They say that if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll land among the stars, but that is not true: Sometimes, you land in Japanese Week. The idea of The Great British Bake Off’s inaugural “Japanese Week” is that our seven remaining bakers will immerse themselves in the rich and varied culture of Japan through baked goods, to be conceived of, and then judged by, Paul and Prue, luminaries of Japanese cuisine.
Despite its many problems, to which we will return shortly, it was, in form, a delightful episode. “That was a delightful episode!” I would say, if I existed in a vacuum at the bottom of the ocean. Everyone baked well and tried new things and I would have eaten all of them. Laura cried, briefly, but then Noel reassured her, and in the end, her cake was fine and everybody had charming accents.
Unfortunately, we are landlocked in reality, and the first-ever Japanese Week did not live up to its potential, principally, though not exclusively, because of its inability to execute on its own concept, which was, again, the country of Japan. This was entirely predictable, but I suppose we are all our own worst enemies. Let us now reflect upon this week’s greater disappointments.
Problem 1: The Show’s Desire to Regularly Hit, Then Surpass, the Limitations of Its Own Expertise
In itself, there is nothing wrong with Japanese Week as a concept. It’s good. Let us free ourselves from the tyranny of tiered sponge with mascarpone cream! You can’t spend your whole life (11 seasons) crimping Cornish pasties when there is a whole rich and varied world of global carbohydrates to explore. It is true that neither Paul nor Prue seems to have any particular expertise in this arena, but that is the inherent limitation of being just one person: You only know so much.
The problem, though, is the show seems dismissively incurious about what it does not know, and passively content to do no further research, and the result is a set of challenges presented with great authority but no meaningful context. There is the challenge with the steamed buns — mostly made to look like the adorable animals they’re filled with, although this is not part of the challenge — and a battle of matcha crêpe cakes, and finally everybody makes a “kawaii cake,” which is cake inspired by Japanese cuteness culture. Peter and Lottie both bake cakes with roots in actual Japan — he does a castella cake shaped like an anthropomorphic shuttlecock named Dizzy; she wins star baker with a cotton jiggle cake made to look like a cartoon mushroom — while Dave doubles down on matcha in honor of his pet shiba inu, and Hermine tacks on a fondant geisha. In conclusion, it is a mixed bag.
I’m not sure it’s particularly interesting to litigate what is and isn’t suitably Japanese — cultural purity, as a concept, makes me nervous — but as many, many people have pointed out, the episode does not especially engage with any particular nuances of Japanese baking, or distinctly Japanese-rooted ingredients (save for matcha, which Laura says is swampy). It was, as Eater London put it, “a bit of an Orientalist mess.” But then, as many, many other people also pointed out, steamed buns and crêpe cakes are indeed common foods in contemporary Japan, and who gets to decide what does and doesn’t count as Japanese? (Probably not Paul and Prue.)
Authority without context is kind of GBBO’s whole thing. We’re not going to talk about who eats what and why; we’re going to talk about the logistics of creaming butter. Usually, that is fine; there was a time, not so long ago, when I knew nothing about whipping Swiss meringue, and look at me now! Where it gets complicated is when the Great British show ventures into the rest of the world with the same breezy authority, willfully oblivious to its own historical position, and then trots back with news about the matcha pancakes. Probably, the long-term answer here is to increase opportunity and end racism; in the short-term, perhaps more thinking on the producers’ part, and Paul Hollywood’s part, and also in general?
Problem 2: Paul Hollywood’s Palate
For the signature, everybody has to make “delicious steamed buns,” or nikuman, which aren’t not Japanese, so much as they were Chinese first. The bakers can fill them with anything they want, from dal to pan-Asian-spiced ground lamb, only it turns out there is one limitation, which is that Paul Hollywood refuses to eat anything with a gherkin in it. Because of this pickle intolerance, Lottie and Mark both have to make him special gherkin-free versions of their burger-inspired buns, which he then finds dry, on account of how they have no gherkins.
It seems to me that if you’re judging someone on their vision, you ought to at least attempt to experience what that vision is, but fine: the man cannot abide a gherkin. You never know what someone else has been through, I suppose. The trouble is that Paul Hollywood seems to find this quirk about himself quite endearing. Who wouldn’t be delighted to cater to an adult man’s anti-gherkin whims?
The problem, really, is not the gherkins but Paul Hollywood’s attitude, which is smug and superior and never, under any circumstances, incorrect; why would the tent exist, Paul Hollywood wonders, if not to please Paul Hollywood? And he isn’t wrong! That is his role and arguably his charm. He is master of the house, he is lord of the dance, only it might be nice if he were occasionally slightly less certain of his own rigid opinions, leaving open the possibility that he might be surprised. Eat the pickle, Paul!
Problem 3: Crescents?!
One of the main subplots of the week was that almost nobody knew what “crescent” meant which led me to question certain aspects of the British education system. Presumably the bakers know what croissants are, so you’d think they could extrapolate, but then, who am I to judge? Have these people never been to Bath?
Problem 4: The Fondant Geisha
Hermine aims to capture cuteness by depicting a haunting scene of a geisha standing amongst cherry blossoms against a gray fondant sky. This is troubling for several reasons; if you’re going to go for an obvious stereotype, at least make it cute. Prue tells her that while she is “a very good French baker,” her vanilla sponge cake has an inadequate level of “Japaneseness,” once again affirming my longstanding belief that a decorative geisha is rarely the answer.
Problem 5: Mark’s Departure
Mark is great. He giggles; he is often “chuffed.” He loves to travel for his job as a project manager. What more can you ask for in a man? Also, his burger buns were good, and while his crêpe cake was “just very ugly,” he did correctly identify a crescent. It was his anthropomorphic avocado kawaii cake that did him in. It was adorable; apparently, it was also very bad. “It’s cruel to say it’s inedible,” Paul offered, in a way that would be cruel if he were saying it, “but it’s getting that way.”
This continues the great tradition of eliminating the person who almost got eliminated the week before, which is logical but boring. Anyway, in a blow to Northern Ireland and also me, Mark is now gone. The only solace is that we still have Marc.
Next week: It’s hot again!