The Bagel Artisans of Tokyo
Nowadays, all over Tokyo you can find bread shops advertising handmade breads. Artisanal bagel shops are also no longer rare. In Ogikubo there is more than one shop selling handmade bagels. In a country with no real tradition of bagel making, how does one become a Japanese “bagel artisan”? To find out, we visited one of Nishiogi’s artisanal bagel shops, located in a small space on the second floor of a building on a main shopping street 200 meters south of the station exit.
“Pochikoro Bagels” (loosely, “Little Blackie Bagels”) is named after the childhood dog of the two owners, Matsuo Ayako and Matsuo Sachiko, sisters who are both from Sendai. Sachiko moved to Tokyo already 17 years ago to pursue a university degree. Ayako, who was still in Sendai, became enamored with bagels, a relative novelty. “At the time they were really rare,” she said. “There were no specialty shops. You might just find them in a bakery.”
At first she had no intention of selling bagels. She just started making them so she and her family could eat them at home. She learned herself, and her sister learned from her. “We started just with curiosity and self-study. We tried all kinds of things. We read a lot of things in books, but the recipes we use are ours. There was no teacher.”
While showing us the specialized equipment in their tiny kitchen, the two sisters explained to us their process of making bagels. The biggest difference with ordinary bread is that bagels are quickly boiled before baking. That way the chewy texture emerges. They are not allowed to rise too much before boiling. Depending on the conditions of the rise, the boiling time varies, but it is about one minute. Then they are baked immediately. If they are boiled too much, they become like a dumpling. With water still on them, they are baked.
The recipes at Puchikuro are all original, and some might surprise Americans. All sorts of ingredients are put in the dough of the bagel, including Japanese favorites such as azuki beans. Seasonal flavors are the most popular. For example, the potato, basil and cheese bagel that you can buy now is limited to fall and winter. A Hokkaido potato called “kitaakari” is kneaded into the dough.
Bagels are a Jewish specialty that originated in medieval times in Poland and other areas of central Europe and were brought to the US in the nineteenth century. However, it is the New York bagel culture that has spread worldwide. Sachiko visited New York, the capital of modern bagel culture. “American bagels are hard,” she said. “They are delicious, but they are a different product. While traveling there I really wanted to eat them. But American bagels are too heavy to eat everyday. Japanese people like a soft spongy texture.”
Ayako started selling bagels at age 25. She began by selling them in a mobile cart between Kichijoji and Kokubunji (both on the Chuo Line that also stops at Nishi Ogikubo). She sold sandwiches and cookies as well. “My ultimate goal was to start my own shop, but I got lots of help from many sources. I made bagels for other shops, did sales from the cart, and did other jobs. All along I was looking for a place to start a shop.”
Eventually the sisters decided on Nishi Ogikubo. It has a flourishing shopping street, which was what they were looking for. The shop has been open for five years, and they hope to keep operating in Nishi Ogikubo.
Financially, being a bagel artisan is no easy life. The sisters joked that they are so pale because they never see the sun. They start at 6 or 7 every morning making bagels and basically stay until they are sold. The shop usually closes at 7 p.m. Because there is a physical limit on the number of bagels they can make in a day their sales have a ceiling. But still, the two work on, side-by-side, day after day. “We want to keep on working here indefinitely,” they said. (Farrer, Feb. 17, 2016, edited March 13, 2017)