Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Random Picture #90

I love the fact that I work near two shops that specialize in regional foods. It allows me to see stuff which is marginally different than that which is sold in Tokyo with different packaging. Take this "Imorin Monroe" sweet potato cakes from Hokkaido. Inside, they are the same old common long-shelf-life sweet potato cakes that you can buy at almost every convenience store and supermarket, but they've been given a Hokkaido cultural twist by naming them after... an... American... movie icon. Hmm. OK, not so much with the Japanese culture here. Still, it's a cute concept, and was worthy of a picture. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

KitKat Air In White

My husband recently went home to visit his family and take care of some business in the U.S. Being your faithful snack blogger, I remained in Japan all alone so that I might purchase junk food and write about it. Okay, you know that is a big, fat lie. I stayed here because the fuel surcharges are so expensive that we couldn't afford two tickets to paradise. The point is that he brought me back 6 boxes of meringue cookies from Trader Joe's. For reasons I can't explain because they go beyond the love of crispy, marshmallowy cookie goodness, I am crazy for meringue. I know a lot of people find them chalky, too sweet or lacking in flavor, but I adore them.

If you've ever made meringue cookies (and I haven't since it requires running the oven at low temps for a long time and I'm so impatient), you know that it is made by beating air and sugar into egg whites then baking them. It struck me that eating something which incorporates air is really paying money for nothing, yet I will still most likely gobble down all of my Trader Joe's vanilla meringue cookies in record time. It does beg the question of why something should be more desirable with air when it is perfectly fine without it. Of course, I speak of the KitKat, not meringue, which absolutely requires air to be anything more than just egg. The answer to why there's air in these KitKats is obvious to me: Nestle Japan is out of any other ideas.

This is a box of mini KitKats weighing in at about 40 calories per and each is about half the length of a single finger, but a little wider. There are 7 in the box (lucky 7? too cheap for 8?) and they cost 150 yen ($1.98) at convenience stores. That makes them on the expensive side, but pretty much normal for this type of special release.

These smell rather different than usual KitKats, but it is hard to pin down why. Since there is both white and darker chocolate, you get two different tastes and better depth of flavor. The base is bittersweet and the top is buttery white chocolate. The wafers only lend texture and crunch, and less than usual because of the need to make a higher "air" portion on the top caused a few wafers to be sacrificed. Sometimes airy chocolate has a bit of a crispy feel to it, but it really doesn't seem to be doing much here besides lowering the total calories.

I liked this a lot because the chocolate flavors came together well. A little more crispy wafer would have been good, but I'm not complaining. I ate two of these at one time and it didn't seem incredibly sweet in the build-up. For any consumer-level chocolate, and one with a white chocolate component, that's pretty impressive.

Though this isn't the most bizarre or exciting KitKat Nestle Japan has come up with, it's still pretty tasty and is the first one that I think competes favorably with the original bar. In fact, I'd say it beats it in terms of the chocolate, but falls just a bit short on the wafers. The air aspects absolutely does nothing for it. However, I'd definitely buy this again.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chestnut Oreo Chocolate Bar

Back when I was a kid, in the late 1400's, "Oreo" meant one kind of cookie. Of course, when I was a kid, it meant one kind of cookie that my mother never bought because we were too poor for name brand snacks. When she bought "sandwich cookies", they were the store or generic brands which came in enormous packages and cost 99 cents. There were usually three rows of them, two ostensibly chocolate and one supposedly vanilla. Neither really tasted like much. In fact, the chocolate ones tasted like some sort of alkali mixture with minimal amounts of cocoa. The vanilla tasted like sugar and flour-like substances.

So, it wasn't until I'd matured and gotten employment that I actually ate an Oreo. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never ate one until I came to Japan and at that point they were rather hard to locate. So, unlike the rest of you over-privileged snackers who grew up with your Hostess snacks, Nestle's Crunch bars, and Oreos, I don't have a nostalgic attachment to them. That whole twist and make a double-stuff thing? It doesn't work nearly as well with cheap cookies which tended to crack and break apart when you attempted this. Also, the gritty cream filling wasn't really the type of thing you'd want to double up on.

So, I am filled with bitterness and resentment at all of you who have a nostalgic sense of consuming a pure Oreo cookie and can look back on the experience with child-like delight. On the other hand, I can approach this chocolate bar without any of your emotional "baggage" and not focus at all on how this is less than it's parent product. I can experience it without making comparisons. So, there!

The bar smells a lot like Oreo cookies and cheap chocolate. Considering that constitutes 95% of the bar, since the package claims that 5% is chestnut, that is no surprise. The quantity of cookies inside is quite generous and brings the bitter chocolate nature and crispy cookie goodness of part of the Oreo cookie that is less likely to send you into sugar shock. The first bite or two is largely chocolate on chocolate with something else just at the end. There is a slight finishing flavor of chestnut. At first, it is very, very faint, but the flavor intensity slowly builds up as you eat more of the bar. By the end, you have a much better sense of the chestnut aspect.

It's rare for me to eat an entire chocolate bar at once, but this is a flat bar which doesn't seem so heavy or filling. It's 190 calories for 34 grams (1.2 oz.). The texture really is the main draw and it's quite satisfying on that front. However, I don't think this is a cut above a normal Oreo chocolate bar. There just isn't enough of a chestnut punch going on. I think it would have been more impressive if the coating were chestnut rather than chocolate, but it is what it is, and, yeah, I'd buy it again because it's a nice bar regardless of it's lack of strong novel flavor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Random Picture #89

Click to see a bigger version.

Shakey's Pizza is inexplicably popular in Japan. Well, that's not quite true. There's an explanation, but it doesn't really make a lot of sense in a country of relatively affluent people with ready access to good quality food. They are mainly popular for their incredibly crappy lunch buffet which is a festival of bad carbohydrates (fried potatoes, sparsely topped pizza, and spaghetti). 

The good folks at Shakey's have taken the cake when it comes to "weird" Japanese pizza. The specimen at the bottom has pumpkin, red bean paste, mini marshmallows and black sesame sauce. The marshmallows really are the kicker. This is a culture that reacts with abhorrence at the idea of candied sweet potatoes so my husband and I did a double-take when we saw this sign. Yes, they've finally become "one of us". 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Calbee Jaga Rico German Potato

Prior to coming to Japan, I never thought much about the private lives of cartoon mascots. Most of them really didn't require a back story. They just appeared on the front of the product package and looked deliriously happy at the prospect of consuming whatever was tucked inside. Of course, Cap'n Crunch is the exception. Back in his younger days, he was the surliest swab who ever scrubbed a poop deck. It was only after Prozac became a big part of his life that he became the jovial spokesperson that we know and love. That being said, the propensity of his cereal to cut up the roof of your mouth is no coincidence. No amount of Prozac can annihilate the need to inflict a little buccaneer mayhem.

Getting back to cartoon mascots and Japan, Jaga Rico's mascot is apparently quite the world traveler and has a wide and diverse family. Calbee's site includes information on job, family status, and geographic location. This is one cosmopolitan family of cartoon giraffes. Who wouldn't want to partake of their rich salted snack food heritage? Well, actually, in general, me. I've reviewed two types of Jaga Rico before and was less than impressed. It's not that I don't like these salted potato straws. They are crispy and have a good potato flavor. The issue for me has been the flavor depth, which has left me wishing for something more potent.

I came by these in an unusual way. My husband and I were out for a night-time walk and he felt like playing a UFO Catcher game and there was one which looked interesting and it had Jaga Rico as a prize. To be precise, there were plastic bags with three containers in it and one of the flavors was German potato. According to the family history pages of the cartoon giraffes, this flavor has returned by popular demand and should impart the flavor of onion and bacon as well as, of course, potato.

The first bite is, indeed, a bit on the hammy side. The "bacon" element is definitely the strongest flavor. The onion is quite subdued, though it tends to add to a savory backdrop along with various extracts and powders such as cheese, chicken, and garlic. The first two straws are pretty good, but the problem is that the flavor seems to vanish quickly. It's as if the tongue acclimates so rapidly to the subtle nature of the flavorings that they fade away. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They are crunchy and salty in a satisfying way, but the aspect which is German potato quickly becomes almost irrelevant.

My husband won 12 containers of Jaga Rico, and I will eat most of them, slowly. Fortunately, one of my students told me that this is her favorite snack so I'll give some of them to her and I'm sure she'll be appreciative. I think that most people would be happier with these than me. I'll admit that I like strongly flavored salted snacks and being a snack reviewer makes me extra fussy. My review is indifferent, but I think that these might have better appeal to people of different tastes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kkul Tarae (honey skein) Walnut and Chocolate Court Cake

Before I get too far in this review, I should state that this is not Japanese, but Korean. One of my students visited Korea for 5 days of sauna, massage, shopping, and luxury hotel enjoyment. This is a very popular course of action for young Japanese women these days since Korea is a hop, skip and a short swim away, though most take a cheap plane flight. It's well-recommended for vigorous rubdowns that slough the top layer of your disgusting dead skin away and brutally hot spa experiences. So, if you want to sweat and then have strangers scrub down your naked body in every nook and cranny, Korea is the place for you.

It's also the place for you if you want to try some unique treats, and I'm not talking kimchi, which is so common these days (at least in Tokyo) that it's absolutely mundane fare. My student picked this up from a street vendor and offered it to me rather apologetically because it wasn't particularly expensive. This sort of behavior, both gift-giving and then feeling obliged to express regret about the price despite the fact that the thought really does count more than anything, is something I will always associate with Japanese people and a culture which strongly encourages generosity and modesty.

The box provides a bilingual explanation including a story about how this is a "court cake of ripened honey and malt". In the past, it was supposedly presented to the king and guests of sufficient distinction that they deserved a treat that included 16,000 strands of honey. The box goes on to say that the strands suggest prayer for longevity, health, luck and wish-fulfillment. It also says it is good cold or frozen and then enjoyed with tea.

Because I can't read Korean at all, and the web site of the manufacturer is composed largely of graphics which can't be translated by Google's translation facilities, my ability to understand the ingredients or other information about this treat is extremely limited. This makes for a "purer" experience when sampling this food because I have to rely on sensory experiences rather than on what I read, but does limit my ability to provide meaningful information to my readers. I don't even know if the "honey skein" on this is actually honey. It sure doesn't look like it.

The outside of the candy is quite firm, but not brittle. When you bite into it, it yields like soft plastic and as you chew it, it becomes more pliable and chewy. Though the box claims it doesn't stick to the teeth, it does. In the end, it takes on a consistency similar to taffy. The outer "skein" doesn't have much flavor, but lends a delicate sweetness and a lot of texture. Most of the flavor comes from the mix of crushed nuts and seeds that are on the inside. They have a nice, meaty mixture of flavors including some very marginal bitterness with a warm, walnut finish. Though the box says "walnut and chocolate", I couldn't taste any chocolate at all.

This is an unusual treat which is very hard to describe because of the "honey skein" exterior and the combination of flavors inside. It's an interesting experience, but not necessarily a "great" one. However, it definitely is not a bad one either. In Korean drinks and snacks, I have experienced very creative use of nuts and walnuts in particular. I like it, but it's not the sort of thing which is easily accessible to all palates. If you're the type who just wants some sweet which won't challenge your texture and flavor perceptions, this will likely disappoint. However, if you're looking for something a bit more interesting, I'd heartily recommend giving this a try.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Random Picture #88

It's that time of year... well, not really, but Japan has caught up with the U.S. on offering up Christmas the minute the detritus of Halloween has been swept aside (which happens about 3 seconds after the shops close on October 31). Krispy Kreme is doing its part by re-issuing two of the three donuts it offered last year along with a mont blanc (chestnut cream) offering. The Christmas wreath, which I reviewed in a previous post, is nearly the same as before but a star replaces the dried cranberry "berries" from the previous version. The snowman, pictured here smiling despite having had a bite taken out of his posterior, is filled with berries, or sugary goop which masquerades as something vaguely berry-like. Of the offerings, only the chestnut one holds much appeal for the likes of me, but I'm guessing I'll give it all a pass this year. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pepsi Pink

The fine folks at Pepsi continue to attempt to distinguish their brand image from Coca-cola's by offering up another uncommon flavor. Of course, this time, it's actually not particularly "uncommon" though since it is strawberry. Perhaps they have seen the lack of imagination at Nestle Japan with all of the strawberry KitKats and have decided to get themselves some of that boring, boring flavor action. 

Still, I have to give them props for offering up such a dainty label design and name. Women are definitely the demographic that sellers are gunning for in Japan these days, and why not? They're working more, marrying less, and throwing away disposable cash at an appreciable rate while the young men are cuddling anime-character-shaped pillows and waiting for robot girlfriends to become more affordable. Japanese women are traveling more and keeping what little of the economy that is still breathing alive.

At any rate, since "pink" isn't actually a flavor, the bottle announces that this is "strawberry and milk". Never mind the fact that neither strawberries nor milk are in the ingredients list. I'm sure that some sort of artificial chemicals are in there which approximate the real deals and that they are cost-effective. There are a few listings for "flavoring" so I guess that's where it all comes from.

This smells faintly like strawberry candy with a hint of bubblegum. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I'm beginning to sense bubblegum in every unusual soft drink I sample in Japan. I had my husband taste this and give me his impression before telling him mine, and he summed it up best of all by saying that it reminded him of a strawberry jellybean, though I must hasten to add that it's not as sweet or intense as one. It does also taste faintly of the essence of Pepsi, but it is a mere whisper in the background. The strawberry part delivers a sweetness punch, but the Pepsi element gives it a dry finish. This is not a bad combination at all. 

This tasted okay, but at 47 calories per 100 ml., I didn't drink the whole bottle. If I'm going to throw away nearly 250 calories, it's got to be on something more interesting than a Pepsified strawberry jellybean beverage. If you're a fan of fruity drinks which aren't too intensely fruity, this is certainly worth a sampling. It's not a revolutionary flavor, but it's also inoffensive and more interesting than the average strawberry drink thanks to the Pepsi influence.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Yamazakipan Kabocha Danish

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the loveliest squash of all? Is it American pumpkin, as it is rolled into pies, danishes, donuts and anything which wears cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger like a scrawny high fashion model wears a ridiculous outfit? Is it Japanese pumpkin, which pairs so well with soy sauce and mirin and studs any dish it appears in with creamy delight? The truth is that both are the ugly stepsisters to the Cinderella that is butternut squash, but nobody makes that comparison. Recently, I paid around $3.50 (280 yen) for half of a tiny butternut in a Japanese market and found that it is sweeter and has more depth than either of these traditional squash rivals. Butternut gets the glass slipper, but it's too expensive to squire to the ball on a frequent basis. I guess I'll be doing the waltz with the green-skinned stepsister.

That is not to say that Japanese pumpkin isn't worthwhile, but rather that if we're going to play a game of my gourd is better than your gourd, then we should include a full range of contestants, not just the big orange jack-o-lantern fodder and rough-skinned Japanese greenies. I love Japanese pumpkin, but in order for it to shine in a food though, there has to be enough of it to actually taste. This is a fact that seemed a bit lost on the folks at Yamazakipan. 

Unfortunately, before I purchased this packaged baked item at Lawson 100 for, obviously 100 yen ($1.23), I didn't know that "danish" meant "bread" and that a small smattering was all that was required to qualify this as "kabocha". I was captivated by the notion of enjoying those black sesame seeds with Japanese pumpkin and hoped for the best. I'm dumb like that. The bread in this "danish" is best described as "nouveau hotdog bun". The filling, when you happen upon more than a tiny, tiny portion, tastes fine, though rather thin on the pumpkin side. I get the feeling it is mixed with liberal amounts of water or some other filler to stretch it further.

Yamazakipan makes some pretty nice packaged treats, especially things with whipped cream filling, but this was a huge disappointment. I didn't exactly want baker-quality pastry, but I also hoped for something more than this. I could have lived with the lackluster bread if there had been more filling, or lived with less filling if the bread had been good, but Yamazakipan didn't give me anything at all to work with.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Random Picture #87

Yeah, my nails are a mess. I do a lot of dishes by hand. Give me a break.

I've purchased taiyaki, fish-shaped cakes filled with beans, custard, or other things, before, but only in a "specialty" form using tapioca flour. I've also had a "cousin" of theirs, imagawayaki in frozen form. Despite walking past a traditional taiyaki shop several times a week, I have never purchased a fresh one for immediate consumption. A few weeks ago, my husband headed off for America for a week and I was left all alone so I decided to comfort myself and finally take the plunge. I picked up this warm, fresh number at Koenji station for 130 yen ($1.60). It's on the smallish side, but was a great size for a snack. The outside was a little crispy and extremely bland. It was more akin to a monaka shell (like a cake cone) than a pancake or waffle (which is what some of the shells are like). The custard inside was warm, very sweet, and had a good vanilla flavor. All in all, it was a delicious combination of varying textures and flavors and delightfully fresh. I'm sorry that I waited so long to get one. If you are in Japan or are coming here, take advantage and get one sooner rather than later.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Co-Up Guarana Zero

Though I'm sure people who don't live in Japan think that there are bizarre food options lurking at the front of every shelf when you live here, that is far from the truth. This is especially the case when you've spent the last 3 years or so going out of your way to sample anything which doesn't contain shrimp (which I dislike with the intensity of a thousand suns and won't review well, and is hardly an esoteric flavor anyway). Occasionally, I'll locate something which is Japanese and uncommon even though it is domestically produced.

In the case of this soft drink, which I found at a shop in Shinjuku which sells products from Hokkaido, this is one of those rare items. I chose this one because it was the only sugar-free version, and I prefer to get my calories from chocolate and salty stuff. This cost 147 yen ($1.81) for a 500 ml. bottle.

I intentionally did not research what "Guarana" was before I sampled this. I didn't want objective facts to interfere with my subjective taste perceptions. If I expected to taste something, it might increase the chances that I'd detect it. I first gave it the deep inhalation test. That doesn't mean I snorted it, but I did come close to doing so in an attempt to pick up all of nuances of its bouquet. At first, I thought I detected a grape-like fruity aroma, then something medicinal. A final sniff reminded me of bubble gum. That was the impression that stuck with me as I prepared to dive in and take a sip.

A fruity bubblegum flavor definitely came through on the first sip. It had a strong shot of the flavor I recall from penny candy versions of said wads of gum, which is probably some particular chemical. That was followed by a strong chemical flavor and then what seemed like a hit of, shockingly, root beer. The sense of root beer was only at the very end. I'll give this points for at least having flavor depth, if nothing else.

After a proper tasting, I looked up guarana and discovered that it is a plant from the maple family which is known for its fruit and the fact that said fruit has twice the caffeine of coffee. Here is where we get to the appeal of such a beverage to the Japanese market, which excels in offering strong legal stimulants to keep businessmen awake all night as they labor away in their offices. It has always been rather ironic to me that a culture which is so anti-drug so heartily embraces certain drugs, alcohol and caffeine, with what appears to be complete ignorance of the fact that these are stimulants and depressants and not merely foodstuffs.

Guarana soft drinks are, apparently, quite popular in Brazil and out-sell more internationally better known cola beverages. It is considered a health tonic there, which is a little bizarre. It mainly seems to have the same effects as any caffeinated product including increased fat metabolism and cognitive boosts.   In my research, it did indicate that it has a fruity taste when mixed with sugar.

This is an energy drink by any other name. In the shop where I purchased this, there were a lot of varieties of guarana drinks made by various manufacturers, but I never see them stocked in regular stores. Since I don't drink energy drinks, it's very likely that some common ones, sold in little brown bottles in refrigerator sections of various stores, contain guarana extract and that is well-known among members of the peppy drinkers club. This is marketed in Japan as a health tonic and claims to fight obesity, arteriosclerosis, and improve stamina. Chances are, however, that what it'll help fight is sleep.

This was okay in terms of taste, but nothing I could see craving. I would only buy it again if I were severely sleep deprived and wanted to have something more potent than coffee or tea. The chances of that being the case are pretty much zero, but I wouldn't write this off as something I'd never have again.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dars Biscuit

Living in a foreign culture, and trying hard not to be too ethnocentric makes me frame my gustatory experiences differently than I did back home. One of the things which always rubs me the wrong way is the elevation of one culture's choices over another. In particular, the idea that Japanese cuisine is carefully designed for health concerns. A culture doesn't decide to eat fish, seaweed, soy, and rice because of nutrition. They do it because that is what is available in their particular geography. The food culture grows around the available resources, not concerns about nutritional purity. Tastes fall into line with that culture's readily available options because humans like what is familiar.

Traditional Japanese cuisine is a combination of the elements which were easily attainable within the island's borders, but since the world has become a smaller place and food culture is widely shared, new options are constantly being injected into the Japanese diet. Developed countries have the extreme luxury of being able to mix and match a plethora of food options. I doubt that things like cookie chocolates would exist in Japan if it weren't for the influence of European baking culture. Of course, chocolate wouldn't be here without the Americas. Thinking about it this way, it doesn't seem like this product is very "Japanese" at all.

When it comes to chocolate, confectioners can't seem to decide if they want to sell esoteric combinations (like chili, sembei, etc.) or stick with traditional pairings that are known winners. With Dars, which is better known for its fatty, creamy chocolate, Morinaga decided to "mix it up" a bit by adding something textural. I was, frankly, a bit dubious of this entry in a long line of cookie chocolates, particularly considering my favorite way to consume Dars is to put it in my mouth and allow the creamy chocolate to melt on my tongue. That's definitely not going to be the case with this one. You can find these pretty much everywhere that carries Dars (convenience stores, markets) for the time being. It's usually 100 yen ($1.25) for a box of 12 small pieces.

Each little square is the same size as a usual bit of Dars. It has a volume not too dissimilar to a Hershey's Kiss and a calorie count which matches (19 calories per piece). There is a generous amount of crunchy cookie, but not so much that it isn't nicely held together by the chocolate. The scent is nice, but not intense. You can tell just from the smell alone that this isn't going to be anything near dark chocolate. The chocolate is sweet and milky, but not cloying. The cookie bits are crispy, buttery and rich and help cut through any overpowering sense with the sweet candy.

Most of the time, the cookies don't play much of a major roll in the flavor of the chocolate. They are just studs of texture which undercut the intensity of the chocolate. In this offering of Dars, I think they actually contribute 50% to the overall enjoyment of the candy. That being said, these are not for people who like less sweet candy or intense chocolate. This is good for those who like things milky.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Random Picture #86

Click to see a larger image with more detail.

Halloween quietly passed Japan by, which is reasonable considering they don't actually celebrate it. However, they do know how to take advantage of a marketing opportunity and every year I see more and more items designed to get the Japanese into the Halloween spirit. Well, that's not exactly true. I don't think they know what the spirit of All Hallow's Eve is and I'm pretty sure that, if they did, it wouldn't really suit Japanese sensibilities. I'm not only talking about how knocking on strangers' doors for free candy would rub them the wrong way, but the "tricks" aspect would be viewed as troubling others in a thoroughly unacceptable manner. Besides, in a country that goes for the toilet paper in a crisis, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't feel great about wasting it TP'ing.

Among the plethora of cute Halloween-themed treats, I was especially enchanted by these pumpkin-shaped manju (traditional Japanese sweets). I even considered buying them, but three are more than I can eat in a short time and this is the type of thing best consumed fresh.