A small slice of Japan

15 min read
10 Feb 2017
15 min read
1617 words
Bhumi Ratna Sakya has spent years perfecting the art of making Japanese bread, and his loyal clientele are proof that his dedication is paying off

It’s not that his customers make a beeline for his store because Kathmandu is suffering from a dearth of bakeries. Almost every major locality today has a bakery. Even if there isn’t one, baked items are available in almost all supermarkets and departmental stores.

People prefer his store because Sakya offers rather unique breads and cakes. While most bakeries in Kathmandu make their breads in accordance with European baking traditions, Sakya has derived his methods from Japanese bakers.

Sakya was always fascinated by Japan and the Japanese. In the 80s, he had come across Japanese volunteers in Nepal. “I was really impressed by their kindness, manners, culture and the overall way in which they conducted themselves,” he says. He soon decided to learn their language and later worked as an interpreter and guided Japanese volunteers to remote parts of Nepal for developmental projects. To polish his Japanese speaking skills, in 1993, he went to the Land of the Rising Sun itself.
“I got a job as an apprentice baker in one of the outlets of the Fuji Baking Group, a famous bakery chain in Japan”
With the cost of living in Japan being so high, he had to work a part-time job. “I got a job as an apprentice baker in one of the outlets of the Fuji Baking Group, a famous bakery chain in Japan,” says Sakya. The job, however, was as demanding as a full-time one. “We really had to slog at the bakery as it was an established bakery that mass-produced bread. It used to be so hot in there that my vest would get drenched by my sweat,” he says. Nevertheless, he enjoyed his job and he used his time around the ovens to absorb as much as he could about the science and art of baking. “I was intrigued by the types of breads that were baked at the bakery and at other bakeries across Japan. And I soon began thinking about how setting up a bakery that produced similar fare in Nepal would make for great business,” he says.

Sakya returned to Nepal after having worked in the bakery for three-and-a-half years and left for Japan once again in 1998, with his wife Mandira Sakya, to formally learn baking with an experienced baker. Four years later, the couple returned to Nepal armed with an arsenal of Japanese baking methods.
Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi

Japanese breads differ from their European counterparts in many ways. Bread was first brought into Japan in 1543 by Christian missionaries from Portugal who had come to spread Christianity. But the bread-making culture couldn’t firmly take root then as rice was the staple. It was only after World War 2 when Japan was facing food shortages and huge amounts of wheat were delivered to Japan from the US, that bread slowly became a Japanese staple.

Over time, the Japanese tweaked the bread recipes to suit their palate. They focused on some bread varieties and dropped others from consideration. Sourdough bread, a delicacy in Europe, is virtually unheard of in Japan. Baguettes, too, were initially considered hard and tasteless, but they were later re-engineered into a softer and sweeter variety. Most Japanese breads are sweeter than European breads; the crumb is cotton candy soft, as opposed to the heavier, less buttery, and sourer breads preferred in Europe.

It’s these Japanese philosophies of baking that Sakya hewed to when he started producing bread at the Fuji Bakery in Kumaripati in 2003. Today, the bakery is tucked away inside a quiet alley in Chakupat. “I feel like I was extremely lucky to find this place. I cannot stand noisy and overcrowded places. This place is so peaceful—but not because it’s deserted. The galli outside my bakery sees enough footfall,” he says. He liked the location so much that he decided to build his house atop the bakery—which is on the ground floor of his four-storeyed home.
Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi

There is not much parking space in front of the bakery, and first-time visitors to the place might be forgiven for thinking that they have been recommended a quaint outlet that doesn’t see much business. But the moment you slide the bakery’s door open, you are overcome with layers of aroma of freshly baked bread—proof of the work being done in the ovens. A hint of margarine and the smell of coconuts suffuse the air. When regulars walk into the bakery, they head straight for the pile of trays on top of the fridge, grab a tray and a pair of bread tongs and sift for their favourites among the assortments of cakes and bread displayed atop wrought-iron shelves.
“I was intrigued by the types of breads that were baked at the bakery and at other bakeries across Japan”
The regulars know all about the Japanese artisanal breads on offer such as melonpan (sweet, light bread with a crumbly cookie layer on top), korokke (a deep-fried dish related to the French croquette), kasutera bread (spongy bread in the shape of a muffin with a sweet top), soseiji pan (sausage wrapped in soft bread), shou kurimu (Japanese cream puffs), anpan (a sweet soft bun filled with adzuki bean paste). One of the best-sellers at the bakery is Hotel Bread. It has a pillowy soft crumb, a light-brown, flaky, crispy crust, topped with a layer of butter. It uses more milk and is sweeter compared to their pullman bread (the type of bread made famous by most Nepali commercial bakeries). To cater to Nepalis who have grown up on European-inspired baked goods, Sakya also bakes Japanese variants of pain au chocolat, Danish pastry and apple pie.
Photo: Laxmi Prasad Ngakhusi

While the ingredients used in and textures of Sakya’s breads differ from European ones, the machinery he uses does not. Sakya owns a baking oven from France, a rotary oven from India that can handle a batch of 20 loaves of bread at once and a kneading machine from China. The main difference among Sakya and other bakers has to do with how they practice their art of baking—for Sakya, his art is one that has been refined by Japanese bakers in the past and passed down a long chain of bakers all the way to him, in Kathmandu. Among artisanal bread heads, there’s also this notion that bread from a certain bakery gets its character from how the baker treats the baking process. For Sakya, baking is almost a sacred art. “I view bread as a living thing. The yeast used to bake bread gives it life, which is why I handle bread very delicately as if it’s alive. I also regard baking as a form of expression. I can look at the bread produced here, and I can tell, more or less, how our baker was feeling when he was kneading and structuring it,” he says.  
“I am confident that most, if not all, Japanese people residing in Kathmandu know about our bakery. And when they get here, they are almost always surprised with what I am doing”
It’s this attention to his craft that has won over many customers—both foreigners and Nepalis. The bakery also has a thriving Japanese clientele core. “I am confident that most, if not all, Japanese people residing in Kathmandu know about our bakery. And when they get here, they are almost always surprised with what I am doing. They ask me how I am able to make such a huge variety of Japanese breads here in Nepal,” says Sakya. “It’s all about how dedicated I have been in my pursuit of learning all there is to know about Japanese baking.”

Sakya’s pursuit is almost of the artist’s kind. He seems to be happy and blessed to just be immersed in the process of baking and living a baker’s life. While the conventional plan in cases such as his would be to scale up or open more branches, Sakya does not want to go that route. “I’m happy with what I have on my plate right now,” he says. “Maintaining the quality of our process demands quite a lot from me and our crew. We’d rather focus our energies on baking bread of the highest quality than waste our energy on the sort of managerial duties that bigger operations and chains require. Our customers appreciate what we are doing. And a baker couldn’t ask for more than that.”