Scrumptious Sweet Breads: Melon Pan vs Conchas

Melon Pan vs Conchas

Sweet, soft, slightly crunchy and oh so very yummy!

For anyone who’s ever bitten into a fresh baked concha or melon pan, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

A yeasty, sweet dough bakes up into a light and heavenly center with a satisfying crunchy crust on top. Whether it’s for breakfast or something to satisfy a little sweet tooth craving, you can’t go wrong with either of these cultural treasures.

At first glance, they appear quite similar, which isn’t necessarily unusual until you consider that each of them appears to have evolved a world apart from one another!

When you consider it, it’s truly remarkable.

But, are the conchas and melon pan the same thing or it a complete coincidence that these two treasured baked treats should have come about by pure chance?

The answer is that the truth is somewhere in the middle and rest assured, we’ll get to the bottom of all of it for you.

While it’s obvious that one is a product of Mexico and the other hails from Japan, the main differences between melon pan and conchas are the ingredients, although it’s not significant. Both conchas and melon pan contain flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, milk, water and unsalted butter. However, most melon pan recipes also include cake flour as one of the ingredients, while most concha recipes do not.

Oh, but there’s so much more to explore about these two scrumptious baked goodies and perhaps none of them more interesting than how each of them came to be.

So, let’s begin there, shall we?

Differences in History

Interestingly, neither the origins of conchas nor melon pan is precisely understood.

Are the two of them connected somehow? And, if not, what are the chances that two pastries so similar should turn up on opposite sides of the globe?

What is generally accepted is that no one knows exactly which one came first and why, but there have been some thorough investigations conducted on it over the years. The conclusions that have been reached center on two of the world’s colonizing superpowers at the time – Portugal and Spain.

The Spanish set their sights to the West and invaded Mexico while the Portuguese armada sailed east towards Japan, each at around the same time period – during the early 1500s.

In one version, at least according to food historians Steven Kaplan and Linda Civitello, the most likely scenario is that the invading forces carried European baking traditions along with them. Over time, the local inhabitants refined the original recipes, adapting to suit their taste preferences.

This regional change is easy to see in the case of the concha which at least in part explains how it got its name. Concha is Spanish for “shell” and it’s clear to see that with its shape, the name makes perfect sense.

Beyond a guess at its heritage and the name given to it, the case for the origin of conchas isn’t as clear as it is for its Japanese counterpart.

In fact, there is a clue in the Japanese use of the word “pan” since it translates to “bread” in Portuguese. As for the “melon” part, that’s not as well understood, though it’s speculated it was adopted from English to describe the shape of the bread.

Although that partially explains how the predecessor to melon pan first arrived in Japan, there’s no formal mention of it for almost 500 more years and the conclusion of World War I.

At this time, a powerful and wealthy Japanese businessman named Okura Kihachiro went in search of a Russian baker whose fame and notoriety had spread across the globe, ultimately finding him in nearby China.

The mysterious baker’s name was Ivan Sagoyan and little is known about his history, except that Mr. Sagoyan was employed as the head baker by the Russian royal family. Mr. Sagoyan’s breads were an adaption of Viennoiseries which are a type of baked good made with yeast-leavened dough. Viennoiseries literally translates from French to mean “things of Vienna”. 

It turned out that Mr. Kihachiro’s timing couldn’t have been better as the Russian revolution of 1917 left Mr. Sagoyan without a place to work or live and ultimately seeking sanctuary in China where he accepted a position at the New Harbin hotel as its head baker.

After negotiating with Mr. Sagoyan, Mr. Kihachiro helped him emigrate to Japan, where Mr. Sagoyan opened a bakery called Monsieur Ivan. Once there, he developed what today is known as the melon pan. What isn’t entirely clear is whether that was a creation of his own or if he might’ve been influenced by what remained of the Portuguese invasion some 500 years earlier.

Pastry Possible Origins/Influences Shape Name Explanation
Concha Brought by invading Spanish forces in the early 1500s Shell-shaped Spanish word for “shell”
Melon Pan Potential influence from Portuguese invasion in the early 1500s Unknown “Pan” translates to “bread” in Portuguese, “melon” part not well understood

Differences in Taste

If you ask anyone who’s ever tried either melon pan or conchas, they’re likely to tell you that the two of them are very close to each other in terms of taste and mouthfeel.

Perhaps the only difference is that melon pan typically has a more substantial crust layer than conchas, which can give it slighter richer and sweeter flavor because of the higher concentration of sugar in the crust layer. 

Pastry Crust Layer Flavor
Conchas Thinner Not as rich or sweet
Melon Pan Thicker Richer and sweeter due to higher sugar content

Differences in Ingredients

The ingredients in a basic melon pan recipe call for bread flour, cake flour, salt, sugar, yeast, eggs, milk, water, and unsalted butter.

Similarly, conchas also use bread flour, sugar, yeast, salt, unsalted butter, eggs, milk, but most do not use cake flour.

The end result is virtually the same though – a soft and fluffy center that’s almost cloudlike, which is covered in a cookie dough layer. The outer layer is scored in a crosshatch pattern, mostly as a form of decoration.

Ingredient Conchas Melon Pan
Bread Flour Yes Yes
Cake Flour No Yes
Sugar Yes Yes
Yeast Yes Yes
Salt Yes Yes
Eggs Yes Yes
Milk Yes Yes
Water No No
Unsalted Butter Yes Yes
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