Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Maple Melon Pan

One of the first things you notice when you enter a convenience store in Japan is that there are many different and highly interesting looking baked goods on display. It's a bit like the Hostess displays that you might see in American 7-11's or Sheetz. The main difference is that the Japanese ones are not nearly as sweet and have a much heavier overtone of bread rather than cake. Also, there is rarely a pie of any sort in sight.

After you sample a few of these things, you find that a lot of them are pretty vile and bland white bread-based items. Many of the savory options are little more than hot dog buns with corn, mayonnaise, and small quantities of tuna, eggs, ham, or sausage.

The sweet options sometimes provide a little more promise, but they also tend to be your basic white bread buns or rolls filled with various flavors of whipped cream, jellies or beans. I've got nothing against the fillings, but putting them on a hamburger or hotdog bun is just gross.

Fujipan (the "pan" means bread) makes a variety of bread products in Japan with a heavy emphasis on sandwich bread, "stick" bread, and various snacks. They also market bread snacks based on the Japanese animation character "Anpanman". In various convenience stores, it's not uncommon to run across one or two of their current line of snacks in the baked goods area. At my local shop, two types of Fujipan melon pan were in stock. One was chocolate chip and looked suspiciously like it may actually have been melon- flavored. For the record, a lot of melon pan doesn't taste like melon. It only looks like it.

Since I am not keen on the idea of chocolate flavor mixed with melon, I decided to give the maple flavor a go. A bag with 4 pieces cost 100 yen (about 95 cents USD) so they're fairly cheap. Each piece is more like a soft cookie than a bit of bread. Melon pan is actually made of both bread and a cookie topping. The inside of these cookies is like regular bread dough that has been spread with a maple-flavored fat spread (this is literally what it's called in the ingredients list) and then a cookie dough topping is poured on top of it. It is baked and the bread rises a bit, the filling is largely absorbed into the interior, and the cookie shell is supposed to get a bit hard. The inside is actually hollow and is coated with the residue of the maple fat spread.

The main problem with buying melon pan in these sorts of plastic packages for mass distribution is that the cookie shell gets soft. Half of the pleasure of a melon pan is the crispy shell on top of the bread. You only get that half if you buy your melon pan at an actual bakery. That doesn't mean that the texture of these is not interesting or enjoyable. It just means that it is not an optimal melon pan experience.

When you open the package, the melon pan smells of maple. They are soft, but not spongy. The texture is tender and they get a bit doughy as you chew them. The maple flavor is not overwhelming or overly artificial. I'm pretty satisfied with the flavor balance, but I think many Western folks might like them to be sweeter.

Whether or not you like this is going to hinge heavily on how you feel about the texture. The doughy quality and varied texture of the bread and cookie shell may or may not suit some people. I found these pleasant and think they'd make a nice occasional snack with tea or even a light breakfast with coffee. The only thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to eat too many at once as they are 110 calories apiece and almost certainly contain "bad fats". I'm guessing that the "maple fat spread" is probably made with margarine or some other fat mixture that includes trans fats, though it is impossible to know for sure since there's no explanation on the package.

I might pick these up again some day, but I can't see putting them into any sort of regular rotation. Since they seem to be a seasonal item for autumn, there may not even be a choice in the matter. I think sampling these once or twice a year would be just about right.

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