Friday, July 31, 2009

Woodsman's Stumps (Coconut Milk) Chocolate Snack

These stumps are another in Bourbon's line of nature-emulating sweets. A lot of Japanese snack reviewers love their line of cookies with chocolate, but I've never been particularly drawn to them. I think this is because they are the kind of treat which seems not to be able to make up its mind. Is it candy? Is it a cookie? Well, it's 50% each, so it doesn't pander to my cravings, which tend to be annoyingly specific.

In Japanese, these are called kikori no kirikabu which means "woodsman's stumps". On the package, you can see the woodsmen and his tasty-looking stumps. A pink bunny seems shocked by the turn of events in the wake of the woodmen's tree-icide. Won't somebody please think of the bunnies!

There are 11 little stumps in the 33 gram (about 1 oz.) package. Each cookie/candy thingy is about 2 cm. in diameter (.8 in.) and is half whole grain cookie and half coconut infused white chocolate. These smell better than most white chocolate because there's a hint of the scent of real coconut. There's a distinct lack of the overly sweet smell you usually experience with white chocolate.

I kept these in the refrigerator because it's been hot enough to melt chocolate into a pile of goo these days, so my sense of the texture is going to be different than that at room temperature. The chocolate was good and firm and the cookie a bit hard, but it wasn't hard to bite into. The cookie doesn't have much flavor at all, but that works pretty well with the coconut base which is relatively sweet. The coconut flavor is subtle but present. It's a very good balance. I think it's not overly strong because it's made with real coconut milk and coconut milk powder.

I loved these and would definitely get them again except for the fact that there is 185 calories in a relatively small portion. As it is, I'm eating 3 or 4 stumps at a time (at 16 calories a stump) to break it up into 3 servings. If you like coconut, these are really delicious and I highly recommend them. They're not easy to find though. I have only seen them at one shop, AM/PM convenience store. Still, they're worth tracking down.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Veggie Taberu (Eat Veggies) Snacks

Look at all of those happy vegetables. They seem delighted to be pureed, processed, and turned into waffled snack foods. How can one disappoint them and not give them a try, particularly when the implication that this is like eating healthy, healthy vegetables is in the product name.

The front of the bag says that there are 7 kinds of vegetables, though not all of the vegetables are used in every kind of chip. The green ones include broccoli, green pepper, spinach, tomato, mallow leaves, carrot, and pumpkin. The red ones are carrot, tomato, and red pepper. I guess the green ones are a lot healthier for you considering their heavier mix of greens.

The two types of chips were not evenly represented in my bag. There were far more green ones than oranges ones. I don't know if this was intentional or just random chance, but the "orange" vegetables are generally more expensive in Japanese markets than the "green" ones, so it might be an attempt to have more of the cheaper chips, or more of the "healthier" ones. Unsurprisingly, the bag smells like a mishmash of vegetable odors. It's not particularly appealing, but not awful. The chips are spongy and light. They're modestly crisp, but not brittle like a chip or cracker. The texture is closer to popcorn than to chips or Cheetos.

The nice thing about real vegetables is that their flavor is not very intense. The bad thing about processed vegetables is that they are somewhat like intense distillates of the real thing. That is, it's like someone took broccoli, cooked it into a mush, and then dehydrated it to remove the moisture and increase the intensity. To the extent that these chips fail, that's a big part of it, and I mean the green ones in particular. You can concentrate carrot and tomato and still make for a nice flavor, but you can't do the same with broccoli, peppers, or spinach. It is just too much.

The green ones taste like essence of broccoli with a green pepper aftertaste. There's a strong hint of chlorophyll in them. They're not awful, but they're not as good as eating the real vegetable taste-wise, which is saying a lot for a chip. Chips are supposed to make consuming vegetables more fun. The red ones are actually pretty good. They're ever so slightly spicy at the finish because of the tomato and mainly taste like carrot.

I will probably very slowly finish this bag, but there's every chance it'll languish in my snack basket for quite some time before I reach the bottom. I definitely wouldn't buy it again. I will note that this seems to be part of a summer trend for "salad" flavored items which appears to be revving up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Morinaga Jumbo Monaka

When I was a child, my mother used to buy big boxes of what were called "cake cones". Among ice cream cones, the "cake cone" was the trailer trash of the lot. Sugar cones and waffle cones were flavor and textural delights to go along with your ice cream. They enhanced the experience. The cake cone was like edible foam packing. It was mainly there to hold your ice cream while you licked it, not to make the experience greatly tastier.

My guess is that my mother bought those cones because, as kids, we really weren't discriminating about what we ate. After all, we thought Kraft macaroni and cheese was the bee's knees of dinner cuisine. If there was ice cream, that was good enough for us. The cake cones were a way of being able to make sure not one drop was lost. I'm guessing she also liked the fact that they didn't tend to drip out the bottom like ice cream in a sugar cone. Cake cones probably saved her from having to fight shirt stains, at least on occasion.

The Japanese have taken the notion of a cake cone and turned it into a sort of ice cream sandwich. Instead of flanking the ice cream with a cookie or slab of waffle, they've imprisoned it in a thin layer of cake cone material. Ice cream sandwiches made in this manner are called "monaka". Since I was never a great fan of the cake cone to begin with, and this is adding more cone to the equation, I haven't really sampled many monaka since coming to Japan.

Incidentally, monaka originally and are still made as sweetened beans or other fillings sandwiched between two "wafers". The fillings are made of varied substances as are the shells. My guess is that the quality of traditional monaka shells is quite a bit higher than the modified cake cone substance used for ice cream sandwiches.

I saw this Morinaga Jumbo Monaka in a 99 yen shop. I found it the best of a poor lot of ice cream on offer and I was in the mood for something different. I keep saying "ice cream", but this is actually ice milk. Many ice cream monaka just have plain vanilla ice cream in them, but this one has a chocolate inner coating and a plain of crispy chocolate running through the center.

This bar was introduced by Morinaga in 1972, but they added the chocolate (as a sauce) to the middle in 1980 and named it a "Deluxe" bar. It didn't grow up to be a "Jumbo" until 1996 when they made the center chocolate a thin, crispy wafer-thin piece of candy. The entire bar is 315 calories, and though you could easily eat it at once, it's pretty big and I ate only one-third of it in one sitting.

I allowed this bar to sit out for about 5 minutes before eating it because I think ice cream isn't as good when it's really hard. You can't really sense the creaminess of it unless it's softened up a bit. For ice milk, this was quite nice. It felt rich and fatty and had good flavor and sweetness balance. The first bites off the ends aren't as good as interior bites because there's too much of the monaka wafer and very little chocolate flavor. Once you get past the edges, it's better as the center chocolate sheet has a deeper, slightly bitter sweet chocolate taste and you get more ice cream and less cake cone.

I liked this quite a lot, though I'm still not going to be filling the freezer with monaka bars any time soon. I'd definitely get this again if I were in the right mood. The ice milk and chocolate can't be beat, and the monaka wafer adds some softly crunchy textural elements. It's also a lot easier to eat it in stages because of the way in which the little squares allow you to visually divide the bar into portions.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hot Cocktail Cheese in Kamaboko (chikama)

Kamaboko is various types of white fish processed and formed into loaves. It's sold in plastic tubes in convenience stores as a snack and the promise of something with three different peppers (jalepeno, chipotle, and green pepper) as well as cheese made me overlook the fact that I hate most fish. I decided to pick up this fish log and give this a try. Incidentally, when cheese is in this and it's sold as a snack, it's called chikama. Kamaboko is generally used in soups rather than eaten as a snack.

This is made by a company called Maruzen, which makes a lot of these sorts of tubular fish loaf products. They also sell a very scary product called "fish sausage". I'm not sure that the Western world is ready for such gustatory possibilities.

The tube is about 16 cm (about 6 in.) long and weighs 60 grams (about 2 oz.). One of the great benefits of fish loaf as a snack is that it's pretty low in calories. If you could choke back the contents of the entire tube, you'd only be ingesting 81 calories.

One might suspect that the little red piece of tape on the plastic would be a way of removing the tightly wrapped fish product from it's poly shell. I removed the tape and only the tape came off. I had to cut off the metal bit holding one end together to get at the fish loaf inside.

This stuff smells like very stinky old fish. The texture is slightly rubbery, but it's easy to bite into. It takes awhile to chew though. This is a bad thing because it means the flavor of old fish is in your mouth until you masticate enough to force it down your throat. The dominating flavor is definitely that of fish, with a hit of heat after you chew it a bit. I don't know how much of each type of pepper is in it, but I don't detect any particular pepper flavors except some jalapeno heat. There is actually very little cheese in it and even if you happen to find a piece with a tiny cube of orange processed stuff, you don't taste anything but the heavy fish flavor.

This was genuinely gross. My mouth rebelled. My stomach wanted to rebel violently. I don't think that there was anything wrong with the kamaboko, but rather that I am simply not a candidate for a rubbery snack that tastes and stinks like very old fish. I threw the rest of this away. The only way I kept my stomach from expelling this stuff in a fit of anarchy was to placate it with French meringue cookies.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mango Purin KitKat Mini

If I were an incredibly huge narcissist, I might start thinking that Nestlé Japan keeps releasing new KitKats to make it harder and harder for me to come up with things to say about them in reviews. While I suffer from the same self-centeredness as most other humans, my ego isn't quite that big, so I have to assume the company is just mining one of the longer running food fads in Japan for a new flavor.

Mango has been pretty hot in Japan for quite some time now. The boom in sales of things like dried mango and mango-flavored foods may be almost two years old by now. I think it has been fueled in part by the idea that mango is healthy for you. I'm guessing some news report or celebrity probably touted its benefits some time ago and the fad hasn't reached a saturation point where everyone is just so tired of mango that they won't eat it no matter how good it is supposed to be fore you.

This bar is only sold in mini form at the moment. It can be bought as one tiny little bar (about the size of 1.5 fingers in total) for about 40 yen (42 cents) or in a large bag representing far more value for your investment, but with more bars than I care to have on hand. I got this mini at an AM/PM convenience store.

The bar smells fruity, though not necessarily of mango. It reminded me of a more generic fruit scent with perhaps a hint of mango. The bar is disconcertingly bright in color. The taste is on the milder side when it comes to the fruit aspects. The description on the web site mentions that it is supposed to be the flavor of "milk" and mango, and I think they did a pretty good job tempering any overly strong fruitiness with milky "pudding" (purin) taste. I thought it had some cantaloupe overtones as well. For a white chocolate-based KitKat, it was refreshingly not too sweet. My husband, who dislikes mango, actually liked this so that's a bit of an endorsement right there.

I'd certainly recommend sampling this if you have a chance, though I'm not sure I'd say you should buy a huge bag unless you adore mango. There's no weirdness to the mixtures of flavor and texture though, so chances are that the worst response would be indifference. The bar was released on July 13, so it should be around for awhile.

This is also reviewed at Snack Love.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lotte Banana Caramel Cookies

I'd say that Japan has been having a banana-fest, but it carries connotations of a thong-less night at Chippendales. However, Japan is still in the grips of some sort of banana fever. I'm still working through all of the banana sweets my husband has procured for himself, and this box of Lotte's cookies is the oldest one so I figured I'd better get to it.

Before I get too far, I should say that my husband didn't like these very much. I figured that meant there was something seriously wrong with them, but the truth is that it's actually an indication of our difference in tastes. He likes things that are sweeter and have a stronger banana flavor than I do. That actually bodes well for my sampling of these cookies.

We picked this box of cookies up at a discount snack shop for around 150 yen. There are 12 cookies that are about 4 cm. (1.5 in.) in size. Each is individually wrapped in a green and silver foil packet. This is why they were probably nice and fresh even though I didn't get to them for about a month. There are 48 calories in each cookie.

The cookies smell like sugar, margarine and banana. The banana scent is not over the top and the taste is more subtle than most banana-flavored treats. It's a good, real banana taste, and is not overly sweet. The caramel flavor is very subdued and manifests mainly as a brown sugar aftertaste. One thing that you can tell is that these are made with margarine rather than butter.

The texture of the cookie is not optimal because it is somewhat crumbly, though it is somewhat crispy. The banana puree though is ever so marginally rubbery. I don't think this is because of the banana because it is listed after "caramel sauce" on the ingredients list so I don't think is much banana in it.

I actually liked these because they didn't carry a really strong or fake banana flavor. I think they could have been better if the banana filling didn't have a slightly strange texture. The strange thing is that I don't think I'd buy these again, but I did have to resist the urge to keep eating them. I really did like these, but not being a great fan of banana means I wouldn't prioritize these with so many other possibilities at hand. However, if I had few flavor options, I'd buy these without regret.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pokka Purin Shake

You don't see much in the way of "shakes" in markets in Japan. I guess that they don't go for thick, fatty, sweet drinks the way imprudent Americans do. Being an imprudent American who hasn't seen a "shake" beverage in a shop for a very long time, I pounced on this drink when I saw it at Peacock supermarket. It was a little expensive, about 170 yen ($1.90) for 100 grams (3.5 oz.), but visions of thick, creamy shake goodness loosened up my change purse.

This beverage is made by Pokka, which apparently has been making very popular purin-based beverages since 1991. I don't know where they are sold, but I'm guessing they are mainly dispensed in vending machines since I rarely come across them. This purin is different from their usual variety in that a master chef who has a patisserie supposedly designed it. It's marketed under the label "Furano Delice."

When I poured this into a glass, I noticed that it looked a bit clumpy and was not thick in a uniform way. A sniff revealed a sour dairy smell which is reminiscent of powdered milk and non-dairy creamer plus a slight caramel smell. Taking a sip, I was reminded of tapioca to some extent. The texture is slimy and strange, as if someone pureed days old purin and mixed it with milk but it didn't mix evenly or completely. The basic flavor is like old milk though it has a good sweetness level. There's a bit of an aftertaste which is a good approximation of the caramelized flavor of the sauce in purin.

This was 86 calories that was totally wasted because this was really gross. I can't believe that anyone would enjoy this unless they liked milk that had sat in the refrigerator for quite some time and had clumped up a bit with age. If I were a master pastry chef, I'd be embarrassed to have my name attached to this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ume (Plum) Soda KitKat

In summer in Japan, it's common for people to make plum wine (ume-shu) by themselves. I'm guessing that part of the motivation in choosing this as a summer flavor is related to the fondness people feel for their refreshing tipple of ume-shu. Another part of it though is that Nestle Japan did a survey and this flavor came out as the third most popular. There's nothing like a little market research to help churn out yet another KitKat flavor.

My husband picked this bar up at New Days convenience store in Shinjuku. It was released on July 13, and I was at a Family Mart at exactly that date scoping out new limited edition KitKats and came up empty. This seems to be slow in hitting the shelves, or it may possibly be only available at New Days. I can't be sure.

The back of the box says that the white chocolate outer coating is mixed with plum flavoring. The cream between the wafers comes with plum and what is essentially a kind of quasi-sour "soda" powder. The flavor is like a fizzy soda candy that you may have bought as a kid. It's tart, and has an Alka Seltzer quality on your tongue. Two fingers have 99 calories.

This bar smells and looks a lot like the KitKat Muscat of Alexandria. It's a generic fruity smell. It does taste like green plum soda though. The problem is that it's too sweet and the slightly sour plum flavor with chlorophyll overtones followed by a small soda-like bite just doesn't work as a combination. I think this would be a lot better with more of the soda powder in the filling to add more tartness to it. In fact, I only detected the soda powder on the first bite. It faded fast and vanished on the second bite.

I didn't find this offensive, but I can easily see other people disliking it rather intensely. This is definitely one for the more tolerant types out there. I don't think I'll be finishing the rest of it because I would prefer not to waste the calories on something I don't really enjoy.

This is also reviewed at Jen's KitKat review blog here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Garlic Pepper Beer Beano

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That's the message I need to keep in mind when I buy snacks made with healthy vegetables. Just because these salted snack tube things are made with peas, it doesn't mean that they carry any of the nutritional value or low calorie aspects of peas. I should know better by now. I'm not fooling anyone, least of all my thighs and ass.

I found these snacks (made by Tohato) at the local 100 yen shop (for 100 yen, about a buck) and was drawn to the promise of two great tastes that taste great together - garlic and pepper. I also though, hmmm, peas, much better than potato-based snacks. Stupid brain should have looked more carefully at the calorie content which is 63 grams (2.2 oz.) at 393 calories. That's worse than some deep-fried chips. This is pretty impressive considering the first ingredient is peas. I think they just make them with a lot of fat to help people who are drinking get a bit less drunk.

These smell fabulous. There's a heavy garlic scent when you open the bag. You can't really detect the pepper by scent. The flavor of garlic is first and foremost, followed by a slight vegetable flavor, and a pepper finishing flavor. They taste great if you love garlic.

The sticking point is the texture, which is hard to categorize. I'm not sure how these are made, and though they look like a Chee-to, they are more like a Styrofoam packing peanut in terms of texture. They're soft and spongy even though they're not stale. The texture is pretty much the point that spoiled these for me. If they had been crispy, I'd have loved them, but biting into them is singularly unsatisfying. You get the feeling they were air-popped or something, but there's too much fat in them for that to be the case.

These would have been a definite repeat purchase, despite the high caloric content, if it weren't for the texture. As it is, I can only recommend them if you aren't hung up on texture and adore garlic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Matsuri (Festival) Hi-Chew

There are a lot of things that make a festival a festival in Japan. There are games for kids where they can win balloons and goldfish. There are colorful streamers. Of course, there is food. Cucumbers and wienies on sticks are some of the simpler fare. There's also a lot of disgusting seafood crap, ramune (Japanese soda drinks), rice balls, corn on the cob, dango, Japanese sno-cones (kakigori) and grilled chicken on sticks (yakitori). And, there is usually one vendor carrying cotton candy. (And, for the record, it was a hassle locating and linking in all of those pictures, so I hope you appreciate my efforts!)

Honestly though, cotton candy isn't nearly as a big a deal at festivals in Japan as it is in carnivals in the U.S. That being said, I'm guessing a lot of the other foods you find at festivals wouldn't make for a very good Hi-Chew candy. Incidentally, "cotton candy" in Japanese is "watagashi".

Though the cotton candy on the package is blue, the candy itself is white with little golden brown flecks. The flecks are a hard sugar toffee-style bits. I'm not sure what they have to do with cotton candy, but they make for a strange textural experience. Usual Hi-Chew is like gum that quickly melts away in your mouth. This is like gum with tiny shards of hard candy embedded in it. I sort of liked it, but it spoiled it for my husband. He didn't like the textural incongruity.

The taste is a little like some sort of sugar candy, but cotton candy is really just heated, spun sugar and doesn't carry much of a flavor anyway. The taste is good, but I can't really pin down a particular flavor except for the brown sugary finish of the toffee bits. I think this is also a bit sweeter than the usual Hi-Chew.

I liked this a lot and would definitely buy it again, but it probably won't be around for long. Note that this is a "New Days" only product, so you have to pick it up at one of those convenience stores. I'm not sure that it is going to be everyone's cup of tea. Even Hi-Chew fans might find the departure from the regular texture and fruit flavors to be a problem, but I'd recommend at least giving it a try.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Variety Friday: Domino's Sirloin Steak Pizza (& a blog note)

image pinched from the Domino's pizza site

Domino's has come up with what appears to be a manly pizza. Who doesn't find slabs of dead cow on a pizza masculine? This sirloin steak pizza is the newest in their parade of freaky pizzas. Looking at it, I'm wondering how one would logistically handle biting into largish pieces of meat on a slice of pizza. You would have to gobble down all of it in one bite or have razor sharp alligator teeth to tear through it.

Don't be fooled entirely though. They've squeezed in certain girly attributes that may undermine the testosterone boosting aspects of placing large hunks of meat on the pizza. There's grilled eggplant and truffle cheese sauce. I think the truffle part is the white goop artfully squirted in a circle under the meat.

What is more, there are peppercorns on it, but they're not the usual black ones or even the less common white ones. They're pink peppercorns. I'm pretty sure that eating pink peppercorns automatically means you have to start wearing women's underwear under your suit.

If you want to sample this tomato -sauce-less pizza, which also has sauteed onions and steak sauce, you'll have to fork over 4200 yen ($45) for a large or 2800 yen ($29.40) for a medium. I'm guessing it's expensive because a chef is expertly preparing the steak fresh and carefully slicing off the pieces so that you have nothing but the best on your pizza. At least that seems to be what my menu is implying with the picture on the front. If you don't see him behind the red, white and blue uniformed Domino's staff, I'm sure he's just temporarily in the can in back.


And, as a side note, I'm going to put the "Variety Friday" posts on an extended (but still temporary) hiatus and post a regular review on Friday instead. It isn't because I am having any issues with doing these types of posts, but rather because my review backlog is starting to get unwieldy and I need to deplete it a bit. I like to have two weeks of reviews behind me in case I'm busy or sick and can't work on new ones, but now it's approaching the point where things might be too outdated if I hold onto them for too long.

So, those who wanted more reviews can rejoice at getting 5 reviews a week instead of 4. Those who like Variety Friday posts will have to be a little patient. They'll be back later. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fujiya Mix Nectar

Back when I sampled Fujiya's Peach Nectar, one of the commenters asked me if there were other of this type of beverages. At that time, I hadn't encountered any other varieties. Unbeknown to me, Fujiya's fruit alchemists ("fruitologists") had been laboring in the laboratories perfecting new nectar concoctions. I'm guessing that they have enslaved legions of hummingbirds as guinea pigs for the quality of their nectar. Any day now, I expect PETA's Japan chapter to protest Fujiya's headquarters and insist on setting the tiny birds free.

This "mix" variety was released in February this year, but distribution seems to have been limited to certain markets. I found this for about a dollar (100 yen) at Seiyu supermarket. The size is smaller than the peach nectar, which comes in a 12 oz. (350 ml.) can. This is a small carton with 200 ml. (8.8 oz.). There's a straw strapped on to the back and a foil-covered hole on the top which you can use to violate the carton and suck out its sweet contents. Like the peach version, this also contains 30% fruit puree and a decent amount of sugar. The fruits included are peaches, apples, mangoes, bitter orange, orange, banana, and pineapple.

The juice doesn't have much of a strong scent, but if you inhale deeply, it smells like a generic fruit mix. The taste is like a fruit bowl in your mouth. It hits you all at once and most of the fruit can be detected in different sips. The apple is the easiest to pick out, but all of the other fruits are present as well. The banana seems to hit you last. The main difference between this and the peach is that the peach is smooth and sweet all the way through and this has some of the sour notes of pineapple and citrus in it.

This is very, very nice. I prefer the peach version to Fujiya's Nectar drinks, but if I didn't have the option of drinking the peach and was in the mood for some sweet, high quality fruit juice, I wouldn't hesitate to pick this up. Note that there is one more nectar flavor, mango, which was also released in late February of this year which I have not seen on any local shelves yet.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nico Nico Niccori Jelly

These Japanese "jelly" candies are really just gelatin in disguise. This is something which I sort of forgot when I bought this bag of "jellies", but was quickly reminded of when I sampled them. These are essentially prepared, all weather (as in they require no refrigeration), individually wrapped tubs of gelatin made from kelp instead of animal parts. I must say, looking at it that way either makes these much more attractive (hurray! no animal died in the making of these gelatin treats) or less attractive (yuck! eating seaweed derivatives).

I don't know many people who make their own gelatin desserts in Japan. There are boxes of gelatin as well as plain gelatin available in shops, but the variety and quantity is very limited. Most people buy these individually packaged versions. I guess that the joy of slowly moldering Jell-O in the fridge and it's fake fruity jiggliness hasn't caught on here.

back row: orange, melon, pineapple front row: grape, strawberry

You can get about one-cup-size tubs or ones with tiny amounts of gelatin like the ones I sampled. If I had to guess at the volume in one of the containers in the package I bought, I'd say it's about a tablespoon. The bag I bought lured me in because it was incredibly cheap. It contains 27 itty bitty tubs of gelatin for only about a dollar (98 yen). There are five flavors, grape, orange, melon, strawberry, and pineapple.

The first ingredient in these is grape sugar and puree, fruit sugar and puree from the various fruits represented by the flavors, and kale. The fact that there are a lot of sugars in them is a clue of what is to come. These are very, very sweet. In fact, they're far sweeter than any Jell-O I've ever made from a mix or gelatin I've had back home.

An unmolded orange jelly, with a small deformation from pushing it out of its tub.

When I opened the bag, it smelled like lollipops. Even though the tubs look airtight, they clearly are not or the bag itself wouldn't smell so fruity. Eating these requires you to tear back the top and then push the bottom to "pop" the gelatin out. The size, shape, and mechanics make it clear that you're meant to pop them directly into your mouth. No utensils, no mess, no fuss, but a lot of trash for a tiny bit of gelatin.

I was going to review each flavor individually, but the truth is that I can sum up the flavor of each of them in the same manner: super sweet and intense. The fruit flavors are real, but concentrated. It's a lot like eating a spoonful of cheap, off-brand jelly (yeah, the type you spread on toast) on the flavor front and slightly soft gelatin on the texture front.

It wouldn't be bad to toss these in the refrigerator (Nanao Seika recommends you eat them cold) and have one on a hot day as a quick, sweet pick-me-up, but I really am not a fan of the super sweetness or the concentration of the flavor. Frankly, I think these might be marketed more towards children rather than adults. More expensive and larger size versions of these types of gelatin desserts tend to have bits of fruit in them, which adults might favor. I gave away the rest of the bag and I don't plan on buying them again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Morinaga Caramel Cookies

Morinaga is well-known in Japan for its distinctive caramels. There are regular milk caramels, adzuki bean, black sugar, and green tea. All of them come in the same old-fashioned packaging. As of late, Morinaga has been applying its milk caramel brand with its yellow-orange packaging to a variety of sweets. These cookies lured my caramel-loving husband to them.

We found these at a discount snack shop, but I've seen them at several supermarkets as well. We got them for about 250 yen (about $2.50). There are 12 cookies which are about 4 cm. (about 1.5 in.) in size in the package. One cookie has 53 calories. Of course, each is individually wrapped. It's rare to get cookies which are not in Japan.

These cookies smell fabulous. They smell like cookies your mom may have made. The strange thing is that they don't have much of a caramel smell to them. This, to me, was a very good sign. It means that they aren't going to be saturated with fake caramel flavoring.

The outer shell is very crisp. When I cut it in half, there were a lot of crumbs because of that. The caramel interior is soft, but firm. It's similar to a ganache. The caramel flavoring is quite subtle and makes for a great pairing with the cookie. These are flavored with caramel cream and caramel powder. There's also almond paste and cocoa powder in them. I imagine the almond paste is what makes the cookie smell so good and taste rather flavorful.

I generally do not like caramel sweets, but I really enjoyed this. It really shows that Morinaga has decades of experience making good caramel and know how to strike a balance between the flavors and textures. I would strongly encourage anyone who is fond of caramel to sample these.

As a side note, the package advertises their "retro" graphics museum. They show three pictures on the side of old designs from past advertising, including a cool sumo one. You can access the "retro trip" movies and gallery here. Some of the words are in English, but most of it is in Japanese. However, you can just click around randomly and figure most of it out based on the graphics and the process of elimination.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Vessel in the Fog Milk Chocolate

My picture isn't blurry. The illustration of the bar is actually soft and fuzzy.

There's a brand of jam in the U.S. called Smuckers. Their tagline is, "with a name like Smuckers, it has to be good." I'm not sure what a name like "Vessel in the Fog" means something has to be, but I'm sure that it is a memorable one. And honestly, I have absolutely no clue why this bar is named the way it is.

I first saw this bar when I arrived in Japan in 1989 and I have only the vaguest recollection at having sampled it once. The truth is that I haven't seen it around in shops for a very long time. I'm not sure if it was removed from the market for awhile or if it simply wasn't marketed in Tokyo. However, I will note that I couldn't locate this bar on Lotte's web site. It seems to have been supplanted by the Airs brand for air bubble-filled chocolate and Ghana as a basic chocolate bar.

When I ran across this bar for 98 yen (about 95 cents) at a drug store, I experienced a wave of nostalgia. It seems peculiar to me that I've been in Japan long enough to have nostalgic feelings about anything here. Still, with a name like "Vessel in the Fog", I had to revisit it for a review.

The bar is in the same sort of thin cardboard box that Ghana bars are sold in and the bar is wrapped in foil. It smells like sweet milky chocolate. The bar is marginally sectioned. The indentations are so shallow on the relative thick (1 cm/.4 in.) bar that it's pretty much impossible to break it along the lines, as my picture demonstrates.

The bottom of the box mentions that a "micro grind method" is used to produce a super smooth chocolate. The chocolate is quite smooth if you allow it to sit on your tongue and dissolve, though I'm not sure if it is any smoother than other Lotte chocolate bars. The texture of the bar is interesting because the air bubbles are quite a bit bigger than those in Airs chocolates. I refrigerated my bar since chocolate has been going soft at room temperature in my place these days and biting into the bar feels a little like a crunch bar as you break through the catacombs created by the bubbles.

I like this bar a lot. It's a little bittersweet for milk chocolate and has a hint of coffee, but doesn't have as strong a lingering aftertaste as some other pedestrian Japanese chocolates. It's smooth and fatty so it's no surprise that this 48 gram bar (1.7 oz.) has 270 calories despite being full of air bubbles. The bar is generously sized so you can probably be satisfied with eating as little as a third of it if you're being judicious. I'd definitely buy this again if I had the option to do so and I was in the mood for some plain chocolate.