy with a garlicky touch and just the right level of sweetness.
After I made the bak kwa, I looked up recipes for sourdough shokupan since I’ve an active starter on the kitchen counter. I went with the sourdough shokupan recipe from The Perfect Loaf.
The temperatures in Hong Kong took a dip and our kitchen was colder than usual which threw the timings out of sync resulting in longer bulk fermentation and proofing durations. The dough didn’t look like it was making much progress the next day but I put it into the oven anyway to see what might happen. Fortunately, my shokupan dough prevailed and puffed up nicely in the oven.
Bak Kwa Sando
Lightly grilled slices of shokupan with a mellow tang, crisp on the outside yet soft to bite. Completed with a slice of warm savoury-sweet bak kwa sandwiched between them. This is my elevated take on the bak kwa sandwich that I used to enjoy as my first meal of the day during Chinese New Year.
Update, one week later: I made another sourdough shokupan. Grilled some frozen, half-cooked bak kwa. Sandwiched the bak kwa between toasted bread slathered with a thin layer of homemade pineapple jam. The tangy sweetness of the jam was a great match with the bak kwa and shokupan! (Recipe for the pineapple jam to come in a future post)
Let’s Make Some Bak Kwa
1kg minced pork (not too lean, with around 20% fat)
100g sugar (caster, fine, white, brown)
⅔-1 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons shao xing wine (Chinese rice wine)
½ teaspoon five spice powder
½ teaspoon ground pepper (preferably, white)
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon light soya sauce
1-1½ tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon spicy chilli flakes
2 teaspoons garlic powder
½ cube of red fermented bean curd
- Mix the all the ingredients thoroughly until the mixture becomes a gooey paste.
- Cover and refrigerate the mixture overnight or 6-8 hours.
- Take the meat out of the fridge to let it warm up a little before toasting, and give it a good stir to make it more gooey.
- Pre-heat oven 150 degrees Celsius, fan mode.
- Spread a thin layer of meat mixture onto parchment paper and smoothen it with a butter knife. The meat layer should be about 2mm to 2.5mm thick. Repeat until all meat is used up. Transfer to baking tray with parchment paper beneath.
- Dehydrate the meat: Bake for 10-15 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius with oven door open. Once meat is dried, remove from oven and let it cool slightly. There will be some liquid – lightly dap dry the surface.
- Increase oven temperature to 220 degrees Celsius.
- Transfer meat and parchment paper to a broiler pan. If possible, try not to cut meat into smaller slices until after it is cooked as the edges are prone to cook faster (and become charred). Grill for approximately 5 minutes on each side. Monitor closely as meat burns easily at this stage.
- Remove and cool completely on a wire rack. Cut into smaller slices before putting away into a box.
To store: This is best eaten within 3 days if kept at room temperature. It can be kept for up to 7 days in the fridge. To reheat, fry over low heat for 5 minutes or microwave at low heat for less than 2 minutes.
To freeze: After the meat has been dehydrated, let it cool before cutting into slices. Set on a baking tray. Put the tray into the freezer and pack the frozen slices into an air-tight bag after two hours. When ready to cook the bak kwa at a later time, there’s no need to defrost the meat. Just grill it directly in the oven as per the remaining steps.