Chow Town

KC chef Jasper Mirabile tours Tokyo for cream puffs

Cream puffs can be found all over Japan. This machine fills long, crispy pastries with cream filling.
Cream puffs can be found all over Japan. This machine fills long, crispy pastries with cream filling. Special to The Star

Recently I was in Tokyo on vacation with my family and discovered that the Japanese love cream puffs. They have loved the special French pastry since a baker opened a small shop more than 100 years ago.

In Japan they call a cream puff “shu” cream or “pie shu.” I imagine the name comes from the French pastry “choux” that are used for cream puffs and eclairs.

There is also a little crispy topping on some puffs in Japan, and I’ve been told that is a very thin cookie dough made of butter, powdered sugar and flour that’s placed on top of the dough before baking.

I like to think that I am an expert on cream puffs and that my mother makes the finest ever. Her puffs are light and crisp, and the cream filling so smooth and creamy.

After our second day in Tokyo, I discovered that the train stations are the place to go for food and pastry. I especially liked the Shimo-Ochaiai, Shibuya, Tokyo and Shinjuku train stations.

I can smell a cream puff a mile away, and each station had a stand. Seriously, one could not pass up one of these cream puff stands without trying one of these little morsels. So I decided I was going on a “Cream Puff Mission” very similar to my cannoli trail that I was on in Sicily a few years back.

The first stop on my cream puff mission was at Beard Papa’s. Beard Papa’s is an international chain of cream puff shops that started in Japan and now has over 250 stores in Japan alone and almost 300 worldwide, including New York City. The pastry choux and filling are very similar to Mama Josephine Mirabile’s Cream Puffs, light and flaky and even with the generous powdered sugar topping.

The second stop on my cream puff mission was at a small bakery named Tamago Cocco near the Shimo-Ochaiai Station. This small artisan shop is known for its eggs and has a beautiful display case and decor.

Again, the cream puff was very similar to what Mama bakes but three times the size, again with a generous topping of powdered sugar. The real difference here was the pastry cream. It was a beautiful egg color and after talking to the lady behind the counter, I found out that the eggs are all from heritage chickens.

Wow, that was impressive, especially since I could tell a difference in the flavor. They were also very proud of the butter that they used. With those two main ingredients, there was no way they could go wrong producing an excellent cream puff.

The third stop on our cream puff mission was at Croquant Chou Zakuzaku in Hokkaido, located in the basement of Shinjuku Lundine department store. I only waited 10 minutes in line but I was told the wait can sometimes be up to an hour and the Japanese do not mind waiting.

When you walk up to the counter you first approach a large window filled with hundreds of fresh baked pastry. The pastry cream filling is in a big container sitting on top of a machine that keeps it chilled.

This was hands-down the finest cream puff on the mission. A little difficult to describe, this pastry was long and crispy with an almond cookie crunch on top filled with a delicate vanilla pastry cream.

The Japanese like to call this a cream stick and believe me, it’s no ordinary cream puff. Crunchy on the outside, creamy and delicious in the middle. … Does it get any better my friends?

The cost is about 250 yen or around $2.

So light and absolutely unique. Really, words can’t describe this. You can smell the puffs coming right out of the oven as you walk through the station. My wife and I, daughter and her fiancé split two of these cream sticks because we were trying to watch ourselves with how many cream puffs we were eating but I could’ve easily eaten a few more.

I did find a young Japanese girl at the counter who spoke perfect English and told me that Zaku Zaku means “crunchy” in Japanese and that’s why there’s this crispy almond topping on each cream stick. Believe me when I tell you, this was one memorable dessert.

And please, if you go to Tokyo, don’t be afraid of the line because it’s well worth the wait. Buyer beware, I was told you can only purchase two 6-packs at a time. I heard that there was a problem with people buying the cream puffs and reselling around the corner of the shop.

There are not many foods that I can bring back to Kansas City from Tokyo to make for my friends, but this is one for the books! I will definitely be experimenting with this new type of cream puff.

Who would ever believe that I traveled all the way to Tokyo and found the world’s second greatest cream puff?

Yes, Mama Josephine, yours are still the best, but these puffs were so good! Please don’t make me choose and please don’t be upset.

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 62-year-old restaurant with his brother. Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.