Friday, April 16, 2010

Variety Friday: Cheese, Glorious Cheese

Meiji 25% reduced calorie processed cheese. That ends up being about 5 calories per slice less and isn't worth the added cost. Low fat and reduced calorie cheese is in short supply in Japan, and what is available is marginally lower in calories.

I've talked about cheese in Japan in scattered bits throughout my previous reviews of cheese-based snacks. For this post, which will kick off a week of cheese-based snack reviews starting April 19, I wanted to do a post consolidating information on cheese in Japan as well as adding in some new information.

Bags of shredded torokeru (cheese that will give a good melt) cheese.

Most of the cheese on offer in Japan comes in three varieties: processed slices, real or processed cheese that is grated, and real cheese sold in small blocks. The processed and grated cheese comes in two varieties. One is a normal type which is meant to be eaten cool and the other is what is called "torokeru" (とろける) cheese. "Tokeru" in Japanese means "melt" and this type of cheese is formulated to melt better on things like cheese toast, pizza, gratin, and doria (a cheese-topped rice casserole). Note that these are the big three items which Japanese people put cheese on. It's rare, but but not out of the question, for them to put it on cold sandwiches with meat in my experience. They do, of course, eat cheese on various hot burger-based sandwiches.

The bags of grated cheese often contain what is called "natural cheese" but it also seems to have a semi-processed flavor. Most of it is also coated in a powdery substance which makes it less appealing for cooking when you're making things like cheese sauces. There's a grainy or gritty texture to any sauce you create with such cheeses. This type of cheese is usually the most economical "real" cheese in Japan. I typically buy a 350 gram (12 oz.) bag for about 500 yen ($5.36) on the rare occasions that I buy it at all. I only buy such cheese when we're run out of other real (imported) cheese.

Red cheddar and Gouda cheese on offer for 289 yen ($3.10) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.)

Real cheese is usually sold in clear plastic vacuum packs, though some varieties are sold in small wheels in cardboard boxes (Camembert, in particular). It's always very expensive and I never buy it in Japanese markets. Besides the price, there is also the fact that a lot of this cheese doesn't seem to taste like much of anything. Because it is in plastic and is small in size, the plastic flavor tends to leech into the cheese. Most cheese prices are offered in X yen per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) increments. Cheap real cheese is 150 yen ($1.60) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.), and it's not the least bit uncommon to find the prices closer to 200-300 yen ($2.14-$3.21) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.).

It's much more economical to go to Costco and buy their Kirkland brand real cheese in 2 lb. (907 gram) blocks. Though their prices vary, you can get Colby Jack, the cheapest cheese they offer, at about 900-1200 yen per block ($9.64-$12.86). If you compare, that's about 100 yen ($1.07) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) for the Costco cheese which beats the price at any Japanese market or import shop.

Cottage Cheese selling for 357 yen ($3.83) for 200 grams (about 1 cup).

You can also buy things like cream cheese and cottage cheese, but they are very pricey for small portions. Philadelphia cream cheese is common, as is Kiri brand. Kiri can be had for about 260 yen ($2.80) per 200 grams (7 oz.), but Philadelphia brand is about 450 yen ($4.84) for 250 grams (8.8 oz.). It's pretty much the same cream cheese as what is available in Western countries, though there is no such thing as "low fat" cream cheese in Japan. Cream cheese is mainly used for cheesecake in Japan. Most of the pastries and (non-cheesecake) cakes that are sold as "cheese" actually contain pungent cheeses like Gouda. It's actually rare to find a cheese danish that uses cream cheese.

The cottage cheese is sold in two types. One is larger curds (blue container above) and is meant for eating in salads and the other (red container) is meant for things like cheesecakes and is in very fine curds. I love cottage cheese, and the Japanese stuff tastes great, but I can't swallow the price. I make my own cottage cheese by adding about 3 tbsp. of rice vinegar to a liter of boiling milk and allowing curds to form then straining them from the whey. This makes about 1.5 cups of cottage cheese (unsalted, so you have to salt it up), and costs 200 yen ($2.14) or less depending on the type of milk you can buy. I find milk for as little as 158 yen ($1.70), so making it myself costs about one-third the price of cottage cheese on the shelves here. It's just absurdly over-priced.

It's my guess that most of the cheese in Japan is processed because of lactose intolerance. I've never met a Japanese person who was even aware of the difficulties or effects of lactose intolerance despite the fact that the majority of Asians are supposed to be afflicted with it. I did a little extended research, and the presence of so much processed cheese appears to be related to a desire to reduce the cost of production rather than lactose intolerance. Processed cheese has its maturity arrested and takes less time to make. The processed cheese here tastes okay, but it's not really great. It's moderately pungent in a generic, cheese-like way, but it's not for cheese connoisseurs or even fussy eaters. My husband isn't a fanatic about cheese quality, but even he won't eat processed cheese. Note that Japan consumes more processed cheese than any other country when you consider ratios of real to processed. They consume 112 tons of processed cheese, and only 12 tons of "real" cheese. As a point of comparison, America, the second largest consumer of processed cheese comparatively speaking, consumes 3900 tons of natural cheese to 1092 tons of processed cheese.

Processed cheese is used in a variety of snacks, and I'm going to cover five of them in the week to come. Here are some of the cheese-based snack reviews that I have done.


s said...

Mmmmm cheese!

Have you tried this cracker, it comes indiv wrapped with an almond and a bit of cheese on it? It's one my favorite Japanese crackers! A gf brought it back from her trip to Japan a couple of years ago, but they've started selling it here in California now!

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Sophia! I have tried that cracker and actually planned to review it for the upcoming week but had more than 5 items to review. I love it, too! And, I will review it in the future. :-)

Thanks for commenting!

Kari said...

Hello. I'm so glad to have discovered (both of) your blogs! I read them daily. I'm also a fan of cheese, so I look forward to your upcoming posts. I have a somewhat random question, though, after reading your last post. Is Costco in Japan? I would love to live in Japan, but would greatly miss the cheese--brie, havarti, etc. I'm also a fan of the variety of Japanese Kit Kat, but agree that it can be prolific and underwhelming. Keep up the great stuff! You certainly have a fan in me.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Kari, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for being so kind!

Costco is in Japan, though there aren't that many locations at present. There are only 9 in Japan, and the closest one to me takes about 90 minutes (one-way) by train and on foot. It's a big production, but it's worth it both for access to certain types of products and for the lower prices. One of these days, I'll post about how it is to get there and manage things as a Friday post. :-)

There's an English site for the Japanese shops here:

Anonymous said...

Have you tried those Calbee chips with little chunks of cheese on them, Shari?

I for some reason found them and their texture quite distubing and could not proceed with fattening myself further.

Perhaps I am too used to the wimpy, flavourless chips we get in Canada (you;re far better off in the US) to be comfortable with little chunks of processed cheese mysteriously adhered to chips and providing an even more mysterious burst of flavour.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Ame, and thank you for reading and for commenting!

I did try those chips. In fact, I reviewed them here:

Like you, I didn't find them worth the calories! They tasted too much like a chemical fakery of cheese rather than like actual cheese to me.

ebidebby said...

I'm not sure what you mean about the processed cheese, but maybe I've just misunderstood what you wrote. Processing cheese doesn't remove the lactose, but when cheese is aged and fermented, the lactose is digested by all those microorganisms in the cheese.

But thank you for the thorough study of cheese in Japan! We don't have the best selection in the US, and good cheese can be ridiculously expensive.

Orchid64 said...

Frankly, I'm not sure what I mean, ebidebby. ;-)

Most of the cheese in Japan isn't aged or mature. Most of it is of the same grade as Velveeta in the U.S. It's infused with whey and is soft and lacking in the qualities of good, real cheese. It's only my guess that it is processed because of lactose intolerance. It's also possible that I'm wrong (it's always possible!) and that it's all processed because that is what the majority of the market prefers. Perhaps it's an ethnocentric conclusion on my part that anyone would prefer real cheese if one were able to eat it. ;-)

Thanks for your comment!

Blue Shoe said...

Yup, I do the Costco Kirkland cheddar cheese, myself.

Orchid64 said...

I'm actually more flexible about cheese than I used to be, but there really is no comparison between the real thing and processed stuff. It's not that I hate processed cheese. I think it's just a very different experience. It's like comparing sugar-free chocolate to the real thing. The sugar-free stuff can be decent and edible, but the real thing is incredibly greater. :-)

Thanks for commening!

Hirayuki said...

See if you can find a cheese manju. They're a specialty in Miyazaki, sort of like a slightly crispier cream puff shell encasing hunks of cream cheese. Delicious, and a more culturally acceptable alternative to simply shoving cream cheese in one's mouth.

Orchid64 said...

I've never seen those, Nora, but they look very tasty! I'll definitely try them if I can find one! Thanks!