Salt and pepper. Rum and raisin. Brownies and ice cream. A basic food collocation list, if such a thing existed, would include all these and more. It would tell you a lot about the food culture of Anglophone countries, what people there eat and value, what goes together and why. I’m no stranger to such flavour pairings, having grown up immersing myself in Euro-American food writing, but it took me 21 years, and coming to Tokyo after two years of living in London, to welcome into my life that most basic of pairings – bread and butter.
Growing up, the idea of using butter in cooking, particularly outside of the realm of sweets, sat uneasily with me. No doubt, this was a by-product of my mother’s horror of butter – or rather, the way she conditioned herself to abhor and avoid buttery (and creamy) foods both savoury and sweet. There’s certainly a cultural element to this that even I cannot help but fall prey to sometimes – it’s been noted, many times and in many places, that East Asian cultures don’t have a tradition of using dairy products. This is, of course, changing with the times. Still, for my mother, food cooked with butter, especially savoury food, was ‘smelly’ – as the Japanese would say, bata kusai, or ‘butter-stinking’ – and more often than not inedible . In the same way, if it was overtly buttery, I wouldn’t eat it. (I still won’t, most of the time.)
The other factor was health. My mother can be quite health-conscious – one of her favourite words when it comes to dessert is probably ‘control’. Thus, a near-butterless childhood, particularly in savoury dishes (my obsession with making dessert is another story, though); consequently, buttered toast was pretty much anathema. Anything, anything on toast but butter, even processed slices of Kraft plastic cheese (which I loved). Even the merest smear of butter felt more decadent than thrice the amount of melted cheese, or an inch-thick layer of Nutella. Butter Is Bad For You: the anthem of the health police that branded itself on my frontal cortex, so much so that even today, somewhere inside my head, I still recoil a little when it comes to buttering my toast.
Growing up in that sort of household, occasions for buttered toast were few and far in between. When I did it would be accompanied by kaya – a Malaysian pandan-flavoured coconut jam. Perhaps ‘curd’ would be more appropriate, since it contains eggs, traditionally duck eggs. Kaya, a word which also means ‘rich’, is an appropriate name for the way the best of its ilk tastes. It’s hard to figure out what pandan tastes like, if you’ve never had it before, but its fragrance and flavour are haunting.
One of the best places for kaya toast, I think, is at a kopitiam in Raub, my parents hometown. A veritable decades-old institution by the name of Tong Nam Bee, it’s one of the first few places the locals will name when prodded for eating recommendations. If you find yourself in KL, it would be a wise idea to take a road trip (just 1.5 hours or so!) to Raub. It might actually be worth driving all the way for this toast.
Not the prettiest dish, I know, but bear with me. Just three components, each one beautifully executed. The texture of the toast here is key – neither too thick nor too soft, toasted until light and crispy enough to shatter and release a fine spray of crumbs when you bite into it. An appropriately thick, ideally cold, slice of butter – it doesn’t have to be excellent, but it should not be margarine. Here, its role is to act as a cool, fatty foil for the star of the show – the kaya, which at TNB is nothing short of amazing.
Unlike regular kaya, which is quite spreadable, this one’s a lush, verdant green specimen with a smooth, saucy consistency. It’s much greener than normal kaya, indicating that the folks at TNB don’t skimp on the pandan leaves. They blend a goodly amount to extract lots of juice, which might explain the more liquid consistency. That’s then stirred with everything else in a double boiler for what I hear is about six hours. They only make one batch per day – in the photo, that’s for the next day – and once it’s used up for the day, that’s it. If you’re lucky and they’re feeling generous, you might be able to, as we did, wheedle a small take-home jar of their kaya for a nominal fee.
My method is to slather the kaya atop the toast, followed by a piece of butter, still whole and not smeared into the kaya; my ideal ratio of kaya to butter is about 3:2. Then the whole affair is consumed as quickly as possible, while the toast is still crisp. My younger sister, A, has few of my reservations about butter, and is wont to use it all up, leaving more of the kaya behind.
Fond memories of kaya toast notwithstanding, it’s still for me more like an occasional treat than a way to start the day, since my daily breakfasts tended to consist of leftovers from yesterday’s dinner. Besides, there’s no hope of recreating kaya toast in Japan, where fresh pandan leaves and coconuts are scarce; also, it tastes best eaten when it’s muggy and you’re indoors, amid the hubbub and buzz of kopitiam chatter, underneath the clack-clack of overhead ceiling fans, and the toast is served on on green-and-white ceramic plates, or those plastic saucers of orange, blue and lime green that seem to be the standard dishware of Malaysian coffee shops. Anywhere else, no matter how delicious, somehow feels a little too chichi.
My goal, then, to recreate not the taste but the spirit of kaya toast for my morning meal – to be specific, the textures and the temperature contrasts of hot bread and cold toppings. I must confess to being rather particular about each component, seeing no reason not to at least begin some days with a decent breakfast. My spread of choice: blueberry jam from Tsukuba city, Ibaraki prefecture. One of the best jams I’ve ever had, with an unexpectedly bright sweetness – plum juice, instead of the usual lemon, seems to stand in for the citric component. Never mind its proximity to Fukushima; it was worth a jar to support farmers suffering economically from the disaster. The sample of jam on some homemade cake – made by the obaasan manning the stall in Akasaka some months back, whose daughter is by chance living in Malaysia – sealed the deal. Funny things how turn out.
With jam, butter, sweet and unsalted. This being Japan, Hokkaido butter is the way to go. But the cornerstone of all this is the toast, and that begins with good bread. So much bread in Japan I find too sweet, too white, too soft – for instance, the average shoku pan, which contains milk. You can keep all your fuwa-fuwa nonsense; I like my toast with a little crunch and integrity, and am currently partial to Andersen’s Steinmetz Toast – a slightly savoury loaf with a shiny, crackly crust that makes great toast. I think, also, that it would pair fabulously with teriyaki chicken leftovers and homemade Japanese mayonnaise for an open-faced sandwich of sorts.
The whole process, then, as it goes some mornings: toast bread until golden-brown. Snatch from toaster, hurry to table. Smear rough scrapes of unsalted butter with alternating dollops of jam – or, if the mood takes me, teaspoons of mikan honey. Eat in great mouthfuls while the toast is warm and the butter’s still cold, washing each bite down with coffee.
How do you like your toast?
Tsukuba Blueberry-en, Watanabe Chieko
1728-2 Tsukuriya, Tsukuba City, Ibaraki
P.S. Merry Christmas from Kyoto! Doesn’t feel like Christmas at all, but am having the time of my life.