Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Snow Brand Salami Baby Cheese

There's a well-known sequence in the Simpsons where Homer fantasizes about "the Land of Chocolate". In fact, it's so well known among Simpsons geeks that a video game has even been built around the Land of Chocolate. If the Simpsons had originated in Japan, I think that Homer may have been merrily skipping through the land of processed cheese and drinking from cloudy fountains of fresh whey.

I have no firsthand evidence that Japanese people love soft blocks of whey-infused cheese product, but the plethora of it in markets forces me to reach the conclusion that they must. I guess it's also possible that the long shelf life means that it just sits there for months unpurchased, but is just as fresh and tasty as the day it was wrapped whenever it happens to be purchased.

Since I've been eating and reviewing a lot of sweets lately, I decided to give another "baby cheese" product a sample, particularly since my initial experience was generally a positive one. However, choosing "salami" is a little risky as marrying meat-products and processed cheese can result in very unfortunate offspring.

The ingredients reveal that there is some salami in these. You wouldn't know it to look at it though since there are only bare specks of what could be meat embedded in the tiny pale bricks. Most of the salami flavor comes from ham seasoning rather than from actual meat. Each little foil-wrapped block is 18 grams and 60 calories and is enough to top two crackers.

The cheese smells like salami and tastes very strongly of it. In fact, the salami flavor is so intense that you don't get much of the cheese flavor at all. It's more like eating mild salami in a softer format that can be melted or spread. The initial bite seems so strong that you might think it's artificial flavor, but it's actually real salami flavor. It's decent for what it is. The blocks are soft and easy to eat. It's not real cheese by any stretch of the imagination, but it's pleasant enough to eat, especially if you want a snack of some substance.

As a side note, this cheese is made by a company which has been plagued by scandals of various types. Snow Brand altered expiration dates on their butter, sold spoiled milk, mislabeled beef products, and food poisoned people with its products. Given their track record, it might seem a bit risky buying their processed cheese. However, I figure that a company that has already been caught in so many difficulties is less likely to be pulling any funny business now. Of course, I could be wrong, but this cheese hasn't had any ill effects on me. I probably won't buy this again, but not because I didn't enjoy it a little. It's mainly because I rarely crave salami flavors, and there are so many other baby cheeses waiting for me to sample them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Kinako KitKat Bar

When I bought the black sugar kinako KitKat, I was actually not paying much attention. I had thought I was buying a bag of "plain" old kinako KitKat. For those who don't remember from previous posts, kinako is toasted soy bean flour which is reminiscent of peanut butter in flavor, though not exactly the same. The prospect of a peanut butter KitKat was a pretty exciting one, and I was disappointed that I'd ended up with a funky combo of black strap molasses and peanut butter.

I hadn't seen the plain kinako bars around my area, but my husband found a "bar" (as opposed to "finger") version at a convenience store near his office. This was actually my first experience with these bigger KitKats and I must say that I like it better than the regular ones. The main benefit of it is that the wafer to chocolate ratio is better suited to my personal tastes. I like less sweet chocolate coating and more wafer and that's what you get with this.

The bar smells, unsurprisingly, vaguely of soy flour and peanuts. I think the peanut flavor associated with kinako has something to do with how they are both roasted. There are no actual peanuts in this. If you've ever used soy flour in your cooking, the scent will be familiar, though this doesn't smell quite so powerfully of soy as the flour does. The toasted soy flour flavor goes well with the milk chocolate coating and the wafers. Most of the soy flavor is concentrated in the wafers, so at first you mainly get the chocolate and the kinako flavor develops as you eat more of the wafers. I love how crispy this is. It took some will power not to eat all 237 calories of this bar at once, but I managed to stop at half and set the rest aside until later.

This definitely carries more of a soy taste than the Tirol kinako premium chocolate, which really was much closer to a peanut butter flavor. It's still very tasty and I would definitely buy this again if it were available locally. If you absolutely hate soy with the power of a million suns, you probably won't like this. If you can tolerate it, then you may enjoy this despite not having a particular affinity for soy. Among the various flavored KitKats I've tasted, this is one of the very best.

This is also reviewed at Snack Love.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Variety Friday: KFC Coffee

If you live in Japan long enough, you lose perspective on how those who have not lived here view the culture. That is, you start to find things funny which really are not because your perspective is warped from years of exposure. You become like one of those Monty Python geeks (and I'm actually one of those, too) who finds a reference to someone saying "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" funny. People who have never watched the show don't get it, and they think you're a huge dork.

I don't know if the topic of this post is the result of me finding something funny because I'm a huge dork or if it's actually funny. Bear in mind that I'm aware of the potential lameness of what I'm about to talk about, but that some of us living the inside joke in Japan found this entertaining. When I say, "some of us", I mean my husband and I. We don't need people to tell us we're weenies. We know it already.

At present, KFC in Japan is selling coffee with a new advertising campaign called "Tasty Café". The campaign itself isn't funny as I could see a coffee shop named so, though honestly, the idea that KFC has its own "café" and sells quality coffee is probably hilarious to most people. Fried chicken isn't generally coupled with coffee house culture.

The part which struck my husband and I as weirdly amusing is the that the plain coffee is called (in English): "tasty coffee" (テイスティコーヒー). The latte and cappuccino, however, are just plain out "latte" and "cappuccino". I don't know about you, but if I walked into a shop in America and the menu said "tasty coffee", I'd wonder what the other alternatives were. "Moderately palatable coffee"? "Execrable coffee"? In the West, most plain brewed coffee is just called "coffee" or "brewed coffee". Name it "yummy coffee", "great coffee", etc. and seems like they're trying too hard to convince you of something.

The Japanese don't perceive this as weird. They believe it just makes it sound more appealing. For all I know, other foreign folks see it thus as well, and they'd simply perceive me as the weird thing. At any rate, I have never purchased KFC's coffee because 220 yen ($2.25) for a small cup of plain coffee that almost certainly sat around in the pot on a hot plate for awhile is ridiculous to me. Also, I'm not really sold on the notion that it's actually "tasty," despite this campaign.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Meiji Milk Chocolate Bar

Despite having been in Japan for 20 years, I have never purchased a Meiji plain chocolate bar. There's something about the packaging that never drew me. It could be that it looks a bit like a rip-off of classic Hershey's chocolate bar packaging with the mixture of a dark brown wrapper with a metallic logo, or simply the fact that the wrapper is so ill-fitting. In fact, the paper wrapper seems like it's sloppily too big for the foil-wrapped bar.

I researched the Meiji plain chocolate bar's history on Meiji's site in order to see if the design was perhaps, er, "inspired" by the Hershey packaging. This bar was introduced in 1926 with a deep brick red wrapper and with a similar design as the current bar. That is, it had a similar ornamental border and big text in the center. From there, the wrapper got redder and redder until 1971 when it suddenly became the dark brown number you see pictured above. My guess is that the package change had more to do with the fact that Ghana was introduced by Lotte in 1963 with a red wrapper and Meiji wanted to more clearly distinguish their plain chocolate bar from Lotte's and the change had nothing to do with Hershey's design.

I was inspired to sample this bar because one of my commenters mentioned in her comments on the Ghana holiday bar that she found that the Meiji bar had a bitter aftertaste, so I wanted to sample it for myself to see what it was like. Also, this is a basic bar that has been around for a very long time and is probably a staple of the Japanese candy market so being familiar with it would seem to be a prerequisite for evaluating other products.

The bar is 2.29 oz./65 grams and has 15 segments with the word "Meiji" imprinted on each. The whole bar has 363 calories so each square is 24 calories. This is not too dissimilar from the "cost" of most milk chocolate calorie-wise, but this bar is about .7 oz./20 grams bigger than a standard Hershey bar.

The bar smells a lot like sweet cocoa powder. As you can see by the picture, it does not cleave evenly along the imprinted lines. It is soft and has little snap, yet bits fragment off of it when you break off squares. It's probably the sloppiest chocolate bar I've ever had in Japan. The chocolate is cool and sweet on the tongue and ever so slightly bitter. The chocolate is fairly intense and not all that milky. It's good, but like Ghana, it is pretty strong and not so milky. I think this somewhat bittersweet taste is the result of the cocoa beans being roasted differently in Japan.

The first 2 squares came across as mainly sweet and cocoa-intense. The third started to reveal more of a bitter and acidic aftertaste. It leaves the chocolate equivalent of "coffee breath" in your mouth. It's an aftertaste which makes you want to drink something or brush your teeth. It's not awful or anything, but it's persistent. I intentionally did not eat or drink anything else to see how long it lingered and it seemed to stick around for at least a half hour.

This bar tastes pretty good on the whole, but I don't think I'd want to eat it if I didn't have a drink on hand or didn't expect to have a different snack around afterward. It definitely isn't the sort of thing which you'll want to eat and eat and eat since the aftertaste aspect builds up the more you eat. I don't think I'll buy a Meiji plain bar again, but I'll almost certainly eventually finish eating the rest of this one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Kinako Mochi Ice Milk Bar

Kinako mochi, along with yuzu, is quite the fad these days. This suits me just fine as it's generally a good combination. The outside of this ice milk bar's package shows you a cutaway of the bar with the mochi generously winking at you from inside. Far be it from me to ignore the advances of a flirtatious frozen treat.

The manufacturer is "Marunaga", which sounds like a name intentionally meant to sound like monster confectioner Morinaga, but I am almost certainly wrong about any attempt to sucker people into thinking this is made by a company that has more brand name recognition because the Marunaga has been around since 1962. It makes a variety of ice cream products, many of which are made with traditional Japanese ingredients like red beans (anko), chestnuts (marron), and green tea (matcha). I've never noticed their products before, but I can't say that I've scrutinized the ice cream aisle intently. Their "flagship" products are manju frozen dairy products. "Frozen dairy products" means that they make ice milk rather than ice cream.

The package says that the outside is "chocolate coating", but it has no actual chocolate flavor unless it's white chocolate. The bar smells noticeably, but not too strongly of toasted soy flour (kinako). The first bite is pleasantly sweet and tastes of kinako. The mochi portion is visible after the first bite, but it's too close to the center to taste or detect at first.

A few bites in, you experience the mochi, which has little flavor, but is pleasantly soft and slightly chewy. Mochi can be too gummy or chewy and I imagine it has to be specially formulated to keep it soft and pleasant when it's frozen. In fact, if anything, this is borderline at being too slimy and resembling a certain bodily fluid, but it luckily doesn't jump over the line. Nobody wants to feel like they're consuming a mucous-filled ice milk bar, after all.

The sweetness level is just right on this and the kinako flavor isn't too overpowering. The ice milk itself is a weak point though. It has little flavor of its own, but that's not a problem since the other flavors are more interesting and they don't need competition. The main thing is that the ice milk suffers from some crystallizing and has the texture of cheap dairy products. You can see crystals in the detailed shots above if you look carefully.

I liked this, and I'd seriously consider buying it again, but I'd have to be in a particular mood. This has a lot of calories (260) and portion control is difficult as it's harder to wrap the remainder of an ice milk bar up and place it in the freezer for later without making a mess or risking freezer burn. Though this was enjoyable, if I were going for something cold and creamy, I'd be more likely to opt for Morinaga's vanilla ice cream sandwich because it's real ice cream, has fewer calories and is easier to put away part of for future consumption. However, the flavor of this bar is more interesting than the mundane vanilla ice cream sandwich.

This was also reviewed on the Daily Yamazaki.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mayo Mania Corn Snacks

When you think of big mayonnaise eaters, my guess is that the majority of people are not thinking of all the trim Japanese people walking around in their smart business clothes or even the tiny geisha in their kimono. I'm guessing the only Japanese people most Western folks envision scarfing down the mayonnaise are sumo wrestlers. The truth is so much more disturbing than most people realize.

The Japanese love mayonnaise. There is even a fan club called "We Love Mayo!" If you look at the bag pictured above, you see a graphic of someone pouring a tube of mayo right into his mouth. On the back of the bag (not pictured), there's another graphic of a man squirting two tubes of mayo into his mouth. This actually is an attractive notion to some Japanese people. Personally, I would find having to eat mayo straight from the bottle/tube a form of torture. That's not to say that I don't like mayo. I do like to put a bit of light mayonnaise on some types of sandwiches, but my appreciation ends there. It's a condiment, not a meal and I'd no sooner pour it straight into my mouth than I'd drink from a ketchup bottle.

In the interest of snack food testing, and because I can't resist some weird ass foods, I bought this Mayo Mania corn snack at a Family Mart convenience store. It cost about 120 yen ($1.22) for 60 grams (2.1 oz.). The whole bag is 319 calories. This is the regular mayo flavor, but there is also a version with a blue bag which is "tuna mayo" that was not in stock.

The rings look a lot like Funyuns. They also have a similar light crispy texture to those same processed onion rings. Since both Mayo Mania and Funyuns are made by Frito Lay, this is no surprise. Opening the bag is a bit like huffing a jar or mayonnaise, the smell hits you pretty clearly though the smell isn't nearly as potent as the taste. These taste like eating a spoon full of mayonnaise with a spicy chaser at the end. The front of the bag proudly boasts that the flavor has been doubled in intensity, and boy howdy, do I believe it.

I ate these along with a chicken sandwich (which I intentionally left the mayonnaise off of) in order to dilute the experience and it was still pretty overwhelming. These are good. The saltiness, crunch, and added spicy heat are nice, but the mayo flavor is so strong that I couldn't see trying them again nor wold I recommend them to any but the most ardent lovers of mayonnaise.

Monday, March 23, 2009

KitKat Cookie Plus Whole Grain Cookie

Someone at Nestlé Japan deserves a raise for thinking up a new concept to expand the KitKat flavor line even further by incorporating cookies into the mix. When I reviewed the first version of the "Cookie +" KitKat, I figured that was a dead end. That first version incorporated the black cookie from an Oreo-style sandwich cookie into the mix. Now, it seems that the sky is the limit on KitKats with cookies.

While one's initial response to a whole grain cookie version might be to think that they are trying to make something which is inherently unhealthy seem healthy... well, one's initial response would be correct. The advertising on Nestlé Japan's site says that this includes whole-grain flour which contains more nutrition-rich protein and mineral fiber. They're not fooling anyone with that sort of talk. They are, however, charging about 200 yen ($2.00) for this bar instead of the usual price of 120 yen ($1.20) and the volume is slightly smaller.

The box contains two flatter, wider fingers rather than the usual two fingered packs that conventional KitKats contain. Each one is 100 calories. The bars smell mainly like milk chocolate, but there's a slight earthy undertone which reminds me of graham crackers. The reason for this becomes apparent after you eat it. While this mostly tastes like a regular KitKat during the first bite, the secondary flavor of a graham cracker style cookie comes through as you chew. I also noticed that the wafers have a stronger hit of granulated sugar filling than usual, though it doesn't taste as cloyingly and overly sweet as a white chocolate-based KitKat because there's a slight bittersweet undertone to the chocolate.

Despite a desire not to like this too much because I think the entire concept of adding a whole grain cookie to make a candy bar "healthier" is flawed, I really did like the flavor of this KitKat. Though it could definitely do with a stronger graham cookie/cracker component, it's a pretty nice variation. I'd definitely buy it again some time, provided it stays on the market long enough. Since this was introduced relatively recently (March 16), I'm guessing there's plenty of time to revisit this one.

This is also reviewed at Snack Love.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Variety Friday: The "ayes' have it

My poll regarding using a ratings system has pretty much run its course and the votes for a ratings system outweigh those against it by a sizable margin. I've been pondering a unique system and have settled on one which is related to one of my earliest and greatest loves in Japan and that is sumo wrestling. The round faces with chonmage hair styles will appear at the bottom of reviews from now on providing a quick view of how I regarded the product. Consider their faces a reflection of my emotional response to the product.

Here are the ratings and explanations (the real ratings graphics will not contain explanations):

And, just for the record, I'm aware that I should be writing "sumo wrestler". ;-)

Thanks to everyone for voting and for reading!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bacon Pepper Cratz

Glico's Cratz site has a big glass of beer on it next to the three flavors of Cratz that are currently available. However, if you click through, you'll see that they're not fussy about what you drink with their "otsumami" (snacks to be enjoyed with alcohol). You can also eat your Cratz with wine, sake, liquer, brandy or "spirits". They fill you in on all of the options that might go hand and hand with getting loaded and filling up on spicy pretzels.

One thing they don't include on the site is soft drinks. I guess that Cratz, with it's strong flavors, manly chunks of pretzel, high protein nuts and bold logo, is not designed for sissies who can't knock back some booze. I may be a sissy who doesn't drink alcohol, but I do enjoy Cratz with Diet Coke on occasion. At 220 calories for 44 grams (1.5 oz.), they're pretty fattening though so I don't tend to have a bag more than once every month or so.

The bacon pepper pretzels smell like bacon and ham and, like the other varieties of Cratz, are super crunchy and dense, but easy to bite into. The flavor is salty and they have the flavor of lightly cured bacon (more ham than bacon) with a mild peppery finish. The spiciness is very mixed due to the various added flavors. The ingredients include chicken powder, tomato paste, vegetable paste, pork extract powder, and bacon extract.

There seem to be no failures in the Cratz flavor line. Among all three of the current flavors, I'd say that Spicy Cheese is my favorite, but I'd happily take any of them if I was in the mood for pretzels. I'll definitely buy these again some time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Winter's Tale Chocolates

These "Winter's Tale" chocolates showed up at my local convenience store on March 11. I'm not sure why they're called "Winter's Tale" or why now is the time to release them. There's nothing vaguely wintry about them. The maker, Lotte, either has no information about these or it's buried somewhere. My guess is that these are seasonal and are no available in warmer months because they'd melt. There's information on the back of the box saying that they shouldn't be stored at temperatures of higher than 23 degrees C/73 degrees F.

I picked up a box of these for 99 yen and I get 14 tiny pieces for that price. When I say "tiny", I mean it. Each little block is about 1.5 cm wide and deep and slightly taller than that. They are individually wrapped in little brown foil wrappers in an excellent example of wasteful packaging at its finest. For each tiny morsel, you get twice as much wrapping and 25 calories of cocoa butter and cream-laced goodness.

The outside of the squares is very firm semi-bittersweet chocolate with a light and uneven dusting of cocoa powder. They smell of cocoa powder and sweet chocolate. For something that is supposed to melt at high temperatures, they are surprising solid in feel. The inside is dense milk chocolate ganache, though it's so firm that it's about as far from a truffle as one can get. The taste is quite sweet but with a bittersweet edge. They are best eaten by allowing them to melt a bit in your mouth.

These are interesting chocolates because they look and feel cheap, but they taste and feel quite rich in your mouth. The portion sizes are minuscule, but this should be seen more as a quality over quantity chocolate choice. I'd recommend sampling these and revisiting them often, though I'm really unhappy at the pile of wrappers produced when you eat these.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sapporo Draft Beer Caramels

Drinking beer is a serious past-time in Japan. Given the emphasis on emotional control in the culture, it is seen as a lubricant for expression and saying or doing something which is normally scandalous while inebriated is often forgiven. The notion of alcoholism as a disease that society needs to deal with and treat is rarely present in Japan. Drinking beer is just what people do to relax and nearly every adult does it to some extent or another.

As someone who has never liked alcohol and in fact has never had more than a sip of it, I'm seen as some sort of peculiar sort of being. Of course, being red-haired and blue-eyed pretty much makes me weird anyway, but Japanese people cannot quite see why I wouldn't find alcohol attractive. I don't need alcohol to help me open my big mouth and offer up my feelings. I can do it quite well without any external substances.

And, no, I'm not religious. I don't have some sort of objection to other people drinking or enjoying themselves. My main problem is that I hate the smell of alcohol. Every time the notion of sipping a bit of wine or beer when my husband infrequently partakes crosses my mind, one whiff will put the thought right out of my head. It may not surprise you to learn that I did not buy these caramels. My husband purchased them out of curiosity.

These caramels are offered by a company Merushi-ML1 (メルシーML1) which appears to be the marketing arm of a company named JOD Co, Ltd. In my research, I couldn't find out much about them except an URL for their on-line shop and the fact that they are a small company located in Aichi prefecture with only 300 employees and they sell a vast range of products including clothing, kitchenware, bedding, cosmetics and assorted foods. I couldn't locate these beer caramels on their web site, but searching it for a particular product is like hunting for a needle in a haystack.

There are 18 caramels in the box. Each is firm, but easy to bite into and chew. The color is pale gold and you can see it representing a candy form of beer by color alone. The ingredients are starch syrup, sugar, sweetened condensed milk, vegetable oil, beer (draft beer Sapporo Black Label), flour, vegetable protein, salt, sorbitol, flavoring, safflower coloring and and a soy emulsifier. A note on the box states that the candy is .1% alcohol.

Given my feeling toward alcohol, I figured it'd be a good idea to both include my impression and my husband's. Note that I have, on occasion, included beer in cooking, so I know the general taste if it is diluted and the alcohol has been cooked out of it.

My husband:
He said they didn't smell like anything in particular to him and that they tasted like weak butterscotch to him. He said that he couldn't detect any beer flavor in them. After getting his impression, I knew I had no choice but to subject myself to them as well since he clearly has a weaker sensitivity to alcohol smells and tastes than I.

Me: They smelled vaguely of the yeasty smell of beer. The taste was like like beer that had gone very stale and had been mixed with sugar. There was something about the level of sweetness mixed with the beer flavor that made it really awful (as opposed to just plain bad). I could taste the beer very well, and it did nothing to endear me to the idea of becoming a beer drinker in the future.

I found a Japanese review of these and the person indicated that anyone who for some reason wanted to give up beer might want to enjoy these as a substitute. Given the total acceptance and saturation of alcohol consumption in Japan, I can't imagine a Japanese person (short of one with serious liver issues) choosing to abandon beer. However, even if you did want to give it up, I have to imagine this is a poor substitute. Either the taste isn't potent enough for beer drinkers (as was my husband's impression), or it's a poor approximation (as was my impression).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sakura Mist Soda Pop

Coca-Cola Japan is starting a new campaign that they are calling "Chill Time". If you think that's a translation of the Japanese, then you don't know how often Japanese marketers use distorted English to invent new words. The Japanese reads as "Chiru-taimu" (チルタイム) which is as close as they can get to the English using Japanese phonetic characters.

As part of that campaign, they're creating a series of what they hope are sophisticated and "relaxing" beverages that cater to the tastes of adults. The main points are that they not be too sweet, possess a bit of bitterness, and mix well with alcoholic beverages. I'm guessing at that last bit based on the fact that the side of the bottle of "Sakura Mist" that I bought has instructions for mixing vodka with it and serving it up with a cherry. In other words, this is not meant to be cherry soda for kids.

Since the Japanese population is top heavy with older folks, marketing a product specifically toward adults is probably not a bad idea. Marketing something which pairs well with booze, considering the rate of imbibing in Japan, is an even better idea. While I have vodka that a student gave my husband stashed away, I'm not a drinker so I will be judging this solely as a stand alone soft drink. I may attempt to bribe my husband into giving it a go. If I'm really lucky, perhaps I can even manage to convince him to get drunk on vodka and cherry mist so I can take advantage of him.

Cherry (sakura) was chosen because the cherry blossom viewing season is at hand. "Sakura Mist" was released on March 10 so I stumbled across it pretty soon after it hit the shelves. In a hideous merger of two concepts, this release is being called "chirutaimukura" ("chill time" + "sakura"). I view this sort of combining of words in the same manner that I view those obnoxious mergers of names like "Brangelina". If you're too lazy to say two words separately, then don't bother talking about the topic at all.

When I removed the cap, the first thing I did was give it a good sniff to see how strong the cherry flavor might be. It smelled a lot like cherry Nyquil with a hint of cherry Kool-aid. When I first tasted it, it really tasted much more like peach than cherry, but after getting through about 1/3 of the bottle and letting it sit on my tongue a bit longer, the cherry flavor came through. There is a hint of bitterness in it and it does taste slightly medicinal though not in an overpowering way. It reminded me a lot of club soda with some bitter cherry flavoring added into it. Considering the fact that Canada Dry makes club soda in Japan, I wouldn't be surprised if that is pretty much what this is.

I'm not accustomed to drinks with sugar in them because I'd prefer to spend the calories somewhere else so I viewed drinking this as an indulgence and the taste had to be pretty good to be worth the sugar. The nutrition information says that this is 33 calories per 100 ml so the entire bottle is 165 calories which is a bit much for a "sophisticated", lightly-flavored club soda. Considering that the first ingredient is the equivalent of high fructose corn syrup in Japan, it's also something to be avoided for that reason if no other. I didn't hate this, but I didn't love it. I found the flavor mild and slightly interesting, but ultimately a bit bland. I think people who like weak flavoring might find this more enjoyable, but only if they can also tolerate a small chemical aftertaste. I wouldn't buy this again and wouldn't have bought it initially had I known what it was going to taste like.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lemonist Cookies

On very rare occasions, I run across canisters of imported orange or lemon "biscuits" from England. I consider some of the better made British shortbread cookies to be the gold standard in the type of crispy cookies that go well with tea. Finding an equivalent Japanese-made cookie has eluded me for the most part, but half the fun comes from continually looking.

Morinaga makes these "Lemonist" biscuits. The box states that they are "The New Standard Biscuit". I hope so, because the old standard hasn't impressed me so far. The red banner across the front of the box lets us know that these are made with 100% Italian lemons. I'm not sure why Japanese lemons are inadequate to the task, and I'm guessing that they will develop an inferiority complex if manufacturers continue to shun them in favor of the sophisticated European types.

The box contains 7 packets with 2 cookies in each one. They are a little over 5 cm (2 in.) in diameter. They smell pretty much like "cookies" when you open the packet, so it's a bit of surprise that they carry a good punch of lemon when you bite into them. The lemon is slightly bitter and treads the line between tasting like the type of lemon juice you buy in glass bottles for cooking when you're too lazy to squeeze your own and real lemon. The flavor is just about as far as you can go without going overboard on the lemon front, but it doesn't go too far in my opinion. My husband, on the other hand, was not keen on these.

The texture of the cookies is crunchy, but not brittle. They are easy to bite into and taste fresh. You can sense that they were made with liberal amounts of fat to get an almost shortbread texture and the ingredients list shortening, "butter oil", and margarine so that bears out the liberal fats usage. One packet of 2 cookies is 58 calories. They are perfect as cookies to have with a beverage (my vote is tea).

I really enjoyed these and would be happy to have them again. They aren't up to the standards of a really good British-made biscuit, but they also didn't cost nearly as much. Some people may find the lemon too bitter or too intense, but I found it quite good.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Variety Friday: Kinako Mousse from Pizza Hut

How do you know when a particular flavor has made the journey from flash in the pan to genuine fad? You know when the major fast food joints start including that flavor in its short-lived side dishes and extras. Kinako, toasted soybean flour, officially has "arrived" as the food fad of this winter/spring when places like Pizza Hut maneuver dishes incorporating that taste into their menu.

This dessert is a light vanilla mousse with a kinako top layer. One of the selling points is that the soy flour is produced with 100% domestic soybeans. There has been a lot of anxiety over the past year or so about food grown in China and consumers feel reassured when they learn something is grown in Japan. My feeling has been that the safety issues with Chinese food have been overblown to boost sales of more expensive Japanese agricultural products.

These desserts are delivered to you frozen so you can't eat them right away. They're about 20 cm (7.8 in) in diameter and cost ¥1200 ($12.20). I've had many varieties of these and they are always the same thing. There is a base made of sponge cake or light pie crust topped with a layer of light, fatty mousse which resembles whipped cream. It's not too sweet, but also not intensely flavorful. Often, there are two layers of mousse of different flavors, though not always.

In the past, I've tried chestnut (marron), chocolate, and vanilla varieties, but I have not sampled this kinako number. The reason for this is that, though the Pizza Hut mousse desserts are always kind of nice, they're greatly over-priced for their quality and quantity. You could buy 4 nice fresh cakes at a premium cake shop for the same price as 4 servings of this mousse. Pizza Hut is hoping to get people to overspend and buy something with their pizzas because they happen to have a craving for sweets and are too lazy to go out in get something. This might be worth it at half the price, or if it was fresh rather than something they keep stacked up in their freezers.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tirol Dango Chocolate

With White Day (March 14, the companion to Valentine's Day in Japan) coming up, lots of sweets in pastel packing are crowding onto store shelves so that men can give women who gave them chocolates on February 14 a return gift. I can't say for certain that Tirol had White Day in mind with these, but it seems likely.

These candies are meant to imitate flavors used in a Japanese snack called dango. Dango are little balls made of rice flour. They're similar to mochi (rice pounded into stretchy goo) both in composition and texture. You can buy them in different colors and flavors and with different sauces.

These candies are sold in a long package of 9 pieces (3 of each flavor) for 99 yen ($1.01). Each candy is in its own wrapper and the packages are perforated so you can easily separate them from the rest. This makes them easy to distribute to others while keeping them in an airtight package. The three flavors are uguisu, mitarashi, and sakura. Each of them have a "mochi" center which is a little like a gummi candy, though with a slightly different texture. Each candy is 33 calories.

"Uguisu" in Japanese means "nightengale", and no, these are not bird-flavored. Nightengales are green and brown and uguisu dango is named for the color similarity, not the taste. That being said, I've never tasted a nightengale and have little desire to try. The uguisu candy is, unsurprisingly the green one. It smells vaguely of green tea and white chocolate. The flavor is mild green tea, a hint of soy, and white chocolate. It's pretty sweet, but not cloying.

"Mitarashi" dango is made with a sweet soy sauce, but I didn't have much of a sense of soy from this candy. It smells like white chocolate. When I bit into it, I got a strong hit of what seemed like bitter orange flavor from the syrup. The flavor mellows out then becomes very sweet at the end. There is definitely more depth and variation to this particular candy compared to the others.

"Sakura", as many people already know, is cherry so the flavor of this was no surprise. The sakura was the same as the Tirol premium sakura candy. That is, it's perfume-like and like eating cherry soap. I'm thinking that I'll be giving the remainder of the sakura ones away to unsuspecting victims.

All of the "mochi" centers are similarly chewy though the mitarashi one is somewhat tougher and thicker than the sakura and uguisu ones. I'm guessing this has to do with the syrup on top. It's possible that the recipe has to be firmer to stop the syrup from being absorbed into the gummi mochi center.

I wouldn't recommend this multi-pack because the cherry is so awful that you're throwing away one-third of the value. The uguisu is good for green tea lovers who don't want the flavor to be overbearing and the mitarashi is complex and interesting, though neither is particularly addictive. If the latter two were available as single purchase flavors for 10 yen or as premium flavors, I'd say they were worth a sample, but otherwise I'd say skip this one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maple Fried Bread Snack

Sometimes I try something which is abysmally bad and I figure that someone somewhere has a very different sense of taste than I. I figure that any sort of passionate response to the taste of something probably means the product was test marketed to people who are unlike myself.

This is not one of those times when I have sampled something I hate. This is a time when I wonder if someone bothered to test market something because taste testing would certainly have revealed that no one could possibly care to eat this product as anything than a desperate last choice for sustenance. The indifference I feel to this snack is immeasurable.

This was made by Yamazaki Baking Company which I know well for it's packaged baked goods, its own chain of convenience stores, and for having a partnership with Nabisco in Japan. In the early 90's, they were also involved in a flap about potassium bromide use in their products and the detrimental effects on the health of anyone who consumed them. Despite their spotty history, I'm a great fan of their cake products, especially their mont blanc which is commonly sold in 2-packs in supermarkets here. In fact, any Yamazaki cake product which incorporates whipped cream tests my self control. Given the companies history of pleasing me as a customer, I wasn't expecting this item to underwhelm so awesomely.

I have to ask myself who thought this type of product was a good idea. Didn't they actually eat it? When I consider the possibilities, I'm left with only one conclusion: this product was created to use up bread scraps created by the company's bread production. It's the only excuse I can come up with. These things are little more than bits of lightly fried, dried out bread. I wonder if someone at the company got a big promotion, or at least a pat on the back for coming up with a way to recycle leftovers by making these edible packing peanuts.

They taste like stale bread with a few molecules of flavoring added. Despite what appears to be a liberal dusting of spices of some sort, these have very little flavor. They have the barest, and I'm not exaggerating, hint of something sweet, but no maple flavor that can be detected on the human tongue. They smell like a mixture of maple and nondescript fried food oil. I'm guessing this comes from the fact that they're fried in pork fat. "Maple sugar" is an ingredient, but it's very far down the list as one might expect from something which is barely detectable. About the only good thing I can say is that they're very crunchy as promised on the front of the bag, but I'm guessing any sliver of stale bread you've left lying around would be too if you tossed it in a pan of butter and fried it and rolled it in maple sugar. In fact, I recommend that over eating these. It may be worse than these. It may be better, but it can't possibly be as lame.

On the bright side, each 55 gram bag has 266 calories. Since no one is ever going to eat these, even if they make the mistake of forking over 99 yen (about a dollar) to buy the bag, that's 266 calories that you won't have to worry about burning off on the treadmill.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kaki No Tane ("Persimmon Seeds" Sembei) with Peanuts

This is another one of those snacks that I have seen for years in Japan and never bothered to buy. A big reason for this is that most of the time kaki no tane (kaki = persimmon, no = of, tane = seed) is sold in fairly large quantities. I'm sure there are small packs around, but I just never went out of my way to find them. This is the sort of snack that people buy for their families to nosh on, perhaps while watching television.

There are many companies that produce these. Mine just happened to be made by a company with no on-line profile named Sweet Box, Inc. (株式会社スイートボックス). I found this at the 99 yen shop and figured that this was a relatively small bag and cheap so it was past time to try this well-known and oft-enjoyed savory snack. These are frequently eaten with beer or other alcoholic beverages and are part of the category of snacks to be eaten with alcohol called otsumami.

The bag is 150 grams and contains 6 packets. Each packet is 120 calories. There are generous amounts of peanuts in each bag and that's what you smell when you open a packet. The sembei doesn't really carry much of a scent.

The little slivers of sembei are slick and shiny. They taste like plain sembei, but carry some heat. The heat isn't present on the first bite, but comes cumulatively and as an aftertaste. The peanuts are blanched so they just carry a nice peanut flavor with no heavy roasted or burnt flavors. The sembei is quite crispy and the entire mix isn't salted. The ingredients include peanuts, rice, starch, soy sauce, sugar, dried bonito extract, hydrolyzed protein, salt, sea tangle extract, seasoning, sorbitol, paprika color, caramel color, and spices extract. I'm guessing their savory nature comes from the soy sauce mainly, but also whatever spices are in the final extract.

These are very good, even for someone who isn't mad about sembei like me. I love the mix of the peanuts with the crispy and very mildly hot little pieces of sembei. Even though this was a very cheap brand made by a no name company, it seems very well-made and fresh tasting. This is a snack I'll definitely pick up again some time, particularly at 16 yen per serving.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jasmine Tea KitKat

I spent a few years as a bit of a tea aficionado. In order to learn more about various types of tea, I subscribed to and read newsgroups and forked over copious amounts of cash for small quantities of tea. I recall the tea snobs raving about lapsong souchong and being very interested to try it. It was really rather gross and tasted to me like a cross between licorice and roofing tar.

In the end, I realized that no matter how many types of tea I tried, there were varieties that I'd always love and other types that I'd merely tolerate. Jasmine is one of the types that is incredibly easy to enjoy. It smells great and isn't too strong. I guess it can be a bit flowery for some people, but I've rarely heard anyone complain about it.

The main problem for me with jasmine tea is that it's not an "everyday" sort of thing. It doesn't go well with food and is distracting in its exotic flavor. Unlike a nice cup of English tea (or "black tea", as it's sometimes called), it doesn't naturally seem the thing to sip while you're working or relaxing.

My husband picked up this jasmine KitKat for me at New Days convenience store and I was curious how the flavor of jasmine would go with chocolate. A lot of tea flavors, particularly Earl Grey, go very well with chocolate. Like all Japanese KitKat bars, this came in a box of two fingers wrapped individually. Two fingers contain 109 calories and the side of the box shouts "your calorie control support" in red letters. I guess they figure portion control and easy to access nutrition information is "support".

The chocolate on the bars is slightly soft and melted a bit in my hands when I was handling it for picture taking. It smells mostly like chocolate and has just a hint of jasmine. My guess is that most of the jasmine flavor is between the wafers rather than mixed in with the milk chocolate coating. The first bite was a rather strong mixture of jasmine with chocolate which isn't entirely pleasant. Subsequent bites revealed a nice mixing of the sweeter chocolate flavors with the bitter "bottom" of the tea flavor. The second and third bites are definitely more enjoyable than the initial one as the intensity of the flavor dies off a bit. After the second finger, I experienced a somewhat unpleasant jasmine tea/bitter chocolate aftertaste.

This is pretty good if you eat only two fingers, but I'm not sure a whole bar or repeat tastings would be desirable. The mix of flavors is nice and unique, but it's a bit challenging to the palate and the flavor tends to build up with continued eating. I'd recommend giving this a try, but I wouldn't stock up.