This holiday season, the people of Japan are dealing with an unusual food crisis - a butter shortage! Though that would not be a problem any other time of the year, it is during Christmas, because of an age-old Japanese tradition of celebrating the day with a delectable strawberry and cream sponge cake that is baked with . . . lots of butter!
While most stores are out of the dairy product, the few that have some in stock are limiting shoppers to just a packet each - hardly enough to bake the beloved treat. Some bakeries have even resorted to using substitutes like margarine, which they believe will be more palatable to consumers, than having to pay astronomical prices for sponge cake made from real butter or even worse, having no cake at all!
So how did a buttery sponge cake become the centerpiece of Japan's Christmas celebrations? According to historians, though the confectionery has been available in Japan since the 17th century, it was a luxury only the rich could afford. That's because the ingredients - sugar, milk and butter - were too expensive for most residents. As the economy rebounded after World War II, the ingredients became more widely available and Japan's upcoming middle class adopted the cake as a status symbol.
Though Christmas in not an official holiday in Japan, the ritual of sharing the sponge cake as a family on the 25th, is now deeply entrenched in the local culture. What's interesting is that everything about the delectable treat is symbolic - the red and white coloring pays respect to the Japanese flag, while the round shape serves as a dedication to the country's many shrines.
The agriculture ministry attributes the butter shortage to this year's brutally hot summer. According to the officials, the heat left the dairy cows exhausted, reducing their milk-producing capability substantially.
Of course, that is only part of the story. Though the situation this Christmas is extremely dire, dairy shortages are becoming increasingly common on this island nation. Part of the problem is aging farmers who have no one to take over their farms when they retire. The bigger issue however is that declining milk consumption prompted the Japanese government to curtail the country's dairy herd in 2007, reducing the number of milk-producing cows from a high of 2.11 million in 1985, to the current number of 1.4 million.
Though in most countries, the seasonal surge in demand would be fulfilled with imported butter, the high tariffs imposed on the product by the Japanese government make that option prohibitively expensive. Even so, the nation was forced to import 7,000 tons of butter in May and a further 3,000 tons in September. But these imports have not made a dent in fulfilling the Christmas demand. So what is a Japanese resident to do? Savor every bite of the buttery sponge cake (if they can get their hands on one) or settle for a cake made using margarine!