Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shoei Delicy Crunch Chocolate

One of my earliest memories of shopping for snacks in Japan is of this particular chocolate bar. It used to be sold at a convenience store nearby that was called "L & W". Those initials stand for "Liquor & Wine". The store was about a two-minute walk (tops) from our apartment and in addition to booze, they sold various snack foods.

They were one of the few shops two decades ago that was open past 7:00 pm and we were on a "English school (eikaiwa) teacher's schedule" at the time. That means we started work at 1:00 pm and finished around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. While the markets were long-closed by the time we got home, the liquor shop was usually open and a popular place to browse for our early experiences with Japanese food. They converted to a "Sankus" ("Thanks") convenience store after about a decade. Eventually, the elderly owners went out of business entirely as the glut of convenience stores in our area pushed them out. It was rather sad because they were in business for about 15 years of our time here and we frequently went to the shop. It's funny the things one little candy bar can make you remember.

When we first purchased this bar, for what I'm guessing was about 30 yen (33 cents) as that is about what it costs now, we couldn't read Japanese and it was a surprise to learn that it was a small chocolate crunch bar. It's pretty small at 9 cm x 5 cm (3.5 in. x 2 in.) and kitschy with its Japanese money motif. I don't recall if we bought it often, but I do know we bought it at least several times because it was so approachable among Japanese snack foods. We bought this bar at Seiyu supermarket, but you can probably find it in any store with a fairly large kid's sweets section.

This candy is small and cheap with a little card in it that is a fake 1000 yen bill that is a good miniature representation of a real bill, except for the fact that the fake bill says "kid's bank" on the back of it. So, it's pretty obviously designed for children. That means that one can't expect much from the quality of the candy. A lot of kid's candy is too sweet and poorly made.

When you open the package, the chocolate smells like sweet chocolate, and has a surprisingly appealing scent. The texture is a little soft, but firmer than many Japanese chocolates. I noticed that cocoa butter is not on the ingredients list for the chocolate. It has "cocoa powder" and "cocoa mass". My guess is that it is, perhaps, not as fatty as some other brands, and the flavor is definitely not as intense as some other Japanese chocolates. The crunchies are quite good, but not terribly crisp, and there could be a few more of them.

It's actually quite a decent candy and pleasantly mild. It's a better quality, less sweet candy for kids than the usual kid's sweets, though it's certainly not on par with the big ticket company's (Meiji, Lotte, Morinaga) consumer chocolates that are designed with a broader market in mind. For a cheap candy though, this is not a bad crunch bar at all, and makes for a nice Japan-specific souvenir to parcel out to more timid sorts back home. I'd certainly buy this again if I was in the mood for a crunch bar. In fact, I'd buy it before a Crunky because it's smaller and the puffs are just regular corn puffs instead of malt puffs and carry only texture and no flavor.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bourbon "Chee Goo" Rice Snack

 I found this at a market in a neighboring area which I rarely go to. I didn't care what was in the box. With a name like "Chee Goo", I had to review it. Of course, it is non-goo-like, as the picture on the box illustrates. This would be disappointing except that this is something I have to eat and I'm just as happy not to be eating "goo".

I paid 100 yen ($1.16) for this and had an annoying experience when I bought it. The market is divided into two floors and half of the top floor is a 100-yen-shop at which I bought some little souvenir thing to send to my sister. The other half of the top floor sells normal food which can't be paid for at the counter upstairs. You have to cart it down to the cashiers on the first floor. I wasn't using a basket and I had this and the souvenir and placed both of them on the counter to deal with my wallet. Though I knew I'd have to take the "Chee Goo" downstairs to pay, the woman manning the register told me I'd have to do it. That wasn't the problem. The problem was the condescending way in which she did it. She talked to me like I was a developmentally disabled 3-year-old.

These are made by Bourbon, who's little brownie-bite-like cakes and Petit Bit chocolates I've reviewed favorably before. I'm not sure where the name came from, but it's certainly based on "cheese" plus something else. Unlike most of these types of snacks which are based on corn or potatoes, these are based on rice. Non-sembei rice snacks are relatively uncommon.

The entire box is 50 grams (1.8 oz.) of triangular-shaped crunchy bitsand has 232 calories and half the box makes a good amount. The texture is great. They are puffy, but crispy. Each has a nice coating of cheesy powder on the outside which actually tastes like cheese. In particular, I could detect Gouda and Parmesan flavors. The ingredients include just "cheese powder" as well as coconut (which I could not taste at all), shortening, whey, "cheese", peanut butter(!), and gelatin. Though those all sound weird, these are very good and flavorful.

In the long line of cheese snacks I've eaten in Japan, these are definitely near the top of the heap. They're also "non fry" so they're not greasy. Despite the awesomely goofy name and cheap price, these are a tasty salted snack treat and I'd recommend anyone who can find them (they're not common) pick up a box.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 27

Small (about .5 oz./14 grams) bags of potato chips, potato snacks, vegetable snacks, and ramen snacks sold in long perforated strings.

A few weeks back, Marvo from the Impulsive Buy mentioned in comments that salted snack bag sizes in Japan are usually big, and the fact that he hadn't seen any individual serving size bags of things like potato chips from Japan. By and large, this is true. In the U.S., you find small 1 oz. bags which are designed to be thrown in a lunch bag. Since the Japanese don't have chips and sandwiches for lunch, you don't find those types of bags for sale very often.

Various snacks in small bags, again, in long strings with perforations. From left: shrimp salted snacks, Calpis marshmallows, Doraemon candies (can't see the type), Anpanman fruit candies, caramel corn, Meiji's nature themed cookies (shaped like trees, mushrooms, etc.) in various flavors, gummi candies, fruit-flavored pressed powder pellet type candies (like Sweetarts).

What you do find on occasion are these long strings of perforated bags designed for children to snack on. They are smaller than the standard 1 oz. bags that you find back home, usually containing about half the volume of a standard snack size bag in the U.S. Sometimes these strings are all of the same type of snack and sometimes they are variations on a main theme.

I don't tend to buy these because I really don't need 4 or 5 little bags of the same snack, but they are handy if you want to sample a lot of different things in small quantities. I just haven't run across a sampler string that really appeals to me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Luna Salt and Caramel Yogurt

Though I've never reviewed a Luna product before, I have mentioned their vanilla yogurt in a post of a Tirol candy based on their signature yogurt, a sublime and fabulously delicious vanilla yogurt. Living up to the awesomeness of their vanilla yogurt is a pretty tall order, and I didn't expect that this salt and caramel flavor would be up to the task. That being said, I still had hopes that it'd be quite enjoyable. My friend Shawn, however, remarked that yogurt, salt, and caramel would never be three flavors that he'd try to combine and was skeptical when I mentioned this find to him.

Note that this "salty caramel" fad seems to be growing wings in Japan. It has been around for awhile, but this is the second salt and caramel flavored product that I've reviewed in the recent past. The most recent was the KitKat salt and caramel big bar, but there have been scads of other products (primarily cookies and chocolates) that I've passed on. I decided to go for this particular offering because it is a Luna yogurt product and because it was so cheap. I found this at Lawson 100, a 100-yen ($1.17) shop. Each little pot is 100 grams (3.5 grams), so it's a small portion, but at only 50-yen per serving, it's a bargain.

This smells like, well, yogurt. The caramel flavor doesn't convey much of a scent. The flavors of the salt and caramel are quite subtle. The little bit of caramel hits you first followed by the salt. The caramel lingers more as the mildest of burnt caramel flavor. Like all Luna yogurts, this is super smooth, high in fat, and decadent. It's also not very sour, which is another hallmark of the Luna brand of what I'd call "dessert yogurt".

This would have been very easy to screw up because of the combination of potentially clashing flavors, but the subtlety of the caramel and salt coupled with a very low sourness level of the yogurt worked well. I can't say that this is for everyone, but it was nice and I'd give it another whirl if I was in the mood.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Viva Buono Bacon Pizza

When my friend April Marie mentioned having a personal pizza for under 600 calories, I developed a craving for pizza. She was kind enough to share her information about the pizza she had bought on her blog, but I couldn't find the Nippon Ham pizza that she was eating at my local market. Once one gets a craving though, it's hard to escape it. I picked up a similar looking pizza from Marudai, maker of a good many prepared foods including various meats, yogurt, and, of course pizzas.

My Marudai bacon pizza had one virtue that April Marie's didn't and lacked one that hers had. This pizza was only 505 calories, but she said hers was "delish" and mine certainly was not. The size of the pizza is quite generous at about 8 inches (20 cm.) in diameter. In fact, I could only eat half of it at once.

The page for this pizza claims it has "plenty of shredded bacon", but it doesn't have plenty of anything except sauce and crust. There's also supposed to be wine and clam in the sauce, but I couldn't really detect anything. The sauce was fine though. It has a pretty strong flavor, but the problem is that the sauce is almost all that can be tasted. The cheese is flavorless and after the pizza cools off, it's like a plastic layer on top. The bacon is so sparse as to present a simple ham aftertaste. The crust is soft, but inoffensive.

This pizza wasn't terrible, and I will eat the other half of it. That being said, it wasn't even as good as the 100 yen tuna mayo pizza that I got from Lawson's. I certainly wouldn't buy it again because I like my pizza to have more than a smattering of cheese on it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crunky Wafers

If you have worked in a Japanese office, then there is a very high chance that you have had the experience of being given snacks or treats. Most of the time, such food items are purchased as souvenirs (omiyage) when a coworker travels for business or personal reasons. Often, you get seasonal or regional foods.

During the 12 years I worked in a Japanese office, there were many occasions on which I was given such snacks. I often asked the office ladies (it was always women who doled out treats as men did not serve food or drinks in a Japanese office), known as "O.L." in Japan, what I was getting because the packages did not describe the contents. The information about the food was usually on the box that it came in and I never saw the boxes themselves.

One day, I was handed something and asked the O.L., Tomomi, what I was being given. Tomomi was well-known for wanting to practice and improve her English and this gave her a chance to try and come up with the right words for a fairly simple conversational exchange. She told me that the food she was handing me was what sounded like "way-haas". After some good-natured confusion, I figured out that what she was saying was "wafers". In Japanese, wafers are ウェハース (we-haa-su). Now, every time I see wafers, I think "way-haas" instead of wafers.

Since I love way-haas, I was pleased to see this Crunky bar at an AM/PM convenience store. I don't remember exactly what it cost, but I think it was around 60 yen (66 cents). The bar is quite small at 6 cm x 5 cm (2.4 in. x 2 in) and has 75 calories.

It smells like a Crunky bar with a plain wafer scent mixed in. The texture is very crispy and it's quite dry. It's more solid than a regular wafer because of the relatively thick and firm chocolate filling. The filling is not a cream like most wafers. It's actually thin layers of Crunky chocolate crunch bar. It's not too sweet and has a nice chocolate flavor with a wheat-like wafer flavor. You can't really detect the malt puffs in the Crunky filling.

I liked this, as did my husband. It is a very "utilitarian" kind of treat because it's not exotic, super sweet or rich. A lot of the pleasure is in the texture and the lack of heavy sugary sweetness. If your really like wafers, this is definitely worth giving a try, but this may not be for everyone.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sanko Seika Cheese Almond Sembei

Yeah, I took the picture awhile ago. I didn't eat expired sembei!

If you visit sites frequented by food snobs, they'd have you believe that we can will ourselves to enjoy "good" food, and that those who dislike a particular food can learn to enjoy it. I would say that is probably true, but the same can be said of junk food. I never thought I'd like something which is made with processed cheese, but I've found that frequent exposure has opened me up to its dubious qualities.

These particular sembei have been around for decades in Japan. I've always rejected them because of the way in which the almond seems glued onto the cracker with a plastic-looking dollop of processed cheese. Years of roasted almond deprivation due to the high cost of them in Japan and the relative rarity of any but blanched varieties compelled me to give these a try.

You can buy this particular type of sembei almost anywhere because it is relatively ubiquitous. I got mine at Okashi no Machioka for about 150 yen ($1.76), but I've also seen them at 100-yen shops so you can get them in a wide range of prices. Each bag has 24 tiny little crackers about the size of a quarter or 100-yen coin. At only 14 calories a cracker, you can eat quite a few without waistline worries. It also helps that the almonds are delivering some protein and good fats to balance out the carbohydrates in the cracker.

These smell like all of their major components: processed cheese, almond and sembei. The texture is good with the crispy rice cracker with a crunchy almond and a soft dollop of processed cheese. The mix is really quite satisfying. The almond's flavor is enhanced by being roasted and the cheese feels cool on the tongue. The flavor is also very mixed with a little bit of soy sauce flavor on the rice cracker, a bit of the processed cheese flavor, and a lot of almond. The almond shines more strongly the more you eat and the cheese fades into the background.

If you regard processed cheese as an evil to be avoided in all its forms, you won't like these. Otherwise, I can't recommend them strongly enough. I really liked these and have bought 3 bags at various times already. If I didn't have so much junk around to eat at any given time, I'd try and keep a bag of these on hand most of the time for light snacking with soft drinks. The mix of cheesy flavor with almond and salty sembei is a great combination.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kyoto Green Tea (Regional) KitKat

Thanks to my student, who procured the wasabi KitKat and Jizou-san sesame bean cake for me, I have another regional KitKat to sample. This one comes in a different type of packaging than my previous experience with such KitKats. It's in a box designed to have a message written on it and then be mailed to a lucky recipient.

This KitKat was made with special green tea which is a specialty of Kyoto, Japan's former capital and a place which is famous for its old world culture. It's where you go to experience "old Japan". Tokyo is where you go for "new Japan". Of course, this KitKat is made up to remind you of traditional culture with the accoutrements of tea ceremony sitting next to a cup of tea and a picture of shoji leading into a Japanese garden. Suffice it to say, as a Tokyo dweller, I never see anything remotely like that scene. The packaging on this is really quite lovely, particularly with the rich green color used. There are 5 mini bars with 69 calories each in the box. Note that this is a "KitKat Mail" version which you can slap a stamp on and address directly. This box cost 367 yen ($4.26), information I only know from the product page since I didn't personally buy it.

I've had green tea KitKats before, and liked them well enough for the most part. I was sure I was going to find this reasonably good. The big question was going to be whether or not this was different than other green tea KitKats as a result of it being made with special Kyoto tea.

While I expected this to smell strongly of green tea based on the fact that the bar is a much deeper, richer color than the other green tea bars appeared to be, it really didn't have a strong scent. The flavor was also somewhat different from the previous versions. It has a very "roasted" flavor which is deep without being bitter. It's a little grassy, but not as much as some types of green tea. The most surprising thing about it is that it's not too sweet! This is actually amazing for a white-chocolate-based KitKat.

I'm not a tremendous fan of green tea sweets, but I actually liked this a lot. I can't say this is for people who don't like green tea, but I can say it's for those who like deeper roasts of tea and who don't like overly sweet candy bars. For lack of a better way of expressing things, I found this to be very "Japanese" in its taste profile. The sweetness, rich, deep tea flavor, and crispy texture all provided a good balance of tastes and textures. It's quite different from usual KitKat fare, but also very good.

Incidentally, a complete gallery of all of the regional KitKats here. The link includes the word "omiyage", which means "souvenir".

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 26

A few weeks ago, my neighborhood held its annual tanabata festival. It's always a huge ostentatious affair with tons of decorations*, but it is also rather quaint in that it is very neighborly. Half of the appeal is the huge decorations that the merchants make from wireframes and papier mache. The other half is pretty much the food. While quite often most people go for kakigori (like a snow cone only in a cup), wieners, fried chicken, or other types of meat or seafood on sticks, and cucumbers, there are often other more unique foods on offer.

The picture above is of warabimochi, which despite the name is not "mochi" (pounded rice cake) at all since the jelly-like cubes are made with plant starch. The cubes are rolled in kinako (toasted soy flour). Since I'm a great fan of kinako and mochi-like consistency, I wanted to sample this, but I didn't want to buy such a large container of cubes to do so. It can be purchased in markets as well, but I've never seen a very tiny container. This is supposed to be especially popular in summer.

*Many photos of these decorations get used in my 1000 Things About Japan blog.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Variety Friday: I deal in junk food

 Meiji assortments with a Pokemon theme.

When I first started this blog, my priorities were rather different than they are a year and a half down the road. Initially, I was merely interested in sampling and talking about as many items as I could. The basic idea was to share experiences and in doing so to encourage me to try many more things than I might otherwise try.

As time has gone by, the way in which I regard things and subsequently the manner in which I rate them has changed. One of the points about being a reviewer of anything is that the bar on what you consider worth repeating keeps inching higher and higher relative to average people who aren't sampling all of the time. Rather notoriously, this happens to professional film reviewers who will often rate a film more highly because it is novel rather than conventionally enjoyable.

This tendency to keep expecting more or desiring something which is different means that I might rate something more harshly or easily than someone else because our comparative experiences are different. Sampling one weird Japanese KitKat can be an exciting and interesting experience. Sampling fifty of them makes you regard the fifty-first one rather differently than the second one. In fact, Japanese KitKats in particular are a serious challenge because there is only so much that can be done with a chocolate wafer bar before it degrades into utter novelty with no sensory value whatsoever.

One of the things I've realized is that the chances that I will buy anything again are getting slimmer and slimmer as time goes by. There are favorites (the best of the best, as it were, and I'll do a post about those some time) that I have purchased again and again, but there's only so much I can consume before expiration dates become an issue. My ratings system, which is based on the idea of "would definitely buy again" (very happy), "may buy again" (happy), "probably won't" (indifferent), "likely won't" (unhappy) and "definitely won't" is becoming more of a theoretical reality rather than an actual one. In essence, the ratings are about a willingness to purchase again more than the likelihood that I would do so.

A display of sembei which includes a seafood variety (left) and wasabi kaki no tane (right).

Since each reviewer has their own criteria for how they rate items, I felt that it may be valuable in understanding my current ratings and opinions if I were to offer mine at present. Here are the factors that go into how food is currently rated:


This is actually a very high priority for me these days. When I started this blog, I was posting less frequently and therefore sampled fewer snacks. I had time to finish off things and I wasn't so worried about how much I ate. The truth is that at present I have a "calorie cap" on what I'll "spend" on snacking on junk, and something which is highly caloric or only available in large sizes is less likely to be reviewed. I place a high value on portions and being able to consume a small amount of something with ease. Anything that will require me to eat more than 200 calories per day to consume a reasonable sample will decrease the chances of my purchasing it. The "calorie cap" is one of the reasons that I sample so few cakes and baked items since most of the cakes in Japan are super carb and fat bombs despite not being very sweet. The "average" cake at a convenience store is between 350-400 calories. A lot of them are closer to 500.

If something is densely caloric and not all that tasty, I'll rate it lower because I'm always thinking about the cost of the calories relative to the sensory pleasure I receive. If the pleasure is too little for the calories, I lower the rating. If the calories are low and the pleasure is modest, I increase the rating. This is how something like an Oshidori milk cake, at a mere 25 calories per stick, earns a "happy" rating rather than "indifferent". It's a good amount of sweet for a low price even if it doesn't blow the lid off my flavor meter.

And, believe it or not, I've lost weight since starting this blog. One might think I'd be gaining, but it's a bit like the person who works in the chocolate factory losing her insatiable desire for candy. I haven't lost my taste for snacks at all, but my appetite for such things is measurably lower. Rest assured, I still enjoy sampling foods immensely, but my appreciation is achieved with the consumption of quite modest quantities.


I make very little money from blogging. It doesn't even come close to paying for the food I buy for review. I'm sure that is no surprise to anyone, especially people who also blog. I also do not get food for free to review. Everything you see reviewed here was paid for with my own hard-earned yen unless it is a food gift (a rare, but not unheard of, situation). That means that I'm going to factor how much something costs when I offer a rating. This can be seen as "value" for pleasure. If something is cheap and moderately pleasurable, it'll get a better rating than if it is expensive and moderately pleasurable.


I hate to buy huge portions of anything because I have so many new things I'd like to sample and it will sometimes take a week (or more) to get through even an average-sized package of snacks. If I can buy a single portion, chances are that I'll be more inclined to try a particular snack. That being said, if a food is compelling enough, I'll buy a large quantity if I have no other option and then give away the items that I can't possibly eat before the expiration date rolls around.

A display of "grandma's snacks" at a local market. It includes sweet potato candies which I've previously reviewed (top shelf, center) and butter candies as well as macarons and "Trappist cookies", which are a popular type of cookie in Japan made by Trappist monks.


Let's face it, I deal in junk food. I'm not making any pretext about what I write about being good for you. That being said, if some snack has something to offer in the way of nutrition, I'm more likely to give it a better review than if something is pure trash, though being trash that is tasty won't bring a rating down. The truth is that outside of what you see reviewed here, I eat very little in the way of unhealthy or packaged/prepared food. Not only do I not eat anything that can be considered junk outside of this blog's fodder, but I cook almost every meal myself. I make my whole wheat bread, my own vegetable soups, and work hard to balance nutrition between protein, carbohydrates and fats. I'm much more likely to eat a nice sweet, perfectly grown carrot than a potato chip on a given day.

So, I am wary of nutrition when I review foods, and one of the reasons I can do this blog and not feel terrible about what I'm consuming is that I'm so attentive to my diet in every other way. It's rather ironic that my diet has improved as a result of writing a junk food blog because it has made me lose a lot of the impulsive cravings and desires for such foods (as I have such foods so frequently) and it has pushed me to work that much harder to prepare the rest of my meals such that they are much healthier.

One of the reasons that each blogger rates the same foods differently is that we all have our different priorities in addition to our varying senses of taste and differently experienced palates. No one is ever going to rate a food the way you would, and some people are going to hate what you love or vice versa. It's not an indictment of their tastes or yours; it's just a reflection of the subjective nature of reviews and the reviewers' priorities. These are mine, and I hope explaining them adds some value to the way in which my ratings are received.

As always, thanks to my wonderful readers who follow this blog regularly and make continuing to do it worthwhile. It's continued growth keeps me at this. :-)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Oshidori Milk "Cake"

When is a cake not a cake? Well, it's not a cake when it's a slab of hardened condensed milk. I have been intrigued by this product for quite some time. It has been in what I call the "Granny's snacks" section of Peacock Supermarket for over a year. I don't believe this is actually a snack for oldsters though. In fact, I think it is specifically designed for children but is in the section with old-fashioned treats.

For those who don't remember, "Granny's snacks" are what I call groups of unglamorous looking treats which are made by smaller companies. I call them that because they are the types of things which I think grandparents keep shoved in the back of a cabinet for months and dole out when grandchildren clamor for treats. I don't know that that is what happens when these are purchased. I just know that they are exiled to a different snack area than the more glamorous chocolates, Pocky, gum, and other items made by bit ticket companies like Lotte, Meiji, and Morinaga.

A package of 10 sticks of this milk candy cost 210 yen ($2.30). Each stick is 8 cm x 2 cm x. 4 cm (3.1" x .8" x .15") in size, and is 25 calories. They are made by a company called Takahata, which has a lot of the common ecological claptrap that many companies like to mention as part of their PR. The company makes handmade cheeses as well as a variety of these milk candies. I've only ever seen this "milk" variety, but they also have other types like chocolate, strawberry, yogurt and green tea.

I have had enough experience with "milk" flavored foods in Japan to know that these were going to taste like condensed milk. The point that I was most interested in understanding was the texture and the sweetness. The first ingredient is milk, followed by sugar. These are fortified with Vitamin E and the packaging advertises the fact that these are rich in Calcium. Each stick boasts 31 mg. of Calcium. To give you some perspective on the relative value of this food, I can tell you that an average adult needs 1000 mg. a day. Eating one of these is a drop in the bucket.

These sticks are hard, even though they look like they might be brittle. Breaking one in half with your hands isn't trivial, and biting into one feels a little like trying to shatter a hard candy with your teeth. I thought perhaps that one was supposed to suck on one like a hard candy, but that didn't seem to work. Not only don't they melt in your mouth very well, but they are the wrong shape. Maybe they're designed for young children to slobber over for a long period of time and take a long time to eat. The way in which they are sold doesn't seem to indicate that though. The multi-packs on the web site for this product look like souvenir packs for adults.

I actually liked these, despite the fact that I'm not over the moon about condensed milk flavor. They were lightly sweet and the flavor seemed relatively mild compared to other "milk" treats. I liked the texture and how they broke up when I bit into them, though frankly I was a little worried about what they'd do to my teeth. I can't recommend these for everyone. I think they're an acquired taste, but if you like condensed milk, they're definitely worth a sampling.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sakeru String Cheese (Togarashi Flavor)

I'm a fan of the idea of string cheese. The notion that you can have a bit of cheese which won't melt or leak oil at room temperature and that is high in protein and therefore makes a more nutritious snack is quite attractive. I also like the calorie counts on a fairly generous amount of cheese. Most sticks of string cheese are about 100 calories.

The main problem with string cheese is that it often lacks flavor, at least in its American and Japanese incarnations. It's usually some low quality mozzarella that tastes like nothing. It's also somewhat expensive in Japan. Two 30 gram (1 oz.) sticks are about 178 yen ($1.96). When I saw this togarashi (chili pepper) flavor string cheese, I figured it might show a bit of promise.

I can't say that the string cheese itself is better than what I'm used to, but I can say that this has a nice hit of Chinese chili pepper to help enhance the flavor. I wish there was more depth to the flavor. In particular, I wish it had more buttery or cheesy notes to it, but this isn't bad at all as a snack. If you have a bland cracker or some pretzels and want some cheese to go along with it, this would make a decent pairing.

I'm not doing cartwheels over this. It is string cheese, after all, but I would buy it again. The hot pepper addition makes it just enough of a cut above plain string cheese to warrant a happy sumo rating.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Calbee Cheese Bit Corn Snack

There is some debate in this age of hyper-awareness of nutrition as to whether or not corn is a healthy vegetable as opposed to a "fun" one like the ever-wonderful potato. In Japan, I'm pretty sure that corn is still seen as hanging around in the same circles as carrots and tomatoes when it comes to health, or at least the way in which this product is presented on Calbee's vegetable snacks web site gives me that impression.

I found this bag of salty, cheesy snacks at Seiyu supermarket in Ogikubo after a visit to the dentist. I noted that this was not on offer at the Seiyu in my area, though there is no reason why that should be other than limited shelf space in all stores. After all, Calbee is a big salted snack maker and always gets its chips on the shelves. One of the things that drew me to them was the fact that they are cheese, and, you know, cheese! The other is the fact that the entire 60-gram (2.1 oz.) bag is only 307 calories. The volume is large enough that I could see getting three generous portions for only about 100 calories each.

This is 1/3 of the bag or about a 100 calorie portion. Each chip is about 3 cm. x 2 cm. (1.2 in. x .8 in.).

These smell rather mildly of the sort of fake powdered cheese that those of us who make junk a regular part of our lives are well and truly familiar with. Each light, beautifully crispy bit is lightly dusted in cheese powder which is supposed to combine Parmesan, Cheddar and Camembert flavors.

The taste is on the mild side, but has the pungent notes you'd expect from a cheese snack. The first handful doesn't deliver much other than crunch with a little salt, but subsequent consumption allows for the cheesy flavors to build up a bit and take on some definition. You can really detect the Parmesan in particular, and the sweet corn that is used to form the base. In fact, the savory nature of the sweet corn is really where these shine. It's a very nice flavor.

I wasn't keen on these at first, but they really grew on me as the flavors infiltrated my taste buds. My husband ate a handful and said they didn't taste like anything to him, so the flavors might be far too subtle for some people to enjoy. I wish the cheese flavors were more pronounced, but I really loved the sweet corn flavor of the chips. They're also really light and not oily at all. If you want something salty and crispy but not as oily or flavorless as plain potato chips, I would definitely recommend giving these a try.

Note that the web site for these chips mentions an "original character" called "Chizubi", a little cartoon dog. If you have a cell phone, you can use it to read one of those square bar codes and see some special deals related to this cute little character. Since I don't have a cell phone, I guess I'm out of luck.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fujiya-Baskin Robbins Collaboration Chocolate

I haven't lived in America for quite some time, but I don't recall there being as many cross-company collaborations as I tend to see in Japan. I'm sure there are some, but they seem to be a bigger deal here. "Look" chocolates by Fujiya are something that I haven't covered in this blog before, but they're a filled chocolate which usually has just one flavor represented. Because this is supposed to be a mix of Baskin Robbins ice cream flavors, this box has a mix.

I have been seeing these around for a long time, and did want to buy one eventually and review it, but one of my husband's students gave him this and spared me the 100 yen ($1.11). I still see them at various shops including some 100 yen stores, drug stores (which often carry snacks), and Okashi no Machioka discount snack shops. There are 12 small bits, about 3 cm x 2 cm (1.1 in. x .8 in.), of chocolate in the box and four flavors - strawberry cheesecake, jamoca coffee, orange sherbet, and vanilla. Each candy is 19 calories and the whole box is 229.

Each of these had a soft, creamy filling and a bittersweet chocolate shell. The chocolate melted easily in my mouth despite having been refrigerated

Strawberry cheesecake:

This had a nice, slightly tart strawberry flavor, but it was quite weak and tended to fade away in the bittersweet chocolate's intensity. For someone like me who isn't a big fan of strawberry chocolates, this was fine, but it will disappoint someone who likes to taste strawberry more potently in their candies.

Jamoca coffee:

The coffee notes of this definitely competed better with the bittersweet shell. I could taste the bitterness of the coffee and the smoother milky flavor. I enjoyed this one, and would consider it the best addition to the box.

Orange sherbet:

As a big fan of orange sherbet, I was looking forward to this one the most. The surprising thing is that the filling really did taste an awful lot like Baskin Robbins orange sherbet. I was blown away by the verisimilitude. This was also nice, but I think that it didn't match the chocolate flavor as well as the Jamoca coffee flavor.


This one mainly tasted like smooth, milky chocolate. The vanilla flavor really didn't show much of itself but rather muted the strong bittersweet notes. This was surely a nice enough chocolate. It just wasn't very distinctive.

This entire collection is pretty nice. The chocolates contain fresh cream and butter and have a decadent feel on the tongue. For a consumer level candy, they are rather rich and I would recommend them for anyone who likes bittersweet chocolate. If you're a milk chocolate fan though, you may want to give them a pass because the bittersweet nature really does dominate a fair amount.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 25

For the summer, Starbucks Japan is offering some exotic options. Since they accommodate English speakers by writing more of their advertising in English than in Japanese, I don't have to translate for my readers.

Mango continues to be the fruit du jour in Japan. Many things are sold in mango flavor including chocolates, but dried fruit tends to be one of the more popular ways for people to partake of it. While I like mango, I'm not really inclined to try that particular frappucino.

The other variety, yuzu green tea, is something I'm more drawn to. For those who don't recall or know, yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit which is a cross between a grapefruit and an orange. It's one of my favorite flavor enhancers in snacks and I've eaten it as a dried fruit and really enjoyed it. That being said, I probably won't buy this because I'm not a huge fan of green tea or drinking a ton of sugar. A short yuzu green tea frappucino weighs in at 130 calories and a venti at a whopping 270. It actually beats out the mango frappucino which comes in at 115 for a short and 240 for a venti.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Variety Friday: How Japanese People Snack

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Before I dive into this topic, let me say that I am not an expert on anything, nor am I a novice. I'm going to write based on my copious amounts of firsthand experience and reach conclusions based on obvious indicators. I feel obliged to write that first because any time one asserts anything about Japan or Japanese people, there will be people with different experiences who will come forward to argue.

My experiences are based on living in Japan for 20 years, asking many people about their lives and habits, and working in a Japanese office for 12 years. My experiences are very far from limited, but they are also far from exhaustive. I don't want to get into quibbling matches with people who have anecdotal experiences which differ from mine. I'll grant that I am speaking generally and not about every individual in Japan. However, there are some things that are clear based on marketing as well as observation, and that is something of which I'm pretty confident about at this stage of the game.

I know how many snacks are put on sale and how much shelf space is devoted to them. I know that there are shops which specialize in selling nothing but snacks and that they are on offer in a greater variety of shops than other types of food. In fact, except for specialty shops, nearly any place which sells food will offer sweets and salty treats.

These things alone are strong indicators that Japanese people snack a fair bit. If they didn't, there wouldn't be more space devoted to candy, sugary beverages, alcohol, and salted junk food than there is to dairy products, rice, and fresh produce in some markets. Shops don't offer goods which don't sell well. In particular, supermarkets which have a narrow enough profit margin do not waste shelf space on goods that don't move, and all markets in my neighborhood devote at least both sides of one aisle to snacks. Most offer more than that.

It is important to separate Japanese snacking into at least two separate categories. The first is otsumami, or snacks that are marketed and consumed with beverages. Those foods aren't always consumed with alcohol, but they often are. There's a survey on "What Japan Thinks" which says that it is unclear if snacks like cookies, cakes, etc. that are designed to be served with drinks like tea are included in the category of "otsumami", but my experience makes me believe otherwise (note that this is a speculation on the part of the translator, not a part of the survey itself).

A snack bar at Inokashira park with familiar snacks on offer including hard candy, milk and black sugar caramels, "Shigekix" gummi candies and Mentos.

Based on my experience with the way in which foods are marketed (and I've read a lot of labels by now), manufacturers only consider food that is to be served with booze or soft drinks to be otsumami. I have never seen a sweet snack labeled as such and often see foods which are salty with such labels. Mainly, savory items like dried fish, nuts, chips, pretzels, rice crackers (sembei), etc. are placed in the otsumami sections of various shops.

When speaking with Japanese people about their consumption of such snacks, those that are labeled otsumami appear to be much more popular than other types. Most of my students, for instance, go home and have beer and nosh on sembei or chips. Far more of them will buy potato chips or something like them than they will sweets. That's not to say they never buy sweets or eat them, but they seem to snack on them far less often in the evenings at home. Japan is a country of voracious drinkers, though not voluminous. A great many adults unwind at night with a can or two of beer and some salty thing or another on the side.

In regards to sweets, there is another helpful survey on "What Japan Thinks". I mention these surveys mainly because they are scientific and objective ways of measuring snacking habits (rather than speculation based on anecdotes). Note that 25% people say they eat sweets everyday and about 75% eat them multiple times a week. This rather flies in the face of any notion that the Japanese are not a country of snackers, a supposition which is often made to explain how the Japanese stay thin, or that they aren't very keen on sweets. Certainly, they do snack, and they like sweets.

My experience has been that sweets are consumed mainly on the job when one becomes tired. In essence, they're seeking a sugar rush, but it also probably has something to do with the fact that people work late hours and eat lunch around noon. Around 4:00 pm, many Japanese offices have "tea time" and people will snack and sweets are fairly common. Often, salespeople or those who travel for their type of work will bring back boxes of "omiyage" (souvenirs) to share with coworkers. Omiyage are almost always food items.

Bean cakes, sembei, cookies, and chocolates are popular choices as souvenirs. It's one of the reasons Nestlé Japan makes so many regional KitKats. They know people who travel for a day to some city on business might find them appealing to bring back and share with coworkers. Regional KitKats are, in part, exploitation of the business culture and the near-obligation to bring back snacks for coworkers. It helps that, at 800 yen ($9.20) a box, they're relatively cheap.

The main difference between the way Japanese folks snack and Western ones do is in volume. In my experience, most Japanese young women working in offices eat sweets or snacks nearly everyday, but in very small quantities. One small cookie with a cup of tea or one big or a few small rice crackers tend to be the extent of such snacking. That being said, I have known people who will go to a hundred yen shop and buy cheap salted snacks and eat the whole bag at night with beer. And trust me when I say they are just as slender as most Japanese people.

I don't want to weigh in (no pun intended) on the chorus of explanations about why Japanese people tend not to be fat, but I can provide some anecdotal experiences that may relate to this point. One of my students has told me that she has consumed copious amounts of beer and food on multiple occasions. And when I say "copious", I mean she eats enough for 3 people and drinks enough for 2 burly men. Sometimes she does this, but at other times she doesn't eat anything much at all, especially after a big night of boozing and binging.

Japanese people quite often spend entire days (or weekends) sleeping all day in an off and on fashion to recover from a long week of overtime. In fact, it's quite amazing to me that they can sleep so much. On those days, my student will eat one rice ball (onigiri), drink some bottled tea, and consume nothing else. She sleeps so much that she simply doesn't remember to eat. My guess is that her eating habits on such days even out her higher calorie consumption on days when she eats a lot such that she doesn't gain weight. A day where she eats 5000 calories isn't of much consequence when she eats about 250 the following day, especially when her job requires her to be on her feet all day.

Are there Japanese people who never touch a sweet and never snack? Sure. Are they common? I don't believe so. I think that like many Western folks, there are people who eschew sugar or fried foods in the interest of pure health concerns, but they are even fewer and far between here than in Western countries where people are even more fanatical about health in some ways due to the high incidence of obesity and more extreme and malleable notions of what constitutes "healthy" eating.

Lots of booze, but only edamame (beans) as a snack.

Japanese folks tend not to be extremists about food and seem to practice moderation in nearly all things, though some do go overboard with alcohol consumption. I've never known a teetotaler here, for instance. People only give up alcohol for medical reasons and alcoholism is defined medically, not psychologically, in Japan. The idea that one should give something up in an effort to preempt potential health issues (rather than deal with an actual present one) is not very common here, so deciding not to eat sugary treats or salty snacks isn't something most people are going to do unless a doctor tells them to quit. Considering the fact that most Japanese people visit the doctor at the drop of a hat, I'm guessing they figure any incipient problems will be caught and proper advice will be forthcoming.

So, yes, Japanese people stay thin and they snack. They eat between meals, but usually not more than once or twice per day (tea time and with drinks in the evening) and in quite small portions. Frankly, I feel this is a pretty sensible way to approach food on the whole, and does more for ones health than tossing all treats out the window in an act of radical diet extremism.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bakauke Tomato Curry Sembei

Much to my surprise, tomato is coming on as one of the summer's hottest flavors. Tomato gelatin is on offer in convenience stores, for instance. I'm not sure who decided it would be the fruit du jour in the summer of 2010,  but I think they made a good choice. I love tomato. When I was a kid, I used to eat them as a hand fruit. Yes, I was a strange kid. I wonder if tomato may be touted as the flavor for summer because it contains lycopene and that is supposed to help your skin handle UV rays. Of course, I'm probably giving the food manufacturers too much credit.

Given my love of tomato, I snapped up this bag of Bakauke (Befco) tomato curry sembei when I saw it for a mere 139 yen ($1.58) at Okashi no Machioka. The bag has 15 medium-size crackers at 34.4 calories each. These are the sort of super crispy, deep fried sembei which are meant to help a person drink more alcohol by putting more fat in the stomach (and on it, most likely). Frankly, I don't favor this variety in general because the frying oil is often a bit overbearing in the flavor profile, but you never know until you try.

The front of the bag tells us that there are 29 spices in these. A list of all of the spices is not given in the ingredients. I'm sure it's a trade secret or something, but tomato powder, chicken extract, wheat germ, Sucralose, and sugar are included.

The crackers are pebbly and crisp. They do smell like frying oil and baked rice with the barest hint of some sort of spicy smell. The first taste didn't reveal much of anything except the usual oil and sembei flavor. The second hinted more strongly at tomato with a whisper of curry. I was really disappointed that these were so bland when there is such promise in a stronger flavor from both tomato and curry.

I think this is the sort of thing where eating a lot at once might intensify your ability to perceive the flavors, but two crackers at once is my general limit. I was really disappointed that these were only a little better than plain sembei. That doesn't make them bad at all. They're still crispy and salty and good quality crackers. They just aren't very flavorful for something which promises 29 spices. I enjoyed finishing the bag, but I wouldn't buy another.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

7-Up Clear Dry

On the heels of the "Pepsi Strong Shot" comes this release of 7-Up Clear Dry. While it may seem that they have nothing in common, the label reveals that they both have the same goals in mind; they want to caffeinate you up until you develop heart palpitations and believe that you can run with the blurry speed of the Roadrunner.

I should note that 7-Up is not a common drink in Tokyo. Occasionally, I see it in the odd vending machine, but it has much less market exposure than Coke or Pepsi. Note that 7-Up is distributed by the makers of Pepsi in Japan, so this isn't someone pilfering an idea (adding lots of caffeine as the selling point). It's more like a company that lacks imagination recycling one.

Just like the Pepsi Strong Shot, this boasts more caffeine, in this case 85 mg. for a 500 ml. bottle. This is about 10 mg. less than 8 oz. of brewed coffee so it isn't going to send you over the moon. Unlike the Pepsi Strong Shot, this isn't hyper-carbonated.

I passed on reviewing the Pepsi Strong Shot because I suspected that it was going to taste like regular Pepsi and, as the review from Marvo at the Impulsive Buy that I linked to above says, that is exactly what it was. The same can be said for this 7-Up. It tastes and smells just like regular Diet 7-Up with it's fairly clean lemon-lime flavors. The big difference is that the regular stuff is promoted as being caffeine-free as one of its selling points in the States and this Japanese version is full of wake-up drugs.

The main draw for me with this beverage is that it is a diet drink. This is the only zero calorie version of 7-Up in Japan and a welcome addition to the woefully small line-up of sugar-free and zero calorie soft drinks. While I am not a huge fan of 7-Up, I do like having the option to have it occasionally. Unfortunately, I'm guessing this "Clear Dry" thing will be short-lived and I'll have to stock up before it vanishes in the next few months if I want to occasionally enjoy a 7-Up without sugar.

If you are in Japan and want another calorie-free beverage, go buy up all of this that you can now. I found it at AM/PM convenience store for 147 yen ($1.72) and I think that it is unlikely that it'll show up more cheaply or at markets, though I hope I'm wrong about that. It's probably available at other convenience stores. However, if you're not a 7-Up fan, don't bother as this is certainly nothing special except for the extra caffeine.