Since baking wasn’t really a thing in Japan until the European missionaries introduced wheat-based products to the islands, it shouldn’t be surprising that many popular Japanese pastries are a take on Western ones, adjusted to fit Japanese preferences.
Japan has loved bread fervently ever since Kimura Yasubei introduced the first Japanese version of it in 1874, but the pastry industry really took off after the rapid growth of wheat import in the post-WWII period to battle hunger. Westernization was afoot, and along with it grew the popularity of Western food. That meant the people were open to new experiences, and boy did Japanese bakers make the most of it.
If any of the sweets strike your fancy, remember that you can find both mochi and dango, along with many of the desserts described on this list in Yummy Bazaar’s popular Japanese food assortment. Give them a taste and find out yourself if the differences between Japanese and Western pastries are really as significant as they seem.
European Cakes vs. Japanese Pastries: Similarities and Differences
While the history of bread and bread-baking in Japan goes back to the mid-16th century, pastries only became a mainstream favorite in the mid-20th century. Many of the most popular Japanese pastries today are an updated take on an already popular dessert from across the pond that was adjusted to fit the sensibilities of Japanese people better. For example, Japanese people do not enjoy the excessive sweetness and denser texture characteristic of many Western, particularly American pastries, so their interpretation tends to be lighter and creamier, with a more mellow taste and airier texture.
Japanese cheesecake is, perhaps, the best illustration of how a Western cake can be reinterpreted to fit Japanese tastes. Where classic cheesecake tends to be dense and rich, Japanese cheesecake is light and airy, with a souffle-like texture. It was created in the 1960s by Japanese Pastry Chef Tomotaro Kuzuno, who first tried cheesecake on his trip to Berlin and wished to create his own version of it. Japanese cheesecake contains all the classic cheesecake ingredients: cream cheese, butter, sugar, and eggs. It’s the measurements and cooking techniques that turn it into a unique dessert. For one, it uses significantly less sugar, so the final product is less sweet and more buttery. It also uses less cream cheese, as the Japanese hadn’t yet gotten used to its taste (regular cheese import had only started in the late 1950s), and Kuzuno was afraid bold flavor would have people reject his creation. For another, to achieve the signature fluffy texture, the egg whites and egg yolks have to b separately whipped. The cake is cooked in a bain-marie instead of being baked in the oven.
Japanese Roll Cake
Japanese roll cake is a version of Swiss roll, adapted to fit Japanese tastes better, similar to cheesecake. Swiss roll is made by rolling a classic sponge cake, filling it with whipped cream, jam, or chocolate icing. Typically, the filling layer is thin, with the cake taking the larger part.
In contrast, Japanese roll cake is made with rolled chiffon cake. Chiffon cake is similar to sponge cake but is lighter and airier. Japanese roll cakes also notably contain less sugar than classic Swiss rolls (or other chiffon cakes, for that matter). The cake part is supposed to be light and mellow. The sweetness mainly comes from the filling, which, in contrast to the Swiss roll, takes up the larger part of the cake. Classic Japanese roll cake fillings include whipped cream or light custard, often with some kind of fruit.
Japanese Strawberry Shortcake
Japanese strawberry shortcake is visually pretty much identical to its Western counterpart. Once again, the main differences lie in texture. A Japanese take on strawberry shortcake is distinctly lighter and creamier. It consists of two to four layers of light and airy sponge cake (again, with lower sugar content than its western counterpart), filled with whipped cream and fresh strawberries, and decorated with more strawberries on the top. Strawberry shortcake is a popular Christmas cake in Japan, and bakeries often decorate it with thematic ornaments during the holidays.
Japanese Mont Blanc Cake
The original Mont Blanc dessert isn’t a cake at all. Created in Piedmont, Italy (even if the French were the ones who made it popular), Mont Blanc consisted of two ingredients: sweet chestnut purée and whipped cream. The chestnut purée was passed through a sieve to form vermicelli and mounted on a plate. It was then decorated with whipped cream.
According to a Japanese Monburan (Mont Blanc’s Japanese name) store, it was brought to Japan in 1933. The Japanese were the ones to turn it into a proper pastry by giving it a sponge cake base instead of just piling the chestnut purée, ostensibly to make it easier to eat. Monburan is one of the most famous Japanese pastries these days, with its flavor frequently imitated in other snacks like Kit-Kat and Pepsi.
Baumkuchen is a German layered cake made on a spit over an open fire (or a specialized oven). When cut into slices, its layers visually resemble the growth rings of a tree. This visual has played an important part in cementing Baumkuchen as one of Japan’s favorite pastries. It came to be associated with long life, happiness, and luck and became a traditional gift at weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations.
Unlike most other pastries on this list, the Baumkuchen recipe hasn’t changed much. It’s more that Japan gave a unique twist to Baumkuchen, playing with flavors like matcha, orange, milk, and cheese. But they do enjoy the classic mellow vanilla Baumkuchen flavor and have since 1919. In fact, you’ll have an easier time finding Baumkuchen in Japanese bakeries these days than you would have in Germany, where it remains a regional snack, baked only in specialized establishments.
You can learn more about how nigh-obscure German regional pastry became one of Japan’s most beloved ones in our article about Baumkuchen’s history in Japan.
Japanese Cream Puffs
Japanese cream puffs are called Shu, an obvious reference to the original Choux. It’s unclear when Choux a la Creme was first introduced to Japan, but we can assume it was already at least moderately popular by 1904 when Aizo Soma of Nakamuraya used it as a basis for his "Cream Pan" (custard-filled sweet bun).
Cream Puffs are one of the most popular pastries in Japan, especially among kids. They can be found at bakeries, street vendors, and even in vending machines. Japanese cream puffs are often filled with whipped cream or vanilla custard, but matcha, strawberry, or blueberry cream are also common.
Japanese Bread, Sweet Buns, and Sandwiches
The first signature Japanese bread was Anpan, a soft fluffy bun filled with Anko paste. Since then, the primary definition of Japanese-style bread has been a fluffy bun with a sweet or savory filling. Among sweet buns, Jam Pan, Cream Pan, Choco Pan, and Melon Pan (soft bun with cookie dough topping) have been staples. Among more savory buns, the deep-fried Curry Bread, buttery Yakisoba Pan, and Katsu Sando (pork cutlet sandwich) are popular.
There’s also a famous sweet Japanese sandwich called Furutsu Sando. It’s made by placing whipped cream and fruit between Shokupan (soft fluffy milk bread) slices.
What Are the Most Popular Native Japanese Pastries?
While a large assortment of Japanese pastries is just a new take on an already existent Western one, several pastries are wholly native to Japan and remain popular to this day.
Japanese Castella Cake
While the Castella recipe was developed based on Nanban (i.e., imported) confectionary, it has no direct analogy. The closest would be Portuguese Bolo de Castela (Castile cake), a popular food among sailors, as it could be stored for a long time. The Japanese take on the cake was softer, airier, and moister. Made with runny batter sweetened with Mizuame (a thick, starchy sugar syrup), the final recipe had little to do with the Portuguese original. Though its roots are tied to Western baking traditions, it can be argued that Castella was the first authentic Japanese pastry, like Anpan was the first authentic Japanese bread.
If you don’t think Castella can be inarguably defined as a native Japanese pastry, then the chief among native Japanese pastries is Imagawayaki. Created in the latter 18th century, Imagawayaki is a thick and tall pancake filled with sweet red bean paste. It requires a special pan to bake and is a major Festival food. Imagawayaki remains a significant influence over Japanese pastries, with at least two major pastries emerging from it: Taiyaki and Dorayaki.
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find Imagawayaki with fillings other than Anko, with vanilla custard, different fruit preserves, and even curry found increasingly more often.
Taiyaki could be roughly described as fish-shaped Imagawayaki. It also requires a special pan to bake batter but is much thinner than its progenitor. It was created in 1909 at Naniwaya Sōhonten and was an attempt by the owner, Kobe Seijirou, to attract more customers by giving his Imagawayaki a unique shape to differentiate himself from other vendors.
Taiyaki is more popular than Imagawayaki these days and is found at street vendors, convenience stores, and vending machines, with various fillings, both sweet and savory.
Yet another take on Japanese pancake, Dorayaki consists of two small flat sweet Castella patties stuck together with a sweet filling. As with Imagawayaki and Taiyaki, Dorayaki was initially filled with Anko paste as well, but these days chocolate, flavored custard, and even chestnut purée are used as a filling.
Monaka being a pastry at all is somewhat arguable, but most classifications do put it on the list of Japanese pastries, and we aren’t going to argue. It consists of two thin crispy Mochi wafers and a sweet filling, usually Anko, but (as has become common nowadays), other fillings like chocolate and ice cream are also popular. Monaka wafers are generally in square or triangle shapes, but it has become a popular trend to shape wafers into more visually impressive forms like cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, etc.
Are Mochi and Dango Pastries?
If that isn’t the question for the century! Traditionally, a pastry is defined as something that consists of flour, water, and solid fat (shortening) and is baked. Mochi and Dango don’t precisely follow these rules, but they may sometimes follow them, making it difficult to categorize them.
They’re both made of rice flour, which is a type of flour. There’s often water added to make the steamed paste smoother. Mochi and Dango are traditionally steamed or boiled, but they can be baked, and when that happens, they’re described as Yaki (or Yagi).
Neither, however, contains shortening, so we’d argue that they’re not a pastry and are to be kept off the list. If you’re of a different opinion - let us know!