Give me chocolate: Japan’s growing obsession with the ‘food of the gods’

by

Staff Writer

People with a sweet tooth can get a glimpse of how Charlie Bucket felt when he first stepped into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in Roald Dahl’s popular 1964 tale by popping into Musee du Chocolat Theobroma in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

Filled with tray after tray of lavish pastries, sumptuous cookies and piping hot bread fresh out of the oven, this elegant retail shop-cum-salon is a veritable desserts wonderland.

Chocolate features prominently in the luscious items on display, with specialist producers offering the cacao treats in flavors that range from hazelnut, coffee cream and passion fruit to ginger caramel, chili and basil. A wide variety of chocolate bars are also available, featuring different percentages of cacao from all over the world.

Cacao, or Theobroma cacao, belongs to the genus Theobroma, which is derived from the Greek for “food of the gods.”

Musee du Chocolat Theobroma was founded by Koji Tsuchiya, one of the country’s pioneering chocolatiers.

Specialist chocolate outlets are fairly common these days, but this wasn’t always the case. When Tsuchiya first opened Theobroma in 1999, there were very few chocolate shops in Tokyo and even fewer, if any, Japanese chocolatiers who had trained professionally abroad.

“It has long been my dream to spread chocolate culture throughout Japan,” Tsuchiya says. “As a chef, it was not enough just to be able to eat delicious chocolate. I had to learn how to make it from scratch and, once I was able to do that, then introduce it to others.”

Growing up in a modest home in Shizuoka Prefecture in the 1960s and ’70s with a father who was a salaryman and a stay-at-home mother, sweets were rarely consumed in Tsuchiya’s formative years. He doesn’t ever recall seeing a knife or fork in his home, and only ate cake once a year for Christmas.

His only encounter with cooking came in his teens when he made a poundcake on behalf of his sister, who was supposed to bake it as part of her homework. To his surprise, he received a number of compliments about his cake. The feeling of accomplishment stayed with him for a long time, ultimately influencing him to try his hand at training to become a patissier.

Before that, however, Tsuchiya first worked as a retail assistant in a supermarket, only to wind up in a hospital a few months later due to a hernia.

Tsuchiya was hospitalized for several months, undergoing a number of surgeries, before he was released.

A short time later, however, Tsuchiya was involved in a serious car accident, only surviving due to the corset he was wearing following his hernia surgeries. He still suffers from acute headaches that make him vomit.

“I almost died twice, so I decided then and there to do something I like with my life,” Tsuchiya says. “I decided I wanted to become a patissier.”

Tsuchiya first trained under a pastry chef in the city of Shizuoka. In hindsight, he says, his introduction to the kitchen was a disaster. His colleagues nicknamed him “Guinness” after “breaking the world record for failures in the kitchen.” They also told him his cream puffs “resembled dog poop.”

Realizing he would always struggle in Japan, Tsuchiya used all the money he had to buy a one-way ticket to Paris in 1982. Enrolling in a three-month language course, he studied French and began to find training opportunities at a number of pastry shops and bakeries in the French capital.

One day, he had the opportunity to sample one of La Maison du Chocolat’s famous creations — a truffle. It was, he recalls, the most delicious thing he had ever eaten.

“To me, chocolate was something you bought at a supermarket or a prize that people won at a pachinko parlor,” Tsuchiya says. “But when I tried the truffle, I couldn’t believe how exquisite it was. I hadn’t tasted anything like it before.”

Tsuchiya ended up staying in Paris for almost six years. Through personal introductions, he continued to train under the world’s leading chocolatiers, patissiers and chefs in Paris.

Having earned his stripes in the kitchen, Tsuchiya was offered a 10-year contract to work for Dalloyau, a new pastry shop inside Mitsukoshi department store in Paris — only to turn it down in order to return to Tokyo. It was 1987 and he was 26 years old.

“There were no gourmet chocolate shops back home at that time and I wanted to return to Tokyo and introduce chocolate culture to Japan,” Tsuchiya says. “I’ve always strived to overcome difficulty and, whenever I’m at a crossroads, never take the safest route.”

From there, Tsuchiya spent more than a decade working in Tokyo, first at a French restaurant and later at a French chocolate shop before opening Theobroma in 1999.

According to chocolate expert Ayumi Ichikawa, the domestic luxury chocolate market has changed drastically over the past 15 years. From Jean-Paul Hevin and Pierre Marcolini to Dalloyau and La Maison du Chocolat, the world’s top artisanal chocolatiers are now readily available right here in Japan, selling their heavenly creations for anywhere between ¥200 and ¥1,000 per piece.

The prices, however, don’t stop confectionery lovers from indulging in the sweets. Ichikawa, for example, says she eats at least 2,000 individual pieces of chocolate a year. Her job requires her to introduce chocolates to various publications, as well as give advice to chocolatiers on packaging and presentation.

“Chocolatiers such as Mr. Tsuchiya are essentially creating works of art,” Ichikawa says. “The detail that goes into each piece is amazing. Each characteristic of the chocolate, from the percentage of cacao and sugar contained in a piece to the original source of the nuts, is carefully calculated. It’s like chemistry and the pure joy you feel when you take a bite of that chocolate says it all.”

Chocolate galore

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, department stores nationwide set up seasonal chocolate sections that were flooded with women in search of the perfect sweet gift.

Traditionally, women in Japan buy chocolates for men on Valentine’s Day. Men are supposed to reciprocate on White Day on March 14.

A woman has several types of chocolate to buy in honor of Valentine’s Day: honmei-choko (love chocolate) for loved ones; giri-choko (obligation chocolate) for male colleagues and friends; and, more recently, tomo-choko (friend chocolate) for female friends.

Ichikawa says that women these days even buy jibun-choko (chocolate for yourself) to ensure they won’t miss out on a luscious Valentine’s Day treat.

“I don’t think there is any other country in the world that puts so much emphasis on chocolate for Valentine’s Day,” Ichikawa says. “It is the one time of year that delicious chocolate from all over the world is sold here. Chocolate lovers in Japan can’t afford to miss out at this time of year, understandably buying chocolate for themselves.”

Chocolate fans typically flock to the Japan version of Salon du Chocolat that is hosted by Isetan Mitsukoshi department store and held at nationwide venues until Feb. 14. (In Tokyo, the event was held between Jan. 27 and 31.)

About 60 chocolatiers from all over the world, including Tsuchiya, attended the Tokyo festival this year.

Although many of the artisanal chocolatiers are based overseas, Ichikawa says a number of domestic producers are now able to compete on a global scale. Several domestic chocolatiers are now internationally recognized, including Tsuchiya, who won the 2015 Salon du Chocolat’s foreign chocolatier award. He was awarded the prize on the back of four different chocolate creations: shiso perilla and wasabi; sesame and framboise; maccha green tea and milk chocolate; and ganache made from Vietnamese cacao beans.

“Japanese chocolatiers combine delicate tastes and visual aesthetics to create beautiful works of art,” Ichikawa says. “In particular, they excel at the way they arrange the subtle flavors using Japanese ingredients such as ume plums and yuzu citrus fruit. Many foreign chocolatiers are now paying attention to what their Japanese counterparts have been doing.”

Olmec origins

Chocolate’s origins can be traced back to the Olmec civilization that flourished in southern Mexico around 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C. During the Maya and Aztec civilizations, cacao is believed to have been turned into a special drink reserved for kings and aristocrats. The beans were also used as a medicine to help people recover from fatigue and various illnesses. At one point, cacao was even used as currency in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations.

Although it is unknown exactly when cacao arrived in Europe, Spain’s Christopher Columbus encountered the bean on his fourth mission to the Americas on Aug. 15, 1502, when his crew seized a native canoe that contained cacao beans for trade.

The beans were brought back to Spain and remained on the Iberian Peninsula for another 100 years before spreading to other parts of the continent.

The Europeans added sugar to counteract the bean’s natural bitterness, but the beverage was so rich that it was almost always served with water, says Yasuko Fujita, deputy secretary-general of the Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan.

“Like nuts, cacao beans contain a lot of oil (cacao butter),” Fujita says. “The oil’s so thick, you can’t drink it on its own. I’ve asked people who have recreated this beverage and they say it doesn’t taste good at all.”

Chocolate only emerged in the 19th century following the development of technology to extract cacao butter. In Japan, Morinaga’s Western Confectionery Shop (now Morinaga & Co.), began producing chocolate in 1899, a move that was followed by other companies such as Fujiya Co. and Meiji Co. in the early 20th century.

According to Fujita, cacao beans can only be grown in regions that lie close to the equator. Japan is 100 percent reliant on imports of the beans, she says, adding that up to 80 percent come from Ghana.

Manufacturers in Japan, however, are beginning to look into producing chocolate from beans grown in the country. On Tuesday, Saitama-based Hiratsuka Confectionery Co. announced that it succeeded in making chocolate from cacao beans grown in the Ogasawara Islands. It aims to start selling the chocolate from 2018.

“Cacao beans are like the grape varieties that are used to make wine,” Fujita says. “There are myriad varieties of beans available and depending on various factors — the soil, insects, humidity and the temperature in which the beans are grown — the flavor, bitterness and scent of a batch of chocolate can turn out very different. In Japan, beans from Ghana are often used as the base for chocolate — like mocha beans for coffee — because of their mild flavor. They’re subsequently often blended with cacao beans from other countries.”

Supermarkets nationwide now stock a wide range of chocolate products, from Meiji chocolate bars and chocolate-covered almonds to Pocky sticks and chocolate-covered biscuits. With all this on offer, it’s easy to assume that Japan consumes a large amount of chocolate each year.

The Chocolate and Cocoa Association of Japan, however, says the country’s annual consumption is quite low compared to other Western countries.

In 2013, for example, a person consumed on average about 2.2 kilograms of chocolate in Japan. In the same year, Germans consumed 12.2 kg on average, Swiss 10.8 kg, Britons 8.9 kg and the French 6.7 kg.

“Compared to other countries, Japan has an overwhelming variety of sweets to choose from, including traditional wagashi (Japanese-style confectionery),” Fujita says. “People here have so many different types of sweets to choose from that they don’t necessarily eat chocolate everyday.”

Nutritional benefits

To encourage more people to eat chocolate, the association has been focusing on cacao’s nutritional aspects, holding annual symposiums with Japanese and international experts on the positive benefits of chocolate.

One of the experts canvassed is Toshihiko Osawa, a professor at Aichi Gakuin University and an expert in antioxidants and polyphenols. For decades, he has been researching polyphenols in soybeans, turmeric, sesame seeds, cassis, blueberries, mushrooms and cacao.

“There are many types of polyphenol and each has different health benefits,” Osawa explains. “What is important is to make the best use out of each one. For example, soybeans have a polyphenol called isoflavone that are good for female hormones.”

In March 2014, Osawa and Meiji Co. launched a joint research project on the health benefits of cacao. For four weeks, they asked 347 citizens of Gamagori in Aichi Prefecture between the ages of 45 to 69 to eat about 25 grams of dark chocolate every day. The results were quite astounding. The test subjects’ overall blood pressure went down, the numbers especially significant for people with high blood pressure. Chocolate intake also increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, known as “good” cholesterol, while chocolate seemed to prevent low-density lipoprotein cholesterol from oxidation, lowering the risk of arteriosclerosis. Surprisingly, no weight gain was found in the group.

“People often have a negative image of sweets and snacks, but I wanted to offer a different perspective,” Osawa says. “Sweets can be healthy, too. This was so far the biggest study done in Japan regarding cacao and its health benefits.”

The study also discovered a significant increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Osawa says is the protein that feeds nutrition to the brain and affects the brain’s cognitive behavior.

“The level of BDNF among people with Alzheimer’s disease and depression has been found to be low. It has also been found to decrease with age,” Osawa says. “This is the first time studies have indicated that cacao’s polyphenol increases BDNF. There’s a possibility it could help prevent dementia.”

Osawa, however, warns that people shouldn’t eat an excessive amount of cacao. “It’s all about balance,” he says.

Moreover, polyphenol in cacao is not found in all chocolate. Milk chocolate doesn’t contain much polyphenol, but is high in sugar and fat. White chocolate contains next to nothing.

On the other hand, dark chocolate, which is rich in polyphenol, has become popular in the wake of a recent “bean-to-bar” trend among chocolatiers.

“Bean-to-bar” describes the process of making chocolate bars from the origin beans under one roof. It has become reasonably popular nationwide in the past couple of years and, last September, Tsuchiya opened his first bean-to-bar shop in Shibuya Ward in addition to the five other Theobroma shops located in various parts of Tokyo.

Tsuchiya had actually become interested in cacao beans more than 10 years ago. To find out more about them, he traveled all around the world, visiting the regions in which cacao beans are grown, including Venezuela, Peru, Ghana, Madagascar, Vietnam and Indonesia. He studied the ways in which the different regions around the world influenced the cacao beans, conducting taste tests that graded on the addition of ingredients such as refined sugar, brown sugar or vanilla extract.

Tsuchiya says the bean-to-bar process is very laborious and it takes a lot of time to separate the skin from the cacao beans.

His biggest joy, however, was meeting the farmers who were growing the cacao beans. For many of these farmers, life is not easy and the majority often live in poverty.

“I sat down with these farmers and listened to their struggles,” Tsuchiya says. “The sheer joy they took out of their work is motivating. The bean-to-bar process is not a trend to me — I want to make chocolate with my own hands that would also bring a smile to their faces.”