“I know nothing about Japanese cakes,” I told the young Japanese woman in the new Japanese bakery that’s opened in one of the arches under the Vauxhall railway viaduct, “so why don’t you recommend one of the ones you like.”
The question was purely rhetorical – but really, it should’ve ended with a question mark, because there was an answer (although she was unable to give it to me for reasons that will very soon be apparent): she couldn’t, because she didn’t understand a word I was saying.
OK, maybe I exaggerate – she understood one or two, and during the next few minutes – during which I thought I selected two cakes, a cookie shaped like a cat’s face, a strange sort of Japanese toad-in-the-hole snack (it resembled a small chipolata sausage trapped on a pastry island), and a bottle of melon-flavoured ramune, the Japanese fizzy drink – she deployed them: “Yes… no… big one… two… yes… sixteen ninety-nine, please…”
To not much effect: I mean, I thought I’d bought a small cube of a solid cake encased in creamy-white chocolate, and a wedge of pale-green matcha cake, but when I reached home, I discovered there was just the one sweetmeat, and what I’d thought was white chocolate was in fact a ceramic dish, containing a sort of yuzu-tasting mousse on a firm base. Basically, an individual Japanese cheesecake, of sorts.
It was lovely – although the mix-up based on homology reminded me of a less-appetising version of this experience: many years since, sitting on the rooftop terrace of the old Cosmopolitan Café, on Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, I spotted a man ladling what looked to me – from my vantage point, some 50 metres away – like a great tasty skein of pasta, into a dish, and then handing it to one of the djellaba-clad men sitting at his stall.
Without more ado, I paid my bill, stood, descended, crossed the dusty intervening expanse, avoiding blue men of the desert and pink women of northern Europe, took my seat at the stall and asked for a dish of the man’s white, filiform specialty, which turned out to be… tripe!
Ach! The smell of the stuff – I nearly hurled. Alright, I grant I may’ve got on the wrong end of the majoun that night, but it was surrealistic even for a major edibles experience. Unlike eating the Japanese imposter, which felt pleasingly mundane – the gustatory analogue of the bakery itself, which was all ultra-clean melamine, pale varnished wood, Amtico floors, spotless glassware and crockery; while the packaging was at once delicate, and – that most prized of Japanese characteristics – kawai.
The contrast with the ancient, soot-encrusted Victorian railway arch it’s implanted in couldn’t be greater – but really, the bakery is just more evidence of the cultural event horizon we’re reaching here, in the immediate purlieu of the Damac Tower (see MM passim), and all the rest of the mega-structures that have, in the past lustrum, dropped from the sky over this portion of the grimy Thames south bank, like some outtake from a Christopher Nolan film that’s even worse than… all the others.
Along with the 30- and 40-storey point and needle towers, with their wacky computer-designed renders, have come the eastern European tradesmen and contractors who’ve built them, followed by quite a lot of young Chinese and Japanese people, who, I assume, are students living in the weird likes of the so-called “Urban Nest” (which is, indeed, an etiolated sort of ovum, and system-built to boot). The bakery is occasioned by them – as is a Chinese grocery next to the mini-Waitrose in the bus garage.
I’ve no idea if the young woman in the bakery was a student – but what I do know, is that I made a cultural assumption about her that may well be just as ignorant and absurd as the one concerning the cake, she sold me: as I left, I asked her how long she’d been in England – and this she understood: “Two years.”
“In that case,” I replied without thinking, “you need more English lessons.”
Would I have spoken to someone who I assumed was from a less affluent society than Japan in this way? I doubt it very much – and, of course, I have no way of knowing if the young woman was from a well-to-do background at all; while the fact she’s working in a bakery would suggest she probably isn’t. Still, that’s prejudice for you: as invisible and lethal as a toxic gas. As for whether my words will ever reach her, that I doubt: true, the mini-Waitrose sells the New European, but while it’s only a couple of a hundred metres from the bakery, a lot can be lost… in translation.