Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sweet Potato Candy (Karaimo)

One of the reasons I started this blog was to compel myself to try new things in Japan. I've lived here a long time, and I believe it's easy to fall into a rut and just forget to bother looking around and trying other things. Another was to develop a better understanding of various Japanese foods, their manufacturers, and the nutritional content of those foods. In that spirit, I've been perusing some parts of the food aisles I normally skip over. One of the places I never paid much attention to was the area containing what I would loosely call the "Grandma's snacks."

These snacks are located in a different area from the candy, cookie and chips that are the most popular and well known. The snacks sold there are in packages with less showy designs and the manufacturers are not well-known. Most of them have no English written on them at all, unlike splashy items like "Pocky" and "Crunky" that are dominated by their big, bold, roman-lettered names. Most of these things are less sweet and supposedly carry a better nutritional profile. They're also rarely individually wrapped.

The main problem with this new approach and blogging about what I find is that it's much more difficult to research such snacks as they aren't high profile. In fact, when I tried to research the sweet potato candy I sampled for this post, I couldn't find much about the sweet or the company that makes them. The ony thing I can say is that several manufacturers make the same candy and they all look just like the one I bought with slightly different packages.

From what little I could find out about these candies, they are considered to be traditional and something which is appropriate for families. This may seem like a pretty bland thing to say, and frankly it is. Most Japanese candy has fluffy, bland marketing behind it, but it doesn't always specifically say it's family-oriented. Many big name commercial sweets are purchased by young adults. There's a whole other range of snacks for kids which have a different flavors, sizes and packaging. The snacks marketed at adults tend to come individually wrapped so they can be eaten slowly and shared with coworkers. Even hard candy is individually wrapped in many cases so sharing is easy and careless re-wrapping once the bag is open won't result in the food going stale or sticky. These types of "Grandma's snacks" are clearly made to be opened, sampled, and carefully resealed for future consumption. I'm wondering if some Japanese old folks keep these types of things around the way my grandmothers used to keep around ribbon candy.

These candies look like a conventional hard candy, but are dull and ever so slightly soft if you squeeze them very hard. They are covered in a fine powder which is not sweet and has the occasional black spec. One of the manufacturers of these types of candies (though not my bag's maker) stated on its web site that these specs are not to be mistaken as dirt or unwanted foreign objects. They are byproducts of the roasting process used to make the candy. I'm guessing the outside powder is some kind of rice, wheat or potato flour which is meant to keep the candies from sticking to each other.

When you open the bag, there is a unusual "spiciness" which you can smell if you sniff very hard. It smells both like and unlike sweet potatoes. I'm guessing that processing them alters the usual scent of Japanese sweet potatoes. The ingredients for this candy are sweet potato syrup , malt syrup, brown sugar, and wheat flour. Though they are not super smooth, they don't feel rough in your mouth, though they are too hard to bite into. You have to suck on them for awhile and they start to soften up and become sticky. Eventually, they develop a caramel or taffy consistency as they are warmed and moistened in your mouth. As they soften, you will naturally start to chew on them and they do stick to your teeth to some extent.

The taste is subtle both in terms of sweetness and sweet potato flavor. They're pleasant, but a little hard to eat and not the sort of thing you're going to go crazy for. I think they're not a bad thing to have lying around to sample once in awhile and they aren't incredibly caloric. The entire bag is 130 grams (4.5 oz.) and contains about 30-35 candies. I didn't count so I can't give an exact number, but I think each candy probably has about 20 calories. Given that they take awhile to eat, you may find that you can satisfy your sweet tooth without scarfing down a lot of calories. I just wish the sweet potato aspect of them was a bit more intense.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Kit Kat Mail

Just address, stamp and send.

There are going to be some cases where I won't need to actually buy something to report on it as a snack. These cases will be rare, but there will be a few. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of those cases will involve Japanese KitKats.

On that note, I'm going to tell you about KitKat Mail though I've not purchased one. Now, this may sound like a KitKat that is flavored like the back of a postage stamp, or possibly a disgruntled postal worker (tired, bitter, and angry-like a moldy chili pepper), but it's actually a regular KitKat in a new package concept.

The idea with these KitKats is to buy a box for 210 yen ($2.32), slap a 140 yen ($1.55) stamp on it, and then toss it into a post box. There are "4 pieces" in it according to the web site, but I'd wager that the volume is either about the size of a regular KitKat or just a bit bigger. They don't offer weight information, but I think it's almost certainly going to be 4 mini bars or 4 individually wrapped fingers. The promotional information for this says that these are to "support students", meaning that mom and pop can send their kid who is off at school a box of these for only about 3 times as much as it'd cost the kid to go pick one up at a local convenience store. Hey, but it's not about the price or the volume. It's about the love.

The main appeal of these is that the box is designed to withstand domestic mail handling and the stamp value required is known and set. You don't have to take it to the post office and have it weighed. Nestlé Japan has produced these in cooperation with the postal service and they'll be available on January 5, 2009. The timing of these coincides with the period in Japan when students traditionally start taking their grueling entrance exams. So, I guess that the years a child has spent cramming away at juku ("cram schools" that prep kids to take entrance tests) rather than enjoying his youth will all seem worthwhile if you just send them a KitKat of encouragement.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Plus X Grape Mint Gum

In Japanese business, there's a concept called "plus alpha". This means that an additional service is added on to whatever the usual package of services is offered. I'll note for those who have not lived in Japan that "plus alpha" is said in English, not in the Japanese equivalent of those English words. So, most Japanese people know what "plus" means even if it is written in English.

This grape mint gum says "plus X" which makes it sound as if something extra has been added. Lotte's web site says that the branding using "plus X" is specifically targeted at young people as a way of making gum made with Xylitol (a sweetener which helps strengthen tooth enamel) seem "fun" and "cool". I guess they feel that the whole idea of gum that is good for your teeth is too square for the likes of Japanese young people so it's hipper to make it vague by saying "plus X". Of course, I'm not sure how "fun" you can make tiny pieces of gum.

Lotte also mentions that the price of this gum is set at 100 yen (about $1), though I'm not sure why that should be so special. A lot of individual packs of gum are in the same price range, though there are some pretty expensive big plastic canisters of gum for around 500-800 yen (about $5-$8). Each pack has 14 pieces and if you chew the whole thing, it's only 37 calories. The pieces are rather sloppily wrapped in textured foil which is too big for the size of the gum. Perhaps Lotte is recycling packaging from more generously proportioned gum or they like the look of a product swaddled in foil.

The gum is similar to Chiclets in the U.S. though they are perhaps a little bigger. The pieces have a candy coating and don't have any scent at all. When you bite into it, you're hit by a faint grape flavor then by a very odd mixture of mint and grape. The mint is stronger than the grape, though they do tend to mix into a bit of a funky combination for a short time until the flavor peters out. The grape dies off entirely after about a minute and you're left with an almost bitter mint flavor. The flavor doesn't last all that long and the piece size is so small that even a conservative gum chewer might need 3 pieces to satisfy herself.

I'm not a serious gum chewer, but if I were, I wouldn't buy this again. It's not only that grape and mint do not make a great pairing, but also that the flavor doesn't last long and the gum isn't especially a great chew. I can't understand why fruit gum in Japan seems to be often paired with mint since that's not a particularly tasty combination. It could be that gum is mainly used to freshen breath and mint is seen as necessary for doing the trick. At any rate, I wouldn't recommend this.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Super Size Ghana Special Holiday Bar

The box says, "creamy milk and the richness of cacao, new standard chocolate." (You can click any picture to see a larger version with more detail.)

Around this time of year, confectioners in Japan start super sizing their core candy products. You can get super sized Pocky, Crunky, and Ghana bars among other things. My husband and I had never purchased one of these monster confections until now. He selected the Ghana bar because, as a solid chocolate bar, it has the greatest long term eating potential and can be used for baking in a pinch.

The super size bars are available at this time mainly to offer as Christmas or (more commonly) New Years gifts for kids. However, one of my students who has a birthday in December was given one so sometimes young adults give them to each other. Personally, I think these would make a great group souvenir of a trip to Japan to share with your entire office if you happen to be in Japan during the limited time they are offered. You could also set them aside for a friend or loved one who has particularly severe depression or PMS issues. There's enough chocolate here to see them through an entire month of difficulty (as well as add a pound and a half to their body weight).

Though I haven't reviewed Ghana bars before, they are not new to me. You can buy normal (about the size of a Hershey's chocolate bar) Ghana for a bargain price in many supermarkets. One close to me regularly sells them for 88 yen (97 cents) each, which is about 12 yen (13 cents) cheaper than similar basic milk chocolate bars of the same size. This big bar costs about 800 yen ($8.79) and pretty much is roughly equal in volume to 8 smaller bars so it's not cheap, but it's also not priced at a premium.

The box is 30 cm (11.8 in.) long and 14.5 cm (5.7 in.) wide and has a snowflake design on it to make sure you know its a winter holiday gift. A regular Ghana box is entirely red with the logo in the middle. The chocolate is packed in an unassuming foil pouch. I'm guessing this is to keep it fresh for a long time. My bar's expiration date is September of 2009.

The chocolate bar is divided into 20 individual blocks. Each block is 4.5 (1.8 in.) by 2.3 to 2.5 cm (.90-.98 in.) in size. The side pieces are bigger than the inner blocks. If you had kids and they were supposed to share this bar, they'd be fighting over the bigger pieces at the edges. Each block is 84 calories. If you went insane and gobbled it all down, you'd be putting away 1,680 calories from the entire huge bar.

Ghana chocolate smells mildly of chocolate. These thick blocks are a little tough to bite through compared to the normal thin bars that are available year round, but I have to admit that I have a weak bite. The chocolate flavor is subdued at first, but becomes rich and deep as it melts in your mouth. It doesn't seem too sweet at first, but the sweetness builds up as you roll it around on your tongue. The chocolate itself seems to lack depth. You don't pick out any deeper flavors like coffee, nuts or any fruity notes. It's very fatty chocolate with a good portion of cocoa butter, so it's quite satisfying, but it is the sort of chocolate that is well-suited to the palates of children and those who like sweet chocolate that doesn't have a very strong milky taste.

Comparing a basic chocolate like Ghana to Hershey's in America and Cadbury in the U .K., I'd say that Hershey's has sour, yogurt-like flavor and has a chalkier texture and Cadbury is much milkier. The odd thing about Ghana to me is how the sweetness and basic chocolate flavor come through so strongly without the sort of heavy milky flavor that seems so common in other milk chocolate bars. Ghana has more of a "hot cocoa" which is made in part with water taste than a "hot chocolate" flavor which is made with 100% milk. It's good chocolate, but it's different from what you might expect back home.


Marble choco (マーベルチョコ) Santa dispenser wishes you a "Happy Merry X-mas", because it's not enough to just be "merry" or "happy". You must be both.

Merry Christmas to all of my readers. I hope you have a beautiful holiday and can relax with friends and loved ones. Thank you for reading. It's very appreciated.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Airs Felicio Praline Cream

"Airs" brand chocolates by Lotte have been around for awhile and I've largely ignored them. Part of the reason for this is that they tend not to be sold in flavors that I favor and perhaps the other part is that paying for chocolate with air intentionally introduced into it is less attractive than paying the same price for chocolate which is solid. The one type I did try in the past was some weird Chinese fruit pudding concoction. The texture was odd and the flavor very strange. That particular variety was a "regular" type. The "Felicio" variety, which is just a few letters away from being a hilarious "Engrish" name for a product, is a premium version. It not only comes in a fancy box which is almost impossible to photograph well because of the shiny, highly reflective areas, but cost 58 yen (about 55 cents) more than the mundane variety.

The concept of the "Airs" chocolate is the same for all variations. A "cup" of aerated chocolate is filled with some sort of flavored filling then a little more chocolate is poured on top of the flavoring to complete it. This makes the chocolates look and feel cheap when you compare them to some of the better-looking molded chocolates. Because the chocolate is full of air pockets, the candies are very light and probably a little lower calorie than a dense chocolate of the same size. Each piece of this was 23 calories.

These chocolates are full of praline, which is to say hazelnut and almond paste. They smell sweetly of chocolate and have an intense chocolate flavor. Mainly, you can taste the chocolate shell when you bite into this at first. It takes a second bit to reveal the flavor of the filling to a mild extent. This is rather disappointing as I love praline and I feel that the chocolate flavor, which is actually very good, overwhelms the taste of the filling. There are 2 ways in which you can get a really good sense of the center's flavor. One is to hold the candy in your mouth long enough to melt off the exterior coating and leave only the center blob to be tasted largely by itself. Since there is a good amount of cocoa butter in this, letting them melt in your mouth is a decadent experience. The second is to keep eating more of the candy until your taste buds start to lose their sensitivity to the taste of the chocolate shell. This happened around three chocolates for me, but it also started to reveal a subtle aftertaste in the candy which I uniquely associate with Lotte's Airs brand.

Despite the subdued nature of the praline filling, I liked these a lot. The flavor is really deep and rich. There are 12 candies in each box and they cost 158 yen (about $1.50). This makes them somewhat expensive, but if you're a fan of praline, I'd certainly recommend picking them up at least once and giving them a try.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lawson VL 24 Vegetable and Fruit Juice Blend

There is a particular variety of jam that I love in apricot flavor. On at least 5 occasions, I have accidentally purchased orange marmalade in the same brand because the illustrations are nearly identical and I was in a hurry and didn't read the label. Today's review is brought to you by the same type of rushed carelessness that has seen me waste about $20 over the years on marmalade (which I hate).

I was at a local shop and hustling to get some milk when I decided I'd like some juice. I'd bought a Lawson VL (Value Line) citrus blend from this same shop before so I grabbed the carton you see above large based on the prominence of the orange, lemon and grapes. I got home and only when my sunny yellow juice ended up being fluorescent orange did I realize something had gone horribly wrong. Still, I wasn't going to let good juice go to waste because I made a stupid mistake, even if it did look a little radioactive.

The 24 fruits and vegetables pictured on the carton.

The juice blends grape, orange, and lemon with a plethora of vegetables in an attempt to add more nutritional punch to the mix. The primary ingredients are the first three juices, but there's also 2 types of carrot, sweet potato, asparagus, 2 types of green pepper, 2 kinds of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin, lettuce, kale, parsley, celery, and radish. There are a few more in there, but you get the idea. The Japanese love drinks and juices which offer tons of healthy ingredients. I guess it's the "kitchen sink" approach to beverage blending and consumers lap it up. I'm not sure if this sort of approach ends up in a tasty beverage, but I guess it is supposed to be about carrying a big nutritional punch. My previous experience with a blended beverage was not one which I recollect with fondness, so I approached with caution.

The juice doesn't have a very strong scent. Mainly, you smell the orange component with a hint of lemon. The juice itself tastes a lot like a muted version of orange juice. It has a citrus feel, but is clearly diluted with something unexpected. While there isn't really an aftertaste, there is definitely a secondary hint of something vegetable-based. I swear I can detect the green pepper taste in it, but none of the other vegetables make an individual taste impact. I think this is certainly palatable, but I wouldn't go so far to say it is as enjoyable as a pure citrus blend or even straight ahead orange juice.

The carton has 700 ml, which is probably enough for 3 reasonably-sized servings, 2 big ones, or 4 small ones. The juice has added alpha and beta carotene and is 36 calories for 100 ml so it's not too high in calories, though certainly not low. If you'd like to drink something which may carry more nutrients per sip, this would be just fine. You're taking a cut in pleasure, but it's still a pleasant beverage and it may be worth it for the healthier mix of juices.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Peanut Cream Mochi Choco

When you first start shopping at grocery shops in Japan, your inclination is to seek out the familiar amongst the plethora of incomprehensible items. You don't do this because you are conservative about eating new things, but rather because you can't read a thing and don't want to end up buying something that is inedible. After all, it wouldn't do to pick up what you think is a can of tuna and find out it's really cat food.

When it comes to various sandwich spreads, there are shelves full of jams and jellies which are easy to identify. Occasionally, you'll find the odd jar of Skippy peanut butter, but it's more common to find paper containers of something called "peanut cream". Since it has pictures of peanuts on it and it's with the jelly and jam, it's natural to conclude that this is Japanese peanut butter. It's a mistake to reach such a conclusion. Peanut cream is a strange, glossy, rather sweet concoction which is the ugly, unpleasant cousin of peanut butter. It's no wonder that it's not very popular in Japan. I sent a carton of it to one of my friends in the U.S. to sample and he thought it was pretty disgusting, and I wouldn't call him a very fussy eater as long as the food is free.

My husband found the box of peanut cream mochi pictured at the top of this post at a 99 yen shop and we decided to give it a try despite the inherent danger of consuming anything which showcases the vile peanut cream. Our faith in the quality of the product should be enhanced by the statement (in English) which says, "Fashioned in a homemade style by a superb chef. Enjoy with tea or moments of relaxation!" There are 5 individually wrapped patties per box, each about 2 inches/5 cm. in diameter, for 99 yen (98 cents) so I doubt many superb chefs are on staff formulating these and it's hard to believe their claim.

The Japanese on the box promises "moist mochi with peanut", though when you open a packet, you mainly smell cheap chocolate with no dairy notes. When I cut open a patty, I could smell peanut butter. Mochi has little or no taste and mainly provides texture. To their credit, the mochi is moist and slightly chewy. It provides a marshmallow like texture, though it's not nearly as spongy and is not sweet. The chocolate on the outside is very thin and cracks easily. It's slightly bittersweet and rather flat and dull flavor wise. Surprisingly, the peanut filling is like super soft peanut butter and not peanut cream. The chocolate is cool on the tongue and does not melt in your mouth. It cracks apart. It's surprisingly enjoyable for such a cheaply made treat. The chocolate is substandard, but the peanut filling and mochi steal the show. Perhaps it's just as well that the chocolate is crappy because it allows the other ingredients to shine through more brightly. Each patty has 64 calories, 1.2 grams of fat, and 13.2 carbs. The main ingredients are maltose, sugar, mochi, starch, vegetable oil, and peanut cream. I'm guessing there are a lot of bad fats in it.

These are made by a company called H&H trading which has no online presence or company information. I've never seen these for sale anywhere other than the local 99 yen shop, so I wonder if they're not the sort of thing one could track down and are just something you find by fortunate happenstance. After these sold out, they were not restocked so I haven't seen them again. However, they're worth a sample if you stumble across a box.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oshiruko KitKat

Oh, Nestlé Japan, will you never stop making variations on the KitKat? You amuse us endlessly with your attempts to lure us in with ever more esoteric flavor combinations. This time, they have given us sweet red bean soup (oshiruko) flavor. The picture on the front of the box shows the soup with a ball of pounded rice (mochi) floating plopped in the middle.

The "mochi" part of this combination is achieved by putting "mochi puffs" in the bar. The chocolate coating is supposed to be oshiruko flavor and the creme in between the wafers is koshian, beans which have been passed through a strainer to remove their skins.
If you look very, very closely, you can see light specs which are the mochi puffs.

The bar smells like a moldy old sock. Seriously. It smells bad. I've never eaten red bean soup so maybe that's what it smells like, too. However, I must say that I'm not keen to try real oshiruko after a whiff of this bar. Of course, smell isn't everything, though it usually is half of the taste of a food. Well, smell isn't always everything, but it turns out that what smells like a moldy old sock tastes like one, too. The first bite of this is like chocolate mustiness in your mouth. It's like a pair of Grandma's underpants that have been stuck at the back of the drawer for 2 decades. Nestlé Japan might want to use that as the tag line for this bar. I won't even ask that they pay me. Knowing that they're embracing truth in advertising would be repayment enough.

To be fair, the subsequent bites aren't as disgusting as the initial one. The moldy flavor starts to become subdued and gives way to a cardboard flavor. It's not good, but it's not nearly as bad as the first bite. By the time you get through half of the second finger (yeah, I felt obliged to eat two fingers to give this a good chance), your tongue is sufficiently saturated with the musty flavor that you start to taste the mochi puffs. They taste a little like year-old rice crispies although not from a sealed box. No, this flavor could only be achieved with an open box, preferably stored in your attic or cellar for an extended period of time.

So, I began by asking if Nestlé Japan will stop making variations on KitKats. This bar offers evidence that they likely will not, but it also supports the idea that they probably should.

Other reviews of this are at Candy Blog.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Smile Oven Big Melon Pan

Melon pan is one of the most superficially misunderstood pastries in Japan. For starters, people assume it's melon flavored. While it may seem illogical to name an item after a component which is often absent, let's consider some other concoctions in English. Are buffalo wings made from the wings of a buffalo? Are nutty bars made by crazy people? They're not even made with real nuts. Are whoopie pies made from or while making whoopie? No, Japan isn't alone in its inconsistency with naming conventions, though at least occasionally melon pan is flavored with melon.

Most of the time, melon pan is what I can only describe as "nothing" flavored. It's really just a big dollop of bread dough covered with crispy cookie dough then baked. At its best, the inside is fluffy bread and the outside is a lightly sweet crispy cookie shell sprinkled lightly with large crystals of sugar. In short, it is pretty much at its best as this Smile Oven melon pan.

All is not beer and skittles on the Smile Oven melon pan front, however. It smells like margarine and the only real flavor it has aside from margarine (not butter, no, no) is sweetness and flour. This is a pure textural sensation. It's a good one though be careful to get a fresh one if you're diving into melon pan territory. Melon pan that's sat around for awhile softens up and a melon pan without a crispy exterior is essentially sweetened white bread.

The biggest problem with the Smile Oven Big Melon Pan is that big doesn't mean better. You're essentially eating margarine-flavored cookie dough wrapped around the equivalent of 4 slices of good quality fresh and fluffy white bread. While you may consume it thinking that it's not that sugary so it can't be that bad for you, consider that it has a whopping 558 calories. Since this isn't the sort of thing that you can save and eat the next day, it's either a case of having to consume a huge processed carb bomb or throw part of it away.

This is a very nice treat, but I ended up eating the shell and tossing most of the bread away. It is good, but not good enough to be a meal substitute and 558 calories is as much as I eat for dinner. If you're walking around Tokyo and want to fuel up for a lot of footwork, then this might not be a bad thing to eat, but if you're snacking at the computer at work, forget it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Spicy Cheese Cratz

One of the things that you often see on Japanese food is a claim that a particular food is from another country or prepared in the style of another country's cuisine. I can't tell you how many times I've seen something say "American" which was in no way American. Many of those items also sport American flag motifs.

One of the strangest claims of origin I ever saw said that a particular brand of spicy chips was "Ethnican flavor." I don't know where those Ethnicans are located on the globe, but I salute them and their cuisine, wherever they may be. On this package of Cratz, is says "German style pretzels", but I have no idea if they are actually in any way German, though they are thick and bready like you'd expect a Bavarian-style pretzel to be.

Like the previously reviewed chicken and Alpen salt flavor of Cratz, these are very flavorful pretzels with a few almonds tossed in for good measure. I counted and there were about 5 almonds in the 144 gram (1.5 oz.) bag. They smell taste cheesy, but also carry a spicy heat as part of the finishing taste. The spiciness comes from a plethora of powders and pastes including onion powder, green onion powder, paprika, chicken extract powder, 2 types of cheese powder, vegetable powder, and tomato paste. The texture is super crunchy without being too hard.

I could eat these everyday, but I won't because they're not exactly great for you and I have a whole country's worth of junk to review. They may have too much of a hot bite for some people, but they suit my tastes quite well. The only problem is that the small portion carries a heavy load of calories at 222 calories and it's easy to put away the whole bag in no time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Choco Ball Peanut

Chocoballs have been around since 1967. The peanut variety is the original, but there are several other types around. All of them are sold in small boxes with variations on the theme shown on the box pictured above. The mascot, Kyorochan, is very well known and is meant to resemble a peanut.

Morinaga, which makes choco ball sweets, has stated that it is going to focus more on health food in the future because the market for products like this is eroding due to the birthrate in Japan becoming so low. I guess that elderly people aren't drawn to chocolates with cartoon mascots. Incidentally, Morinaga also produced Japan's first penicillin. With that sort of historical experience, maybe they can find some sort of medicinal treat to appeal to granny.

Fortunately, the market for the kid-focused candy hasn't disappeared enough to see the disappearance of choco balls. What appear to be mere chocolate covered peanuts are actually a pretty sophisticated treat with layers of care put into making them better than your average chocolate-coated legume. First of all, the peanuts are roasted so that they carry a deeper flavor. They are just short of having a "burnt" flavor so it's a pretty serious roast. Second, if you look very carefully at the broken ball above, you can see that there are actually three layers in each choco ball, not simply a chocolate coating and a peanut.

There is a wafer/cookie type coating around the small peanut in the center which adds to the crispiness. It may also stop the peanuts from absorbing moisture or color from the chocolate in a way only the tiny Morinaga angels who make these understand. Those little angels. They do good work.

The choco balls have a rich cocoa smell and an excellent texture. They are also multi-layered in taste in that you first get the roasted peanut flavor followed by a strong, rich chocolate flavor, though not a milky or dark one. Each box is 25 grams (.88 oz.) and contains about 20 or so little balls about the size of a peanut M & M. They're more uniform in shape though not exactly the same. One box has 145 calories and 9.5 grams fat.

These are very nice chocolates for something so low rent. One thing I've noticed is that there is some very high quality candy marketed at children in Japan. These would be a great thing to grab a bunch of and either send or take home as souvenirs, especially for kids or those who enjoy chocolate-covered nuts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I love ice cream, but I'm fairly good at resisting the impulse to eat it. On the occasions when I do indulge, I tend to go for fairly reliable types like Haagen Daas, Lady Borden, or Baskin Robbins. My recent experiences with unimpressively packaged snacks being far better than expected has opened me up to the possibility that some of the cheap-looking treats might be okay. In the spirit of that open-mindedness, I picked up this ChocoBari ice cream bar at the local 99 yen (about a dollar) shop.

Since I'm not familiar with Japanese ice cream makers, I'd never heard of the maker, Sentan (センタン), before though they make quite a lot of Japanese frozen dairy products. It's a division of an Osaka-based company that has been in business since 1949 and it makes a lot of Japanese ices (kakigori) that mimic the shaved ice treats covered in syrup that are available in summer (like a snow cone).

The chocobari seems to come closest to being a signature product for the company. I say this because it has the most developed and distinctive packaging, but also because they're having a contest for the bar where certain sticks are prize winners. If you get one of the prize-winning sticks on your ice cream bar, you tape it to a letter and send it to them. There are even instructions on the outside of the package telling you exactly how to tape it down in case this feat of dexterity eludes you.

I chose this bar because it reminded me of a cookie coated bar I had on rare occasions as a kid. It's been so long that I can't remember the name of the bar but it was probably the Schwan's chocolate sundae crunch bar. One of the problems with choosing something because it reminds you of a childhood favorite is your expectations are high and it's hard for a Japanese confection, with all the alterations to suit Japanese tastes, to live up to them.

I should note that this is an ice milk bar, not ice cream so my expectations of the ice cream were low. When you open the bar, it looks kind of grey and unimpressive. It smells ever so vaguely of chocolate. The coating looks like nuts, but it's a processed crumbly substance made mostly from flour and peanuts. This sounds bad, but it is tasty and easy to chew. Real nuts embedded in ice cream bars don't always work very well.

When you bite into the bar, the coating doesn't shatter or break away from the bar in shards like some chocolate-coated ice cream bars. It's soft and cleaves easily. The coating has a very weak chocolate flavor, but the ice milk has a solid, pleasant vanilla flavor and the sweetness level is right. It's quite creamy. I'm not sure I'd really notice it wasn't ice cream unless I was doing a side by side comparison. The crumbly nutty part adds nice texture and crunch and leaves you with a nutty finishing taste.

I like how the bar seems designed not to crumble or fall apart when you eat it. I've noticed that food which won't embarrass you or stain your shirt is relatively common among Japanese snacks from salted, seasoned foods that don't leave a ton of heavy residue on your fingers to cookies that don't crumble all over the place. I have to imagine this is something manufacturers are cautious about since many Japanese people snack on the job and in front of other people.

I will definitely buy this bar again if I'm allowing myself such a treat. It's no sundae bar, but it's very good, especially for the price.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Karu Jyaga (Curl/Light Potato) (salt flavor)

The potato is one of the most versatile foods mankind has at its disposal. It's not enough that it's the only vegetable that we actually enjoy eating, but we're also gifted with the ability to find a multitude of fun ways to eat them. In order to appeal to our sense of novelty, snack food companies continuously endeavor to process the potato in different fashions. Generally, this means changing the shape and adding different spice mixes. Glico seems to have come up with a new one and it's a little difficult to explain. Well, it's not difficult, but weird. The karu jyaga potato snack is essentially a processed potato tube.

These are not to be confused with potato straws or sticks. These are not airy and puffed. It's like someone took a chip and rolled it around a chopstick and then fried it up and salted it. Of course, as the box says, these are not fried. As the box doesn't say, they are also not made from real potatoes. They're like a more potato-like version of a Pringles chip so I'm guessing we're talking dehydrated potato re-hydrated and made into some sort of dough and wrapped around a pipette and baked. Each stick is about 5 inches long and too uniform to be a real potato slice, though they are a very good approximation of a real chip.

Aside from presentation, there's not really a whole lot going on with these. They smell like potato chips. They taste like potato chips with light salt and they crunch like chips. They're just much more fun to eat and a little more expensive than a bag of chips. A 55 gram/1.9 oz. box was about 150 yen ($1.50). As a point of comparison, a 70 gram/2.46 oz. bag of "Rich Cut" chips is only 100-120 yen ($1-$1.20) and they're considered premium chips. The other point about these is they seem pretty high in calories for something which is baked. The entire box has 281 calories which is just a few fewer calories than regular fried chips when you compare the weight and calorie counts. (One ounce of Lay's plain potato chips is 150 calories.)

Still, being able to whip our a packet of potato tubes or pretend you're an astronaut enjoying a space age salted treat is possibly worth the higher price. Also, I think that the name of this product is a play on words. "Ka-ru" is Japanese-English for "curl" (and these are like super tight curled up potatoes) and karui is "light". So, if you are big on tube-shaped products with word plays that are trying too hard to be clever (and, frankly, who isn't?), this becomes an even cooler snack option.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Crimio Hard Candy (strawberry)

"Engrish" is a constant fascination for foreigners both in Japan and abroad. We amuse ourselves with the twisted versions of our words that the Japanese incorporate into their advertising and product names. While we're perusing engrish.com and entertaining ourselves, the Japanese are snickering at our mangled pronunciation of words like "karaoke" (or as they say in the U.S. "carry-okee").

I'll admit that it was the engrish on this package that persuaded me to buy this candy. I couldn't help but think of things like how this must be the candy you buy for convicts. Perhaps you can slip one to your law-breaking lover in the conjugal visit trailer to freshen his breath before your liaison. Actually, "Crimio" is meant to stand for "creamy-o" as in fresh cream mixed with strawberries. (The "i" sound in Japan is like "e" in English. )

The candies resemble a peppermint, but smell sweetly of strawberry. I'm not a great fan of strawberry, but a whiff of these made me keen to sample them. They smell great. The outside is smooth and just a little sticky. The flavor is a really impressive mix of the tartness and sweetness of real strawberries with a milky undertone. The information on the box states that these contain 3% real strawberry. It's also interesting to note that these are colored naturally with purple carrot and purple potato.

These are very good. If you like strawberry, you're almost certainly going to love these. If you dislike it, you'll probably still like them. The only down side is that these aren't sugar free. While they're only 17 calories per candy and you're unlikely to put away all 8 candies at once (not that you might not be tempted to), I'm guessing that isn't going to help your teeth much. Still, as an occasional treat, these are super and I strongly recommend picking them up if you have a chance.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cheetos Cheese Fondue

When I saw the illustration on the front of this package, I thought there was no way the corn puffs inside were going to actually be coated in cheese. I was wrong. Each puff is coated in something, though I don't think it is any substance akin to cheese fondue.

If you imagine the texture of chocolate coating, you come closer to what the cheese gunk on these Cheetos resembles. It's slightly tacky when held in the fingers. You don't have to worry about getting any flavor powder on your hands, but you may end up with weird light yellow goop smeared on your fingers if you hold one of these long enough.

These smell rather funky, like some sort of odd type of cheese that you figure rich people eat because it's expensive, but regular people avoid because it doesn't taste very good. The feel of the coating on your tongue is bizarrely cool. They taste strange though there is certainly a cheesy flavor in there somewhere. I'm not sure if the whey flavor is too strong or if there is just way too much sugar (and not nearly enough salt) in them, but something is definitely wrong with the taste balance.

A 35 gram (1.2 oz.) bag of these costs about 140 yen (about $1.35) so they're pretty expensive. There is also 183 calories in the package which makes them fattening even for a salted snack food. Everything about these is just wrong and I wouldn't buy them again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

KitKat Cookie Plus

Scale is an interesting thing. When you look at a picture of, say a box of KitKats like the one above, you have no idea of the size of that box without a point of reference. It sort of looks like your standard cookie box back home which might be about 8-10 inches (20 cm x 25 cm) long and 6-8 or so inches (15 cm x 20 cm) wide. The box is actually quite small. In fact, after seeing this package of 8 individually wrapped "bars", I'm wondering if Nestlé is on a quest to make the KitKat as tiny as possible.

I'd say that these are a little under half the length of a standard KitKat finger and slightly wider. There is nearly as much volume in terms of the wrappers as there is in actual candy. These also certainly were not cheap for the quantity. A box of 8 is probably about the same quantity as one and a half KitKat bars and was selling in a store which is known for discounts for 169 yen (about $1.70). Still, it's not about size or price so much as taste, though one has to ponder just how good a KitKat can be regardless of what bizarre combination Nestlé Japan has come up with this time around.

These bars smell very faintly of chocolate. In fact, I was struck by the fact that these seem to be lacking in scent for how much chocolate there should be in them. The bar is a standard KitKat wafer with the sort of bitter chocolate cookie you eat in an Oreo placed on top of it then the whole thing is coated in chocolate. The bar is very crispy and has a real bittersweet taste to it. The bitterness of the cookie is very present when you first bite into it, but you get a very sweet finish.

I found these intensely chocolaty and actually pretty good. The main benefit of them is that they are so intense that you really don't desire to scarf down a lot of them. A standard KitKat is milky and mild and it's easy to eat the whole thing, but these are so strong (but not overpowering) that you can stop at one. Portion control on these is excellent with each little stubby bar weighing in at 49 calories.

Nestlé Japan did an excellent job of capturing the cookie part of this. The only thing I can say is not so great is that the fact that this is a KitKat in any way seems largely superfluous. You can't really taste the wafer or its filling, but I guess they add crispiness and that's a good thing.

This KitKat was also reviewed at Snack Love.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Meiji Gold Premium Cacao Fruity Milk

Meiji is one of Japan's oldest companies (founded in 1916) and makes a wide variety of products including pharmaceuticals, vacuum-packed food (e.g., curry), sports drinks, vitamins, salted snacks, and chocolates. Their brand name recognition in Japan is one of the highest, but they don't have a signature product which is well-known abroad. I'm guessing that Chelsea candy might come closest to a fairly well-known Meiji product outside of Japan. Incidentally, the catch phrase for Meiji is simply "Open!" It's supposed to relate to the sound of a box of candy being opened. Yeah, I think it's a pretty lame tagline, too.

In Japan, Meji offers a lot of different chocolate bars in relatively plain wrappers with a big "MEIJI" written across the front as well as sell popular biscuits (crispy cookies) that look like little trees or mushrooms and a line of chocolate covered almonds and macadamia nuts. Aside from their chocolate covered nuts, I've never been all that great a fan of Meiji products. However, when I saw the attractive gold box of "premium fruity-milk", I couldn't resist giving it a try. I wanted to know what was "fruity" about it.

I'm not sure what makes a chocolate "premium", but perhaps I should be suspicious of the quality when it's only 99 yen (about $1) for a box of 12 flat little chocolates (66 grams/2.3 oz.). They come in little individual packages which remind me of the Ghirardelli squares chocolates. In fact, the design is very familiar to a box of Ghirardelli mixed dark chocolates we bought last Christmas at Costco.

Each chocolate is a nicely formed little flat rectangle which does not melt at all when you hold it. A sniff reveals a rather "cheap chocolate" smell in my opinion. That is, it's flat and a bit like run-of-the-mill cocoa powder. When you bite into it, it snaps slightly and comes apart in a little blocks in your mouth. It not only doesn't melt in your hand, but won't melt in your mouth until it's been broken into small bits. I read some time ago that Japanese chocolate companies were trying harder to develop chocolates that wouldn't melt in the summer, and I wonder if this is the fruit of some of those labors.

The taste of the chocolate is somewhat complex. The first sense is of chocolate that is slightly bitter and dry and then becomes a bit creamy and sweet and finishes a bit bitter. It has some coffee notes and a hint of dark cherry. To me, it is closer to a bittersweet chocolate than milk and is somewhat acidic. I didn't detect many fruity notes in it, though the chocolates are made with 100% Madagascar cocoa which is famous for being fruity.

There is something in the texture, smell, and snap of the chocolate which keeps this from having a luxurious feel. It looks great, but tastes cheap. I guess that the cocoa is good quality stuff, but it didn't really impress me. Each square is 30 calories and if I had a choice between spending those calories on a 25 calorie Hershey's kiss or one of these, I'd take the kiss.