Japan's Butter Shortage Whips Its Cake Makers Into A Frenzy

Dec 17, 2014
Originally published on December 18, 2014 9:21 am

We are well into the Christmas season, and if you live in Japan, that means sponge cake.

The traditional Japanese Christmas dish is served with strawberries and cream, and it is rich, thanks to lots and lots of butter. But the Japanese have been using even more butter for their Christmas cakes this year, exacerbating what was already a national butter shortage.

Elaine Kurtenbach, a reporter for The Associated Press in Tokyo, says climate change and an aging farming industry have led to the butter crisis. (Here's her Thursday story for the AP.)

"The weather up in Hokkaido, which is the main dairy region in Japan, is getting very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter, so the cows are stressed, and they don't produce enough milk," Kurtenbach tells NPR's Audie Cornish on All Things Considered. "And on top of that, the average age of farmers is about 70 now, and not many young people want to do the work."

Some cake shops in Japan have switched to margarine and other shortenings, but cake lovers are still left longing for the taste of butter, Kurtenbach says.

"Traditionally the Japanese aren't big consumers of dairy products apart from, say, the elite," she says. "But when it comes to modern Japanese, they certainly eat a lot of Western food, they eat a lot of pastries and chocolates and cakes, and especially at Christmastime, not having enough butter on the shelves is kind of galling to many people."

For more from the interview, click on the audio link above.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're well into Christmas creep and the signs are everywhere - lights, Christmas trees, Santa hats and, if you live in Japan, sponge cake. The traditional Japanese Christmas dish is served with strawberries and cream and it's rich - butter-rich, which has exacerbated a national butter shortage in Japan. Dare I say it has whipped Japan into a frenzy. Here to discuss is Elaine Kurtenbach. She writes for the AP in Tokyo. And, Elaine, to start, just how butter-rich is it? I mean, how much butter are we talking about going into the making of these cakes?

ELAINE KURTENBACH: Well, I think that it depends and especially this year, what with butter being a little hard to come by. And certainly it's always expensive. Some of the cake shops apparently are shifting to other forms of shortening, such as margarine, and hoping the customers will appreciate the lower cost and not mind so much about the lack of that special taste of the butter.

CORNISH: What are some of the issues that have caused the butter shortage?

KURTENBACH: Well, there's quite a few actually. One of the big ones is climate change and that the weather up in Hokkaido, which is the main dairy region of Japan, is getting very hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. So the cows are stressed and they don't produce enough milk. And then on top of that the average age of farmers is about 70 now and not many young people want to do the work.

So in the long-term Japan is going to have to have bigger farms that are more commercial and that's gradually happening already, but it's taking time. And in the meantime there's certain problems that crop up because the system isn't changing fast enough. And the government has a program to ensure food distribution through state-run companies, but those companies can't always get it right.

CORNISH: What are some of the obstacles to the shift?

KURTENBACH: Well, for one thing the entire bureaucracy has been set up to provide supports for farmers to keep the markets relatively closed. So there are a lot of different factors that have to be dealt with for the farm sector to change very much.

CORNISH: In the meantime, help us understand just how big a deal butter is in Japanese culture. I mean, what role does it play?

KURTENBACH: Well, traditionally the Japanese aren't big consumers of dairy products apart from, say, the elite, but when it comes to modern Japanese they certainly eat a lot of Western food. They eat a lot of pastries and chocolates and cakes and especially at Christmas time. Not having enough butter on the shelves is kind of galling, I think, too many people.

CORNISH: Elaine Kurtenbach, before we let you go - that Christmas sponge cake, have you tried it?

KURTENBACH: Oh, yes of, course.

CORNISH: And what does it taste like?

KURTENBACH: Well, creamy, spongy - lots of strawberries. It's very pretty and very nice.

CORNISH: Elaine Kurtenbach - she writes for the AP in Tokyo. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KURTENBACH: Oh, it's my pleasure.

CORNISH: And if you want to learn more about how to make that traditional Japanese sponge cake, visit our food blog The Salt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.