Monday, January 31, 2011

Nissin Spa King Carbonara Gratin

As part of my irregular reviews of "real" food, I decided to give this pasta-based entree from Nissin a go after one of my commenters said that the noodle-based packaged foods in Japan tend to be better than the rice-based ones. Though I'm not a fan of noodles, I don't "hate" them, and this carbonara beckoned to me with the promise of the bacon, egg and cheese... okay, it's more like the real deals are diamonds and this is offering a cubic zirconium, but even fake bacon is better than no bacon at all. Also, it's called "Spa King". Anything with "king" in it gains automatic awesomeness points. This is, after all, how "Burger King" stays in business. ;-)

All of the separate components await assembly. I guess they must be kept separate or they may combine into a mutant off-spring if prematurely mixed.

I found this 277 gram (9.7 oz.) meal packet at Seiyu supermarket for 198 yen ($2.36). That may sound like an impressive amount of grub, but it's actually only 6 oz. (170 grams) of food. The rest is plastic and foil, which rather makes me feel guilty for buying this given all of the associated material waste.

The various squiggly thing and goo packets squirted into the plastic tray.

Taking off the wrapping reveals quite a few separate packets including what look like somewhat scary cooked noodles pressed into an unappealing wad of carbohydrates. The blue packet is some sort of oily substance that you squeeze over the pasta first followed by the red and silver packet of sauce and finally the tiny bit of powdered cheese. After you squeeze all of the components into the tray in the proper order, you're supposed to put the cover back on before heating. Since it's just a sheet of plastic, you just sort of lay it back over the top of the mess. The instructions recommend various times depending on your microwave's power and I went for 3 minutes at 600W which seemed about right. 

It looks pretty good when it's cooked, though there isn't as much sauce as there appears to be here.

This smelled like canned white sauce. It's hard to describe it as anything more than that. The flavor was very heavy on the ham flavor, slightly peppery, rather salty, with hints of egg and cheese. It definitely could have used a stronger cheese element, but I really have no complaints. One of the biggest surprises is that the pasta is chewy and neither under nor overcooked. It's pretty much perfect, though it does come out in a mass that you have to fight to untangle after heating.

The Spa King's carbonara has a lot less bacon/ham product than one might hope for.

The "good" news about this is that it tastes pretty good for what it is and it has about 20% of the daily requirement of protein. I find that somewhat impressive for a dish that is pretty much a wad of pasta covered in various types of goo. I had this with some leftover chicken breast on the side to supplement the protein content of the meal (and a huge carrot for a vegetable). The bad news is that it has 1300 mg. of Sodium and ones daily recommendation is 1500 mg. So, 87% of the salt and 20% of the protein. It provides 370 calories, which isn't bad either.

Clearly, this isn't the best option for a meal, and it is designed to be something you have for lunch as a stand-alone entree. It tastes better than average though, is relatively cheap, and wouldn't be a bad occasional quick meal. I personally think it would serve one best as a quick side dish to some sort of lean protein, but then I'd recommend eating only half of it in such a case.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tirol Premium Tiramisu

I grew up in a rural area where people ate a lot of potatoes, corn, chicken and beef. "Dessert" to us was usually ice cream or pie. Things like tiramisu were alien to us. In fact, I'm guessing anyone who even talked about such things with a sense of curiosity or longing would be viewed as trying too hard to be some snooty food connoisseur. Hence, my first exposure to tiramisu came during the period when it was a monumental food fad in Japan in the late 80's/early 90's. It hasn't exactly faded away since then, and the continuing release of chocolates like this is evidence of that.

For those who grew up like me and aren't familiar with tiramisu (all 2 or 3 of you), it's an Italian dessert made with ladyfingers (or cake), coffee, cocoa, liqueur, and Mascarpone cheese. Well made tiramisu is a textural and taste delight with depth and a certain delicacy. The last time I tasted something which was supposed to be the real deal was a sample at Costco, and it was heavy and nasty beyond belief. Most of what is on offer in Japan is a thin layer of yellow sponge cake with a mixture of whipped cream, cocoa, and coffee flavors. It's good, but also clearly no authentic.

Yeah, it broke into fragments when I tried to cut it in half.

The chocolate tries to emulate the layered sense and look of the real dessert including having a layer with cocoa powder in it. The look is rather easier to convey than the complex flavors of chocolate, coffee and mascarpone cheese. The main thing that this was going to lack was the textural elements of tiramisu. However, the flavor combination was actually pretty good. There was bittersweet chocolate, cocoa, coffee, and even the vaguest hint of mild cheese. The biggest surprise was that it wasn't too sweet as many Tirol chocolates with white chocolate as a main component are overbearingly sweet.

This was pretty good, not great, but a solid contribution to the Tirol Premium line-up. I wish there had been something else in the layering to add more variation in texture rather than just lots of solid chocolate. Also, while the flavor mixture was good and the sweetness level subdued, each flavor felt a bit flat. You can tell that these are low-quality chocolates, but one can't expect too much of a 1-inch/2.5 cm square for 20 yen (25 cents) that is picked up at a convenience store.

This is a little higher in calories than usual for a Tirol candy at 66. Since it's not incredibly sweet, I'm guessing it's just fattier than usual though the chocolate isn't any softer than usual (and mine was firm because I kept it in the refrigerator). I'm not sure if I would recommend this to others. On the one hand, it's pretty good for what it is and if you're in Japan and can just buy one cheaply and you like coffee chocolates, you might want to give it a try. If you have to pay a higher import price though, or dislike coffee chocolates, I'd say give it a miss. I don't think I'd buy another, but I don't regret having sampled this either.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Random Picture 47

 Click this to see a bigger one that you can read better.

This sign is from Becker's, a fast food place that is either owned or has an exclusive deal with Japan Railway (JR). In some stations, you can find these places though only in some of the bigger ones that aren't already surrounded by other fast food options. As fast food goes, they're at least a small cut above the rest. Like Subway, they bake their own bread (buns) on the premises and claim to make everything fresh. I used to work near Itabashi station and they had a Becker's, but my local station does not.

This poster is for breakfast options at a Becker's at a neighboring station and it caught my eye for several reasons. First of all, the presentation on the sign is very elegant for fast food. Since I didn't actually eat there, I can't say for sure, but I believe that the food is served on actual plates. The sets are:

"Morning Plate 1" - scrambled egg, toast with butter, and a scrap of bacon with coffee
"Morning Plate 2" - this is called the "balance plate" which includes everything in the first set (egg, bacon, toast, coffee) plus yogurt and juice
"Morning Plate 3" - a hot dog, yes, a hot dog and a few scraps of lettuce and tomato with coffee
"Morning Plate 4" -  coffee, toast with cheese or mayo with various goo (can't tell which and the poster doesn't say), coffee, and a thimble of cabbage
"Morning Plate 5" - English muffin halves with scrambled egg and ketchup and seaweed, cheese and bacon, and coffee

The configuration of these sets illustrates something about Japanese food culture which one can either find charming or irritating, and that's that the equivalent of gustatory lip service when it comes to the sides. The amount of vegetables is so minuscule as to be pretty much pointless. They function more as garnish than as meal components.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shogoin (Red Bean) Yatsuhashi

Some foods in Japan are familiar to me mainly through my former work and this is definitely one of them. I hadn't seen yatsuhashi for at least 6 years when my husband brought home this box of traditional Japanese sweets. I don't know if families are buying these for themselves and snacking on them, but this is something I personally associate with obligatory souvenirs that salesmen brought back from business trips as a way of saying, "sorry that you're all stuck in this stuffy office while I go out on sales trips and spend half of the time doing tachiyomi instead of actual work".

The gift box, which doesn't tell you much about what the food looks like and that's why I didn't put it at the top of the post.

Though this traditonal Japanese sweet was made by a company called Shogoin, it almost certainly doesn't matter who makes it if you pick up a box. There is a very low chance that it will be appreciably different as long as it is fresh. In fact, one point about this is that it is actually "raw" rice flour dough which resembles chewy mochi and has to be eaten quickly. The packaging says you've got to eat it within three days and keep it refrigerated.

Note that you can buy various cooked versions of yatsuhashi, but it is markedly different in texture and taste. In fact, I didn't even realize that the cooked version was the same basic material as the raw version as this is like a super soft pastry coated in cinnamon and the cooked version (at the top left of the linked page) is like chewing on a hard cinnamon stick. Research for this post educated me about this fact. This is definitely something which I'd strongly recommend in its raw form over the cooked version despite the limited life span on it.

Yatsuhashi is a food associated with  Kyoto, Japan's former capital and magnet for tourists who prefer to think of Japan as a quaint, quiet place full of people who are politely mincing about in kimono and geta rather than the noisy, modern, and rude place it is (at least if you live in Tokyo). My husband was given this box of sweets by a student who returned from a New Year's trip. Our box included both green tea and basic versions, but I'm only reviewing the basic one.* The wrappers sometimes have other flavors added to them including black sesame seeds or even strawberry, but I'd only encountered the plain cinnamon version before. Various fillings, including peach as on offer by Shogoin at the time of this review, are also possible.

Yeah, it's a crappy picture, but the best of three attempts.

These are an interesting experience from a Western palate's point of view. The smattering of red beans in the center is small enough that it doesn't overcome you with beany flavor but is enough to add something more to the mix. The wrapper is like eating raw pie dough in some ways, but with a little more heft and texture as it is slightly chewy but not the least bit stretchy. The main appeal for me is the sweetness coupled with the cinnamon which is so generous as to be actually hot. Note that, this being a souvenir, there is no nutrition information on the box, but the "Calories in Japanese Food" site provides an estimate of about 66 calories per (about 4"/10 cm) sweet.

This is a curious sweet, but I still enjoyed it. I think it is one of those things which can be an acquired taste for those who were not raised around similar Asian sweets. I love the soft yet chewy texture, and the cinnamon flavors, but I think some people may find it all a bit strange. If you come across this in an Asian grocery or while in Japan, I'd say buy a small amount and give it a try, but I wouldn't gamble on a big box if your tastes run more toward traditional Western sweets and their various derivatives.

*I am only reviewing the basic one because I'm giving away the green tea version. This is not because I expect to dislike it, but rather that there are too many of them for my husband and I to eat in the limited time they should be eaten and I'd rather share them with a grateful person than have some of them go to waste. And while the person I'm giving them to would probably take the open package, I think it's better manners to offer a sealed one.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pringles Mayonnaise Potato

I've never "got" the appeal of Pringles. If you are so incredibly anal retentive or compulsive that you'd rather eat a processed pressed foodstuff that has the consistency of sawdust held together with potato starch, then maybe you should consider whether or not salted snacks are simply too unpredictable for your nature. Perhaps you'd prefer some nice, perfectly shaped Anafranil tablets.

I can't recall ever buying a can of Pringles of my own volition, but I got this small (40 gram/1.41 oz.) can of mayonnaise potato Pringles from my Okashi no Machioka "lucky bag". Note that they have to say these are  "potato flavored" because they know these aren't real potato chips. I imagine that if one were inclined to buy these, they'd cost about 100 yen ($1.22) for a can.

Though Pringles are usually stacked fairly evenly, this can is only partially filled so they are turned over on their side. I guess they wouldn't do for really compulsive sorts, but they're okay for someone like me who is indifferent to them in any form. After regarding the contents with mild disdain, I gave them a try. They smell like normal Pringles. It's that cooked processed potato substance scent. There's also a slight hint of what I'm sure passes for mayonnaise.

The salt from the first chip hit an irritated spot on my throat and sent me into a coughing fit, but I didn't hold that against it. No, I held the fact that it had a very strong and spicy mayonnaise flavor against it. The first chip really came across as bordering on overbearing. By the second chip though, the mayonnaise flavor mellowed out. Clearly taste buds become acclimated rapidly to faux mayonnaise flavors. After that, they tasted like slightly spicy Pringles. The ingredients include whey powder (yum, yum), garlic, butter, cheese, and corn syrup. Mayonnaise is nowhere in the list.

These aren't horrendous or anything. I just don't like Pringles and the mayonnaise flavoring does nothing to make these more appealing, and spending 206 calories on this small portion of them isn't something I'd choose to do. My guess is that their future is to sit in my basket of partially consumed snacks for a couple of months. I'll eat a chip or two once in awhile and then remember that I didn't especially care for them in the first place. Eventually, they'll go stale and I'll throw the rest out. Such will be my utter indifference to them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fujicco Chestnut Pudding

Pudding or "purin" as it is called in Japan, is sold pretty much everywhere here, and I tend to pretty much ignore it. It's not that it's bad, but rather that the flavors tend to be pedestrian (vanilla, chocolate, and coffee) and also I'm not the biggest fan of pudding. There's also the fact that most of these little cups of thickened goo are full of fat and carry a high calorie punch for their size.

This caught my eye at the local Peacock supermarket for 108 yen ($1.33) because 75 grams (2.6 oz or about 3/4 cup) is only 91 calories and it is "kuri" or chestnut-flavored. Granted, chestnut is a common flavor in autumn and winter in Japan, but I never noticed it in pudding before. That's probably because I wasn't paying attention rather than because it wasn't on offer before. I was probably distracted by all of the chocolate in the next aisle.

This is made by a company called "Fujicco" and it was my first experience with a product of theirs. The company makes a vast array of foods for markets including "Caspia" yogurt (greek yogurt), health and diet foods, nata de coco, and vacuum-sealed bags of things which look like they have been regurgitated by a bizarre sea creature. The last item is my way of summarizing "food that is used in Japanese cooking which I don't consume."

The texture is surprisingly decent considering that it breaks up like a gelatinous blob rather than as a smooth creamy pudding. The smell is really quite nice with a roasted chestnut aroma that also brings coffee to mind. It is the roasting that brings about this comparison, not the actual presence of coffee.

The flavor is incredibly good. Chestnut is a flavor that is easy to screw up because too much is gag-inducing and too little leaves you shrugging. To me, this had the perfect balance of chestnut flavor and sweetness with a hint of something that reminded me of the brandy so often used in mont blanc desserts. I truly enjoyed this, and that surprised me.

As a great fan of Mont Blanc, I really loved this. It was like eating just the top off of a pastry except with a bit more intensity and sweetness and a lot less fat. I will definitely have it again, and would recommend it to anyone who is a great fan of chestnut paste or chestnut pastries.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Iwatsuka Soy Sauce and Nori Sembei

Readers who follow the trends of what I review may have noticed that there was a time when I was reviewing pretty much one type of rice cracker (sembei) a week and that lately the frequency of such reviews has dropped greatly. This isn't because I got far fewer comments on the sembei reviews than any other type or that I perceived that they were of the lowest interest to most of my readers, though frankly I believe that is true. It is because I'd pretty much sampled most of what I wanted to and wasn't going to start buying things of dubious interest (particularly shrimp-flavored crackers) for the sake of keeping up the appearance of having an interest in sembei. I'm not a sembei poser, after all.

The only reason this is being reviewed is that it was included in the supermarket fukubukuro that I bought. This isn't the sort of thing I tend to gravitate toward though I also won't recoil from it in horror. The little flecks of nori (seaweed paper) tend to turn me off. It isn't because I hate seaweed, but rather because it can be too strong a flavor and I'm not that great a fan of the sense that I'm gnawing on chlorophyll. Since you can never predict how intense the grassiness is going to be when you have a snack with seaweed, it's easier just to pass, especially when the choice is to buy such a big bag.

It turns out that these are actually pretty mild on the seweed and have a nice savory flavor influenced mainly by soy sauce, but also by bonito (which is used for Japanese fish soup stock). None of the flavors are pronounced or individual but they tend to all come together in one mild savory mix which isn't too grassy, fishy, or salty. There are 14 two-packs in this big bag, and two crackers are 46 calories. This makes them an excellent option for a quick salty snack treat.

I was surprised that I liked these as much as I did, and I'd certainly consider getting them again. The main problem for me is that these types of "traditionally" flavored rice crackers carry a particular scent that my husband finds very off-putting so I can only eat them when he's not around. If your mate doesn't mind such things, I'd say give these a try. Since I got mine as part of my New Year's grab bag, I can't say for certain what the price is, but I'd guess they are between 180-240 yen per bag and can be had at a supermarket.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Random Picture 47

(Click this picture to see a larger version)

You can tell that "it's that time of year" again in Japan when the KitKat releases and displays start revving up. "That time" means that kids are taking or have recently taken entrance exams for various educational institutions and Nestle Japan is pushing to get parents to buy celebratory or encouraging candy bars. I took a picture of this display at NewDays convenience store and, oddly, it doesn't feature anything new. There are "gokaku" mugs with KitKats and instant coffee, "adult sweetness" KitKats, plain big bars and regular KitKats, mikan and strawberry Big Little KitKats, and a bag of white and milk chocolate minis.

The display does include something I personally hadn't seen before and that is a "present". If you buy two KitKats, you can get a "clear file" showing a young woman holding up a KitKat amongst a frame of cherry blossoms. This one says, "I'm going to campus", as if she passed her exam and is going to attend the college of her parents' dreams, but I can't tell if it was written in an empty speech bubble by the staff of NewDays or if that's what all of these say. At any rate, I didn't get one because I don't need more useless office supplies, but those in Japan who are KitKat collectors may want to march on over to NewDays while they last.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Guardman Nodo Ame

As long-time readers may already know, I'm a sucker for interesting packaging. In fact, I think that sales to foreigners who find packaging with weird English or bizarre graphics to be of paramount interest could quintuple if the marketers started playing to that particular angle. I would recommend things like "The Rice Farmers Daughter" sembei shaped like 8's (to resemble breasts). Those would do well.

Though this doesn't have a funny English name attached to it, the characters say "The Guardman" nodo ame or "throat candy". The combination of the name and the fierce-looking fellow on the front of the package as well as the price to sell (100 yen/$1.20) and the fact that these are sugar-free piqued my curiosity. It also reminded me a lot of a statue that I saw at Mt. Takao of a red guy who I christened "angry flower nipple man". Look at the picture above and you'll have to agree that the resemblance is uncanny. Perhaps that fellow escapes the blue picket fence he's trapped behind at night and slips off to his own factory to make throat drops for people with scratchy throats. Maybe the herbs are from the very same flowers that he attaches to his nipples for his day job in front of the shrine.

I don't know why this strapping figure of an angry man is on the cover of these throat drops, but I know that they are fiercely medicinal and definitely have the power to keep a sore throat at bay. Unlike a lot of the "nodo ame" that I've had in Japan before, these are not minor variations on a lollipop pretending to help you with a scratchy throat. They're packed full of intense herbal extracts including ginger and Eucalyptus and include catechins, which are supposed to act as antioxidants. The entire bag has 186 calories, which I calculated out to be about 9 calories per candy.

I found these at a local supermarket and haven't seen them anywhere else since then. If you are the type of person who likes strong herbal drops, these are the bee's knees. Even if I don't have a sore throat, I occasionally like to have something like this as an intense flavor experience. However, I'm guessing most people would only want them if they were actually sick, or liked really weird packaging.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ito En Tea's Tea Manhatten Milk Tea

Usually I don't take pictures of my garbage to illustrate a review. Generally, I take a picture of a full bottle of a beverage if it is a transparent container, and a picture of the drink poured into a glass if it is opaque. So, one may ponder why I'm using a picture of an empty bottle this time.

Actually, I'm guessing that if I hadn't mentioned it, very few of my readers would even have noticed that the bottle was empty, but there is a point to be made. Of course, I take the scenic route to any point because otherwise my reviews would be little more than short descriptions about taste, texture and smell, and there's really no fun in that. Let's just start by saying this bottle didn't actually come from anywhere that even resembled Manhatten despite the product's name.

I should mention that I had no intention of purchasing any of the Tea's Tea line of products nor reviewing them. There were two reasons for this decision and neither relates to the quality of Ito En's beverages. The primary reason is that I can make damn fine tea with a teabag, milk, and some sweetener for a fraction of the price and far less waste than buying bottled tea. The secondary reason is that my husband told me that Tea's Tea is a brand that is sold back home and I try not to knowingly review products that are essentially sold in the same form in the U.S.

It turned out that this type of milk tea, which is made with a combination of cow's milk and soy milk and is calorie-reduced, isn't marketed back home. However, that wasn't enough to get me to try it. The thing that convinced me to try it was the fact that you can't brew a cup of tea while you climb a mountain, and hot tea from a vending machine (which you can find on mountains in Japan, of course) makes a great hand warmer on a chilly day.

On December 28, my husband and I climbed Mt. Takao (aka, the mountain for sissies who can't climb) and that is where I secured this 275 ml. bottle (9.3 oz.) for the inflated price of 150 yen ($1.80). Note that the vending machine prices incrementally increase the higher you go up the mountain. They start around 150 yen for 500 ml. bottles at the bottom then climb to 170 ($2.03) then finally are 200 yen ($2.40) at the top. This makes no sense at all because it's not like a sherpa is hauling cases of drinks up the mountain and charges more to go all the way to the top. The same trucks are hauling them to each progressive spot. I know because they kept driving past us while we struggled up the steepest path to the top of the mountain.

The vending machine I got this from was about 2/3 of the way to the top and near an area studded with shrines. It could also be called "the part where you stop climbing super steep inclines and start climbing about 1000 steps to get to the top". This caught my eye mainly because it has a big "zero" on the front and that generally means no sugar. Indeed, this is made with the sweeteners Sucralose and Acesulfame K. The entire bottle is 49.5 calories, but that comes entirely from the milk and soy milk.

In addition to being pleasantly warm on chilly hands, this is also very tasty tea. It is well-balanced in terms of its sweeteness and milkiness with pleasantly floral tasting black tea. In fact, I was so impressed that I have considered buying it again despite my cheapness and desire not to drink PET bottles of beverages that can be made at home. This is damn fine tea, especially if you're stupid enough to pick the hardest trail the first time you climb a mountain at 46 years of age with a bum knee and want something hot, slightly creamy, and rich in quality tea flavors. And, yes, this was the very bottle I brought back down the mountain. I hung onto it for a few weeks just for this review. ;-)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cheeza Bleu Cheese Crackers

It may seem that all I do is try to think up dumb or funny introductions then talk about the actual food when I make these blog posts, and, yes, that is what I do most of the time. However, through time, things are revealed about Japan and Japanese food culture which show a broader "truth" about the way things are. Believe it or not, something as mundane as these Cheeza crackers brought this though forward.

A great deal of Japanese cuisine is relatively subtle in flavor, and the Japanese find some foreign foods overbearing because their palates are generally tuned toward delicate flavors. I'll be the first to admit that my barbaric American mouth prefers to be beaten over the head with flavor. This overall tendency toward meeker flavors doesn't apply universally in Japanese food though and the area where you can most see this is in otsumami, or food designed to be consumed with beer. Such foods are often very strongly flavored. My guess is that this is either because people drink more when consuming strong flavors (which is great for bars) or they are sufficiently numbed with intoxicants that they need a bigger hit of flavor to get through the fog of their inebriation (or both).

These Cheeza crackers deliver the strong flavor in spades. They bring to mind the strong pungency and intensity of bleu cheese dressing with its moldy veiny cheese bits. They are also crispy and light little crackers. With 51% cheese, it's no surprise that they are so flavorful and with so much fat from the cheese, it's no surprise that they are crispy.

I picked up this 38-gram (1.3 oz.) bag at a local supermarket for about 150 yen or about $1.79 (on sale, they're usually more expensive). You can find Cheeza nearly anywhere in Tokyo. The entire bag is only 195 calories so you don't have to feel too guilty about polishing the whole thing off, though if you're adding some beer calories on top of that, you may find yourself developing a belly. Personally, I thought they went well with a tuna sandwich as a contrasting flavor, and it fails to produce the same beer gut effect.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meiji High-C Lemon Tablets

Like the yogurt tablets that I reviewed previously (which I liked, but a commenter amusingly likened to something you'd be given at a dentist's office), these candies are touted as something which are healthy for you. Instead of healthy bacterial cultures and Calcium, they are going to fill with Vitamin C. So, if you have a cold, these are the pony you make your bet on. If you have a stomachache, go for the yogurt tablets.

Like the other tablets, these are similar to a sophisticated version of the kid's snacks in the U.S. called SweeTarts. They are pressed powder and mainly composed of sugar. The first ingredient is sugar followed by grape sugar then lemon juice. These tablets smell a lot like the type of lemon juice that people who rarely cook buy in green glass bottles and keep in the refrigerator for eons. That is, like stale lemon juice.

These are rather grittier and less smooth than their yogurt counterparts. If you suck on one, it starts to degrade more rapidly and fall apart more rapidly. The lemon flavor is very tart and pleasant though it has a bit of a strange aftertaste (it's that stale lemon thing whispering back at me). While it's in your mouth though, it's good. I'd just recommend having a drink handy to wash out that aftertaste.

These are quite nice. I could see buying them again if I was in the mood for lemon or felt under the weather. The lemon bite is nice. They're not too sweet and the texture is good for this type of sweet. I'm not over the moon about them, but I do like them well enough. Like the yogurt tablets, they're a good thing to just buy and toss aside until you have a craving or desire. They'll keep well and for a long time.

Incidentally, this product and the yogurt version have one of those annoying nutritional information inconsistencies that drive me crazy in Japan. For the yogurt tablets, information is given for the entire box but for these tablets, information is given for a third of the box. I think they do this because the entire Calcium level (300 mg) is only impressive if you eat the whole box of yogurt tablets, but you get 333 mg of Vitamin C from eating only 6 of the 18 tablets in the box. It's clearly done differently to present the most positive nutritional profile, but it does obfuscate the calorie information. These are 6 calories each.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Random Picture 46

One of my "missions" as a person who blogs about Japan is to help people reach some understandings about Japan. These are actually things that apply to every place in the world, but for some reason people are exceptionally rigid about their thoughts in regard to this country. They seek and believe in ultimate "truths" and think that anything which states something other than their experience is a distortion on the part of the observer. Convincing such hard-headed folks that there is not one "truth" about Japan (or anywhere) is likely an exercise in futility, but I'll keep my Don Quixote complex in this regard.

Perspective about anything is influenced by a variety of factors including the time, place, and people that are in play at the moment of that experience. Your very personage is also a factor as people react differently based on an individual's appearance. The Japanese do this more so than more heterogeneous cultures since they are more easily amused, shocked, or intimidated by people who are vastly different than themselves.

As a tiny example of how such factors influence opinion, I offer you two pictures of the exact same spot not much more than a month apart, but world's away from each other as experiences. Both of these pictures are of the exact same space (from a slightly different angle, but the same territory) at Meiji shrine in Tokyo. This is a large, round space between a restaurant and some souvenir spots. The picture at the top was taken on New Year's Eve 2010 and the picture above this paragraph was taken in November 2010.

If you were to experience this same locale on one date, it'd be crowded, cacophonous, hot, and so commercialized as to make you cringe. If you experienced it during a pleasant autumn afternoon, it'd be cool, empty, peaceful, and reserved in its commercial presentation. The experiences couldn't be more varied based on the time, people, and situation, and this is how multiple truths about life in Japan are developed. People aren't distorting reality to bend to their prejudicial view. It's simply that there isn't one truth.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Meiji Pucca Sweet Potato Cookies

Seeing Pucca cookies always reminds me of venerable Goldfish crackers in the United States. It appears that we enjoy eating cookies and crackers in the shapes of certain animals more than others. Actually, I know that probably isn't true. The most likely reason that fish are a shape of choice is that they require very little detail to convey what they are. If you've seen really cheap animal crackers, you're already aware that many of the giraffes, gazelles, and even monkeys come out as little more than amorphous blobs.

I've had very favorable experiences with Pucca before, but I was somewhat wary of a sweet potato version. While I've had plenty of good sweet potato treats in Japan, anything which tends to run on the sweeter side is a bit of a "risk" in that the manufacturers tend to either use a puree which is far too intense and has at least a hint of rotting sweet potato. Pucca tend to be better balanced, but this is a combination which is easy to get wrong.

Like all Pucca, the exterior is a dry pretzel shell without salt injected with a chocolate-based filling through a little hole in the bottom (sort of a belly button for the fish). It has a nice contrasting depth of flavor which usually betrays some earthy rye flour flavors. In this incarnation, I couldn't detect the usual rye notes because the filling's flavor is quite intense. That being said, it is intense in a way which is not so overbearing as to make it unpleasant. This is strong and sweet, but still good.

Each little cookie is 11 calories, and given how intense they are, I was satisfied with just 3 or so at a time. I'm not sure how I'd feel about these if I were to eat a lot of them at once. I tend to think I'd enjoy them less at greater volume. Among the Pucca flavors that I have tried, this is definitely my least favorite, but I'd still eat them again. However, given the slow rate at which I'm consuming the current box, they're likely to disappear as a seasonal treat before I have the chance to buy more. If you're new to Pucca, I'd still say go for the original version with chocolate filling, but if you're an old hand at these flavors and want to try something new, these might bring a smile to your face.

You can find these pretty much anywhere at the moment and they're generally only 100 yen ($1.20) per box for 46 grams (1.6 oz.). However, most sweet potato treats are seasonal and vanish by spring so you'll want to try them sooner rather than later. I'd be surprised if these were around past next April or May.

If you'd like to download some desktop pictures with the cute Pucca fish, you can get them here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pasco Sweet Potato "Stick"

When I was a kid, I remember visiting my maternal grandmother and having sandwiches with her "weird bread". That is, bread that was made with whole wheat, grains, or whatever that made it brown and "gross". I couldn't understand how anyone would choose such oddness over white bread. Now that I'm "old" (46), I can't see the appeal of the gluey cushions of nothingness that I perceive white bread to be. To me, it's just a step removed from cake, particularly in its Japanese incarnation.

Because I eat whole wheat bread and baked goods nearly everyday, turning to the Japanese bread section for anything is rare for me. I realize that most of the bread is relatively finely made with gobs of fat and sugar to make it soft as a cloud and to lend some very fine textural elements, but it just doesn't float my aging boat. However, I pondered these Pasco sweet potato sticks mainly because I'm sucker for all things sweet potato. Also, at only 65 calories per stick, they looked like very fine fodder for tea time.

I tried eating this three different ways. First, I had a bite as it came out of the package. The sense was decidedly "meh". It mainly tasted like fairly decent white bread with a hint of sweetness and a detectable margarine flavor. The sweet potato didn't come through much at all. Second, I wrapped it in foil and heated it a bit in the toaster oven such that it was warmed, but not too hot to handle. This made it slightly better as the texture of the bread was softer and seemed fresher and it seemed a tad sweeter. Finally, I heated it to a point where it was quite hot to handle using the same method and this is where it seemed to "wake up".

By getting it really hot (about as hot as you can manage without seriously burning your fingers), the sweet potato turned creamy and soft and the flavor seemed to open up. I could really taste the sweet potato as an element only when the bread was in this state. The only problem is that "near nuclear" hotness doesn't last long so they have to be savored rather rapidly if you want the maximum enjoyment.

I liked this, but I'm not a fan of super sweet pastries. This was quite subtle in its flavors and not very sweet. You really have to be as much a fan of plain, relatively decent quality white bread and sweet potato to want to eat something like this. In many ways, this type of "pastry" typifies a strong difference between Japanese and American tastes. There are plenty of these sorts of sticks or twists in Japan with mixtures of chocolate, "cream" (like custard), red beans, and sweet potato. They are all quite similar to this one in that they aren't incredibly sweet and have subtle flavors.

The big question which I find hard to answer is whether I'd buy this again. I probably would, but not soon and not often. I tend to favor whole grains and stronger flavors for breakfast, and I try to avoid products made with white flour because of the potential for a blood sugar spike and crash (which will make one very hungry after a short period of time). I could see buying this again when I was in the mood for a change of pace, but only perhaps once or twice a year.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Variety Friday: A Tale of 3 Fukubukuro

Those who have been reading this blog for awhile may recall that "fukubukuro" are bags full of surprise items (in most cases) that are sold in Japan around the New Year. The total value of the items in the bag are supposed to be exceed what you paid for them. The translation of "fukubukuro" is "lucky bag" or "happy bag". In past years, I've purchased these from Mr. Donut and Starbucks.

This year, we weren't sure where we were going to get our fukubukuro, but we decided to investigate some places further afield on January 1 in order to find something new. Unfortunately, we found that it was a dry run through Shinjuku for the most part. Electronics shops (Bic Camera and Yodobashi) were open and loudly selling fukubukuro, but they didn't offer much of appeal. Most of theirs were accessories for digital cameras, video cameras, iPods, and iPads. The contents were surprises but fit a theme.

It turned out that January 3rd was the best day for finding fukubukuro as shops had opened that had been closed, and our local options were pretty good. In fact, they were so good that we ended up with three of them. The first was from Baskin Robbins ice cream. The two young women pictured above were trekking up and down the local shopping street carrying a basket full of them. Each was 1000 yen ($12.20) and quite small. The girls were almost peculiarly delighted when we bought one. I wonder if they were sent out into the cold and told to sell the whole basket or die trying.

We didn't expect actual ice cream, but we did expect coupons to purchase ice cream.As you can see from the picture above (click any picture to see a bigger version), we got a couple of 500-yen coupons so we get back the entire value of the "lucky bag" in ice cream. We also got a snoopy mug, a couple of ice cream magnets, and an ice cream cone cell phone strap. The other items are a list of shops and brochures for Baskin Robbins products. All in all, this is a decent investment in a Fukubukuro provided that you were going to buy some ice cream anyway. The little bag is cloth and can be reused as a tote.

The second bag that we bought was from a supermarket called Peacock. It's part of a chain of shops, but it's not especially common. This one cost 2000 yen ($24.40). If you bought all of these items separately in the shop, undoubtedly they would cost more than 2000 yen.

The items it contained (from left) are: reduced salt soy sauce, roasted seaweed, shrimp snacks, squid- and sweet-sake-flavored rice crackers, Chinese soup mix, green tea, hot pepper and garlic paste (for cooking), tea bags, drip coffee with paper filter system, ground coffee, animal crackers, seaweed rice crackers, and chocolate cookies.

Mainly, the shrimp and squid snacks, and roasted seaweed are not very good for either of us since we're not fans of seafood flavors. The coffee, tea, and cookies are all of use, and I expect we can use the garlic/hot pepper paste, soy sauce, and Chinese soup mixes (though we've never tried them before). I'm going to be giving away the extra items to someone who I know likes them.

The final bag from the snack shop was probably the smallest gamble as it was from Okashi no Machioka snack shop. Even stuff which I might not normally buy would be blogging fodder from this bag. However, a lot of this is stuff I wouldn't buy of my own volition. I guess that either makes it good or bad as it'll push me to try new snacks, or make me sample food I wouldn't really want to eat. All I know is that it's going to take a very, very long time to eat all of this. I'm actually grateful that many of these are very small packages of a half ounce (14 grams, or less). This one also cost 1000 yen ($12.20) and also probably represented the smallest overall value. Certainly all of these items would cost more than 1000 yen if purchased separately, but not that much more. A lot of the items in the front are kid's snacks which would cost between 20-40 yen each.

The contents are (from left):
back "row": Mayonnaise and cheese Pringles, Toppo pretzels filled with chestnut cream, maple pie cookies, Shrimp rice crackers, Toy Story 3 chocolate-covered crunchy snacks
2nd "row": Heart chocolate-covered peanuts, "cheese fondue" Cratz pretzels with almonds, Milky petit (salty milk?) candies
3rd "row": vacuum-packed chestnuts, "fried potato" snack (more like a weird chip), fluffy brown sugar "stick" called "fu-bo-san taro", Chip Chop crispy chocolate snacks with chocolate filling
front "row": cabbage Taro salted snacks, "Big Katsu" fried snack, "new mochi" Taro snack, and "corn Taro".

I've already reviewed some of these things, but most are new to me.

I reviewed the Big Katsu here:

I reviewed the corn taro (as part of a big pack) here:

And I talked about the cabbage taro and fu-bo san taro here (as part of another big pack):

In terms of "value", the supermarket bag easily represents the best value overall, but it is still a gamble. For snackers, I'd definitely say grab the Okashi no Machioka bag next year if you can. There's enough in it to make the value worthwhile and unless you've very picky, you'll get your money's worth out of the bag.