Friday, December 31, 2010

Otoshidama KitKat ("saku saku up")

This review is a bit of a cheat in one way, and an authentic review in another. Some months ago, Nestle Japan altered the basic KitKat saying that it was more "saku saku" or "crispier". My husband asked me if I was going to review it to see if it, indeed, was noticeably changed. I told him that it seemed like too incidental a change to bother with, though I am intrigued at the idea of a KitKat which may focus more on the wafers and less on the chocolate.

We were at the post office several weeks ago, and he saw the KitKat pictured above for sale behind the counter. This is the regular enhanced crispiness KitKat, but it has a special envelope attached to it for "otoshidama" or money given at New Year's holidays. This is a nice way for grandma or grandpa to give their grandchildren their usual gift cash. I'm guessing they are sold at the post office in order to catch the eye of folks who are coming in to send off their "nengajo" or New Year's postcards. Note that there is a rabbit on the envelope because next year ("tomorrow" for me as of this posting) is the Chinese year of the bunny. I'm guessing this is the year in which the Easter Bunny, Peter, and the white rabbit were all brought into being.

The KitKat itself is your regulation milk chocolate version. The only questions about it are whether or not it actually is crispier than the previous version and if it has a different general composition. The answer is, "yes", it is crispier. However, it is not crispier in an earth-shattering way. I don't know exactly what changed, but the sense I get is that the wafers may be toasted longer or their general has been recipe altered. Whatever the case may be, they are crunchier and make a louder sound in your head when you chew them.

Obviously, I'd buy this again if I wanted a KitKat. I love regular KitKats with their balance of wafers and milk chocolate. I just rarely get a chance to eat them with so many new things on my plate at any given time.

Happy New Year to all of my readers!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Plecia Raw Donut (rare cheese and strawberry)

Though these are called "donuts", they're not actually a donut in any way, so if you were hoping to satisfy your inner Homer Simpson, you're going to be disappointed. These are actually a cream-cheese/cream cheese pastry which requires refrigeration and has a short shelf-life which are ring-shaped. The beauty of a this shape of pastry is that the manufacturer can make it look bigger, but offer less substance.

These pastries are good example of how gelatin is the friend of pastry makers who want to offer the illusion of more without actually giving you more. It's also your friend if you want fewer calories. The gelatin mixed into the cream cheese mixture gives it a firmness without using fatty cream cheese for density.

This was my first experience with anything maybe by Plecia.  They're a maker of confectionery in Yokohama. It's a relatively young company, having been established in 1994 and has a line-up of pastries that seem to focus on the food not being quite cooked and have translations which should amuse. These two cakes are "raw" and another chocolate offering is "half-baked". There are also "runny" and "burned" puddings and pies. They also make mundane pound cakes.

In both cakes, the texture is super light, like a mixture of cream cheese and whipping cream. It's firmer than one might expect because of the gelatin. The cake doesn't lend much overall because it has gotten moist from contact with the topping. It doesn't add much flavor either, but makes a bland and sufficiently pleasant base.


The first bite of topping is very mild in flavor. It's not very sweet until you reach one of the blobs of blueberry jam. Except in the spots with blueberry, it has a subtle, sweetened cream cheese flavor. The blueberry jam areas taste a lot like, well, blueberry jam. I really liked this, particularly since it is only 128 calories for something which is reminiscent of actual cheesecake.


Because the strawberry is pureed throughout the cram cheese topping, this smells and tastes more strongly of berries. It really does taste a lot like someone has mixed a berry or two with the cream cheese mixture. This one was only 100 calories, but I wasn't fond of it. The strawberry flavor was too intense for me, but I think that was a personal preference and no slight about the cake itself.

Before writing this review, I had already bought 3 of these cakes, so clearly, I like them. I think if you're looking for a cheesecake-style treat which is light and low in calories, these can't be beat. However, if you want something really decadent and are indifferent to how much it causes your fat cells to inflate, you may find this a bit anemic for your tastes. Personally, I'd buy these again.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Random Picture 44

Click to see a larger image

My husband took a rikshaw ride in Asakusa awhile back, and he took a picture of these sembei makers selling fresh rice crackers and boxes with the Buddhist symbol (which resembles the Nazi symbol) on the boxes. I hadn't gone with him, so I didn't have a chance to sample any of these things, but they're pretty cheap at 500 yen ($5.98) for 8 large crackers. One of these days, I should go there with him and buy me some hand-made snacks.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lotte Frutio Gum

I've written before that I'm not a big consumer of gum, but that has since changed. I'm not sure why, but now I find myself subscribing to "Chewing Magazine" and wanting to walk around my neighborhood like a well-mannered cow working its cud. This image can be further enhanced by the fact that chewing sugar-free gum (especially that made with Xylitol) has some unfortunate side effects that may contribute to global warming. I realize that may provide an insanely sexy image for some of my male readers, but I hope the fact that I'm 46 will keep your hormones in check.

You'll note that at the top of the plastic canister with this gum, it says "Plus X". That isn't some secret ingredient. It's the flatulence-inducing Xylitol which is supposed to be good for teeth. We may all be going around leaving smelly vapor trails, but we won't have any cavities!

You can buy Frutio gum pretty much anywhere in Japan, though these larger plastic versions are usually only at supermarkets and snack shops. In convenience stores, you can generally get packs of individual flavors. I won't buy these plastic micro-buckets unless they're deeply discounted to about 399 yen ($4.76) or less. I got this one at Okashi no Machioka snack shop for that price, but I see these at markets for around 600 yen ($7.16) quite often.

There are three flavors and a pad of Post-it notepaper in the canister. The paper is to put your chewed gum in so that it won't stick to someone's shoe or the side of your trash can. The flavors are juicy lemon, juicy grape and juicy apple. Each has a nice candy shell surrounding its gum interior and all are so small that you'll likely need two pieces to feel you've got enough to work with.

The apple is the  most artificial tasting of the bunch, as is so commonly the case with green apple flavors. It's not bad, but definitely my least favorite. The lemon is the nicest with a good strong tang and somewhat authentic lemon flavor. The grape is pretty standard fake grape, but I liked it. The flavor lasted about 10 minutes tops on each of these, but that still puts them a cut above a lot of the gum in Japan.

The thing which makes me like Frutio (and I've bought it at least 3 times already) is that it isn't a mix of "mint" and fruit which is so often the case in Japan. The flavors are pure (fake) fruit rather than something which resembles toothpaste spread on a slice of fruit. Clearly, I'll buy this again, but only if it is on sale.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Little Big KitKat Mikan

I'm going to ask my readers to return to those less than thrilling days of yesteryear when they were young and naive and their mommies carted them off to the doctor for rounds of various inoculations. I realize that's something that may become a thing of the past with all of the controversy about vaccinations causing all sorts of problems such that people would rather their kids had polio or whatever. As a childless person, I'm really not too fussed about how other people deal with their off-spring unless they're kicking the back of my seat in a movie or on a plane.

Getting back to the point though, we all remember how dreadful the experience could be when young and helpless and forced to be skewered on our scrawny, tender arms with what I'm sure was a two-foot needle. The only "good" thing about it was that you'd often get a lollipop at the end of the ordeal. Well, it was best if you got orange or grape. Cherry would suffice in a pinch, and getting lemon or lime just was adding insult to the injured appendage that took the shot.

The reason I want you to remember those cheap lollipops that you got after being stabbed by a well-meaning health professional is that you'll need to draw on the sense memory of what those cheap, clear orange lollies smelled and tasted like to understand the essence of this KitKat. It's as if someone either stirred the milk chocolate with one of those suckers or crushed them up to sandwich between the wafers. Either way, it's the essence of a cheap, chemical orange flavor which is a bit too intense. With the milk chocolate, it comes across as an orange tootsie roll on steroids. On the bright side, these are crispier than usual KitKats.

This wasn't appalling or anything, but I wouldn't buy it again and had I known what it was going to taste like, I wouldn't have bought it in the first place. Adding orange to chocolate is something that needs some care and finesse. Real citrus flavors in the right balance make for something immensely delicious, but fake flavors in too high a quantity spoil the effect.

If you'd like to have one of these despite my low opinion of it, you can find them at convenience stores now. I got mine at NewDays for 120 yen. The only bright side is that there are 10 little morsels in the bag and each is only 22 calories so you can spread the "love" amongst your friends, family or coworkers should you live to regret your purchasing decision.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Variety Friday: Japanese KFC Christmas

The barrel was quite huge, about the volume of a 5 gallon bucket. 

Despite living in Japan for over 20 years, my husband and I have never taken part in the traditional fried chicken and Christmas cake rituals that have somehow become a part of the Japanese Christmas tradition. I'm not certain of how this tradition began, but I would be surprised if it weren't the devil spawn of the KFC marketing department. They are the kings of this ritual, though a wide variety of other outlets, including convenience stores and other fast food places, have jumped on the fried chicken bandwagon around this time of year.

The reservation schedule posted at our local KFC. The top shows the menu options for Christmas packs/barrels. The yellow tags indicate limited availability of chicken during those hours and the orange tags are hours in which no original recipe chicken will be on offer. You can see that 3:00 pm - 9:00 pm on the 24th is the busiest. (Click this to see a bigger version.)

While it may seem that having KFC for Christmas is just a simple matter of strolling on over to the local greasy chicken outlet and picking up a bucket, it's a bit more complicated than that because of the popularity of getting chicken during "the 3 days of Christmas" in Japan. At least in Tokyo, you have to make an effort to sign up early in order to pick your grub up around dinner time on the 23rd, 24th or 25th. If you don't, you risk getting shut out entirely as they can run out of original recipe chicken. Also, there can be huge mobs of people on the 25th and it's hard to get what you want by mere luck.

My husband and I signed up a few weeks before the date, but even then we were too late to hit any of the sweet spots for dinner on Christmas Eve or Day. We had to settle for the 23rd, which happens to be a national holiday (the Emperor's birthday) in Japan. You choose a time to pick up your chicken at 10-minute intervals. Ours was between 6:30-6:40. If you're late, you still get your chicken, but it will have sat around for awhile. Since you have to pay when you make your reservation, they don't care if you show up or not.

 The bucket contents unpacked.

There are a few different options, but we opted for the "party barrel A" for 3,880 yen ($47) because you get a commemorative plate in addition to a "Christmas salad", Christmas cake, and 8 pieces of original recipe chicken. The other options include the "party barrel B" (4 pieces of chicken, 6 tenders, a salad, a cake and the plate for the same price as "A"), and "Christmas Packs" which include only various types of chicken (tenders, nuggets, and pieces), no salad, no cake, and no plate. My husband wanted to get the plate as part of the deal as a memento of our first "Japanese-style" Christmas meal, but we also figured that this would save us having to arrange for a separate cake.

The whole lot served up, save the cake. That's our rice. It doesn't come with your barrel.

Except for the cake, nothing much was going to be a surprise. Everyone knows what original recipe KFC tastes like. The "Christmas salad" was nothing more than a smallish bit of salad with a Caesar salad kit on the side. What was worse was that the salad was mostly iceberg lettuce. Again, this was no great shock, but it would have been nice if they had done a little better by those buying expensive Christmas barrels. The salad kit had dressing, croutons, bacon bits, Parmesan cheese, and 4 plastic forks. The salad portion was barely adequate for 2. If you had 4 people, it would have been obscenely tiny.

The cake was very soft and I had a little trouble getting it out of the package without denting up the soft chocolate topping. When my husband smelled it, he said it was very reminiscent of something and asked me what I thought. My first thought was chocolate pudding, and that was his thought as well. The cake looks like your usual Japanese Christmas cake in that it has little flecks of real gold in the center to add a touch of elegance.

The cake was largely whipped cream based. The super soft outer layer was slightly bittersweet and where most of the flavor lay. The texture was pretty nice, but I would have liked a bit more heft both in terms of the flavor and density of the cake. The cake itself nearly vanished in a melty cloud of cream. It wasn't bad, but wasn't nearly as good as the cake I was given last year, not by a long shot. On the bright side, the cake was about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter and provided 4 large pieces or 8 small ones. My husband and I each had 1/8, and that weighed in at a mere 90 calories per serving.

This was an interesting experience, but mainly for going through the process of reserving it, picking it up, and seeing what the surprises might be. All in all though, it wasn't a very good meal, but I'm not a fan of fast food in general and KFC in particular. I ate one piece of the chicken only and the rest my husband will have to slowly eat by himself. If you love KFC and want a plate as a souvenir to remember your time in Japan by, this may be worthwhile, but I wouldn't do this again.

I have to ponder why this is so popular in Japan despite being a decidedly so-so experience on the food front. It's certainly not cheap. In fact, you could probably buy all of the components separately and end up with more money left in your pocket. The plate isn't really even a free bonus and you could definitely get a nicer cake, even from a convenience store. I think that this ultimately is like a lot of Western traditions in that we don't do them because they are good but simply because they are familiar and following this custom puts one in the proper spirit for  the holiday. Many Japanese people eat bad fried chicken for Christmas for the same reason that we still give fruitcakes. It's just what is done by everyone and we try not to think too deeply about why we do it.

Merry Christmas to all of my readers!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Meiji Yogurt Tablets

Though I am old (all of 46), I'm not old enough to have first hand experience with those old cigarette ads in which they extol the health virtues of smoking. These ads came to mind when I was considering the history of advertising for products which say that they carry some health benefits when clearly those products are anything but healthy. It's amazing what a company will tell you in order to help you silence the cognitive dissonance that comes along with doing something you know isn't good for you.

Across the top of this candy, which is loaded with sugar (first ingredient on the list), it tells you that it has healthy yogurt cultures and calcium. If you consume the whole box, you'll get 300 mg. of Calcium, but you'll also need to make a dentist appointment after chewing 18 tablets of mostly sugar. For the record, this isn't an insubstantial amount of Calcium to get from a snack since most adults require about 1000 mg. per day. Each tablet is a mere 6 calories.

The tablets are kept from getting moist by being kept in two handy blister packs. They're slightly rough on the outside, but not as chalky or powdery as a SweetTarts (the closest American cousin to this). The flavor is sweet and mildly sour with a really nice, smooth mild yogurt flavor. You can suck on one, or bite into it. Both are pleasant experiences, but biting into it releases a larger sense of the flavor and floods your tongue with a rather sugary textural sense which I found gratifying.

I really, really like these and will definitely buy them again, but I'm not fooling myself into thinking I'm doing it to fill my stomach with healthy bacteria or to get Calcium. I just like the taste and texture. They're a great sweet to keep in your desk or whatever bag you carry around for when you want a nice sweet pick-me-up because they won't go damp or stale. If you enjoy yogurt, there's a very good chance you'll like these.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Random Picture 43

First of all, I'm sorry for the awkwardly censored picture of my husband. Normally, I would just show the product, but this particular picture required the ability to compare sizes so having him stand next to the display allows you to see the relative sizes. My husband is holding a large Wonka bar as a further point of comparison.

Every year around the start of December, shops start to offer up giant kid's snacks that parents can buy for Christmas or New Year's. The items at the top are huge versions of Yaokin's "bo" (stick) snacks which I have reviewed before. They are usually 12 cm. (4.7 in.) long. I can't imagine anyone managing to eat those monster ones, but I think they are really more about the novelty than actually eating them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kracie Man Banana

Doing a rough translation of the name of the this product, which literally is "man banana" (男バナナ), I realize there is an unintentional implication there. If you're expecting something remotely phallic, you're in for an incredibly big disappointment. I think that a better translation would be "banana man", but where's the fun in that?

This product seems to have been inspired by the episode of The Simpsons in which Homer decides to get in shape and climb "The Murderhorn". While he's getting in shape, he tells his wife, Marge, that he will only eat food in bar form in order to release its awesome power so he takes two pounds of spaghetti and compresses it into a bar which he eats and then calls the hospital. This candy is trying to release the awesomeness of bananas, raisins, and mangoes by compressing them into little 30-calorie cubes of chewy candy.

My husband found this candy at NewDays convenience store and was drawn to the banana aspect of it. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be reviewing this since I'm not a big fan of banana snacks. That being said, he ate one piece of this and then never went back for more. To him, it tasted like nothing more than hyper-concentrated banana. This is no surprise since it is 90% fruit. A sniff tells you that banana is definitely the main component, but I could also taste the raisin's telltale sweetness and strong over-ripened flavor.

This candy is not your typical soft chew. It's rather more like a block of dried fruit/fruit leather. It's a little difficult to bite off a bit, but not exactly tough. Because it doesn't have much except fruit, dextrin and gelatin, you can get some idea of what it might be like to eat.

This reminded me a bit of eating banana chips without the added sweetness or crunchiness. It wasn't bad, but I am not the biggest fan of dried fruit flavors. To me, a lot of the value of fruit is in its moist real textures, not in hyper-concentrating those flavors by drying them out and squashing them. Though this isn't bad, I can't help but give it an "unhappy" rating because neither my husband nor I will eat the remaining 4 pieces of the 6 piece pack. Fans of dried fruit may feel otherwise, but I would really rather eat an actual banana than eat something like this.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tohato All Apricot

I'm not sure what most people do when they buy a package of some food with the expectation that they're going to enjoy it and then discover that it's  not all that they'd hoped for. Do they feed it to the neighbor's dog? Do they eat it anyway because they don't want to waste food? Do they hurl it at pigeons as they grumpily make their way through the park to yet another soul-draining day at the office? Or, do they do what I do and eat one and then throw the rest in a plastic holding basket of snacks that need to be reviewed but are so boring that you don't want to do it yet?

The latter is where these apricot cookies have been languishing for several weeks now as I just couldn't work up the enthusiasm to review them. I've reviewed several of the "All (something)" line of cookies, and have been  pleased with what I've tried. Since apricot is one of my favorite flavors when it comes to jam, dried fruit, and cookies, I was really happy to see this in a local 100 yen ($1.20) shop/convenience store (Lawson's 100).

Everything about these cookies looked to be every bit as good as the usual compressed fruit between two biscuits of the "All (something)" line of snacks. Unfortunately, the fruit appears to have been skimped on in this particular variety. There was too much dry cookie and too little actual apricot. In fact, when I broke a cookie in half, instead of seeing the delights of dried apricot running like fruity sap through the cookies veins, I saw nothing but dry biscuit. The packaging claims these cookies compress 10 centimeters of fruit into a 1 cm. cookie, but it seems like they skimped a lot on the frequency of fruit.

Even at a  modest 29.5 calories per cookie, I couldn't see these as worth it on the "pleasure to fat cell size increase" scale that I apply to all snacks that I try. Sure, there's nothing at all wrong with these. The cookie is pleasant enough though it's a somewhat dry biscuit and there is at least a little apricot flavor there, but ultimately it's just not all that impressive. If I were seriously hungry or on a carb rage, and this was all I had in the apartment (not bloody likely, considering I'm a snack blog reviewer), I might tuck into these. Tohato made me wish I had a dog to feed these to, or at least some pigeons to walk by on the way to work.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Poll (Special Saturday Post)

Some of my readers may have already noticed that I have put up a poll on the right side of the blog. If you have a moment, I'd appreciate any replies you'd care to give or comments you'd care to leave on the subject.

The reason for this poll is that I'd like to widen the scope of what I've been reviewing to some extent. There are sometimes foods that I buy and consume that I could review which I do not review because they aren't the sorts of things that most of my readers (who are not living in Japan) can find from their respective locations.

Mainly, I've been avoiding reviewing things like packaged pastries or traditional sweets which are sold relatively fresh (with expiration dates that are within a few weeks) and unlikely to be exported. Though I will occasionally review such things, my main focus has generally been on the sort of packaged food with longevity that may be sold by various exporters of Asian food.

The poll asks if readers are looking to be informed so they can make purchases because this has been my default assumption for the most part. However, I've started to wonder if the main reason people read is simply curiosity about Japanese food or food in general and that the ability to actually purchase the foods I review is of far lesser importance to my readers than I have imagined. If the poll reveals that few people actually use this blog as a resource for information on purchases, chances are I will expand to covering more of the types of foods that are unlikely to be available via exporters or Asian food selling agents.

Changing the scope of the blog to encompass more fresh foods wouldn't affect the general composition of the blog dramatically. Certainly, I would not avoid reviewing the popular items like KitKats, oddball Coke and Pepsi releases, etc. It would, however, cut down on the number of similar products that get reviewed (like the number of variations on flavor themes like sweet potato, chestnut, chocolate, banana Country Ma'am flavors). Frankly, I think that expansion would be good from the viewpoint of not repeating reviews of so many of the same products in their various incarnations. Again though, I'll sample what I want to sample. I'm looking to the poll's results more with an eye toward what I will actually take the time to write reviews of.

Thanks in advance for any feedback you care to give me. I really appreciate all of the people who follow this blog and read it regularly. The fact that it keeps growing (slowly, but surely) is very encouraging to me. At the moment, I'm averaging about 1,100 independent visitors per day (and heading toward 800 subscribers via RSS), and that makes me very happy indeed. Thank you for your support and readership!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Excellent Cocoa Daifuku

My husband is a very conservative eater. It's only in the last few years that he's come around to liking traditional Japanese sweets, and even now he doesn't tend to desire them enough to actually buy them. Mainly, he'll just eat them if a student gives them to him as a gift. Because of his conservative nature, I was a little surprised when he suggested that we buy this box of daifuku sweets. Daifuku are made with mochi (pounded rice cake) and usually filled with sweetened beans.

We found this box of "Excellent" cocoa daifuku at a souvenir shop at Meiji Shrine. There are 10 little blobs in the box. Each is about the size of the tip of your thumb. Because this is a bit of a "luxury" sweet, it was slightly expensive at around 1200 yen ($14.34). They're made by a company which I can best translate to "Ander HSK". The company didn't have a web site so I couldn't find any further information.

While these may look like a lot of little cocoa powder covered chocolate truffles, they're very soft and squishy. The outer mochi is so soft that it feels a bit like a membrane surrounding a firm blog of chocolate ganache in the center. They smell like cocoa powder, and it's impossible to take out out of the box without getting said powder all over your fingers. Because they are so limp, you have to pinch them to get them out.

The mochi mainly lends a soft slightly chewy texture. The flavor is of good quality somewhat dark chocolate that is lightly sweet. These are excellent and if you're squeamish about making a foray into traditional Japanese sweets, these are about as accessible as daifuku are going to be for a Western palate.

I wish I could offer information on other outlets for these sweets other than one souvenir shop at Meiji Shrine because that makes it sound like it can only be found if you happen to be a tourist in Japan, but the lack of web presence of the company makes it impossible to make other concrete recommendations. There's a high likelihood that you can find these in department store basements, where vast quantities of premium traditional Japanese treats can be purchased. If you can find these, I can't recommend them highly enough.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bourbon Petit Marron Tart

I'd like to imagine what the first meeting must have been like in Bourbon's product creation department when someone suggested created their line of "petit" cakes.

Lackey 1: "Gee, Kenji," the boss wants us to come up with a new line of products and I have no idea what to do."
Lackey 2: (sucking air noisily through his teeth in sympathy for the quandary they are in) "The safest thing to do is take an existing product and make it either bigger or smaller."
Lackey 1: "Let's toss a coin. Numbers it's small and flowers it's big." Small it is!"
Boss: "What is your idea?"
Lackeys 1 and 2: "We'll sell cake in pieces so small that even a hungry dormouse would be left wanting more!"
Boss: (sucking air noisily through his teeth in order to avoid expressing disappointment in the extreme lack of creativity being displayed, but also having nothing better to offer) "OK".

Let's face it, as marketing ideas go, selling things in itty bitty sizes is hardly a marketing revolution. I'm not sure that the notion of cutting cake up into teeny tiny little triangles and selling 8 of them for 100 yen (about $1.20) would have gone over in any country other than Japan. Sure, you can get away with tiny cookies or crackers, but cake that is the size of the tip of your thumb seems like an unnecessary choice. Still, there have been many iterations on these cakes released by Bourbon, so they must know what their market likes. And the market appears to like Lilliputian portions.

Each little bite of cake is soft and feels moist in your mouth, but also carries a sense of dryness due to the way in which it is preserved. The flavor is of very nice, somewhat sweet pound cake with a little bit of chestnut flavoring. The bottom of the "tart" is just as soft as the top, but adds a little burst of chocolate to the experience. The chestnut fragments, in addition to adding flavor, add a slightly crispy and chewy texture.

Each 5-gram piece is only 23 calories, so if you can stop yourself at one or two, this is great portion control. Personally, I can eat just one or two, but I would be just as happy to have had one whole cake of the size of all 8 pieces that I could cut up myself. The packaging with little separate tray compartments is a bit of a waste and it's hard to slide it back into the bag after you take one or two out. Regardless,  I really loved the flavor and texture of these cakes. If you like pound cake, I strongly suggest giving these a try.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Random Picture 42

If there is one thing I've learned since coming to Japan and paying attention to what is going on with food, it's that the Japanese food producers won't hesitate for a second to jump all over any indication that foreign-produced food is less safe than Japan-produced food. Despite the fact that Japanese food sometimes is found to be unsafe, they are like sharks that sense blood in the water and make sure any negative press about foreign food is heard loud and often. Such has been the case for the last several  years now in regards to American beef. The BSE scare allowed Japan to promote its beef and that which Japanese business owners produced on their Australian farms at the expense of American beef. This sign which I saw on the subway not too long ago shows that the American beef producers are trying to fight back and promote their image more positively with the slogan "We Care."

The reason that U.S. beef (and Chinese produce) are maligned so quickly and roundly when any chance presents itself is that the prices are lower and food safety is a serious concern among the Japanese. Of course, everyone is concerned about food safety, but the notion that Japanese food producers are more reputable or careful than those in other countries is wrong.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Asahi 9 pm

It seems that "night" and "adult" are themes for marketing products for late in 2010. I think this is because early in the year tends to be a focal point for selling things to young folks as they study and gear up for taking entrance tests. This is the reason why so many KitKats are released in the first part of the year and so few at this point in time. KitKats are mainly seen as something for kids or as special souvenirs.

This is my second "evening" themed food to review. Asahi recommends that you enjoy an "adult themed soda". That doesn't mean that you tipple from a beverage composed of gladiator sweat with a rich pheromone-based blend that only someone who has made it beyond puberty can appreciate the nuances of. It means you should kick back and enjoy this calorie-free drink after dinner or a bath. Yeah, I like the gladiator sweat idea better.

I first saw this beverage at AM/PM for 147 yen ($1.76), but being an incredibly cheap person, I waited for it to show up in my local Lawson's 100 for 100 yen ($1.20) for a 500 ml. bottle. It was sitting next to the Asahi Ultra Fiber Vitamin C that I tried before.

The advertising for this says that it includes orange and curacao. Curacao is a liqueur flavored with a citrus peel. It's also supposed to smell like vanilla and oak. To me, it smelled very faintly of orange and tasted like weakly carbonated club soda with a twist of orange. There is a little hint of bitterness, but not enough to put off someone who isn't incredibly sensitive to bitter flavors.

This is marketed as a soft drink, but there's really not much to it. If you like club soda with a bit of ever so slightly bitter orange, then this will fill the bill. The flavor is light and there is almost no sweetness to it (despite having artificial sweeteners). I think this would be best used as a mixer for alcoholic drinks or to mix with juice. It's not bad, and I'd buy it if I needed a bottle of water and this was the same price and I wasn't in the mood for plain water. The chances that I'll buy it again though, are exceptionally low.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Kabaya Hone Hone Saurus Chocolate

Every time I got to Seiyu supermarket, I peruse their ample kid's snacks section for anything new and interesting. One thing I have realized about these sections of cheap, small treats is that they don't see much updating when compared to more adult-size snacks. I guess the kids market isn't as fickle as the older set. Among the small packets of bubble gum, seaweed snacks, and cheap chocolates, the odd packaging of this Kabaya chocolate caught my eye. For 50 yen (60 cents), this 27-gram (about 1 oz.) bar was mine for sampling.

The name of this product translates essentially to "bonesaurus". It's the sort of name that a company could never give a product back home because of all of the snickering the idea might bring on from those for whom "bone" carries a certain hormonally-linked meaning. It would have been beyond awesome if someone had named this product in English instead of Japanese.

The bar is divided into three segments and each has a white chocolate representation of a dinosaur's head on top of a bittersweet shell that that hides a softer milk chocolate center. When you bite into it, you discover that there are also little crunchy bits in it. The combination of various chocolate flavors and textures creates a lovely sensation. The bittersweet chocolate intensity is stronger than most kid's candy bars, but not too strong. This is perhaps because it is tempered by the white chocolate and soft milk flavors.

This is an excellent little candy bar and I strongly recommend giving it a try if you have a chance. It's 157 calories for the entire bar and well worth it. I wouldn't  hesitate to have this again.

Note that this candy is related to a series of plastic toys that Kabaya sells. You can see those toys here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Strawberry Cake KitKat (mini)

I have a feeling this will be one of my shortest reviews ever. This is because strawberry KitKats are often pretty much more of the same. The fact that this one is named "strawberry cake" seems more like an effort to re-brand something relatively mundane and oft-recycled into something more interesting and the pessimist in me (and the part that has sampled a lot of strawberry KitKats) stops me from having and real hopes.

The only reason that this is getting reviewed is that I wandered into a 7-11 to buy something else and saw a box of mini bars for sale individually for only 42 yen (50 cents). I figured that was a small price to pay for a chance to speak derisively about yet-another-strawberry-KitKat. Since this is a mini bar, both fingers together make up about the same volume as 1.5 regular KitKat fingers. There's no calorie information on these individual sale packets, but I'd wager it's about what most of these are, between 66 and 70 calories.

When I unwrapped it, I smelled that very familiar fake strawberry and sweet white chocolate smell. The bar is pale pink and quite sweet, and while it does carry pretty much the same strawberry flavor as all of the other variations of this, there is a little something else there as well. Whatever it is does have some sort of essence of "cake", but it is extremely weak. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't detect it unless you were looking for it. To me, it came across as a sort of vanilla, cream, and flour combination flavor.

The whisper of an element of this which resembles "cake" is certainly not worth seeking out this bar. Unless you are head over heels in love with the idea of a strawberry KitKat, you might want to give this a pass. It's nice enough, for sure, but more of the same old, same old for the most part.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sonton Peanut Cream

The review of this particular product is offered as a public service. Before I purchased this, I already knew what I was buying and I knew that I would sample it, review it, and never ever eat the rest. The reason this service is necessary is to warn any number of countless unsuspecting foreigners from making the mistake so many of us have made before. That is, they see a carton of peanut cream and figure that this is the Japanese version of "peanut butter." There should be big red warning signs in front of "peanut cream" that flash "NOT PEANUT BUTTER!"

So, that being said, I am pleased to introduce you to a product that puts the lie to the assertion that Americans love everything sweeter than the Japanese do. This is little more than peanut frosting in a bizarre glossy, semi-translucent presentation. The texture isn't creamy, but rather sort of like eerily suspended gelatin which is cold and rather like what you'd expect thick brown mucous (sorry) to be like.

The ingredients list may reveal what is going on with the texture. The first thing it mentions is "peanuts paste" followed in parentheses by "flour paste". The first ingredient is sugar water (probably the equivalent of high fructose corn syrup but made with grapes instead of corn), followed by flour, then peanut butter. This is pretty much peanut butter mixed with a fructose-based syrup and flour. As an ardent fan of peanut butter, I believe they have tampered with perfection to create this abomination.

The texture is really unfortunate because the truth is that this has a fantastic peanut smell and a good peanut flavor. In fact, this could be given a favorable rating if it were not so incredibly cloyingly sweet. You know those over-used dumb jokes about eating something so full of sugar that it gives you diabetes after one bite? This stuff brings those jokes to mind and makes me think, nay, fear, that there may be some truth behind them.

Ultimately, whether or not you're going to like this is a matter of personal taste and experience. Most people who grew up with peanut butter (especially natural types) are going to find this pretty hard to tolerate and anyone who is sensitive to super sweet foods is going to gag on it. This is best applied sparingly to something quite bland. I had it on a bit of a saltine, and it wasn't bad at all, but I'd just as soon have real peanut butter without all of the sugar and textural strangeness.

If you're inclined to buy this, you can find it at most supermarkets for about 180 yen ($2.14). One of the reasons that foreigners may gravitate toward it when they don't know any better is that real peanut butter is generally only available as an expensive import. Small (about 1 cup) jars of Skippy sell for 400-500 yen ($4.76-$5.94), so if you see what looks like a domestic brand for less than half the price, you may be inclined to sample it and be in for a big disappointment. 

Incidentally, the maker of this peanut cream, Sonton, offers a variety of other spreads including a chocolate one and some "whip" versions of peanut butter, black sesame and chocolate as well as jams. The whip versions are in clear containers and are mixed with fat. I've had those on rare occasions before and they are actually not so bad because, while they are sweet, they are lighter and have a pleasant texture. If you want to go for a sweet peanut or chocolate spread, I'd recommend the whips over these flour and sugar water types.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random Picture 41

Click this picture to see a larger one.

At airports and major train hubs in Japan, you can often find KitKats that you can't find elsewhere. This is an old picture, so I doubt that all of these are still available. The first one on the left is a white chocolate soy sauce variety. Next to it is a kinako one then a strawberry "Rilakkuma" one and then green tea.

The Rilakkuma one is no different than the seemingly dozens of strawberry Japanese KitKats that have been released through the years. It's called "strawberry milk", but the addition of "milk" is almost certainly meaningless when it comes to the taste. I think strawberry, and to a lesser extent, cherry, are Nestle Japan's "lazy" flavors. When they want to release a variation because of a hook up with a T.V. show or popular character, they must sit in the office wracking their brains about what flavor to attach to it. For Rilakkuma, they probably considered "honey", "fish", and even "pine tree", then ultimately threw up their hands and decided to just make it cherry because people would buy anything as long as the cute little "Hello Bear" character was slapped on the package.