Friday, April 29, 2011

Nichirei Cantonese Shark Fin Soup

Sometimes I wonder how it comes to pass that people decide that a particular part of an animal is a good thing to eat. Back when the recipes were originally created, I guess they were just trying to scavenge anything edible from whatever carcass was at hand. If they caught a shark, they probably ate every scrap of it and convinced themselves that it was good and good for them ("shark scrotum tastes like a monkey's behind smells, but it enhances virility!").

Now that we have the luxury of leaving behind the less juicy and delicious parts of animals, it would seem that inertia drives the valuation of the less savory parts. I realize that it is also possible that people feel that it is conservation, but I've seen too many people turn up their noses at the idea of leftovers the third day after a meal (the Japanese are generally not big on leftovers) to think they want to use every scrap of the animal. Shark fin soup is supposed to increase sexual potency, but actually causes sterility if consumed in large quantities. It also is supposed to be pretty healthy, but isn't as good for you as vegetable soup.

This package of prepared shark fin soup comes to me not of my own volition, but through my New Year's fukubukuro (lucky bag). It's going to take me about half a year to get through reviewing all of the items in those bags. It means I should seriously reconsider whether I should keep buying them, especially from supermarkets which give you a lot of items. On the one hand, I like the surprise. On the other hand, It's late April and I'm far from finished with the products I got!

I prepared this soup exactly as instructed, adding in 2 cups (500 ml.) of water, squeezing in the unappetizing-looking brown goo in the foil packet, simmering it for about 7 minutes and then sending in a stream of egg and allowing it to cook. It smelled very familiar, like mixes of Chinese-style food that I've had in Japan in the distant past. My main concerns with this was that it would be too salty and too thin on flavor, especially at only 44 calories per serving (not including the egg, which one must provide for oneself).

It turned out that the soup has a deep savory flavor which includes a heavy chicken component. This isn't surprising since there is chicken bouillon and extract listed twice in the ingredients list. There are also little slices of mushroom, but they mainly lend texture rather than flavor. Soy sauce and Chinese spices round out the flavor profile. This doesn't taste overly salty, in fact, it's close to being just about right, but it has 3.2 grams of salt per serving (1/4 of the package). Considering that the average adult is recommended to consume about 6 grams total, that's a lot for a small bowl of soup.

This is one of the tastiest types of packaged soup I've had. I make my own soup several times a week, so gaining my approval isn't all that easy. Even my husband, who is a fussy eater, liked it enough to say he'd have it again if the price isn't ridiculously out of line with the volume (something we can't know since I didn't buy it as an individual item). The company that makes this, Nichirei, has now hit its second home run with me with its packaged food. The first thing I sampled from them was its imagawayaki offering, and I loved it. If you're looking for a quick and tasty soup to augment your meal, I'd definitely recommend trying this out if you have no or few concerns about salt consumption.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zackly Choco and Banana Cream Crackers

In addition to eating junk food on a regular basis, I also cook healthy food and investigate new recipes. In fact, I have an ambivalent relationship with food porn sites like Tastespotting and Foodgawker. I dislike their snobbery and picky nature when it comes to their pictures (that means they never accept my pictures and I'm bitter). That being said, I can't fault them for being high-handed about the types of food they'll show because on multiple occasions, I've seen what could be called recipes for what is often called "magic pudding". This is saltine crackers with chocolate pudding and whipped topping that is allowed to sit awhile and then you're supposed to think is a tasty pastry dessert.

I mention this because I've actually sampled the monstrosity of magic pudding before and the truth is that there is something appealing in the mixture of salty and sweet that comes from layering instant pudding on a cracker. The main problem with magic pudding is the part where it sits around for awhile and gets soft kills any sort of texture enjoyment. You essentially have soggy cracker with crappy pudding.

The Zackly cracker makers (made by a company in the Philippines called H & H) probably never heard of magic pudding, but they've got the basic notion down in this offering. Take three saltine crackers and layer chocolate between a pair and banana between the last and middle one. This equals sweet plus salty with subtle banana and chocolate flavors. The fact that the banana isn't too extreme is good since it's so easy to overdo fake banana.

Sorry for the washed out picture. I took 5 and this was the best one, but, really, it's just saltines with hardened goo between the layers... not much to see.

The cream doesn't extend out to the edges of the crackers so it's a very mild taste experience near the edges and only quite sweet and intense near the middle. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad one. As junk food goes, there's something oddly appealing about this. You know it's bad, but if you're in the right mood, it sort of works as a flavor combination and the crispy crackers are quite nice. One triple cracker combo is 135 calories, and it's a fairly good size snack for that. It's essentially the same calorie cost as a Pepperidge Farms Sausalito cookie, which most people are probably going to enjoy more than this.

My husband thought this was a bizarre combination and he wouldn't eat it again, but I liked it in the way that I used to like certain weird food combinations (e.g., cottage cheese with Doritos crumbled in it or French fries dipped in chocolate milk shakes) when I was a child. I can't recommend this, and I don't anticipate buying it again any time soon. It's the sort of thing I may develop a peculiar hankering for once every 3-5 years in a fit of hormonally induced craving or a revival of my child-like tastes in weird food. At only 100 yen ($1.21) for a whole package, it's hardly a financial risk to sample it if you spot it and the general description sounds interesting to you. Just keep your expectations appropriately low.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Random Picture 60

During a very long walk, my husband and I came across a vending machine selling cans of mystery beverages called "Mr. X". The benefit of buying something without being certain of what you're getting is that you save a whole 10 yen (12 cents). The bad part is that you might end up with one of five different drinks, and not all of them look that good. The options are Coke, Skal (a drink I've read tastes like flat Sprite, but I've never tried), Calpis, a drink with gelatin cubes in it called "Lifeguard Bionic drink, and a fruit drink that I can't quite make out the details of from my picture.

This seems like a truly goofy concept from a consumer point of view, but I can definitely see the benefit from the vender's view. If one particular drink isn't selling well, you can load it up under these mystery tabs to sell them to people who are short on change and can't afford the price of their choice can, or for those who like to gamble with their drink options.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Yunotamago Cakes

What does it take in Japan for a sweet to be labeled with "tamago" (egg)? Well, apparently it just means that it has a white shell and a yellow center. I guess that actually makes it resemble a real egg more than the likes of a Cadbury Creme Egg since those poisonously delicious sugar delivery systems are brown on the outside. Suffice it to say, these cakes have zero in common with those infamous confections. That's actually a good thing.

These cakes are a souvenir that I picked up while looking at cherry blossoms in Ueno about a week or so ago. They were on sale at a famous snack shop in the shopping area of Ameyokocho. Because the shop sells a fair amount of discounted food, I got this box of 12 cakes about the diameter of a half dollar coin (4 cm/1.6 in.) for 580 yen (about $7).  In a regular souvenir shop or via online outlets, they cost 700 yen ($8.44). when you buy these sorts of things in Japan, there is always a sample box with plastic versions that show a cutaway of the interior of the cakes. This is so you get a better idea of what you're buying considering the "gift wrapping" on the outside of the boxes.

Just as a note about the maker, Izumi Bussan, it's a Tokyo-based company which has no web profile. I can find maps to their office, but I can't find a link to anything else referring to them. Their main business is producing souvenirs like this. I sometimes wonder how many small companies do nothing more than make boxed treats that are sold in stations and snack shops for people to buy and parcel out at the office or at home.

A lot of these types of souvenirs fall into several rough categories. One is mochi (pounded rice cake) wrapped around a filling of beans, custard, or some other soft sweet center. Another is a thin somewhat bready shell around a more solid center (chestnuts, sweet potato). And yet another, which this sweet falls into the category of, is a steamed cake with a soft filling. Steam cakes in Japan are often a very rich and fatty affair made with lots of eggs or margarine. It's the eggs, especially the use of the yolks, that makes them so good. I haven't met a steam cake here that I didn't like, though I have met many that I didn't absolutely love.

The cakes smell of margarine and general baked sweetness. The texture is very soft and the flavor richly eggy and quite sweet. The custard in the center is quite thick, and you get the feeling that this is either because they are designed to last awhile or that some of the moisture of the center is absorbed into the surrounding cake. Through time, I wonder if it'd turn into a pudding rock in the center. Fortunately, these are good enough that I'm not inclined to leave them sitting around long enough to find out.

My husband didn't care for these because they had a particular flavor that he didn't care for. Whatever it was, it didn't bother me, but I'm pretty sure that I could detect what he was referring to. One of the ingredients is sweetened lotus milk, and I wonder if that is the strange thing he dislikes.

I liked these quite fine. They're not the greatest souvenir I've ever had, but they were tasty and sweet with a lovely texture. I really did like the flavor and I'd certainly consider buying them again if they were on sale. They wouldn't be the kind of thing I'd revisit immediately or often, but I'd welcome them a few times a year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bourbon Petit Corn Potage Snack

Some time ago, I had a savory food craving and went a little overboard buying rice-cracker-like snacks. Since then, those purchased in salt-craving haste have been languishing in my bin of snacks to be reviewed. I picked up three Bourbon Petit sleeves at that time, and this was one that sat dejected and neglected. The first packet was chili tomato crackers, and I should learn from this experience that a craving for crispy salty delights can be satiated by one package, and does not require four different options.

I'm an immense fan of corn potage, a type of soup made with cream, corn, onion, garlic, and chicken stock. Because of this, I've sampled every corn potage snack I've found in Japan and this one wasn't going to get away from me. That being said, I haven't always had the greatest luck with the snacks (though I always love the soup and even make my own).

When I saw this package, I had visions of sembei (rice cracker) nirvana with a savory dusting of corn potage flavor powder. What I got was a very bizarre wafer thin cracker which brought to mind Cap'n Crunch cereal (or any corn based cereal). The cereal aspect came through not only because they are corn-based, but also because they are so sweet. I know that corn often carries a certain sweetness, but this is the result of way too much Sucralose in the mix. If these had been little Cap'n Crunch chips though, my opinion would be far more favorable. Adding in savory elements changes the entire balance of the universe though.

You have to eat quite a few to start to tunnel through to the savory elements. Corn is there, yes, and a little salt. If you toss enough in your mouth at once, you can even pick up a bit on the garlic and parsley, but I'm not necessarily recommending gobbling them down by the handful. While not incredibly awful or anything, they are just plain weird. Though crispy, there's something about the texture that also didn't work. It was as if this didn't know if it wanted to be a cracker or a chip, so it tried to be both and failed on both fronts.

The only point with which I can recommend these is as cheap diet food. One sleeve is only about 70 yen (84 cents) and 32 grams (a little over an ounce) are only 145 calories. However, if you care about how your food tastes, you may want to spend more calories on something that is actually enjoyable.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lotte Eve Gum

Due to growing up in the 70's and being exposed to a lot of advertising for feminine hygiene products, I associate any product using the word "Eve" with the sorts of problems only women have. In fact, anything with the word "Eve" in it in the U.S. is going to address problems, as one of my friends so colorfully put it, "down there." Even in Japan, there is/was a type of pain killer that was equivalent to Midol (a pain reliever for "that time of the month") called "Eve", so the U.S. isn't the only country making that connection.

With that in mind, I couldn't resist sampling this ladies gum, though I sincerely hoped it wasn't going to resemble a disposable feminine cleansing solution or pain medication. Lotte's web site says that this gum is supposed to remind you of flowers. I guess that anything with pretty posies attached to it is by default for women. "Flowers" apparently taste a bit like weak juicy fruit mixed with  a hint of perfume if this gum is any indication.

One of the problems with gum is that it is ultimately, just gum. No matter how cool the naming convention, it's not going to send you over the moon on the flavor front. That being said, I'm always looking for good gum. The problem with Lotte's gum (all of it) is that, even when it tastes good, the flavor never lasts for long. This gum was pleasantly sweet and slightly floral, but the taste died in no time at all.

The only gum I've had in Japan which had long-lasting flavor has been Clorets. I've had a lot of Japanese gum which tasted great, but I find myself essentially doing jaw exercises with a soggy wad of nothing in no time at all. This gum was no different than most in that regard, unfortunately.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sweet Box Choco Pie

There used to be a game show in America called "To Tell the Truth" in which three people claimed to be a particular person and the celebrity guests had to guess which one was telling the truth. At the end, they'd say, "will the real (name of person), please stand up." In Japan, one might ask that the real "choco pie" stand up, since there are multiple products with exactly the same name.

I already reviewed the Lawson VL "choco pie" which is an actual pie with a smidge of chocolate goo in it. If you go back to the linked review, you'll see that that choco pie does not resemble this one in any way. This "choco pie" is the more common type in Japan that resembles a moon pie, though this one is not like the most common variety because the filling is marshmallow rather than cream.

I found this for 100 yen ($1.19) at Lawson 100. For a box of 5 pies that are about the diameter of a large chocolate chip cookie, it represents excellent quantity for your yen. The maker, Sweet Box, has disappointed me before when it comes to sweets but pleased me when it comes to sembei. My expectations were therefore quite low. Note that Sweet Box's food is produced in Korea, but their products are widely distributed in Japan for low prices.

The box touts these as "fluffy" marshmallow sandwiches, and I'm not sure if that refers to the cake-like exterior or the marshmallow filling, but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't really accurately describe either. The sandwich parts are like a cake version of a graham cracker. It's soft, but slightly dense. The texture is satisfying and the flavor subtle but still quite nice. The marshmallow compliments the modest graham flavor well, but is also on the mild side. Likewise, the chocolate coating is so thin and mild as to be more of an aftertaste than a strong flavor component.

I liked these pies quite a lot, and at only 124 calories each, they are a very conservative treat. That being said, they win me largely by texture (which is a bigger draw to me than taste or smell) and the allure of the graham-cracker-like flavor of the cake/cookie. For those who want a stronger mix of flavors, these will likely disappoint because the chocolate and marshmallow represent so modestly on the tongue. Frankly speaking, these seem to be designed for the palates of children, who don't like intense flavors as much as adults.

I am giving these a "happy" rating because I personally liked them despite their subtle flavors. However, I wouldn't recommend them to anyone who had to get them from an importer or who has a more refined sense of taste. If you're the sort of person who is buying dark chocolates or artisan marshmallows with specks of real vanilla bean in them, this is going to monumentally let you down. If you're the kind of person who is happy slapping a few crackers together and cramming a marshmallow with a slab of consumer chocolate between them and then microwaving it for a minute, then this might be good for you to have around for nights when you feel your sweet tooth aching.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Random Picture 59

Strawberry and chocolate dacquoise on sale at a Family Mart convenience store.

Food fads are so common in Japan that they overlap. Mostly, we see a certain type of food (like rusks) spread while a certain flavor also starts to proliferate. Right now, orange seems to be the flavor du jour. Entire displays of orange-flavored snacks are in some convenience stores. Rusks are still running their course as a fad, but I think they're petering out and I think that dacquoise, a French confection with a meringue base, may be poised to jump off the mark as the next food fad. My feeling is that dacquoise are the logical next step in the long-running popularity of macarons, and they're not as delicate and easier to put in shelf-stable packaging.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shin Iwaki Kawasaki "Tofu" Cake

Sometimes the name of a product is meant to convey something about the ingredients, and sometimes it's a play on another type of food. That is, it is meant to resemble that food, but doesn't actually use it as a material. I've made some tofu-based sweets before including a fake cheesecake, and they turned out pretty terrible. I like tofu as a savory component, but I have never taken to it in sweets. I'm pleased to say that these cakes are pure cake. They are just served in a similar style of little plastic container as tofu is sold in. The resemblance to tofu, oh so very fortunately, stops there.

I didn't purchase these cakes. They were a souvenir given to my husband by one of his students who is aware of my blog and kindly gave him one of each type so that I could sample them. The student was in Kawasaki, where this is sold by a shop in Kawasaki station that has been doing business since 1923. The web site says that these are freshly baked every morning, but they are packaged to keep for awhile. They are sealed pretty well and have moisture absorbing packets in them. If you have a chance to pick them up (the shop information is here), they will keep until you can get them home and share them with family and friends.

The cakes are very moist and soft and feel very rich in texture. The filling for each is a thin layer of bean jam. The jam is flavored differently according the cake type so as to compliment it. The first ingredient is eggs, followed by flour. I think the dense, moist texture comes from the heavy use of eggs as well as the moist filling.

There are three flavors available:

Green Tea:

The first bite yields a strong green tea bitterness that mixes well with the lightly sweetened cake and filling. I'm not a green tea fanatic, in fact, it's just "okay" by me, but I really enjoyed this.


The strawberry flavor of the cake itself is quite subdued, but the bean jam filling is a bit more intense and actually quite realistic. I don't know if it uses real berries, but this in no way is fake or overbearing. Though strawberry isn't my favorite, I still enjoyed the subtle sweetness and delicate flavors of this. 


This was the one that I was most looking forward to sampling and I was not disappointed. The filling in the center tasted like "sesame butter" rather than bean jam. The sense of it being like peanut butter strongly flavored with sesame was rather strong. The flavor was intense, quite sweet and delicious. 

I loved these, though sesame was my clear favorite. If I find myself in Kawasaki, I would definitely pick some up for myself. As souvenir cakes go, they are a great option for foreigners while still retaining their essential nature as a Japanese sweet. If you're searching for something which isn't too overbearing in the sweetness department and is very moist, these will definitely please you.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Meiji Porute Extra Whip

I think I purchased these chocolates just under the wire because they are a "winter only" release. That's not because they're seasonal, but because they're almost certainly going to  melt if exposed to any temperature over 70 degrees. Fortunately, I know from past experience that when these vanish in the foggy heat of late spring, they'll be back at the end of next October. I've seen these come and go for a few years, so if you miss them, try again when the leaves start to change colors.

The basic notion behind these are that they are whipped cream served up on a crispy cookie base and coated in chocolate then dusted with cocoa powder. Sounds pretty good, eh? This variety is "extra whip" because they have 20% more "whipped cream" stacked on their crunchy base. Of course, "whipped cream" isn't really a correct way of describing what these are topped with. It's actually a solid, shelf stable form that is firm and only starts to yield something resembling actual whipped cream if you hold it on your tongue and let it melt a bit. The ingredients don't include "cream" but rather "cream powder" alone with cocoa and whey powders.

Though my description may make it sound less than stellar, these are actually pretty good consumer chocolates. My husband, who is a big fan of real cream in his coffee, loved these. They have good contrasting flavors with the bittersweet chocolate shell and the rich creamy flavor. There's also a nice textural mixture with the crispy cookie base and firm meringue-like structure of the "cream" portion.

Each of these is about 1.3 times the size of a Hershey's Kiss and only 31 calories, so if you have some self-control, these make for very sensible snacking. It helps that they're wrapped individually so you won't worry about them going stale once you pop open the box. I paid 169 yen ($1.99) for my box, but they retail for 198 yen ($2.34). They're a little expensive for only 9 pieces, but worth it if you're a fan of cream and chocolate.

To me, these tasted like a low-rent truffle with a less rich texture. There was also a flavor which I found reminiscent of alcohol in chocolates. I think that may be part of how the cream portion is processed rather than any actual booze in the mix. For my husband, these would be a "very happy" rating. For me, they were a "happy" rating. I will definitely buy them again, but probably not until they come back around next autumn. It's not that I didn't enjoy them quite a bit, but rather that there are other options I might choose first.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tea's Tea Bergamot and Orange

The cherry blossom season is in full swing as I write this, and possibly swinging toward its end by the time this gets published. My husband and I paid a visit to Shinjuku Gyoen (Park) early in the season to see what was up with the blossoms there. During that trip, we both got incredibly hungry and I opted to buy their "sakura sembei" and to wash it down with an expensive bottle of Tea's Tea from a vending machine.

The sakura sembei was pretty interesting in that it had some intensive soy sauce flavoring coated with a sweet frosted shell. It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't pay 150 yen ($1.76) for a single cracker of it again. I've had better sembei and had it cheaper. Still, it looked pretty, and it fit the season.

As for the tea, Tea's Tea seems to be what I buy when I'm out sightseeing in Japan. Readers with a good memory may recall that I picked up a bottle of their milk tea when I climbed Mt. Takao, and I loved it. I was hoping that history would repeat itself, but even the beauty of a well-manicured park and cherry blossoms couldn't influence my opinion of this drink such that I'd see it favorably. This was vile.

The main problem with this was that it tasted like orange Kool-aid with fake bergamot essence. Bergamot is what gives Earl Grey tea its luster, and this in no way reminded me of that particular tea. I'm sure part of the problem was that it was too sweet, but really it was bad because the orange part was just nasty and the "tea" part was almost absent. I drank about 1/3 of the bottle and poured out the rest. That's how bad it was.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dong Won Hot Tuna

My husband and I made a repeat visit to the "Korea town" area of Shinjuku in Tokyo last week and dropped in on a supermarket this time. My husband picked up several snacks, and I couldn't resist this tuna because of the name. I'm sure that it's all pretty tame stuff in Korean, perhaps the equivalent of "Trader Joe" there. To me though, I had to titter at the connotations. Besides, even without the awesome name, I would have considered sampling this since I do like tuna and spicy food. 

Based on the picture on the can, I expected this to be bits of tuna with little hot peppers sprinkled among it. My first surprise was that when I popped the seal and tried to "drain" the tuna, a red fluid ran out. After removing the top, I caught a whiff of that "dog food" type of smell that you sometimes get from canned meat products, even when they are for human consumption.

Looking inside, I could see something that resembled hash more than canned tuna. At this point, I was experiencing some pretty serious buyer's remorse. I wasn't sure it looked like something I'd want to put in my mouth, but I'd already forked over my 240 yen ($2.82) so I decided that I was going to, at the very least, get a review out of it.

It really doesn't look much better in a sandwich, except to the extent that you can see less of it this way.

Tentatively, I dipped my fork into it and speared what looked to be a tiny cube of white potato and gave it a sample. It tasted slightly spicy and modestly flavored with tuna. Actually, it tastes pretty good. Heartened by the sampling, I pondered exactly how I was going to eat it now that it wasn't what I thought it was. I was thinking I'd make some sort of spicy tuna salad by mixing it with mayo, but this isn't that sort of thing. There is a lot of sauce in it so it's not like dry, flaked fish. In fact, this appears to be a salad that is pre-made and canned so I just slathered half of it on a cheese croissant roll I had in the freezer and chowed down.

The tuna flavor is very present, but tamed by the spicy flavors of the red chili sauce and diluted by what look like carrot, onion and potato pieces. You can't really taste the vegetables though because they are very tender and well-cooked as well as well-marinated in the chili sauce. The sauce is only mildly hot and spicy, and slightly sweet. Keep in mind that there was no Japanese translation over the ingredients and I can't read Korean at all so I can't determine anything about the ingredients. That's actually a little refreshing for me since I can just rely on my senses rather than having to do research.

This was surprisingly good right out of the can and didn't betray much of the "canned food" taste that some of these sorts of foods have. I'm guessing that has to do with the tuna and chili sauce having strong flavor profiles. At 190 calories for the whole can (and one can offering two servings for the likes of me), this was a surprisingly tasty and low calorie lunch option. The only problems with it are that it's slightly expensive and  that I can only buy it at Korean supermarkets and they aren't exactly frequently dotting the landscape. That being said, I'd definitely pick up a can if I was in the area. It's a nice novel taste experience and a tasty quick meal.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Random Picture 58

Some readers may have noticed that there haven't been many KitKat reviews as of late. The truth is that the Japanese KitKat scene has been exceptionally boring. The most recent release was a fudge chocolate and almond one which was clearly a fusion of the bitter almond release and the kuchidoke KitKat. The flavor combination sounds nice enough, but is pretty humdrum.

Beyond that, the regular KiKat has been issued as three mini bars in the same size box rather than two packets of two longer fingers. Woohoo for innovation. :-p There has also been a green tea mini "assortment" (pictured at top) which is two marginally different tasting types of green tea KitKats. I haven't tried them, but I'd be shocked if they tasted greatly different than the ones I've sampled before. Finally, there are some "big little KitKats" on the market in orange, strawberry, and regular flavors. Frankly, the strawberry KitKats are so over-released that I cringe when I see one show up in yet another lame variation.

So, I'm afraid that Nestle Japan appears to have lost its imagination for the time being and that explains the lack of reviews. When something interesting comes along, I'll cover it. Until then, I'm not wasting my calories. ;-)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kurobo Brown Sugar Sticks

I often read blogs about cooking and one of the things that works a bit like a fingernail on a blackboard for me is people who talk about recipes for "Japanese bread" (shokupan), "Japanese castella" and "Japanese cheesecake" as well as "traditional Japanese baking". There are traditional Japanese baked items, but those things are all off-shoots of European culture, not "traditional Japanese baking". It's like saying "traditional American pizza". There is American-style pizza, but it's not "traditional". Be forewarned that I may be getting rather curmudgeonly in my old age. Feel free to ignore my silly crabbiness. However, I promise not to go on about having to tie an onion on my belt.

These types of cookies are a classic sweet in Japan, and as far as I know are not a derivative of a European treat. While their shape and size is reminiscent of a biscotti, the experience of eating one is in no way the same. The interior is coarse and spongy while the outside is crispy and sugary. The brown sugar exterior forms a slightly crispy "crust" which provides a pleasant textural contrast to the soft, springy interior. They smell a bit like brown sugar and molasses, but there is also an element of coffee. I'm guessing that that relates to some sort of roasting process involved in some of the ingredients.

I often say of traditional Japanese snacks that they are pretty much the same so it doesn't matter what sort you by, but the truth is that this particular treat is one in which quality seriously matters. I've had hundred yen shop versions and I've had types like this which are closer to 200 yen ($2.46). The cheap kind lack the sweet, crispy exterior and the pleasantly gritty brown sugar qualities that pricier types have. The company that makes these, Kurobo, makes a very fine version. It uses flour, eggs, and brown sugar syrup.

My students often talk about how black sugar is "healthy" and I sort of smile and move on to another topic. The back of this bag mentions that using black/brown sugar means that these have 50 fewer calories per 100 grams than those made with white sugar. I calculated the calories in each stick at 71. The web site also claims that these have more vitamins and a high alkaline content. Eating foods with high alkaline is supposed to reduce heart disease by balancing acids in the blood.

So, these "sticks" (actually, a type of cookie) are not only tasty, but also nutritious. In moderation, these would be an excellent part of a well-balanced diet. However, you shouldn't eat them for the nutrition. You should enjoy them for the brown sugar tastiness.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Heinz Tomato Ketchup Corn Snack

 The name of this snack sounds like someone is spelling out the product a little too clearly. Back home, I think these might be called "ketchup puffs", or maybe even "Heinz balls." Okay, maybe the latter wouldn't be acceptable in polite company. In Japan there are often these overly explanatory names of certain things that have a foreign origin. We wouldn't say "tomato ketchup" because we assume all ketchup is made with tomatoes. Similarly, the Japanese call coffee cups "mug cups". A mug is a cup, but they have a different word to differentiate a coffee cup from other types of cups.

Getting to the product at hand, I found this 60 gram (approximately 2 ounces) bag at Okashi no Marche discount snack shop in Koenji. I need to do a bit on that particular shop some time because it is like the deep discount version of a discount snack shop. They have cardboard boxes full of very cut price items and these were a mere 50 yen (60 cents). That makes them about half price. In Tokyo, it's not uncommon for stores to offer discounts as paltry as 3% and exceptionally rare to find a discount this high on anything. I've never seen a place that dealt in soon to expire food with steep price cuts because I think such items would not appeal to Japanese folks who have a scrutinizing eye when it comes to freshness.

Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of ketchup. I'm more of a mayo and mustard girl, but I don't detest it. I wouldn't have purchased this if it weren't so cheap. That being said, ketchup has grown on me to a small extent as the years have gone by. There used to be a time when I couldn't abide even a dollop of it in a larger preparation, but I've used it in homemade vegetarian burgers and even in omurice.

It's a good thing that I've found that I can enjoy ketchup to some extent because these are intensely flavored with it. If you like upending the bottle into your waiting mouth or licking it off a spoon, this is the snack for you. It is nicely salted (not too much, not too little) and crispy and just puffy enough without being too airy. The tomato flavor is also very prominent.

I liked these, but I think I wouldn't buy them again as I'm simply not that big a fan of ketchup. I believe they are well-made, but too one-note. The Frito-Lay Japanese condiment-based snacks are so over the top flavor-wise that they are hard to resist even when they're not up my flavor alley. I'll keep trying them, even if I expect to never want them again.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lawson VL Choco Pie

There are a lot of things in Japan called "choco pie". One of the most popular resembles a moon pie. It's a couple of cakey slabs with vanilla cream in the center and covered in chocolate. Even though they're not very good, I used to eat them regularly when I first came to Japan. I think I did it because they were relative innocuous looking, and I had not yet developed the high level of gustatory "courage" that I have now.

These Lawson VL Choco Pies are different because, well, they are actual pies. They're puff pastries with a toothpaste squirt size stream of chocolate "cream" down the center. For a mere 100 yen ($1.24) for 4 small pies, I'm not exactly complaining about that or the fact that the pie is rather pale and anemic-looking.

Among the ingredients are flour, "chocolate flour paste" (yummy sounding!), margarine, and shortening. It's pretty clear this is both a carb and bad fat festival. Still, they're only 151 calories of nastiness as long as one limits oneself to one pie.

The pie itself has an extremely familiar taste.There are other types of puff pastry pies on the market which either use the same pastry (but cooked a bit crisper and darker). I'm guessing Lawson's obtains the basic pie material from that company, or that this is the equivalent of "store brand" varieties back home. That is, the store name is slapped onto something which may be sold under another brand elsewhere.

The chocolate cream tastes a little like consumer-level chocolate pudding. This doesn't really matter since there is so little of it that you don't get much of a taste of it at all. That being said, the pie part isn't bad at all. It has a nice "baked goods" flavor to it with a certain floury nature and fatty moistness. If you like the flavor of raw pie dough, there may be something in this for you.

I'm rather torn about this. It's the sort of bad food that I might crave once in a blue moon, but not the sort of thing I'd seek out early or often. I will definitely finish the packet, though I'll probably toss the remainder in the freezer and eat it rather slowly when I get a particular craving for white flour carbs.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yamagata Long Smoked Cheese

I never thought much about the origin in Japan of the food that I eat. In fact, most Japanese people have openly told me that they would pay more for food that originated in Japan because they had absolute faith in the safety of domestic agricultural products than they had in foreign-made products. In particular, they avoid Chinese produce because the propaganda machine after some dumplings (gyoza/pot stickers) were found to be poisonous. They also avoid American meat because of mad cow fears.

It seems like a karmic twist that now everyone doubts the safety of Japanese food because they fear radiation contamination. In some cases, I'm sure there is something to fear and it's my fervent hope that the Japanese government is screening all food from areas for contamination and barring anything which is dangerous from reaching the markets. If I were an investor, I'd be putting my money behind all imported food coming into Japan. And, I haven't discussed the idea yet with any of my Japanese friends or acquaintances, but I'm betting they all feel a tad more comfortable with American and Chinese agricultural products than they did before the Fukushima nuclear plant problem occurred.

I mention all of this because the origin of the smoked cheese I'm reviewing is Yamagata prefecture, which is in the Tohoku region of Japan and borders Fukushima prefecture. Of course, this is a processed cheese product, and I'm guessing it was made more than a month ago and predates the earthquake and subsequent problems. Since it is "smoked cheese" in a vacuum-packed tube, it may actually be months old. Certainly the expiration date of November 11, 2003 2011 would seem to encourage the notion that this cheese may actually be around for years. At any rate, I'm not about to start treating food from prefectures that neighbor Fukushima like people who have had contact with plague victims and therefore may also be contaminated.

I was attracted to this "long smoke cheese" because I was in one of my moods for a savory afternoon snack (I alternate between sweet and savory) and this looked like it'd pair well with either fruit or some sort of snack I already had on hand. I ended up finishing off my last pack of "Corn Bo" with half of this. Lawson 100 was carrying these for 100 yen ($1.21) per 40 gram (1.4 oz.) tube. The whole thing is 149 calories, but half was enough for my purposes.

When I opened the wrapper, a familiar fake smoked cheese smell wafted out at me. This is, after all, processed cheese and not the real deal. It brought to mind the type of processed cheese that my mother used to pick up around the holidays. It had the same tan exterior hue and creamy pale middle. It also had the same liquid smoke scent. The flavor of this was similar as well, but there was also an unusual spice of some sort that reminded me of cinnamon or cloves. It wasn't offensive, but was a bit unusual. It didn't put me off of the cheese.

This was fine as smoked fake cheese goes. If I was in the mood for a cheese snack, I would probably pick this up again, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list for a variety of reasons. First of all, I prefer QBB pepper, wasabi or almond cheese above other snacking cheeses in Japan and I can get 72 grams (2.5 oz.) of it for the same price that I paid for 40 grams (1.4 oz.) of this smoked cheese. So, if I can get more cheese and I like it better, chances are I wouldn't be very likely to opt for this again unless I had no other alternatives.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Random Picture 57

My husband and I were taking a walk around Ogikubo and happened across what seems to be the viral spread of Don Quixote shops. We walked around the mob forming around a huge box of cheap Chinese flashlights and past the 18-roll toilet paper (post-quake behavior) that people were eying nervously and headed back to the snacks area. It was there that I eyeballed this specimen, but didn't have the ovaries (that's what we say when one is female and lacks cajones, right?) to buy and sample. This is a bag of a salted snack treat called "ika meets maple". Ika is squid. Yes, there is many a day when I think that I'd like to buy a serving of squid and pour maple syrup on it. Even for the Japanese, this is pretty "out there" on the flavor front.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CV Corn Bo Cheese Flavor

One of the blogs I read is called "Cheap Eats", and occasionally it will review dollar store finds with all of the expected results. Back home, they are the sort of things that one would fear to eat like knock-off Spaghetti-Os (all of the horror, none of the brand name comfort). I'm sure all countries have their own versions of highly suspicious dollar store finds.

I am "fortunate" in that there is a shop which specializes in such things next to a discount green grocer that I frequent. This is the sort of place that is selling Halloween candy around Christmas and that often stocks special Pepsi releases long after they have vacated all the other store shelves. Clearly, they are the repository for soon to expire goods, but their prices are pretty impressive. It was at this particular shop that I was enticed by these "corn bo (stick)" snacks. A six-pack, each with 3 sticks in it, was a mere 69 yen (84 cents). Even by kid's snacks standards, this was a bargain. Most of these things are about 20 yen in convenience stores so I'm getting them at close to half price.

Normally, I might not go out and buy an unsampled food in abundance in a multi-pack, but I've had these types of bo snacks before, and it's rare that they are not palatable. It's even rarer that I have a bad experience with something which couples the awesomeness of corn and the seductive allure of cheese. Saying that makes me think that I should be writing ad copy for the makers of this product.

When you open one of the foil packets, you can smell both the corn base and the fake powdery cheese which is modestly coating them. Each is about 2/3 of the length of a #2 pencil and relatively fat and puffy. The tubes of corn snack are crispy and light, though I also thought that they seemed just a tiny bit stale. That is, they were marginally soft, but that could be simply the way they were made rather than a reflection of their age. Note that the expiration date on the bag was for June of 2011.

The taste was very much in line with what I'd expected. They are lightly flavored with cheese and carry a good basic corn flavor. They are easy to bite into and have a satisfying crunch and decent level of saltiness. They aren't as intense as some types of snacks in this genre, but they are for kids so that's not surprising.

Though these are absolutely not the best thing since Planter's Cheez Balls (which we all worship posthumously), they're a solid bit of salty treat at only 93 calories a bag and for a price that can't be beat. They're a great thing to have on hand or toss in your lunch bag for cravings or to accompany a sandwich. Sure, I wish they were a just a little crispier, a little cheesier and a tiny bit saltier, but for this price range, I'd definitely buy them again.