Friday, April 30, 2010

Variety Friday: Bento Cheats

Bento making is becoming a fad among a certain demographic. If you visit the food porn web site aggregates, such as Foodgawker, you'll invariably find regular entries devoted to lovingly framed shots of bentos made by folks both in Japan and foreign countries. Just a few such blogs are Happy Little Bento, Hapa Bento, and the queen of bento sites, Adventures in Bento Making.

If you read these English language bento blogs or just look at the pictures to admire their artistry, you'll get the sense that the time spent making bentos must be immense. Not only do people have to carefully construct little star-shaped bits of carrot or cut little bits of nori to make happy faces on their rice, but they also have to make all of the food that goes into the bento. I don't regularly read English bento sites, but on the occasions that I do look at them, all of the contents appear to be made by hand.

In Japan, it is far less common for people to make all of the components of a bento themselves. Many of the people who I've discussed the topic with have said that the meat and fish components in particular were purchased in an already completed state at the local deli or supermarket. In particular, few people have the time to make tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), croquettes, or meatballs, all of which are popular bento fodder.

The picture at the top of this post is what I'd call a "bento cheat" food. That is, it is prepared food that is marketed and intended to be used as an addition to bento boxes. The little illustration in the upper left corner shows a mother and her two kids smiling at the addition of these meatballs to an artfully arranged bento box.

I bought these meatballs as part of a 3-pack of 65 grams (2.3 oz.) packets for about 200 yen ($2.32) at a tiny local market. There are 113 calories in a serving of 6 small meatballs in what is ostensibly "tomato sauce". You often find this type of meatball or a similar type of burger patty in a plastic pack sold as a bundle of three taped together.

I've had several different types of these throughout my stay in Japan. Most of them are not bad, but not really good either. The meatballs are always heavy on the filler and very soft. They don't taste much like meat as the second ingredient is often onion followed by breadcrumbs or some other cheap carbohydrate. The sauces are always bland and offered in very small quantities. The meatballs pictured at the top here are made by Marudai, which makes quite a few varieties of these types of foods. Though I would never buy these meatballs again, I've had a marginally better experience with a chicken patty version of this sort of thing.

From my utterly ethnocentric and subjective viewpoint, the fact that bentos are lovingly fashioned to look great, but sometimes filled with this sort of, quite frankly, less than mediocre food is a reflection of an emphasis on style over substance. I think it'd be better to spend the time preparing the food that goes into the bento than to waste it making happy faces on your onigiri (rice balls) or cutting your strawberries into tulips. Of course, I toss all of my husband's lunch components into individual Tupperware-style containers and cram the little containers into a big one, so what do I know about bento-making?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Crunky Biscuit

One of the things which helps me post with the frequency that I do is the fact that I can share whatever I buy with my husband. I couldn't possibly eat 4 or 5 days worth of treats myself without putting on a lot of weight or chopping out a bunch of healthier calories. Unfortunately, this symbiotic relationship has been put (at least) temporarily on hold because my husband had a blood test with some discouraging results. It's not necessarily at a serious point at this time, but he needs to lay off the sweets and shape up his diet a bit for a time.

Fortunately for me, there are avenues to pursue which allow me to keep reviewing without a second snacker on hand. One of those would be AM/PM's selection of single portion packets. I'm not sure why that particular convenience store is the one that carries the most small packages of individual snacks, but it does make it easy for someone to sample without having to put away a ton of junk food. The only problem is that you pay quite a lot more per serving for the luxury of buying just one small serving at a time.

Since I like (plain) Crunky bars, I figured that I'd pick up this single-cookie biscuit for 40 yen (43 cents) at AM/PM. For those who don't know, a Crunky is like a Nestle's Crunch type of bar with malt puffs instead of rice and Japanese-style milk chocolate (that is, slightly bittersweet) instead of American-style milk chocolate. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I opened the package, I was a little disappointed to see that this is simply a cookie with Crunky bar in the middle. The filling is hard milk chocolate and has the same malt puffs as a standard Crunky. There were no modifications made to the recipe to make it a cookie filling.

The cookie on the outside is a nice enough sandwich cookie. It had a stronger flavor than some cookies because it was baked to a darker state than some of these types of cookies. This brought out the grain flavor. The main problem with this is that neither the cookie nor the Crunky are enhanced by their pairing. It's like a marriage between two nice people who are poorly matched. The cookie would be better off married to a cream filling. The Crunky is actually better off staying single.

Since there was only 1 cookie to eat (62 calories), I ate all of this. I wouldn't buy it again, and I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have finished a bigger bag by myself. It's probably not quite fair to give it an indifferent rating. I imagine that I'd be giving it an "unhappy" rating if this were in a larger portion, but I did eat it all, and it wasn't an unpleasant experience. However, I can't recommend it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Meiji Sweets Gum Blueberry Cheesecake

There's an episode of the Simpsons where Homer goes into the Kwiki Mart and asks Apu if he has a new beer which has brew with Skittles candy floating around in it called "Skittle Brau". Of course, no such product exists, but Homer is not dissuaded. He gets a 6-pack and a bag of Skittles and makes his own candy/beer combo.

This scene comes to mind because this Meiji Sweets Gum is a mixture of gum and candy. I didn't realize that it was literally a "sweet" plus "gum". I thought it was just going to be blueberry cheesecake-flavored gum. I guess someone was thinking that gum would be better with a blob of chewy candy in the center.

I picked this up at Inageya supermarket for about 100 yen ($1.07). They also had double caramel and strawberry vanilla on offer, but I'm a sucker for cheesecake. There are 7 pieces of gum in the box, and it's 51 calories for the whole box. Unlike many types of gum in Japan, this isn't sugar-free. It is made with "sugar water", though it also includes Maltitol and other artificial sweeteners.

The cheesecake portion of this is the off-white candy in the middle and the blueberry the gum casing. The first bite has intense blueberry flavor and the cheesecake candy center follows a bit sluggishly behind. The tastes are intense and pretty good at first. The main problem is that the flavor lasts for a maximum of two minutes and dies very rapidly. The gum is soft and fine, but soon it's just jaw exercise. Clearly, this isn't made for long-term chewing. In fact, I'm not sure why this has been rolled out in gum form at all. It would seem more effective to make this a chewy candy through and through.

If this were a hard candy or chewy candy, I'd probably consider buying it again, but as gum, it's not flavorful enough for a long enough period of time. While I was happy to chew this for a few minutes and I liked the taste, I wouldn't buy it again because of the long-term flavor shortcomings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ajinomoto Lemon Basil Chicken

One of my readers commented that he would like to see me review more frozen foods or ready-to-eat foods. In response to this, I'm going to try and fit in one of these types of reviews about once a month even though they're not snacks. Since I cook most of the food I eat, this isn't the sort of thing that I take to naturally. That being said, I think it will be interesting to investigate some of these items on an infrequent, though hopefully regular, basis. Trust me when I say that this is in no way an indication that I'm running out of snacks to review. In fact, recently I was struck by the fact that I will never run out of new snacks to try.

I chose this package of frozen nuggets because it was one of the few things which wasn't pasta or rice-based in the small frozen foods case. For the record, the majority of the frozen food in Japan is "doria" or "gratin" (cheese, rice, and some animal-based protein), with an emphasis on shrimp versions. Since shrimp makes me gag, you won't be seeing any reviews of shrimp-based dishes. A lot of the other frozen food bits are fried foods like tempura or other types of fried cutlets which are designed to be put in bento boxes.

I found this at Inageya supermarket for 198 yen ($2.13) for 6 nuggets. The nuggets are a little big. I'd say each is about one and a half times the size of a McDonald's nugget. There are 38 calories per nugget. I'm not a big eater, so three of these accompanied by a little under a cup of rice (and some carrots) was a big enough portion for me for lunch. The ingredients include chicken, soy sauce, mirin (sweet Japanese cooking sake), various meat extracts, basil, parsley, and caramel coloring.

The company that makes these, Ajinomoto, is well-known for its seasonings including MSG, frozen foods, and prepared foods. They make a lot of packaged soups, dressings, and mixes designed to allow for faster food preparation. Early on in my stay in Japan, I tried their "Cook-Do" series for "mabonasu" (a Chinese-style eggplant dish), and wasn't too impressed. Part of their marketing includes the slogan "welcome to tasty Japan." I think that the basic idea is that their foods offer people the taste of Japan through their seasonings.

The nuggets are packaged in little plastic cups that are perforated so that you can break them apart and heat them individually. Though they look a little like something with a fried coating, they're actually little formed bits of white meat chicken with a thin, chicken-skin-like coating. I was ready to pop these in the toaster oven, but the directions on the package explicitly say not to use such a device. I'm guessing that this is because the seasoned skin-like covering would stick like mad to a toaster oven tray and you'd be left with just the processed chicken and no seasoned jacket.

I microwaved three nuggets at 600 W in their individual plastic cups as instructed for 1 minute, and they were still cold so I gave it another minute and that seemed about right. The package instructs you to use an oven with a turntable for even heating, but mine doesn't have one so I just rotated the plates at the half-way point.

The smell coming from them was like funky cooking oil. I'm guessing this was the lemon and basil seasoning. The exterior was quite greasy, as you can see from the shiny exterior in the above picture of the heated chicken balls. The texture was probably the worst part. The chicken is somewhat spongy with a stretchy very thin exterior which is tough to cut through with a fork. In fact, it was difficult to cut them in half and eat the meat proportionally with the rice. I'm guessing that these are meant to be snarfed down whole rather than cut into dainty bits for people like me who prefer not to go all chipmunk-cheeked when I eat.

It doesn't taste like fried chicken, despite looking like it. Mainly, you can taste lemony basil oil with a heavier emphasis on a canned lemon juice taste. It's a little salty, but not over the top. The flavor is not bad at all, but not a great one either. It doesn't taste like much on the chicken front, and the spices could be better. That being said, I think this was at least as good as a fast food nugget. That's not high praise as I think fast food nuggets are generally pretty tasteless and awful.

Though I will finish the package and have the other three nuggets, I wouldn't buy these again. One thing to keep in mind is that I'm a pretty good cook and I set the bar somewhat high on things like this. I can cook chicken very well, and these don't come close to how tasty a well-cooked piece of breast meat comes out. I think people who don't cook might find them more enjoyable than I do. Certainly they're worth a try if you can't cook or have limited options.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tirol Premium Apple Pie Chocolate

It's been awhile since Tirol has hit a slam dunk with me. When I stopped by 7-11 to pick up some of their cheap (100 yen) 16-oz. cans of Coke Zero and noticed the box of these apple pie chocolates by the register, I was skeptical that they'd impress me this time around. My previous experience with apple chocolate in Japan was with Sequoia's offering and I don't think the Japanese have quite the same concept or taste for apple treats as those whose culture derives from Europe.

I'm very pleased to say that this one was a home run (and I mix my metaphors between basketball and baseball...I'm sure there will be a football one in the near future). This was a heavenly little square of apple delight on multiple levels.

First of all, the apple flavor is good. It's a bit on the strong side and some may find it artificial, but I felt it was not fake at all - just strong, and well tempered by a very noticeable presence of cinnamon. The texture of this is unique and varied in a way that delighted me no end. First, the square is riddled with crunchy little bits of "pie crust" and interspersed with chewy bits of apple nestled in softish white chocolate.

All Tirol premium candies are about 1-inch (2.54 cm.) square. This candy was 55 calories, which puts it in the ballpark of most of the premium chocolates. One thing which caught my eye as a former Apple (computer) geek (I'm fully recovered now... really... yeah) was the little white icon of an apple on the back. I don't think it was an attempt to copy Apple's trademark, but it did remind me of it.

These are available in a wide variety of convenience stores for 32 yen right now and I strongly suggest giving them a try. It is sweet, so I recommend having it with some coffee or tea between bites (I favored it with a very strong skinny latte). That being said, it is small, so you'll have it finished in 4 tiny bites. It's hardly enough to be overwhelmed by cumulative sweetness. Oh, yes, I forgot to say this was a Tirol touchdown (had to get in one more sports metaphor).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 9

These pictures of store displays may seem pretty bland to you, but it's actually tricky for me to get the pictures as there are signs up telling customers that they are not allowed to take photos in nearly ever store in Japan. That's right, I risk being busted for my art.

The Xylish gum on the left caught my eye because of the use of the word "Oriental" in it. In America, we don't say "Oriental" anymore because it's considered somewhat racist. We are only allowed to say "Asian".

This type of gum packaging irritates me on two levels. First of all, they are quite expensive. On the right, the "Cola" gum is $7.50 (U.S.) for 100 grams (3.5 oz.). The packages aren't even that big. I can't say how many packs of gum you'd need to buy to get an equivalent amount, but I think that these do not represent economies of scale. Some types of gum are only sold in this way in order to encourage people to spend more for a pretty pedestrian bit of food entertainment. Second, the plastic packaging is very wasteful and requires more energy to produce and recycle. Chances are you will never see me review gum sold in this fashion.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Glico Cheeza Cheddar Cheese Crackers

Cheeza brand crackers have been around for ages, and I have largely resisted them based on one point - price. They cost 168 yen ($1.78) for a one serving bag. When I see Cratz's salty pretzel goodness sitting right next to Cheeza in the otsumami (snacks to be eaten while drinking alcohol) section for a mere 100-120 yen ($1.06-$1.27), I'll just snap up the yummy Cratz. As fate would have it, Cheeza went on sale for about 130 yen ($1.40) and I decided to give in and give them a try for this week of cheese-based snacks reviews.

One of the promotional points for Cheeza's crackers is the fact that they are 52% cheese. I didn't really trust that the high amount of cheese as an ingredient was going to be reflected in the crackers themselves.
That being said, they look very encouraging with their orange color. The design of the crackers is quite cute and looks like it would satisfy any discriminating mouse. Each is very thin and super crispy. The saltiness mainly comes from the cheese rather than added salt. The cheddar cheese flavor is pleasantly strong, and you can really tell a lot of cheese went into the dough both by the look and flavor. Note that the first ingredient isn't "cheddar cheese", but "cheddar cheese powder, followed by Trehalose. That sounds bad, but these taste good.

Each bag is 38 grams (1.34 oz.) and the entire contents are pictured in the picture above. It's actually a healthy amount of crackers for 199 calories. Though I'm still not happy about the price for such a small portion, I really enjoyed these and felt that they were the closest I'm going to come in Japan to the flavor of Cheez-Its. Frankly, I think these are actually better than Cheez-Its (which I love), and I'd recommend them for any fan of cheesy salted snacks.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Echigoseika Cheese Mochi Puffs

I was thinking recently that the frequency with which I'd be covering rice-based salted snack foods, like sembei. I have been seeing less and less of interest that I haven't already tried. Of course, I'm underestimating the Svengali-like power that cheese has over me. I was forced by the cheese to pick up this mochi puff snack at Okashi no Machioka for 148 yen ($1.62).

These are made by a company that is new to me called Echigo Seika. They make a lot of what they call "fluffy" rice-based snacks in a variety of traditional flavors including soy and sesame. They seem to be a pretty popular company and even have a fan site with downloads. If you're interested in getting a wallpaper with some of their fluffy rice snacks, you can get them here.

The outside of the puffs is a little greasy, and you can see the oil on the outside of the packet. One packet is 85 calories, which isn't too bad, but I 'm guessing that oil is lending more caloric heft to them. There are six 15-gram (.53 oz.) packets in the bag

I expected that these were going to be some sort of crispy rice snack balls, but I was surprised to find that they are super light and melt in your mouth. I don't know if I've ever had anything quite like them from a texture viewpoint. They disintegrate rapidly when you bite into them. At first, it seemed too "powdery" to me, but I liked it more on the second puff.

The smell is of cheddar-like cheese. The flavor is similar to cheese that has leaked out of your grilled cheese sandwich and has had some time to cook on the bottom of the pan. It's a bit like the crispy cheese kibun crackers that I reviewed before, but without the stronger burnt cheese taste.

These are very interesting and I'm inspired to look around for more of this company's fluffy snacks. In particular, they have a white chocolate version which is a fluffy ball variety that I'm going to track down. I'm giving this a somewhat grudging happy rating. I wish the cheese tasted a little less over-baked, but I did like these and could see myself buying them again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

QBB Candy Cheese

One of the mistakes that is easy to make when you come to Japan is to assume truth in advertising. That is, if something says "candy cheese", you're expecting cheese candy. When we encounter similar naming conventions at home, like a "chocolate orange", we don't really expect some sort of mutant fruit hybrid to be in the package. I'm thinking I expected candy cheese to be some funky candy because, like many people, I expect weirdness in every corner of Japanese culture.

For that reason, I have avoided candy cheese for the duration of my stay in Japan. I've noticed it since shopping in markets in my first year here. It was only after doing this blog that I decided to get to know this peculiarly named snack better.

As you may have guessed from my introduction, candy cheese is not candy at all. It's simply cheese presented in a size and package which looks like hard candy. The main idea behind this is to offer up a snacking cheese so that people can consume a Calcium-rich product. Since many Japanese people find themselves with bone problems (and many poor old ladies walk around hunched over due to osteoporosis), Calcium is always used as a marketing tool to sell food.

I picked up this 150 gram (5.3 oz.) bag for 328 yen ($3.59) at a discount green grocer that I frequent called Yutakaraya. You can find candy cheese nearly anywhere in Tokyo though including convenience stores and more upscale markets. I decided on this bag on impulse both because I was in the mood for some cheese and it is made by QBB. While you can get candy cheese anywhere, the stuff at 100-yen shops is made by "no-name" companies. With QBB, there's a good chance it'll be palatable as they're a major maker of dairy products and processed cheese. Previously, I reviewed their almond flavor "baby cheese".

Note that the wrappers on these are standard twist wrappers. Once you open the bag, air will easily creep n through the unsealed edges. That means you'd better be prepared to consume it with some alacrity. This isn't the kind of thing that will last for several weeks. When you untwist the wrapper, it has the familiar slightly pungent smell of cheese. The texture is firm, yet easy to bite into. The taste has a bit of an edge (but it's not really sharp) with a processed cheese aftertaste (think Velveeta). It's not at all unpleasant, but that processed flavor kicks in more clearly as you eat more. Each little piece is about the size of a hard candy, unsurprisingly, and there are 50 calories in 3 pieces

I'm giving this a lukewarm "will buy again/happy" rating. I like the concept of these little bits of snacking cheese on a couple of levels. First of all, as a snack, 50 calories for 3 pieces is very reasonable. Second, they are more nutritious and filling than a piece of chocolate or a handful of chips. Third, they have Calcium, and I don't think women can ever really overdose on that. Finally, cheese has enzymes in it which will neutralize sugars on your teeth. If you want just a bite of cheese to accomplish this when oral hygiene activity is not possible, these will do the trick very well.

The provisional "happy" rating comes because they are expensive for what they are, and this is processed cheese. They're tasty, but there is that funny aftertaste. I enjoyed them just fine, but I know what really good cheese tastes like and these don't hold a candle to the real deal. Still, if you live in Japan, you're essentially a "beggar" when it comes to cheese, and beggars can't be too choosy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kameda Seika Four Cheese Rice Crackers

If one cheese is good, then four types of cheese must be better, right? I'm not sure if that works after sampling this sembei. If you pair a potent cheese with less potent cheeses, the dominant ones are bound to take over. That sounds it bit like the lesser cheeses are the passive ones in the relationship. I'm not sure if that's somewhere I'd like to go.

I found this cheese sembei at Okashi no Machioka sweets shop for about 160 yen ($1.78). It contains six 13-gram bags of crackers. The contents of an entire bag (pictured below) is only 58 calories so the size is right for snacking. The ingredients include rice, vegetable oil, cheese seasoning (including soy, chicken and pork), cheese powder, salt, butter oil, and soy sauce powder. There are a lot of seasonings in it so one has hopes for good depth to the flavor.

The main scent is that of Parmesan cheese. The texture is crispy, but also a little soft. I think that these aren't baked as long as other types of rice crackers to avoid that strong flavor that comes with such baking. It gives you a vague sense that they're marginally stale, but they certainly are not. The outside has a fine powder on it, but it's not as bad as something like Cheetos and won't turn your fingers a different color.

The flavor is dominated by Parmesan, followed by Gorgonzola. The other two cheeses are cheddar and Gouda, but you can't really detect them much. Gouda isn't a strong cheese normally anyway, and I have to imagine it would only lend a buttery flavor at best. Frankly, there is a cheese-like pungency to these but a lack of sharpness or bite which I'd prefer to have. I'm guessing a little more salt may have helped out in this regard, but I can't say for sure.

I liked these just fine, but the somewhat soft texture and the less than sharp cheese flavor made them something I'm indifferent to. It's rather a shame really as I will happily finish off the bag and I certainly love the portion size and the potential associated with them. If these are ever redone by Kameda Seika, I'd happily give them a second chance.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tirol Premium Hokkaido Cheese Chocolate

This is actually my second attempt to review this flavor of Tirol chocolate. I bought one last year and left it in my refrigerator for several weeks where I managed to allow it to get wet. Since I didn't know if the moisture was leakage from defrosting meat, condensation, or a bottle of water that dribbled out somehow, I tossed it out. The chocolate disappeared and I didn't see it again until now. For the record, the premium chocolates are often reissued seasonally so you can revisit one you missed in most cases.

As I opened the package to reveal the 2.54 cm/1 in. square of white chocolate, I told my square of candy, "so, we meet again, Tirol cheese chocolate." Well, I said that in my mind, not aloud. I'm not quite crazy enough to hold conversations with food... yet. My expectations of this were quite low since the wedge of cheese on the package lets you know this is going to taste like actual cheese, not cream cheese. I don't know about most people but I don't prefer to have sugar mixed with my cheddar, Gouda, or Parmesan.

The scent of this was that of sour dairy and vaguely pungent cheese. When I cut it in half, little brittle cookie bits splintered all over the place from the bland, crisp biscuit tucked inside. Sometimes I think Tirol puts these biscuits in their candies to take up room with cheap ingredients. After all, some crappy little dry cookie probably costs less per ounce than chocolate. The exterior is somewhat soft white chocolate infused with cheese flavor and the cookie is crispy and tasteless.

The textures are all well and fine, but the taste was worse than I expected. When I think something is going to be weird, I am more charitable. When it's worse than my low hope, then you know it's pretty bad. This reminded me of processed cheese and milk that has gone off mixed with sugar. On the plus side, it's not horribly sweet as some white chocolate is in Japan. That's me reaching pretty far for a "plus" side to this.

I'm used to the rude greeting of strong cheese flavors in my sweets in Japan by now, but this was an even more impolite gesture than most. I certainly would not recommend this unless you prefer your savory cheese products sweet. I ate half of this small bit of candy, and threw the rest away. The best thing I can say is that hating it saved me from ingesting half of the square's 51 calories. If you're nutty enough to want to try this, you can pick one up at any big name convenience store (7-11, Family Mart, etc.) for about 30 yen (33 cents)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 8

My husband and I went to Inokashira Park in Kichijoji (Tokyo) to see the cherry blossoms on April 6 and took quite a few pictures. One of the shots is of a  young man grilling balls of dango. Dango are similar to mochi (pounded rice cake) and are usually made with rice flour. We didn't buy these because my husband doesn't eat this type of thing and I wasn't hungry, but there were a lot of folks walking around eating them. The idea of freshly grilled dango was very attractive to me, however.

Though I have reviewed some candy based on dango flavors, I have never actually sampled real dango. It's something I hope to get to eventually. I'm just waiting for the right situation where I'm in the mood and the flavors on offer are too enticing to pass up.

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.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lipton Grape Tea Zero

I think that I'm starting to have a stimulus-response reaction to anything in Japan with a big zero on it. Like the Pavlov's dog that drools when it hears a bell, I whip out my wallet when I see something with a zero. Though diet foods are more common than they used to be in Japan, something which is zero calories is still uncommon. I'm particularly drawn to drinks, as one can see by my track record thus far with reviewing beverages.

This is the third zero-calorie flavored tea that I've come across. Previously, I've tried orange and peach teas, and I think the shine is starting to wear off of the novelty of these drinks. While I feel this is no worse than the other two teas, I didn't feel that it was as enjoyable. The tea smells strange in that it doesn't smell especially like grape or tea but some sort of chemical concoction in between. It tastes a lot like someone stirred in a powdered packet of grape Kool-aid drink mix with some ice tea. It's really not bad at all. It's refreshing and mild, but it just isn't all that interesting an experience.

If you're a fan of powdered fruit drink mixes, you may like this more than I did. I finished the carton with no sense of discontent and with mild enjoyment, but I wouldn't buy it again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

KitKat Framboise

Note that the calorie counts on KitKat boxes are for half of the box (2 fingers). This one is 97 calories for 2 fingers (one serving). 

If you write food reviews, your experience with food is very different than the average person, and I had a little situation today which reminded me of that. I was buying this particular Japanese KitKat at NewDays convenience store (for 120 yen/$1.30), and they didn't want to give me a plastic bag for just one little item. In Japan, they insist on putting a piece of tape with the stores name on any product which goes out bag-less. This is proof that you paid for it should any cop decide to stop you for "walking while being foreign" and verify that you didn't steal all of your possessions.

At any rate, the clerk hurriedly tore off a piece of "NewDays" branded tape and slapped it on my KitKat box. I found myself annoyed because she put the tape smack in the middle of the box and I knew I'd have to carefully peel it off later to take a picture. Yes, such is the life of a Japanese snack reviewer that a small thing which causes no other person difficulties would cause consternation.

Getting to the KitKat itself, I knew when I purchased it that this was almost certainly a product of the great Nestlé Japan flavor recyclomatic (patent pending). I had already sampled raspberry (framboise) dark chocolate KitKats in two of their previous incarnations. I suspected that this was going to be more of the same, except this time with milk instead of dark chocolate.

And, you know what, that is exactly what it was. It smells strongly of fake raspberry as soon as you peel off the wrapper, and the filling is the same flavor as the previous ones. It's a nice enough, albeit slightly artificial raspberry flavor. Frankly, I like it, and I liked it a lot more with milk chocolate than with dark. There is less of a jarring contrast between the smoother milky notes and the raspberry filling. The bittersweet flavor of the previous bars was a nice counterpoint, but that bar was the pairing of two strong flavors and I like the weaker and stronger combination of this bar better.

This particular flavor is part of Nestlé Japan's "Sweets Concept" campaign. The idea is to emulate a more sophisticated sweet. In this case, it's supposed to be raspberry cake with cream cheese filling. The box says that the bar contains 1.7% real cheese and 4.2% raspberry powder. I didn't taste anything that reminded me of real cheese though it could simply be that the flavor was lost in the milk chocolate. There was a bit of a tang that could have been cream cheese and not the raspberry. At such a small percentage, it's rather hard to separate the flavors, particular of a relatively mild element like cream cheese.

I would certainly recommend anyone favorably inclined toward raspberry flavors to sample this. That being said, if you aren't forgiving toward somewhat artificial fruit flavoring, you may not enjoy it as I did. I, however, really loved this and would definitely buy it again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Yamachan's Shittori Sembei

One of the mistakes foreign folks make while living in Japan is concluding that they understand the country based on their little corner of the experience. The truth is that, like many countries, Japan is not one country with one uniform culture and one type of people. It's a small country compared to some others, but the culture is different in various regions. You can live here for decades and still never come across some aspects of the culture.

Sometimes little things remind me of this, and this snack was one of them. No matter how many foods I sample, companies I research, or packages I translate, I'll never know it all. There will always be things which are popular outside of my experience that I'll never know. I had never encountered "Yama-chan's" brand of food before coming across this packet of sembei at Peacock supermarket. It turns out that it is a chain of restaurants that sells a particular type of chicken wings. The nearest restaurant in this chain is about an hour from my apartment and many of the others are even further afield.

This sembei is supposed to mimic the distinctive seasoning of Yama-chan's chicken wings. Since I've never had their actual food, I can't speak to its verisimilitude to the real thing, but I can talk about it as a rice-based cracker snack. I found these at Peacock supermarket for 148 yen ($1.57). There were 17 largish crackers in the bag (about the size of a medium potato chip) and there were 195 calories in the whole bag (11.5 calories each).

They smelled rather peppery with some other spices mixed in. The taste was also quite peppery (as in black pepper) with some of the fried chicken taste you might expect. The pepper hits you first and the fried chicken spices second. The pepper tends to come back around at the end as it lingers on the tongue. These are "shittori" which means "moist" so the texture was rather softish compared to most sembei. They were very similar to the Sanshin curry sembei I reviewed before only with different seasoning. I didn't like the texture on those and I wasn't a great fan of the texture on these either. I guess I really need to avoid "shittori" sembei.

I ate the entire bag of these, but they really just tasted like black pepper and those packets of fried chicken seasoning powder that you can buy at supermarkets. The pepper dominated so much that I felt that I'd be better off just buying one of my favorite crispy black pepper sembei rather than this type. It wasn't bad at all, and I did enjoy the intense spiciness, but I wouldn't purchase it again.