One of the things that Japan used to be famous for was copious numbers of free samples. There was a time, in days gone by, that foreigners would remark that a trip through the food areas of a department store (the basement) would net you so many samples that you could get a free lunch. I'm here to say that those days are long, long gone. Samples are offered on occasion, but the only places that reliably pony them up are Costco and some of the posher traditional rice cracker (sembei) and sweets shops. Such shops still serve a cup of tea and a small sample in many cases, but things are far spottier in markets, bakeries and department stores.
Since most customers descend on open trays and baskets of free samples as if they were living in the midst of post-war famine, I can understand why various places have cut way back on offering them. Few customers tend to actually make purchases based on such samples anyway. In fact, one enduring frustration for my husband and I is that there are some things (especially in bakeries) that look good and if samples could be had, we might buy them. I don't blame the bakeries, but rather the greedy customers. Honestly, I've seen people hover over sample baskets trying to block other people's access while they feed themselves with two fists. I'm not talking about grubby homeless people or impoverished students (I'm not sure Japan actually has any poor college students), but middle-aged women in nice clothes with shopping bags bearing the names of tony shops.
My most recent experience with free samples came along this very day while I was hanging out in a local Starbucks waiting for my husband to finish a swim and rejoin me for a convivial walk home. I rarely sit in coffee shops because I'd rather walk about. However, with my recent surgery (on Dec. 20), I really felt too tired to spend an hour walking while he swam. Before half my thyroid was extracted and I attained a big piratey scar across my throat, I would have happily gotten some extra exercise instead of occupying space for the price of an expensive cup of coffee. As I sat there reading a medieval novel on my ancient Palm, one of the Starbucks employees walked over with a tray of samples and told me it was something for New Year's, but she said it so fast that I only caught the word "matcha" (green tea). Looking at it, I knew that it was a latte by the color, but I didn't know what the little brown swirl on the top was. It turned out that it was azuki (sweetened red bean) sauce. Frankly, I thought it might be chocolate syrup.
I'm not a huge fan of green tea. It's in the category of "if they serve it to me for free, I'll drink it, but I won't order it myself". I've tried a lot of green-tea flavored things including KitKats, cookies, cakes, bean cakes, ice cream, and actual tea, of course. On occasion, I've really enjoyed it because the right balance of bitter and sweet can really create something tremendous with green tea. At other times, I've felt far too much bitter or grassiness in the mix and that the green tea element was overbearing. To my taste buds, green tea flavoring is like coffee flavoring. It's easy to get wrong, and hard to get right.
This is how I remember my experiences when I'm out of the apartment and forgot to put my notebook back in my bag. Thank goodness for all of the advertising tucked into free packets of pocket tissues.
I sniffed the sample with interest and noted that the scent had some nutty elements as well as the familiar green tea scent. The taste was milky with a strong green tea flavor, but nearly zero bitterness. The creamy full fat milk and enough sugar to make it sweet but nowhere near cloying offset any unpleasantness that may have come from using such a strong green tea flavor. The azuki, which I perceived as chocolate based on the color and appearance, was too small in quantity to really add much, but it may have added a dimension that wasn't overtly "beany". It may have just added rather more depth of flavor. In fact, one thing that I really liked about this was that drinking it was such a multilayered experience. The texture was creamy, but not overly rich and the flavor was strong, but not overbearing. The manner in which the latte was made or the tea roasted left me with a good nutty finish.
I really liked this, and would actually buy one for myself now that I've tried it. Considering my relative indifference to green tea, that says a lot about how good it is and the power of offering free samples. I'm not sure how matcha purists would feel about this, but I thought it was truly delicious. That being said, don't be fooled into thinking the fact that this is green tea with red beans makes it healthy. If you drink one, you are essentially having dessert as a short one with regular milk has 180 calories, a tall about 300, and a venti nearly 400 calories. Since this is likely to disappear after the season is well and truly over, I'd recommend skipping dessert one day soon and enjoying one while you can.