Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Year of the Tiger!

Happy New Year to all of my readers and thank you for following my blog!

Japan follows the Chinese convention of seeing each year as the year of an animal. This year is the year of the tiger, so you can get tiger figures everywhere. The item pictured above is a traditional New Year's mochi (pounded rice cake) decoration with the little plastic tiger on top instead of the traditional mikan (Japanese tangerine). I picked this up at 7-11 for about $4. Note that you can get similar mochi for about $1 at most convenience stores. I doubt there is a qualitative difference in the texture or taste of the mochi. I was mainly paying for the tiger.

Many Japanese families have freshly made mochi as part of their display, but I've been told that when they use the fresh stuff, it sometimes starts to grow mold before it is eaten and the mold has to be cut away before they can consume the remaining mochi. I'm not sure how I'm going to prepare or consume this mochi, but I'll give it a go.

I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable new year. :-)

Fujiya Sweets Torte Mille-Fueille Chocolate

Part of me wonders if I should reject sweets that try and imitate foophy (I made that word up) French pastries like mille-fueille. Then I remember that I like such things and just abandon all pretext at rejecting class consciousness when it comes to food and buy the damn chocolate. Besides, how foophy can something be if it is sold in a supermarket for 150 yen (about $1.45)?

The dessert these chocolates are trying to imitate is made up of layers of pastry and pastry cream topped with chocolate. There are supposed to be many different types of mille-fueille, but the most common appears to be the type I just described. You often see this type of pastry on sale in Japanese cake shops, though they look far less decadent than the ones pictured on the Wikipedia page that I've linked to or the one shown on the front of this box of chocolates.

(the color has been lightened to show the texture on the chocolate)

There were actually several new chocolates of interest on display when I bought these, but this one won because my husband said it was the one he was most interested in sharing with me. I always prefer to reduce the calories I might consume by hoping to fob some off on him. These aren't too bad for you though at 41 calories apiece. Each is about the size of a quarter (or 100 yen coin) and about a centimeter tall.

To imitate the multiple flavors of the mille-fueille pastry, there are three parts to this chocolate. First, there is a bittersweet chocolate shell (which detaches easily from the next layer). Then there is a "custard" chocolate shell and finally some crispy "pie" center. The pie center actually tastes like puff pastry and the bittersweet chocolate is very high quality and offsets the sweetness of the custard layer well. If a complaint can be made, I'd say it's that the custard flavor is very weak because the bittersweet chocolate is so strong. Nonetheless, you do get a hint of the custard taste as well.

I really enjoyed this and felt it was a high quality consumer level product. I'm not even a fan of bittersweet chocolate, but it somehow all came together for me in this sweet. I'd definitely recommend sampling this, and wouldn't mind having these on hand for something which has the texture of a wafer, but a bit more interesting taste profile.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

CC Lemon Zero

C.C. Lemon is one of those drinks that I've had an interest in for quite some time because it is packed with Vitamin C and who doesn't enjoy a good lemon beverage? My former boss used to drink it on occasion and some of my students swear by it as a way of keeping colds at bay.

I don't like to drink my calories and I particularly don't like to drink sugary acidic sodas because they have a bad effect on the teeth. This is what has kept me from sampling C.C. Lemon for all these years. I especially wanted to try it around the time that the Simpsons were used heavily in their promotions as there were some nifty bits of swag available at that time. Unfortunately for me, the Simpsons aren't being used now when a zero calorie version is available.

I investigated the name "C.C. Lemon", but didn't come up with any explanation of what the "C.C." stands for besides the fact that it's supposed to be packed with a lot of Vitamin C. The American Wikipedia page says that there has been some controversy about whether or not the advertised amount of C is really as claimed, but the Japanese page doesn't mention anything about it. The weird thing is that they don't mention the amount of Vitamin C in terms of usual measures, but as the number of lemons worth of C. A 500 ml. bottle of C.C. Lemon zero supposedly contains 70 lemons worth.

The soda smells pleasantly lemony and you can tell it's lightly carbonated when you open the lid since it makes less of a "pop" noise than other fizzy beverages. The lemon flavor is pronounced, but not overwhelming. The sweetness level is just a tiny bit higher than I'd personally prefer and you can detect the fact that this is made with a cocktail of artificial sweeteners, but it's far less obvious than some of the other diet beverages I've sampled. After the first several sips, the artificial sweetener taste tends to mute (but not disappear) a bit as your tongue grows accustomed to it.

This was a very refreshing lemon drink with a good balance of flavors and a very mild citrus bite. It's flawed because I wish it had a little less of an artificial sweetener flavor, a little more carbonation, and a little more citrus bite and less sweetness, but it's pretty good for a diet version of a beverage. My feeling is that diet soda beggars can't be too choosy, but this is pretty good regardless. I will definitely revisit this if it doesn't end up vanishing as so many zero-calorie drinks in Japan seem to do.

Suntory's web site for C.C. Lemon is currently sporting a strange space ship made from a drink bottle motif. It includes a little Flash-based game, but you have to read Japanese to play it and some desktop pictures and a screen save that can be downloaded. Among the desktop pictures, I find the diagram of the internal structure of the imaginary spaceship rather amusing because of all of the lemon-shaped furnishings.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Smoky Cheese Cratz

In Japan, you can't buy boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese or a knock-off variety of that carb and chemical bomb. You can only get your hands on it via importers. Because of this, I make my own cheese sauce and pasta from real cheese. It's not really that difficult, but it is messy, time-consuming, and, to be perfectly honest, lacking in that special something that has drawn generations to the powdery packet over real cheese.

The thing about artificial flavoring when it comes to cheese is that you can get just the right hint of cheesy sharpness. Using real cheese and mixing it in with other ingredients tends to undermine the tang. In the case of macaroni & cheese, the milk that is necessary to create a sauce mellows the cheese a bit unless you can get your hands on something extra sharp. I live in Japan. There is almost no extra sharp cheese.

When it comes to some foods, fake is actually better than real. In the case of cheese-flavored snacks, I think that there's really no point in using real cheese most of the time. I want my salted crap food to prioritize flavor over authenticity. I'm not fooling myself into thinking this is anything like real food. The people at Glico don't seem to understand that as they list that there is 1.6% natural cheese in this salted pretzel snack. My response to Glico is, "who cares?"

At any rate, this is the latest in the Cratz line and replaces the "spicy cheese" variety that I reviewed previously. I wondered how this "smoky" cheese was going to differ from its predecessor. The answer is, not very much at all. In fact, except for a hint of heat, these are almost identical to the spicy version. They are the same price (100 yen/$1.13), smell the same, have the same satisfying crunch, and they have nearly the same number of calories (229) for the same quantity (44 grams/1.44 oz.).

These are good, but I preferred the nice hit of heat on the spicy cheese ones. I'd probably have liked these more if I could detect any sort of smoke flavor. It's as if they just took the old recipe for the slightly hot Cratz and stripped the spices out of it that gave it some heat without adding anything back in. I can highly recommend these if you've got a "cat's tongue" (as the Japanese say) and can't tolerate hot spices much, but if you're accustomed to the old spicy cheese Cratz and really enjoy smoke flavor, you might be a little letdown.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Milk Coffee KitKat

I think this particular KitKat has definitively signaled the fact that Nestle Japan is running out of ideas. You'd think the hundred or so variations on strawberry that have been released would have helped me reach such a determination quite awhile back, but, no, I have given them the benefit of the doubt (and maybe I'm just a little dumb). Back in April, I reviewed an Espresso Coffee KitKat which looked, smelled, and tasted suspiciously similar to this one. The important point to keep in mind is that this KitKat isn't about adding a novel flavor to the ever-increasing roster of flavors. No, it's about marketing.

This KitKat contains the "support students" mark (the pink flower which says "kitto sakura sakuyo") that appeared on the KitKat Mail. This KitKat is timed to coincide with students taking exams. There's a little message box on the back of the box which says "Dear (big blank space for name and message" and "From (smaller blank space for name)." I wonder if the flavor selection is also related to students with the idea that coffee is often drunk to keep one awake during long study sessions. The PR on Nestle Japan's site says this is good for breaks when you're working hard.

This KitKat was released on December 21 and you can pick it up at various convenience stores. My husband found this one at the venerable New Days for 120 yen ($1.31) and deposited it on my desk for review purposes.

I like milk in my coffee and I enjoyed the Espresso KitKat so I thought it looked pretty promising. The bar smells like white chocolate sweetness and there's no coffee scent. The interior has brown cream between the wafers, but I think coffee flavoring is in the coating as well. The flavor is very much like instant coffee with milk. There's a slight bitterness to it which takes the edge off of the white chocolate sweetness. The wafer flavor seemed more prominent in this as well, which I rather liked. It could be that this was just really fresh and you can detect the baked flavor of the wafers more when they're new off the manufacturing line.

This was good. I could see buying it again, but I'd caution people who are interested in it that they really have to like instant coffee and the level of bitterness of weak coffee in general. Since I'm a coffee sissy and can't take it black, the way in which the strong flavors were muted was appealing to me. All the being said, I liked the Espresso KitKat better because of the salty hit it had and this bar was on the edge of getting an "indifferent" rating and a "happy" one. I'd never turn this down if I got it for free and I enjoyed it, but it's not a slam dunk as a repeat purchase.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Variety Friday: Japanese Christmas Packs

A Christmas goods display at Queen's Isetan market. It includes Christmas boots full of snacks for kids, marshmallows, fondue kits, imported plastic canes full of candy kisses and cookies.

If you're a kid in Japan, you're not likely to be getting very worked up about Christmas. You're far more likely to get excited about the new year's holidays when you get a prolonged vacation from school and can look forward to gift money from all of the relatives. While kids generally get a little something for Christmas, it's nothing like the rain of gifts kids may get in the U.S. or other largely Christian countries.

I have asked students what they were given as children and they have mentioned the style of "stocking" or boot that you see above which is sold for 1050 yen ($11.78). These boots are full of regular snacks like Baby Star Ramen, (plain) popped popcorn, and "bo" (stick) snacks. Yaokin sticks are particularly common.

There are also some big bags of powdered drink mixes and cookies which are offered with Christmas-themed wrapping, but they're also nothing special. The cookies pictured above with a Santa lion motif are just plain and chocolate animal crackers that are around all year being re-purposed.

I have actually purchased and detailed the contents of such Christmas packs before, but not in this blog. I did them several years ago in my former personal blog. I've seen exactly the same packs show up year after year at the local 99 yen shop, so I'm not going to buy a new one and review it again. I will, however, paste the review of one of those packs here for you to read. This was from December 2006, but it is just as valid today:

Santa is almost perversely overjoyed.

One thing my husband and I used to do when we first arrived in Japan was buy some random packaged item and find out what was inside. We stopped doing that a long time ago. I rather forgot why. It struck me that it might be interesting to give that a try again. After sampling the contents of the happy package above, I believe the reason we stopped is for the same reason that you touch a hot stove once and then never do it again. Curiosity may not kill the cat but it can sure turn off his taste buds and offer up a belly-ache.

The Christmas Pack pictured above is meant for children and only cost 99 yen at a convenience store. I didn't have great expectations of gourmet contents and I thought that it may be more interesting because it would show what sort of items are supposed to appeal to children. Unsurprisingly, the items in the bag are the kind of things you see in the candy and snack aisles which are geared toward kids in markets.

This bar resembles a cake when you see a smallish picture of it but if you click and see a larger picture, you can see it is far from a cake. It is called "Merry Christmas wheat gluten (fu) snack". I'm sure many children this year will be writing Santa and asking for special treats made of wheat gluten. The package, as best I can read, seems to be saying that it is a nutritionally-balanced snack. Among the main ingredients are brown sugar, sugar, glutinous flour, and all-purpose flour. It smells like a mixture of burnt sugar and bouillon cubes. The description says something about minerals being in it. The outside is incredibly sweet and the inside is a tasteless quasi-puffed corn snack texture. It was perfectly vile when I forced myself to taste it.

This is a "black sesame mochi choco". I tried to pull this apart so you could see the center but it was too tough to separate. The chocolate just broke up. I did take a small bite of this and it out-did the wheat gluten bar in disgustingness. It was absolutely horrible. I'd try to describe it but I'm trying to allow the brain cells that retain that information to atrophy and die. Among the ingredients for this one are "chocolate" (no ingredients for the chocolate are given), corn syrup, sugar, cornstarch, sesame seed paste, mochi (like rice "taffy", though it's usually called rice "cake"), powdered milk, and soy beans. I liked how the package actually used correct English but confused "they're" and "their" (click the picture to see a larger one to clearly see the slogan). Of course, American young people who have grown up on the internet probably couldn't tell the difference between the two anyway.

This is "morokoshi wa taro" or, essentially, "corn and corm rings". Among the ingredients are corn, taro (a Japanese corm), vegetable oil, and spices. They don't smell like much of anything and taste like an airier, relatively flavorless Chee-to. I'd call these rather inoffensive to mildly pleasant because of the texture.

This one is called "Umaka Christmas" which as best I can work out means "sweet Christmas". My research indicated that "umaka" is another way of saying "umai" in a particular dialect but this may be an incorrect translation. Among the ingredients are corn grits, vegetable oil, sugar, pork extract, salt, onion powder, chicken consomme, Japanese rice (uruchi rice) and fructose. This was the only item in the package which I thought was relatively pleasant tasting. The onion powder and consomme were noticeable and the texture was fine.

This is "Merry Christmas Umai (Sweet) stick". This actually wasn't bad. The chocolate on the outside tasted okay and the inside was a hollow log which tasted like and had a similar texture to Kix cereal only it was puffier and airier. Among the ingredients are sugar, vegetable oil, corn, powdered milk, chocolate mousse, cocoa, flour, non-fat powdered milk, soybean milk and flavoring.

If nothing else, this exercise pushed my husband and I to do some translating. It also explains why Japan imports so much corn. I think a good portion of it must be processed into these sorts of snacks.

To me, this was a classic example of something you see a fair amount of in Japan. That is, it's something which looks far better on the outside than it actually is on the inside. Maybe kids go nuts for this stuff but I bought this bag over a week ago and the QQ branch I bought it from looked to have just as many in stock as when I purchased mine.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Japanese Christmas Cake

Earlier this week, I was remarking to my husband that we have lived in Japan for 20 years, and never once purchased a Christmas cake. For those who are not aware of what it is, the Japanese have carved out their own unique way of celebrating the holiday in a secular manner which involves the purchasing of a birthday-cake-style cake and eating it on Christmas Eve or Day. The history of this cake is not clearly known, but the idea seems to have come from a combination of buche de noel cakes from France with their whipped cream decorations and sponge cake and the British Christmas cake shape and style.

Of course, the cakes also have been modified to suit Japanese people's tastes. In general, that includes the use of whipped cream frosting and fresh strawberries. There are some beautiful pictures of the most common type of Christmas cake on the Shibuya 246 site. There are a vast number of cake types though, and you can get nearly any type you like.

Getting back to my Christmas cake, my husband said that he'd like to, "just once", go the KFC chicken route for Christmas (fried chicken is the other half of the traditional Japanese Christmas custom) and I said we should try a cake as well. Fortunately for me, my little wish came true without my having to ponder whether I'd reached an alarming degree of cultural assimilation by diving in and buying a Christmas cake. One of my students gave me a beautiful chocolate cake last night as a gift.

The cake is quite small (but perfect for 4 satisfying, but not diet-killing, servings) and I'm sure cost an insane amount of money. It's got 6 layers. From top to bottom, it is: bittersweet chocolate syrup, chocolate mousse, dark chocolate sponge cake, whipped cream, crunchy chocolate ganache (possibly mixed with corn flakes?), light chocolate sponge cake. This was fantastic. Most of the cake you get in Japan is fatty, but not sweet enough to enhance the chocolate flavor (or uses too little chocolate). This one had high quality ingredients and great flavor. It was also very light. The mix of textures and flavors was impressive.

Wherever you are, I hope you're having a great holiday and enjoying whatever Christmas goodies your culture has to offer. Thank you for reading!

Lotte Yukimi Daifuku Mini

Ice cream is not a winter food, but that doesn't mean that it can't be marketed as such. "Yukimi daifuku" means "snow viewing rice cake filled with sweets". The web site for this product mentions that you should sit under the kotatsu. A kotatsu is a table with a heating element stuck under it so you can sit on your ass and stay warm in winter. The table has a blanket to hold the heat in, but you're screwed if you have to get up for any reason so many people sit under them for hours and hours when it's cold. I guess it serves the dual purpose of increasing your chances of storing winter fat.

The back of the box shows school kids stuffing themselves with some daifuku. Why? I don't know.

Word is that "yukimi", or snow viewing, is supposed to be a traditional seasonal activity like watching the cherry blossoms. I'm guessing this works pretty well in the northern part of Japan, but in Tokyo (and southern parts of Japan) where we see snow in very small amounts about once or twice a year tops, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for a nice snowy day.

Lotte's yukimi daifuku mini is a small ball of vanilla ice milk wrapped in a soft mochi (glutinous rice pounded until it is uniform and stretchy in texture). Word is that the predecessor to this confection, released in 1980, was a ball of ice cream wrapped in marshmallow. There are 9 balls in a plastic tray with a little plastic fork to help you pick them up and eat them. Each is about 5 cm (about 2 in.) in diameter and 50 calories.

Though this is promoted as "ice cream", it's actually ice milk, but it's very creamy ice milk. The texture is silky and it has a nice vanilla flavor. The sweetness level is just about right. The mochi shell tends to peel off the ice cream pretty fast, but it makes for a nice chewy complement once the ice cream has melted in your mouth. One of the selling points of this is that the mochi stays soft even when frozen, and it definitely does. The texture is all you could hope for and it's not hard to chew. This is about as close to a non-threatening mochi (as in you're unlikely to choke to death on it) as you can get. The flavor of the rice cake itself is mild and fresh.

I was very pleased with this. Lotte did a good job of working the two components such that they are sweet, fresh, flavorful and tasty. If you like mochi, I'd definitely recommend giving them a try.

If you'd like to download a desktop picture of some cute bunnies or a cheesecake picture of a Japanese girl that are released to promote this ice cream, there's a page with a few items on it here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kameida Seika Almond Fried Sembei

Have you ever eaten something for the first time and you could swear that you've eaten something very much like it before, but you can't work out what it is? Well, that's how I felt when I ate this sembei. It wasn't that I have eaten sembei like it before, but I believe I've had some sort of snack food which is roughly similar to it. The annoying thing is that I can't remember what it was. It's going to keep bugging me until I remember.

I'd been eyeballing this bag of almond sembei for quite some time. The calorie counts for each 25 gram bag (.88 oz.) bag put me off a bit. It is 133 calories for a pretty small-looking portion. That being said, when I dumped the contents out for picture taking, it didn't seem quite as bad as I thought it would be (entire contents of one bag pictured below). Any time nuts are a large component of some food, there is a boost in fat. In the case of these, there are 7.1 grams of fat per serving (and 3.1 grams of protein).

This sembei mix actually contains both almonds and peanuts. The peanuts are whole and coated in some sort of crispy shell which is strangely sweet. They resemble honey-roasted nuts without the honey flavor. Note that I believe they are sweetened with maltitol as well as sugar (both are ingredients). The sembei pieces are the thing that reminds me of something else. The closest food I can liken them to are sesame sticks with a nuttiness from almonds instead of sesame. They're super crispy, as are the nuts, and don't have that usual rice cracker taste or smell. In fact, when you sniff the mix, you smell peanuts.

These were good, but the peanut part is far too sweet and the almond component overwhelmed by the peanut flavor. It's not a bad mix at all, and I will easily finish the remaining 5 packets of the 6 in the entire bag. Frankly speaking, I prefer saltier nut flavors rather than sweet. These were also slightly expensive at the supermarket I picked them up in at 260 yen ($2.93) and I can't see going for them again. Someone with different tastes than me might really like them. They're definitely well-made, fresh, and offer depth of flavor, but just not my cup of tea.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dars Crea Marron & Caramel

Dars is holding a promotional campaign which says "1 chocolate for 1 smile." This is related to an NGO meant to help people in Africa using funds from chocolate sales. There's a desktop picture of a pretty big globe made out of chocolates that you can download if you like. It doesn't help people in Africa, but I guess the whole idea is the globe promotes the concept Morinaga is using to push the Dars brand. There's a screen saver on the same page (near the bottom) if you are so impressed by a world made of small chocolate squares that you'd like to see it every time your computer goes to sleep.

This is the second of the two "Crea" varieties currently available in my area. The other was hazelnut and was fantastic. You can buy these either in boxes of individually-wrapped pieces or in boxes with a tray full of unwrapped pieces. By happenstance, I bought the box this time around, but the candy is exactly the same shape and size and you get 12 pieces. The boxes simply waste more wrapping and allow you to perhaps share more easily or eat them more slowly.

Before I talk about this, I will note that I hesitated to try this one even though I adore chestnut (and Dars) because I was worried that the caramel component might be too strong. Like all Dars, the chocolate and filling are super smooth. This smells somewhat of all components, but not too strongly of any of them. The flavor comes in three waves. First, the chocolate, then the hazelnut chestnut, and finally sweet caramel. The balance is pretty good, though I wish the hazelnut chestnut component was stronger. The caramel flavor, which is the easiest part to screw up, was natural and subdued.

I' definitely recommend sampling this. Open up a piece and bite it in half then allow it to melt on your tongue. It's a sublime experience, but then Dars always is. You can't go wrong with rich, fatty chocolates.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Organic Foods Life "Egg Nog"

Every year around Christmas time, my husband sets forth on a quest. No, it is not a quest for the perfect gift for me, his ever-adoring wife. The truth is that we buy what we want when we want it and don't do Christmas gifts. It's not a quest for the spirit of Christmas or the gift of the magi or any of that other sentimental stuff. He braves the moderately cold, semi-dry Japanese winter and hits all of the import shops to see if there are any cartons of eggnog from America or European countries on offer.

For the record, there are a few big import supermarkets in Hiroo that have carried this Christmas treat in the past, but they seem to have given it up over the past few years. This left my husband seeking a more locally produced alternative. Last year, he discovered tall, glass bottles of "Egg Nog" for about 2,000 yen ($22.45) a bottle at a department store.

The bottles only contain 500 ml of eggnog for a very high price. That's the same quantity as a single serving PET bottle of a soft drink for about 15-20x the cost. For that price tag, it'd better be some damn fine nog. That being said, while my husband bought a bottle of this last year, he didn't buy the bottles I'm reviewing today. He was given two of them as a very generous gift from one of his students.

"Sake well" makes you first wonder if this has something to do with rice wine, but, no, it's just a missing "h" on a label that clearly has not been proofread by a native speaker.

The label lists all of the pertinent information in Engrish on the front (that was not a typo) and Japanese on the nutrition information on the back. I'm amused by the claim that this is "traditional" eggnog, but it contains agar. Yes, there was many a year when grandma whipped up her own special blend for the holidays with a lashing or two of seaweed-derived gelatin to thicken it. Also, I'm pretty sure turmeric is generally not on the list of ingredients for most eggnog concoctions.

The eggnog is thick and tends to develop dark bands as the "sinnamon" and nutmeg drift around. If you look at the bottom through the clear glass, you can see the powders have settled down there and you have to give it a good shaking to get a more uniform color. The liquid is slightly thick, but not too incredibly so. It smells mainly of the fake rum essence.

All I could detect on the first sip was absolutely monstrous sweetness. I don't know how much sugar is in it, but the sugar overpowers nearly everything except the rum essence. Even that is a distant second to the overbearing sweetness. By the third sip, I could pick up some of the spices. Vanilla is the most detectable, followed by many miles by the faint taste of cinnamon and nutmeg.

The texture of this seemed about right. It's nice and smooth, but it was so tooth enamel erodingly sweet that I could hardly manage three little sips to do this review. This is definitely not one of those foreign foods that has been modified for the Japanese market by reducing the sugar level. Perhaps I'm just not a good candidate for eggnog in general. the truth is that I never drank it in the U.S., nor did I sample it when my husband bought it before. A little research on the internet yields information which says that store-bought eggnog is usually super sweet. I have a feeling this might be good at about 50% of the current sweetness level and with some real rum instead of essence. As it is though, I wouldn't recommend it, especially not for the very high price tag.

If you're in Japan and want some traditional holiday libations, I'd say you'd be a lot better off hunting down a promising recipe and making your own than buying this high-priced eggnog.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Variety Friday: Japanese Krispy Kreme Christmas Donuts

Krispy Kreme all over the world offers special holiday donuts at this time of year. It's interesting to compare the fare in Japan to that in the U.S. in particular because of the notion that Japanese people don't like their sweets as sweet as Americans. Therefore, one would expect that the Japanese specialty donuts would be less elaborate and sugary than the ones back home.

Before I get to the holiday donuts talk, I'd like to mention that my research into the nutritional information of American and Japanese Krispy Kreme donuts turned up a curious bit of information. The original glazed donuts, which one might expect to be exactly the same in both countries, are actually 10% higher in calories in Japan than in the U.S. What is more, the chocolate glazed in the U.S. is 250 calories and the Japanese one 299. My guess is that this is related to fat content since Japanese sweets and baked goods often skimp on the sugar but not the fat.

The Japanese menu offers a donut that trumps any of the American offerings in terms of calories. The Thanksgiving special donut, a chestnut glacé number filled with custard, weighs in at 413 calories whereas the highest American offering are the apple fritter and caramel cream crunch at 380 each. So, even though Japanese versions of treats are less sweet, they aren't necessarily less fattening.

image taken from the Krispy Kreme Japan site

For Christmas, Krispy Kreme Japan is offering up two cranberry donuts. One, the "snow cranberry tea" variety, is filled with jelly and topped with pistachio pieces and dried cranberry fragments. The other, the "holiday cranberry ring", is little more than a plain raised donut with white frosting, sprinkles and a few dried cranberries to simulate the look of a wreath. I opted for the less elaborate cranberry ring to sample as it weighed in at 254 calories while the jelly one came in at a whopping 379 calories!

the "holiday dozen box", which appears to be the only way to get the snowman donuts, and only two of them at that (image taken from the Krispy Kreme site)

In America, they're offering a really enticing looking gingerbread crunch doughnut and snowmen donuts. The snowmen are pictured on the Japanese web site and their nutrition information for both "red" and "green" snowmen are on the .pdf for the Japanese donuts, but my husband couldn't find them for sale at the Shinjuku Krispy Kreme that he occasionally patronizes. If you'd like to see the American donuts, you can check out the web site in the U.S., though the holiday specialty items will vanish by the end of the year so you'll have to have a peak soon before the pictures are taken away.

As for the donut I sampled, it was a good donut, though generally succeeded because the basic yeast-risen donut is tasty on its own. I'll note that I didn't eat it fresh, but rather saved it for the next morning's breakfast and gave it about 12 seconds in the microwave to "wake it up" a bit. The frosting and sprinkles were just right to lightly sweeten it. The bite with the cranberries was really tasty, but just one bite. It would have been nice if this had been topped all over with cranberry fragments like the jelly version, but then it wouldn't look like a wreath.

I'd rather have had a shot at the gingerbread donut that is available in America, but I'm guessing the whole concept seems too sweet for Japan. I've noticed that the Japanese donuts are far more likely to use bits of fruit in them or to at least offer the illusion of fruit than the American ones. Though I do love cranberry, I wasn't going to eat a calorie bomb to get more of it and the donut I bought had very little of it, hence the reason I'd rather have had a chance to sample the gingerbread one.

If anyone in Japan has sampled the "snow cranberry tea" version and has the time to offer their opinion in comments, I'd love to hear them. I can't recommend that people go out of their way to try the one I did, though if you are in the mood for a plain glazed Krispy Kreme donut and want to try something a little different this time around, the "holiday cranberry ring" isn't much further off the mark and is unlikely to disappoint.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kirin Diabolo Ginger Soda

I have a feeling that a lot of the soft drink industry in Japan is driven by the desire of alcoholic beverage makers to make mixers. Very often when I try something off the beaten path, that means non-cola-based, it is too strong and seems designed to be diluted with something.

I picked up this Diabolo Ginger because the name sounded demonic. I didn't realize that this is actually pretty far away from anything sinister. It's rather sophisticated as the ginger preparation method and origin is in Provence, France (ginger diavolo). This beverage is part of Kirin's "kitchens of the world" promotion. As part of the method for this type of drink in France, sugar is boiled with ginger and honey-pickled lemon. Cinnamon and lemongrass are also used as part of the preparation.

In Japan, the preparation appears to be rather different. They use grapefruit juice and marigold. There is no cinnamon and the lemon has no honey notes. The grapefruit seems to accentuate the ginger flavor a lot. It's extremely strong. It reminds me of the smell I get when I grate fresh ginger root and the juice runs off. It's far too intense to be drunk straight.

The bottle contains 410 ml. of soda and was 147 yen at an AM/PM convenience store. It has plenty of sugar in it. The entire bottle will set you back 148 calories, not that I think most sober people can drink it all at one go. I couldn't get a decent shot of the drink poured into a glass, but it's nothing exciting. It is just cloudy, white liquid which looks like washed out lemonade.

I wouldn't buy this again because it is just too strong and not worth the calories or the cost. It's not that it's bad, really, it just feels a lot like drinking medicine at its current intensity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nippon Ham La Pizza Margherita

I have a confession to make. No, I'm not a man. I'm also not really Japanese. And, I'm not a sentient Japanese love doll come to life. This is a confession with a little "c". I like the sort of bad pre-made pizza that you sometimes get in deli and freezer sections. I prefer good pizza, of course, but I have an affinity for any type. That's why you will continue to see the occasional review of such things here.

Since I prefer a good one, I picked up this "La Pizza" brand pizza, by the folks at Nippon Ham when my friend April Marie Claire recommended this line on her blog. She mentioned that you can have a whole pizza for around 600 calories (depending on the type). She also mentioned that they are fresh, and I believe that is true since they have a relatively current expiration date on them and are kept in the refrigerated section instead of the freezer.

I had the choice of several varieties of pizza, including cheese with meat sauce, double bacon, sausage and beef stew. I decided to go for one that didn't have meat because the sausage and ham made in Japan can sometimes taste a bit funky and that's why I'm talking about the margherita one.

The pizza is a lot smaller than the package would lead you to believe. It's 22-23 cm. around (8.6-9 in.), but the package is 30 cm. (11.8 in.) square. The whole pizza has 624 calories if you skip the oily basil sauce packet. You can add in 41 more calories if you add the sauce.

I am trying to limit portions so I only made half of it at once and I cooked it in the toaster oven with a pre-heated tray. That is, I put the empty tray in the toaster oven and get it hot so that the crust is heated up more quickly. One of the problems I have with small Japanese ovens is that the cheese gets overcooked while the crust stays soggy because the heating element is too close to the top of the pizza. I put the basil sauce on one slice and left the other plain to compare the flavor. Because of the way I cut the pizza into 4 slices before cooking it, the cheese slid off onto the tray a bit and the crust stayed soft despite my efforts to crisp it up with a preheated tray.

One thing that I noticed about this pizza as compared to most of the others I've found in Japan is that it has more cheese, though it's still fairly concentrated in the center. It doesn't smell like much other than plain old vague pizza scent. The flavor is excellent though. The cheese is real and actually tastes like good mozzarella. The tomato sauce could be a bit zestier, but it is fine and fills the bill adequately. It's not acidic or too salty. Japanese pizza sauce that is sold in tubes for people to make pizza toast usually is very oily, acidic and tastes odd. This sauce has none of those bad points. The basil sauce, which I was worried would be too much, was excellent and added a very pleasant dimension. I wished I had put it on both slices.

This was a really nice deli pizza. It's by far the best pre-made heat and eat pizza I've had in 20 years in Japan. A big part of that is the cheese, but the basil sauces was also good. The only down side for me was that the crust was soft, but I think that could be fixed by placing the entire pizza directly on the rack rather than putting it on a tray. Unfortunately, I can't do that with mine since I already cut it into 4 slices and the cheese will leak off the edges if I put it on the rack. I add my recommendation to try this pizza to April Marie's. As she says, "it's delish."