Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tirol Passion Fruit Chocolate (Premium)

Tirol, maker of small chocolates which can be purchased in bite-sized quantities, offers two versions of many of their candies. The "premium" size is bigger, can be purchased individually and has a better quality filling in some cases. The "regular" size is about 2/3 the size of the premium version, is sold in multi-packs and has a scaled center which is not always as good. I learned this when I purchased both a premium and regular size version of their kinako mochi candy. The premium one had a softer flavored mochi center surrounded by a syrup/sauce. The regular one had a "mochi gummi" in it which was more rubbery and had no sauce/syrup. Clearly, the premium is better in more ways than just size, though it is more expensive.

When reading these reviews, it's important to keep in mind that the small version, should you get your hands on one, may not live up to the rave reviews of the larger version. And, yes, that means this is going to be a good review of this candy.

The passion fruit flavor is so new that it does not yet appear on Tirol's web site, or it's so regional that it is the first time I've seen it in Tokyo. The wrapper says "Okinawa", so that could mean the passion fruit was grown there or these are usually sold in Okinawa. I found it at a Family Mart convenience store while I was paying my water bill (in Japan, you can pay your bills at such stores). It cost 40 yen, as do most premium Tirol candies. Each square is 58 calories and the ingredients list includes passion fruit concentrate and "powder", so Tirol went out of its way to get some real fruit flavor in this.

When you open the package, it smells strongly, but pleasantly, of passion fruit. When you bite into it, you get a tangy, slightly perfume-like hit of sweet passion fruit flavor. The outside is soft and easy to bite into, but still firm and does not melt in your hand. There's a firm jelly center in the middle which probably carries a lot of the flavor, but it's hard to separate the coating's taste from that of the filling. The flavor is strong, but not overwhelming. The balance of citrus bite, fruit flavor, and sweetness is excellent. I don't even like passion fruit, but I liked this.

It amazes me how good this is at a fruit-flavored confection. There are so many ways to mess up when incorporating fruity flavors into candy, but none of those problems are in this one. By all means, seek this out and sample it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Smart Time Citrus and Berry Gum

Japan is a country full of thin people. You wouldn't think they'd have all sorts of diet foods or appetite suppressants, but they do. The reason this gum is "smart" is that that you're supposed to be savvy enough to chew it instead of eating when you are hungry. While it does not claim to specifically inhibit hunger, the claim is that the fruit and citrus flavors will satisfy your taste buds and you'll forget about the need to consume actual food. The gum has a berry-flavored liquid in the center which is supposed to spread sweetness in your mouth and satisfy your need to eat.

It smells like citrus when you open the box. The gum is sugar-free and has a crisp candy shell. Each piece has 3 calories and is chock full of chemicals including Maltitol. This is a sweetener which, if consumed in too great a quantity, can result in multiple trips to the bathroom so you have to consume it conservatively.

When you bite into it, the liquid center does release onto your tongue and you get a strong dose of a medicinal berry taste. It is a bit like a good cough syrup flavor at first. It doesn't take long for that flavor to dissipate and you're left with the citrus flavor only. That being said, the citrus flavor lasts quite awhile and is pretty good, though non-descript.

This is not bad gum, but it in no way helps you conquer a rumbling stomach. I ate a piece around 5 hours after lunch when I'm dying for a snack and it only distracted my mouth. If you think you're hungry, but you are actually just looking for some sort of oral gratification, this would probably work fairly well, though not necessarily any better than other gum which you enjoy.

I will note that the gum comes wrapped in a Cadbury wrapper with its distinctive logo and being hungry and seeing the logo of one of the best confectioners in the world doesn't exactly help you distract yourself from eating. I guess that the Japanese aren't likely to make the connection between Cadbury's logo and a nice bar of Dairy Milk chocolate, but most foreign folks sure will. I'm off to find some chocolate.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Yuzu KitKat Mini

Yuzu is a citrus fruit originally grown in China which is often used like lemons in Japanese cuisine. That is, people don't eat the actual fruit, but they use the juice or rind to season various sauces and dishes. It's an interesting and obvious choice as a KitKat flavor, much as chocolate and orange or lemon are at times combined in sweets in the West.

Since various types of fruit have relatively singular flavors, it is difficult to describe the taste of yuzu to those who have never sampled it, but it comes closest to a cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin orange. It is pleasantly fragrant and you can smell it the minute you open the package of the candy bar. Those who have never sampled yuzu may feel it smells a lot like an orange chocolate bar, though something seems a little different. The yuzu KitKat tastes like orange chocolate at first and has a slightly bitter finish. The bitter aspect takes a little while to show up and may not be apparent to someone who does not have a particularly acute sense of taste or who only takes one bite.

I really liked this, as did my husband who is not a fan of bitter flavors. If you like orange chocolate, you will probably embrace this as a good change of pace and an intriguing flavor. This is a limited edition, and as far as I know can only be purchased in mini size. My husband picked these up in a convenience store in Tokyo for about 40 yen (38 cents). Get some while you can.

Another review of this is at Candy Blog and Sweet Pursuit.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Potato Snack Steak

Truth in advertising clearly is not an issue in Japan. Take this "potato snack". The first three ingredients are flour, oil, and sugar. It seems that there isn't much in the way of actual potato in it, though one of the ingredients is "starch" and it could be potato starch. In keeping with the Japanese trend of putting sweeteners in savory foods, there is also Stevia in this. My guess is that this is supposed to resemble a potato chip rather than actually be a potato-based food.

Since cartoon characters are used to advertise everything in Japan, you can't tell by packaging whether or not something is for adults or for kids. This item is actually for kids. It's sold in a bin full of sweets and salty snacks for children that are 27 yen (27 cents) or 4 for 99 yen ($1) in price. I picked up 4 different items for review (the others will come later) and started with this strange item.

The snacks, and other ones like them made with popcorn, rice, corn, wheat, etc., are made by a company called Izumi (いずみ邑本舗). The company has a diverse product base including noodles, sweets, sembei (rice crackers), and other miscellaneous snacks both marketed as gifts and run-of-the-mill consumer products. It's "new" by Japanese food company standards and started doing business in 1950. They've also got a handful of their own shops in the Tokai region of Japan. This is the sort of company which few people recognize as they have no signature products and most of their goods seem pretty low rent. Essentially, they have very low brand name awareness.

My expectations of anything which costs so little and is marketed toward kids are low so I didn't approach this with the idea of loving it, but simply sampling it out of pure interest. There are four large chips in the foil packet. The chips diameter is slightly smaller than the length of a ballpoint pen. When you open the package, you smell a strange smell that I'd say is a cross between a generic fried food smell and spices, with vaguely beef-like overtones.

The taste is shockingly salty for a kid's treat. It's only moderately beef-like but has a very strong finish of celery salt. The texture of these is really quite nice. They are very crispy and seem to be comprised of multiple layers of paper thin layers of whatever it is they are made of (grease and flour?). Either that or the dough used to make these forms a super thin crispy shell on either side when it's fried. The chips are a bit greasy on the outside, but don't seem to be saturated with oil. Calorie information isn't given on the packet, but the web site states that there are 76 calories in 4 chips (13 grams/.45 oz).

If I had children, I certainly would try to avoid these. They have added calcium, but are otherwise pretty bad on the nutritional front because they're just fried flour patties with seasoning. Also, because they are so salty, I have to imagine the sodium content is high. As an adult, these strike me as some of the "junkier" junk food out there. They're not bad, but eating them makes me feel more polluted than usual (and that's saying something considering the junk I review).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Yuraku Caramel Almond Latte Chocolate Bar

When I saw this bar, I thought that someone was trying way too hard to throw the candy equivalent of the kitchen sink into one itty bitty bar. There are so many parts to the name of the bar that they can't simply write it across the package. They have to stack "caramel" on top of "amond" which is on top of "choco bar" and "latte". There's even more that doesn't fit into the name. There are also wheat puffs in it.

This is another of the candy options available in some stores for only 27 yen (25 cents) that you can pick up with kid's snacks. It's a little less than half the size of most bars and is made by a company named Yuraku (ユラク). It makes a variety of sweets including cookies, candy bars, chocolates and souvenir sweets. Most of its products are pretty low rent and either blandly or badly packaged. The company's "principle" is "contributing to society through making candy." That's some lofty goal. I wonder if one tiny little bar is going to live up to that.

The bar's smell is so mixed that it's hard to pin it down. The scent is like an elixir of malt, cereal, coffee, and chocolate. The "cereal" smell comes from the wheat puffs which are present in abundance. The large white bits in the detailed picture above are these puffs and the first bite of the bar strongly reveals the cereal flavor. In fact, the puffs portion tastes exactly like the Popeye wheat puff cereal my parents used to buy for me when I was a kid. Subsequent bites bring about a stronger sense of all of the flavors. All of them, the caramel, coffee, chocolate, almonds and wheat puffs are present in an extremely tasty mishmash of flavors. The bar is crunchy, but easy to bite into and chew.

The ingredients list for this bar is huge, but the whole bar contains a good balance of sweetness and complex flavors. It's no premium bar by any stretch of the imagination, but it's very good, particularly for 90 calories and for such a low price. It's definitely something I'd have again. The lesson learned from this experience is not to conclude that something is going to be bad because it's cheap and from a company which isn't very well known. This is a tasty little bar.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cheese Rounds (Marui Cheezu) Snack

For foreign folks, there is no more treacherous territory in Japan than snacks and sweets purporting to be "cheese". On the sweet side, you have to brave sponge and cheesecakes made with the likes of Gouda or even variations on cheddar. You can buy a lovely looking sponge cake and get hit with a tangy, savory cheese bomb when you bite into it. On the salty side, more often than not, you get flat, lifeless moderately salty corn puffs or chips with flavorless yellow or orange dust.

Personally, I like my cheese flavor strong on a salted snack. The purpose of the delivery device is to bring the crunch and the flavor is supposed to be carried in the powder. Planter's used to sell canisters of "Cheese Balls" (possibly "Cheeze Balls", I'm not up on my dubious spelling) which was the sublime embodiment of salted cheese snack treats. This is the gold standard by which all cheese snacks should be judged. They were so well-loved that there's one of those useless Internet petitions begging Planter's to bring them back.

Enter Riska's Cheese Rounds. These can be bought for 27 yen per 17 gram bag/.6 oz. (or 4 bags for a dollar/99 yen). The portion is small, but should be attractive to folks who want 100 calorie deliveries since the bag of 12 or so rings is 94 calories. The question is, are these rings a worthy competitor for Planter's Cheese Balls? The answer is, they are not only worthy to compete, but to succeed. They even have an anthropomorphic mascot on the cover to duke it out with Mr. Peanut. If you can't tell, that's a very excited pan of melted cheese with broccoli on his fork on the package cover. Mr. Peanut has limbs to punch and kick with, but this pan is piping hot and armed. It'd be one hell of a cartoon mascot match.

When you open the bag, it smells tangy and cheesy. The texture of the rings is crispy and light. There is a lot of flavored powder on the rings, but it doesn't stick to your fingers as badly as the powder from something like a Cheeto, though it does adhere to your fingers a little. The taste is richly cheesy, slightly salty, and a little buttery. One of the ingredients is "creaming powder", so that may be where the buttery sense comes from. It also includes whey, paprika, cheese powder, Sucralose, and added calcium. I've noticed that just the right amount of sweetness is often mixed into Riska salted snacks to enhance their savory nature.

These are not only the best cheese snacks I've had in Japan, but possibly better than any I've had in the U.S. If you find yourself in a Japanese market looking for cheesy munchies, skip the imported or domestic Cheetos which are so readily available and track down a bag of Riska's Cheese Rounds. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Caramel Latte Crunky

Before Nestlé started releasing hundreds of varieties of KitKats in Japan (yes, there was a time when that wasn't the case), Crunky was the candy du jour for most foreign folks. How can you go wrong with a bar which resembles a Nestlé's Crunch and has a funny name? Of course, the venerable Crunky is not this version of Crunky. The old favorite is plain chocolate with crispy malt puffs. That bar, incidentally, was changed some time in the past year. They increased the number of malt puffs such that the bar has become more puff than chocolate. It has a much heavier "cereal" flavor than it used to have.

This variation on the Crunky keeps the explosion of malt puffs, but mixes them with white chocolate. If you're hoping that it's lower calorie because of the cereal aspect, you're in for some bad luck. It's 269 calories for the entire 48 gram (1.7 oz.) bar. When you give it a sniff, you smell that telltale sweetness of white chocolate with undertones of caramel and malt. The malted puffs are not excessively airy so the bar is dense, but crunchy and easy to bite into. It is called caramel latte, but I didn't detect any sort of coffee flavor and there is no coffee in the ingredients list. The caramel part was subdued and that was okay with me because a weak caramel flavor is preferable to strong, fake caramel flavors.

This is a pretty nice bar, but the explosion of malt puffs carries it close to the edge of being a cereal bar. That doesn't bother me at all. In fact, in the milk chocolate Crunky, I like it, but I'm not a strong fan of caramel or white chocolate so this is one of those things I'd nibble at very slowly and not buy again. For those who like caramel, this might be the bee's knees, but only if they aren't looking for something super rich and decadent.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tirol Pumpkin Tart Premium

Despite the obvious Halloween motif, the Tirol pumpkin tart candies are still available in convenience stores in Japan. I'm guessing they'll vanish once they're sold out, but for now, you can still buy yourself a bite-sized vegetable-flavored treat.

My husband picked up one of these candies because he loves pumpkin. It's more accurate to say that he loves American pumpkin, not Japanese pumpkin which is called "kaboucha". There's a vast world of difference between the two since American pumpkin as sold in cans and commonly used for pies and baked goods is a careful blend of various types of squash and pumpkin to make the best taste and texture. Japanese pumpkin is just green-skinned Japanese pumpkin and doesn't always blend favorably into treats. The fact that traditional pumpkin pie spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves are absent from Japanese sweets flavored with kaboucha doesn't help matters.

This tiny morsel is about an inch square and is made with pumpkin powder and pumpkin paste. It's a two-bite (well, small bites) candy and is only 48 calories. Like all of the Tirol "premium" candies, it's perfectly molded and quite attractive. Ebidebby also reviewed this and took pictures and her candy had a different picture molded into it so they come with different designs. Oddly, her candy had a rocket design and mine a house. Clearly, they aren't using molds which suit the Halloween theme of the wrapper.

The wrapping for this candy has two pieces, which seems a tad wasteful. There's a plastic outer wrapping with the illustration and a piece of foil-lined paper inside to keep it fresh.When you remove the wrapper, you smell squash and the faintest hints of caramel. Inside, there's a little round crispy cookie in the center. This adds to the "tart" aspect by making it appear as if there is a "crust" with the pumpkin "filling".

The taste of this is very much that of what is called kaboucha purin (pumpkin pudding) in Japan. It definitely has caramel overtones and a very powerful squash flavor. It's not bad, but it's an acquired taste. If you're expecting a traditional Western pumpkin treat, you're in for a shock.

While this isn't the sort of thing I'm inclined to hunt down or eat again and again, it is an interesting experience and I wouldn't mind picking one up when the season rolls around again next year. I do wish, however, that they'd toss in some spices to dilute the strong squash flavors for a more balanced and less esoteric flavor. It's surprisingly overbearing in flavor for a Japanese treat given that the Japanese on the whole favor more subtle flavors.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nihon Nagai Choco (Japan Long Chocolate)

There is a class of snacks in Japan for which I'd like to coin a new term. I christen this group of food items "little big snacks"®. These are items that are strangely large, but marketed as if they were normal size or even small snacks. This kid's treat (brought to you by Riska, maker of all sorts of cheap kid's snacks) called Nihon nagai choco falls into that odd category. Incidentally, "nagai" means "long" in Japanese.

The packaging on this is rather interesting because it is on the sexist side. If you click on the small picture at left to see a more legible size, you'll see that there are three cartoon characters with words written above them in English. The top one says "mama", the center one "boku", and the bottom one "papa". "Boku" is the way in which males can refer to themselves. That is, it's a manly way of saying "me" or "I". Women and girls never say "boku". Papa also gets a repeat viewing on the back and mama gets one lousy picture.

So, boys are supposed to look at this and say, "Here's my boyish/manly snack as indicated by my family's depiction on the label. Aren't I a little big man?" Okay, he's not going to say that. I'm guessing what he's going to say is something like, "why did my cheap ass parents buy me a 27 yen snack stick instead of a Wii?".

This is a typical kid's treat in Japan. It's super light, coated in a light film of fake chocolate, and made of corn. It's also fortified with calcium. The whole stick is 126 calories despite the fact that it's about 10 inches (25.4 cm) long. It's chock full of air pockets, but this doesn't have to be a bad thing. Air has no calories, after all.

You could pretend it's a super long cigar or, um, something else that resembles a long, brown log.

When you open the package, it smells very good. It smells of peanuts, cocoa, and sugar (all of which are ingredients, unsurprisingly). When you bite into it, you get a heavy hit of cereal taste. If you imagine a crispy rice bit from a Nestle Crunch blown up to gargantuan size and elongated, I imagine that's what this is. It's very crunchy and plenty sweet, although not in a sugary burning of your throat manner. The chocolate taste is surprisingly rich for such a thin coating, though there are no discernible peanut notes.

When you look at it on end like this, it looks like the suckers at the end of a squid's tentacles. But, that might just be my impression.

All in all, this is one pleasant little big treat. It's got great texture and just enough flavor to blend in with the cereal base inside. Keep in mind that there are other brands of this sort of thing out there and not all of them are good. I've had one of these before as part of a Japanese Christmas treat pack and sampled another one given to my husband and neither was as nice as this one from Riska. Apparently, brand name matters even in super cheap kid's snacks.

If you're in the mood for something crunchy and sweet, but a bit lighter than a Crunky bar, I'd recommend giving this a try. For 27 yen, it's a sure winner, though you may have to pretend you're a boy while you eat it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

KitKat Triple Berry

You can't tell from the picture, but this KitKat is in one of the most beautiful boxes you're going to find on a run-of-the-mill candy bar. It has a star pattern embossed across it which you can only see when the box reflects the light in just the right way. It's very sparkly and quite attractive to people who are easily impressed by shiny things.

Across the bottom of the box, it states that there is 2.8% cranberry, 1.1% blueberry, and 1.9% strawberry. On the back, it mentions that this content is included in powder form, so don't expect little bits of real fruit to enliven the taste of this bar.

Even though there is supposed to be more cranberry than strawberry, the bars smell pretty much like strawberry. It's a muted smell which seems a bit like strawberry frosting. The berry flavor is infused into the bar both in the pink filling between the wafers and the marbled white chocolate exterior.

I'm always suspicious of white chocolate-based KitKats, but this was surprisingly good. While it's a little sweeter than a regular KitKat, the berry flavors are multilayered and enjoyable. The first note is muted cranberry, followed by strawberry and finishing with the blueberry. The only thing that is missing is the sharper or sometimes sour notes of the respective berries, but I'm not sure that would have worked well in a KitKat anyway.

As with most Japanese KitKats, the box contains two packages with two fingers and I ate two fingers for my sampling. While I really liked the bars and felt the flavor was very well-balanced, I still had that throat burning sensation that one sometimes gets from having eaten candy that's too sweet. These KitKats aren't any more sugary than average (115 calories per two fingers is in line with the usual for KitKats), but the sweetness seems to build in your mouth as you eat more. Also, there's a definite cloying berry aftertaste that lingers after you eat half of the box.

This is a nice bar, and I did enjoy it, but I think it'd be better with some coffee or tea to cleanse the palate a bit between fingers. If you see it, you'll want to buy it for no other reason than it looks pretty, and it's so very Japanese looking.

This is also reviewed at Tasty Japan.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cratz Alpen Salt & Chicken

It's interesting how many products in Japan contain invented words which are a merger of two English words. My guess is that Cratz is a combination of "pretzel" and "cracker", though I guess it may possibly relate to "nutz", but that'd be a stretch. Honestly though, the name sounds like the consequence of some sort of unfortunate intestinal disorder. "I ate too many prunes and had a bad case of Cratz".

Now that I've no doubt destroyed all interest in actually consuming Cratz, let me tell you that they're quite flavorful. In fact, after sampling the rather bland cheddar Pretz, Cratz are a pleasant surprise. The chicken flavor is very present and not in a chicken buillion cube way. One of the ingredients is "fried chicken powder" and that stuff really conveys the right chicken flavor. It's more like chowing down on actual chicken flavor-wise. There's a hint of pepper and, of course, salt. Even though "Alpen salt" is a part of the flavor, these are not overly salty. The salt quantity is perfect.

While Cratz are a much better pretzel-based otsumami (snacks to be consumed with alcohol) than Pretz, there is a price to be paid for all that goodness. A 44 gram bag (1.55 oz.) has 220 calories. Part of this is the almonds which no doubt carry heavy fat-based calories, but the pretzels themselves are heavy and dense. When you chew them for awhile, they start to reveal a rather "bread-like" finishing taste which is reminiscent of the experience of eating soft pretzels back home.

Cratz are a little expensive for the quantity you get and tend to be sold right next to cans of beer, making their relationship clear. I bought this package for 99 yen ($1.00), but it was on sale. Usually, the price is closer to 160 yen ($1.64). If you favor a bolder flavor and want to get a small amount of protein with your pretzels, it's definitely worth the extra yen to pony up for a small bag of Cratz.

This is also reviewed on The Japanese Snack Food Review.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kinako Mochi Premium Chocolate

There is a company in Japan called Tirol (チロル) which specializes in selling tiny portions of individually wrapped candies. Each candy is about an inch square (2.54 cm.) and has a colorfully designed, unique wrapper. You can buy the small bits of candy individually for about 30-40 cents each (25-40 yen), in multi-packs, or in packs of the same flavor with multiple squares. The most common way to see them on store shelves is as individual squares. There's a gallery of their flavors both past and present here if you'd like to see the wide variation.

These small candies were originally created to allow poor children to buy sweets in the early 60's. The intent was to sell them for 10 yen, but the company had difficulties creating a candy for that price since the materials they used cost 15 yen. Eventually, they were able to make adjustments to bring the price down. However, the oil shock of the 70's pushed the price up to the 20-30 yen levels.

These days, these tiny candies are an interesting way of sampling and keeping portions under control. When I first saw this variety, it was being sold in a big bag and I didn't want to buy so many of an untested sweet. Fortunately, I ran across individual squares for sale at a convenience store and now I wish I had bought the bigger bag instead.

Kinako is toasted soy bean flour and is used for a variety of purposes in Japan. Mochi is a stretchy form of pounded rice best known as the New Year's celebratory food which some people choke to death on every year. If you ever watch hand-made mochi making, you'll see that it takes a great deal of elbow grease. Up until I tried this candy, I didn't realize why Japan had little or no peanut butter-flavored candy or cookies. Now, I know that they don't need it as kinako is so close to peanut butter in flavor that it would seem redundant to have both. I'm guessing kinako is probably nutritionally better for you than peanut butter.

When you open the package, you get a strong whiff of kinako and a beautifully formed molded square of light brown chocolate reveals itself. When you bite into it, the coating is cool, creamy and so much like peanut butter that you'd swear it was Mr. Peanut himself being ground for your eating pleasure. The mochi in the center is a little bit tough to bite through, but not in a bad way. There's just a slight texture shock as you go from easily cleaving the soft coating to the denser, chewy mochi. After a bit, the chocolate disappears and you're left to finish off the little bit of mochi.

This was a surprisingly good treat with excellent texture and taste balance. It has just the right amount of sweetness and a good balance of chocolate to mochi. It's only 49 calories, though it is just a small morsel. If you can get your hands on this, give it a try. I'd also recommend socking some away for later when this limited edition vanishes. The expiration date on mine was for August of 2009 so it should stay good for awhile.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rich Cut Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips

Sour cream isn't a big deal in Japan. They're good with the cream, as is evidenced by a variety of Japanese dishes made with cream like umenohana. They're good with the sour, as is evidenced by umeboshi (very sour pickled plums), but you don't see much going on with sour cream. In fact, it's sold in half cup containers for about $2.30 (230 yen) rather than in huge fatty, delicious bowls like you can buy back home.

For this reason, it's rare to see things that are flavored with sour cream and onion like these chips. In fact, this offering by Kokeiya is the first time I've seen a Japanese-produced chip in this flavor. That's not to say such chips never existed. It's not like I've spent many a night painstakingly inspecting the snack food aisles of every market in Tokyo looking for sour cream and onion chips. After all, if I did that, I'd have no time to write review posts, or work, or eat snacks for review.

The bag of chips I sampled and photographed for review was actually the fourth one I've bought. This might tell you something about how good they are. It took this long to keep one around long enough to take pictures. To be fair, I only ate half of two bags. I sent the rest off to work with my husband to snack on with his lunch. Also, the bags aren't very big. If you were to compare them to a small single-serving bag like those commonly sold in the U.S., the contents might equal about 4 of those little bags (possibly less).

When you open the bag, the chips mainly smell like potato chips with the vaguest hint of sour cream. The first bite is salty, with a hint of cream followed by a very heavily onion-flavored finish and aftertaste. The onion component of these chips is much stronger than the sour cream and it tends to build up more strongly as you eat more of the chips. Since the ingredients list is potatoes, oil, onion powder, milk powder, parsley, and stevia, I'm guessing onion seasoning is more liberally applied than the milk part which comprises the "sour cream" portion. They are very, very tasty.

The chips are crispy and most of them are full-sized. One thing I've discovered about imported chips is that a lot of them get crushed and buying domestically made ones is always a better bet. They're protected better or just are handled less and don't tend to get as crushed. My only minor quibble with these chips is that there are always a certain percentage of darker chips and they have a slightly burnt flavor which is a little unpleasant. I'd give the makers the benefit of the doubt and consider that I had a bad bag or two, but after 4 bags, this seems to be pretty consistently an issue.

Kokeiya calls these "rich cut" chips and I'm guessing this is some sort of play (or mistake) on "ridge cut" as there is nothing unique in their shape. There are two types available. One is "usushio" which is "salt" and essentially what we'd call "plain" chips in America (or "crisps" in the U.K. and Australia). There's a contest going on right now on their web site and 50 people can win 4 bags of these chips (2 plain, 2 sour cream and onion). The site is here and you can also access a few little games related to the characters the company uses to promote their various products. There is also a popular commercial featuring Sadao Abe for these chips which still pictures and the actual commercial are shown from here. If you can understand Japanese, you might want to give the site a try, or at least enter the contest for free chips. They're definitely worth it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chocochip Cookies — Country Ma'am vs TopValu

There's an intriguing web site called "Second Rate Snacks" which places big brand name snacks head-to-head with knock-offs. This is a concept which is especially useful in America where knock-offs are plentiful. In Japan, there aren't quite so many of these though there are a few, particularly of things like Pocky and Pretz.

While it may seem like I'm ripping off someone's cool concept, the incentive for this post actually came from my husband who saw both of these bags of similar cookies and thought it would be interesting to see if there was a qualitative difference. I can guarantee that this sort of comparison won't be happening very often. It's too much work and more junk food than I want to have around. My hat goes off to the folks at Second Rate Snacks who manage to do this regularly (and do it so well).

The way in which both of these packages are designed clearly shows that TopValu, maker of cut-rate food and goods all over Japan and Asia, was attempting to copy Country Ma'am. Country Ma'am, which is a brand offered by mega confectioner Fujiya, has been around for quite awhile and sells a variety of versions of it's semi-soft cookies. They're supposed to be especially good if you pop them in the microwave to make them softer.

The TopValu brand is about 150 yen ($1.50 USD) cheaper than Country Ma'am and contains 2 more cookies in the bag. All of the cookies come in individually wrapped packets. This is the sort of excessive packaging that Japan excels at and is often criticized for, though it does make it easy to keep the cookies around for a long time once the main package has been opened.

Country Ma'am on top, TopValu on the bottom

The cookies in both brands are the same weight, 10.5 grams (.37 oz.), but the TopValu cookies are smaller. It's difficult to tell from the picture, but they are also duller, paler and drier looking. They all carry essentially the same calorie counts at 50 calories per tiny cookie.

Country Ma'am chocolate, TopValu chocolate, Country Ma'am vanilla, TopValu vanilla (click to see a much bigger version)

If you look at the cookies when they are cut open, you can see that there is more moisture in the center of the Country Ma'am cookies. Both bags have the same claims on the front of their packages. They say their cookies are crispy on the outside and moist inside, but Country Ma'am clearly lives up to this claim much better than TopValu.

The proof is in the taste and texture, however, so here is what I thought:
  • Chocolate TopValu: Crumbly outside and slightly chewy inside with a nice chocolate flavor
  • Chocolate Country Ma'am: Crunchy outside, softer interior with a nice texture, good chocolate flavor which is richer and deeper than the TopValu chocolate cookie
  • Vanilla TopValu: Crumbly outside, slightly chewy interior, bittersweet chips with a much heavier note of bitter than usual for this kind of cookie
  • Vanilla Country Ma'am: Crunchy outside, soft interior, a bit of a pleasant cookie dough flavor inside, nice milk chocolate chips
Country Ma'am is, unsurprisingly, a better cookie. In particular, the vanilla cookies are far better than the TopValu vanilla ones which border on unpleasant with the heavy bitter aftertaste of the chips in their cookies. The main difference between the chocolate ones is in texture. TopValu's cookies are so dry on the outside that they nearly crumble into a powder in your mouth. Country Ma'am's crispy exterior is more like a crispy shell which cleaves cleanly. The TopValu cookies fail rather badly if you plan to microwave them a bit to warm them up. At that point, the dryness of the cookies becomes a serious liability whereas Country Ma'am holds up well.

A look at the ingredients list reveals that both cookies use similar components, but sugar is higher on the list on the Country Ma'am cookies. Since sugar adds moisture, crispness and softness to baked goods, this suits the differences between the texture of the Country Ma'am cookies and TopValu.

I consume Country Ma'am cookies very infrequently because I'm much more inclined to bake my own if I'm in a cookie mood. However, if I were inclined to pick up some chocolate chip cookies or have a bag to share with others, I'd pay the extra money, take a few fewer cookies, and go for the Country Ma'am cookies over the TopValu ones.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Corn Potage Snack

Everyone associates Japan with sushi, seafood, and rice. Japanese people have a few guilty nutritional secrets that you don't really notice unless you live here for awhile. The first "secret" is that the Japanese love mayonnaise. In fact, there are fan clubs devoted to mayonnaise. I sometimes joked that mayonnaise is the fourth food group in Japan because they can consume it in great abundance.

The second "secret", however, is the one that applies here. That one is that the Japanese love corn. Many newcomers to Japan are appalled to learn that you can order it as a topping on pizza. Back when I first arrived, my husband and I used to occasionally stop by a Shakey's Pizza while we were out shopping. Shakey's offered lunch time buffets at which you could eat as much as you wanted provided you were willing to eat whatever types of pizza they happened to put out there. We were displeased to learn that tuna and corn was the only variety on offer.

If you peruse convenience store baked goods, you'll often find an unholy marriage of these two secret loves in a corn and mayo sandwich. Well, it's not really a sandwich. It's a white hot dog bun type of thing topped with mayonnaise and corn. I can promise you right now that I won't be reviewing that nutri-bomb of bad carbs and fat.

Getting back to corn though. One of the more popular varieties of soup in Japan is corn potage. You can buy it in cans, as an instant powdered cup of soup mix or you can get it in family-size bags so that the whole family can put away some tasty cream corn soup. This particular flavor is what the makers of this corn snack are trying to reproduce.

This salted snack item is brought to you by Riska which makes a variety of small bags of cheap snacks for 27 yen each (about 25 cents USD). The bag contains 20 grams (.7 oz.) of puffy, light yellow corn puffs. They are airy and smell like sweet corn. Each puff is covered with a light yellow powder and a few flecks of parsley. The powder is hard to see because it is the same color as the puffs and sticks pretty well.

These are very crispy and really couldn't be better on the texture side. They taste both salty and sweet. This is no doubt to reproduce the sweet notes corn sometimes carries and is managed by adding Sucralose to the mix. The flavor is intensely savory, but very reminiscent of instant corn potage soup. Quite frankly, I love these and if I were looking for a crispy, salty snack, this would definitely be something I'd want to partake of.

I once sent a bag of these to a friend living in the U.S. and he told me they reminded him of Cap'n Crunch cereal. I can see where they might bring that to mind with their sweetness and crunch. Cap'n Crunch is, after all, made from corn (and oats). However, they are much airier and more like a cheese puff or ball so I think the comparison stops there. Also, there is no actual sugar in these and eating one of these 20 gram bags will set you back 118 calories. I'm guessing that's a better bet than 20 grams of Cap'n Crunch, and these won't cut up the roof of your mouth.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

KitKat Muscat of Alexandria

The box tells you that two fingers contain 114 calories.

This particular KitKat has been in my refrigerator for about a month waiting for me to work up the desire to sample it. It's not that I think it's going to be bad necessarily, but rather that you don't just develop an sudden desire to eat a grape-flavored candy bar. Let's face it, grape is a flavor that belongs in juice, hard candy, chews, gum, and even possibly cakes, but it doesn't feel right in chocolate. Muscat, by the way, is a recurring favorite in Japan. It's not as popular or used as often as chestnut or green tea, but it disappears and resurfaces with regularity.

I was in a particularly adventurous mood after lunch today and decided to finally take the plunge. The bars are white chocolate tinted a pale lime green with a white cream filling. They smell vaguely of grape juice and pretty much taste like it as well.They're sweet, but not overbearingly so. Mainly, it's just a weird combination of texture and taste when you experience grape flavor in a wafer.

The grape taste isn't artificial, but it's a bit too strong to seem natural. The ingredients state that "muscat sugar powder" is used to flavor the white chocolate. Even though muscat are green grapes, these remind me of the large, round, tough-skinned (semi-expensive) purple grapes with you can get in Japanese markets. I'm guessing that dehydrated grape powder can intensify the flavor and make this more like grape juice concentrate in flavor than real grapes.

I have to give Nestlé credit for not trying to mix actual chocolate with grapes because that could have been a very bad combination. This is an interesting bar, but not the sort of thing one might want to consume regularly. It's more of a conversation piece than a satisfying snack, but it's good in an unusual way. Buy a box, split the 4 fingers with some friends and talk about your impressions. You're most certainly not going to hate it. You just might not love it.

This is also reviewed at Snack Love.