Friday, December 30, 2011

Variety Friday: Japanese Hospital Food

Before I entered the hospital on December 20, one of my friends remarked that she believed that Japanese hospital food was better than American hospital food. I can't make such a comparison because my only experience with American hospital food was when I was 12 and had a tonsillectomy. Like many kids who were going to have their tonsils out, I was promised ice cream to soothe my sore throat and given a liquid diet consisting of broth, non-citrus juice, and gelatin. My disappointment was rivaled only by my pre-teen outrage.

The one thing about being in a hospital that I was sort of, kind of, well, just a little happy about was the opportunity to sample the food. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I did know that the food would be vegetarian as that is what the hospital promises. Though Japanese cuisine lends itself well to dishes which do not include animal products, vegetarianism in this country is rather rare. I've never met a Japanese vegetarian, though I have taught a woman who is a chef at a vegetarian restaurant. She told me she was transitioning back to meat because she wanted to diversify her experience base and work for restaurants which served meat. She wasn't terribly committed to eschewing animal flesh, and most of the Japanese folks to whom I mention the notion of giving up things like beef and pork say they simply like these things too much. At any rate, with soybeans, tofu, and eggs being a big part of the traditional Japanese diet, I was curious to see what the hospital came up with in line with the "lacto-ovo vegetarian" food. 

The first day after surgery, I was given an all liquid diet. Though I was hardly thrilled with this because I didn't eat anything for more than an entire day, it did provide the chance to sample what the Japanese offer when someone is operating under dietary restrictions. Besides, this was something I could compare to what I had in the U.S., though I was a lot less sanguine at the prospect when I was a kid and denied my ice cream.

Note that you can click any picture and a much bigger one will load. This isn't because I think more detail was necessary, but because these are sized for my Facebook pages and I'm too lazy to make smaller versions for this blog post.

My liquid diet breakfast:

The tiny container in the upper left is a small quantity of melon gelatin. It tasted fine, but I'm not a big fan of melon-flavored things. The yellow cup to the right of it is decaf coffee. I was allowed a packet of sugar to add to it, but no milk. The coffee was extremely weak and lukewarm. The black bowl had extremely weak broth, likely vegetable based, but the flavor was so lacking in potency that I could barely taste much. It would have been greatly aided by salt, but it seems they preferred to give me my salt via I.V. at this point as I remained hooked up to bag after bag of saline during the day after surgery. The most interesting item was the clear stuff with the spoon in it. When I first removed the top from the covered bowl, I thought it was a bowl of hot water. It turned out to be something my diet card called "kuzuyu", or a kudzu-flour thickened soup. It was lightly sweet, and didn't taste bad, but actually lacked any strong flavor. It was a bit hard to eat it all because the sweetness tended to get stronger, but I was starving and put it all away. According to on-line sources, this is a hot winter drink in Japan. 

My liquid diet lunch:

Lunch was a little more fleshed out as it included a box of acerola juice fortified with iron and calcium. This time, I got a tiny quantity of strawberry gelatin instead of melon and miso soup instead of largely tasteless broth. Both of these were improvements, especially the miso soup. They gave me barley tea with lunch, but somehow thought it wasn't good with breakfast, oddly. The breakfast diet card included it, but it was whited out on the paper (diet cards are the slips of paper on the tray detailing the contents). The pink packet behind the gelatin is pickled plum sauce and there was also a tiny packet of salt. I guess this was stuff to be added to the bowl of white stuff in the forefront. This was "rice water" (omoyu), and that's what it really tasted like. It really did taste like slightly thickened water that had been siphoned off of washed rice. This reminded me of when I was a kid and made "glue" out of flour and water. I think this is what it would have tasted like. Even with the plum sauce and salt, it was pretty hopeless, but I drank it anyway because a starving women will take whatever she is offered. 

My liquid diet dinner:

My final liquid meal was one I greeted with extreme disappointment. Other than the pineapple carrot juice, it was all re-runs and the worst ones from lunch and breakfast at that. That's the rice-glue water, melon gelatin, pickled plum sauce, tasteless broth, and barley tea. I would have rather had the sweet stuff and some miso soup again, not to mention strawberry gelatin. It seems the repertoire for the liquid diet options in my hospital were extremely limited. 

I'd have to say that I can't imagine that American liquid diets are any better or worse than this. I think at the very least, they would give people black tea (without milk) as an option there. By the end of this first day, I was dying for some tea, as I'm a tea fanatic and drink at least 4 cups a day, usually more. Though I like barley tea just fine, one little half mug of it in a lukewarm state twice wasn't doing enough for my tea desires. 

Unsurprisingly, I was now looking forward to the solid food portion with exceptional gusto. Though I sneaked in a late night snack of some strawberry cookie bars I'd brought from home, I was hungry for "real food". The doctor mentioned that it'd be bread for breakfast, and that was just fine by me. 

First solid breakfast:

The green box is soy milk, which I rather like, but rarely buy for myself because it contains more fat than low-fat dairy milk. Of course, that's a banana, albeit not a super ripe one. It was also clearly refrigerated and I'm not really a fan of cold bananas, but starving people can't complain. The greyish stuff in the cup is potage soup. It was creamy, hearty, and had a good balance of onion, potato and milk as well as salt and garlic. I don't know if it was real or instant, but it was damn tasty. The little container in the upper right is a warm salad with what I guess is vegetarian salami and what I think was lettuce or cabbage (can't remember). The salad was very flavorful and delicious. The bread was fresh and tasted like it was recently baked. I twas also slightly warm. The packet of jam in the upper left is apple and I spread it on the bigger roll, which was white bread. The small one was whole grain and I dunked it in the soup. This was really a tasty meal. 

Solid lunch:

Lunch was the biggest meal that I received there, and was impressively tasty and diverse. The stuff with the green peas on top that looks like curry is hayashi rice, a sort of stew with a demi-glace sauce that is usually made with beef. Obviously, there was no beef in this. It was packed full of onions, carrots and what seemed to be grilled mushrooms with slightly blackened edges. There was a lot of heft to it and it was savory without being too salty and richly flavorful without being heavy. I'd like to have the recipe for it because it was a feat doing this as all vegetarian and making it so delicious. The salad was baby spinach greens with toasted slivered almonds. The salad itself was great, but was served with a packet of lackluster "French" dressing which did little to enhance it. The drink is a yogurt drink which was pretty much the usual tasty mixture of yogurty sourness and sugary sweetness that such drinks offer. It was yummy as well, but all of these types of things are. The finish was a small container of flan, which was sweet, creamy and had a nice burnt caramel sauce on the bottom. There was also a half mug of barley tea which really did not do the rest of the meal justice as a pairing. 

Solid dinner:

I'm not sure if dinner was intentionally lighter than lunch, but the portions of food were definitely on the slighter side. That was okay, because the truth is that the hospital meals I got two days after surgery were bigger than anything I make for myself at home. The item on the left is a warm cabbage salad with bits of carrot seasoned with sesame. It tasted great, but gave me horrific gastrointestinal distress all night. At every meal prior to this dinner, the nurses queried me about having gas and stuck some device on my stomach to test for difficulties and I was worried they'd find out this one had done a number on me and fret over it (possibly delay my release, heaven knows!), but they'd given up on monitoring my digestion after lunch. 

The rice is what passed for brown rice in Japan and nothing more. It's served with a fish-stock based soup that includes konnyauku (a flavorless, gelatin-like substance with little black specks on it), daikon (Japanese radish) and carrot. I believed it was meant to be a vegetarian take on tonjiru, a popular pork-based soup, but I could be wrong. This might simply be a standard non-miso type of soup. The stuff in the upper right is fried tofu with a savory and sweet sauce topped with a broccoli sprig. This was also pretty tasty and even a non-tofu lover like me found it pleasant. Finally, I was given a small carton of tomato juice and more barley tea. 

Second solid breakfast (last hospital meal):

Breakfast is actually my favorite meal and what I had at the hospital was no exception. One thing I loved about it was that they always included soup with the first meal of the day. It's something I'd like to do at home, but just don't have the time to make it. The combination of food at meals was inspiring, and I actually have added in some of the common elements in my own breakfasts since the hospital stay (including a little salad sometimes). This final meal was a piece of what I'm certain was Roman Meal whole wheat bread (the only sort of whole wheat bread you can cheaply and commonly get in Japan, though it is more of a bastard whole grain than the real deal as it's very white-bread-like), a packet of strawberry jam, a piece of "pocket cheese" (in the foil wrapper), a carton of whole milk, fresh pineapple pieces, and vegetarian minestrone soup. The soup was delicious with that familiar flavor of minestrone without the familiar oil floating around in it. The pineapple was six shades of awesome as it was clearly not from a can and sliced off a sweet, ripe fruit very recently. 

One thought I had as I consumed these meals is that there must be an immense competition for hospitals among food manufacturers. I never thought much about companies like Yakult (famous maker of yogurt drinks) and Kagome. They must sell huge numbers of packaged drinks to hospitals to serve to patients. In fact, I'd be shocked if they weren't better customers than the consumer market since the supply need would be quite steady. 

Since I never had any solid meals in an American hospital, I can't say if this was better or worse. However, my sister tells me that, during my mother's hospital stay, she was served things like canned fruit rather than fresh and that things were very overcooked. I do think that it's more likely in the U.S. that canned food would be used. However, I cannot stress enough that the food I ate was just what was on offer at my particular hospital. It could be different in various other hospitals. Mine was a smallish place, which may factor into how much care they take with meals. I cannot know. 

Overall, I thought the food was fresh, tasty and well-prepared. I was also impressed by the care given to the nutritional balance that was achieved. Of course, one would expect a hospital to be careful about such things, but I think they really did a great job. If this were a restaurant, I would feel okay, but not thrilled because I'd likely be paying more at a restaurant. However, if it were a school cafeteria, I'd be quite pleased to receive such dishes and if I could buy this food for cheap at a restaurant, I'd go there very often. 

If you've had experiences with hospital food in Japan or your home country, I'd absolutely love to hear what it was like to provide points of comparison to what I had. I know most of my readers are young and probably haven't been in hospitals, however, so I won't expect to hear too much.

Thanks for reading, and I'll be returning to usual form next week. An extra thanks for my readers' patience with all of my hospital talk on both blogs. It's just something that I had to get out of my system. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Random Picture #94

With Christmas having come along last weekend, my husband and I were on the prowl for whole chickens to bake up for a festive meal. People love to show insanely expensive fruit in Japan, but they have nothing on the price of a whole chicken. Despite the fact that it takes more effort to dismember a bird than leave it intact, they are always very pricey. This one, which was the biggest we located, which is to say about a medium-sized bird, was a good candidate based on size, but was insanely expensive. There is no weight printed on the chicken, but I'd be shocked if it were bigger than 3 kg. (6.6 lbs). The price tag was 5000 yen or $64 U.S. This chicken must have been lovingly massaged by nubile young girls everyday and fed only the finest, juiciest hand-picked worms and designer grains to deserve that sort of price tag. Needless to say, we passed. We ended up finding a kosher frozen turkey which was about the same size for about 1/2 the price. The turkey was one of two left behind, and we counted ourselves lucky to have found any sort of turkey at all.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Starbucks Azuki Matcha Latte

One of the things that Japan used to be famous for was copious numbers of free samples. There was a time, in days gone by, that foreigners would remark that a trip through the food areas of a department store (the basement) would net you so many samples that you could get a free lunch. I'm here to say that those days are long, long gone. Samples are offered on occasion, but the only places that reliably pony them up are Costco and some of the posher traditional rice cracker (sembei) and sweets shops. Such shops still serve a cup of tea and a small sample in many cases, but things are far spottier in markets, bakeries and department stores.

Since most customers descend on open trays and baskets of free samples as if they were living in the midst of post-war famine, I can understand why various places have cut way back on offering them. Few customers tend to actually make purchases based on such samples anyway. In fact, one enduring frustration for my husband and I is that there are some things (especially in bakeries) that look good and if samples could be had, we might buy them. I don't blame the bakeries, but rather the greedy customers. Honestly, I've seen people hover over sample baskets trying to block other people's access while they feed themselves with two fists. I'm not talking about grubby homeless people or impoverished students (I'm not sure Japan actually has any poor college students), but middle-aged women in nice clothes with shopping bags bearing the names of tony shops.

My most recent experience with free samples came along this very day while I was hanging out in a local Starbucks waiting for my husband to finish a swim and rejoin me for a convivial walk home. I rarely sit in coffee shops because I'd rather walk about. However, with my recent surgery (on Dec. 20), I really felt too tired to spend an hour walking while he swam. Before half my thyroid was extracted and I attained a big piratey scar across my throat, I would have happily gotten some extra exercise instead of occupying space for the price of an expensive cup of coffee. As I sat there reading a medieval novel on my ancient Palm, one of the Starbucks employees walked over with a tray of samples and told me it was something for New Year's, but she said it so fast that I only caught the word "matcha" (green tea). Looking at it, I knew that it was a latte by the color, but I didn't know what the little brown swirl on the top was. It turned out that it was azuki (sweetened red bean) sauce. Frankly, I thought it might be chocolate syrup.

I'm not a huge fan of green tea. It's in the category of "if they serve it to me for free, I'll drink it, but I won't order it myself". I've tried a lot of green-tea flavored things including KitKats, cookies, cakes, bean cakes, ice cream, and actual tea, of course. On occasion, I've really enjoyed it because the right balance of bitter and sweet can really create something tremendous with green tea. At other times, I've felt far too much bitter or grassiness in the mix and that the green tea element was overbearing. To my taste buds, green tea flavoring is like coffee flavoring. It's easy to get wrong, and hard to get right.

This is how I remember my experiences when I'm out of the apartment and forgot to put my notebook back in my bag. Thank goodness for all of the advertising tucked into free packets of pocket tissues.

I sniffed the sample with interest and noted that the scent had some nutty elements as well as the familiar green tea scent. The taste was milky with a strong green tea flavor, but nearly zero bitterness. The creamy full fat milk and enough sugar to make it sweet but nowhere near cloying offset any unpleasantness that may have come from using such a strong green tea flavor. The azuki, which I perceived as chocolate based on the color and appearance, was too small in quantity to really add much, but it may have added a dimension that wasn't overtly "beany". It may have just added rather more depth of flavor. In fact, one thing that I really liked about this was that drinking it was such a multilayered experience. The texture was creamy, but not overly rich and the flavor was strong, but not overbearing. The manner in which the latte was made or the tea roasted left me with a good nutty finish.

I really liked this, and would actually buy one for myself now that I've tried it. Considering my relative indifference to green tea, that says a lot about how good it is and the power of offering free samples. I'm not sure how matcha purists would feel about this, but I thought it was truly delicious. That being said, don't be fooled into thinking the fact that this is green tea with red beans makes it healthy. If you drink one, you are essentially having dessert as a short one with regular milk has 180 calories, a tall about 300, and a venti nearly 400 calories. Since this is likely to disappear after the season is well and truly over, I'd recommend skipping dessert one day soon and enjoying one while you can.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Variety Friday: Best of the Best

How much do I love Heart Chiple? I bought this gigantic bag (50 cm./20 in.) full of garlic chip goodness at Don Quixote. That's a 30-cm. ruler (about a foot).

By the time you read this, I should be busting myself out of a Japanese hospital after having had surgery on December 20. Because I have been busier than ever during the lead up to this surgery, I'm bringing a list out of the buffer which has been languishing for a long time. I hope you'll forgive me that there is no new review for Friday this week. I realize that with only two reviews per week, it's probably not the most welcome to have a post which isn't 100% new content. Trust me when I say assembling this took a lot longer than writing a single review. It's simply that this was finished and I don't have time for a new post, especially when, as I write this, I will be spending an entire day being unable to eat. The surgery is not "serious" (the removal of a benign tumor in my neck), at least no more than any sort of surgery is. Still, I've had surgery twice before (tonsils and gall bladder removal) and I know what is coming. On T.V., they show people in recovery after the deed is done and all seems just peachy keen. That doesn't account for the post general-anesthesia cookie tossing and the pain of having been cut open and had bits of your body taken out. Surgery to the body is little different than an assault, an antiseptic, skilled one, but deep cuts are deep cuts and it's going to hurt.

I think that's more than enough of my whining. Back to business:

My ratings system is based on whether or not I believe I will buy things again. Considering the frequency with which I sample new foods, it's often difficult to actually get around to enjoying things a second time. That means that only the creme de la creme actually gets bought repeatedly. There are only so many junk food calories that I allot myself per day, so winning that little corner of my diet is a hard-won battle.

Unfortunately, my big bag of Heart Chiple was full of little bags that were exactly the same type of bags that I can buy at the local 99-yen shop. The only different is that the bags cost 40 yen each in the giant novelty bag and only 27 yen each locally. Moral: Don't go for the gimmick!

After more than 3 years reviewing, here are the things that I actually have bought again (and again):

1. Double Cream Brown Sugar Sembei

If I were to stop food review blogging tomorrow, this would probably be on top of my refrigerator 80% of the time for frequent snacking. It satisfies a salt craving. It placates a desire for sweets. It also gives you something crispy for 62 calories for two crackers. If you like brown sugar and salty sweets, you absolutely have to try these if you have a chance. I keep thinking someone should find a way to market them abroad. These are my number 1 absolute favorite thing that I've eaten since starting to review Japanese snacks. The rest of these entries are in no particular order of favoritism.

2. Candied Yuzu

Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between grapefruit, lemon and orange. It can be a bit bitter or sour, but the candying balances that out. I've had little packets of candied yuzu a few times for a snack, but I have also bought it to replace candied lemon or orange rind when baking. It's both chewy and sweet, and it's on the healthy side. For those who like lemon chews or candied citrus peels, this is a winner.

3. Kinako Mochi Tirol Chocolates

Each autumn, this particular square of chocolate is reissued in Japan and remains available throughout the winter. Kinako is toasted soybean power, but depending on the presentation, it can taste a little like peanut butter. I've bought both the "premium" (slightly bigger and more sophisticated)  and regular (small and simple) varieties of these for their somewhat peanut-buttery flavor and the textural interest from the gummi interior.

4. Riska Super Heart Chiple (garlic chips)

I love these super light, rice-based chips that come in single-serving bags for only 27 yen (about 30 cents) each. They're strong on the garlic and have a very small bit of heat, but so satisfying and flavorful. The portion size is just enough to satisfy without going overboard on the calories at 85 calories per bag. It's big flavor for a little price both monetarily and nutritionally.

5. Kinako KitKat big bar

This has two things I love - the high wafer to chocolate ratio and kinako. The kinako isn't too overwhelmingly "soy" and just enhances the chocolate nicely. It isn't available everywhere or all of the time, but it is re-issued seasonally (usually in the spring or summer).

6. Yuzu Koshoo Sembei

These are peppery, spicy, and savory rice crackers. The blending of flavors is so perfect that it makes my mouth water just thinking of them. They are second to the Double Cream Brown Sugar Sembei as my all-time favorite. It's too bad that they're only available in convenience stores and only at a certain time of the year (winter). I adore these when I want a salty, spicy snack, and hope that they come back later this year so I can buy them again.

7. Cratz
I like all of the Cratz pretzel flavors, but the black pepper bacon are the bee's knees. Each hard little pretzel piece is an intensely savory nugget. Since many Japanese people prefer subtle flavors, Cratz stands out for its intensity of flavor. It's meant to be paired with beer, but you can have it with any beverage you like.

8. Pure Gummy
I tend to keep a bag of one flavor or another of Pure gummy candies around for quite awhile. They have a perfect blend of sour and sweet and offer a nice textural combination with their smooth chewy interior and little flakes of citric acid powder on the outside. These are gummies for adult tastes.

9. Cheese Almond Sembei
These appeal to me because there is a crunchy, delicious roasted almond glued onto each and every cracker with a pungent dab of processed cheese. With experience,  I have grown enamored of the dubious allure of the much-scorned processed cheese. Yes, sometimes eating enough junk makes you start to like it. At 14 calories per cracker, I find myself creating big piles of wrappers at the snacking hour. The combination of textures and flavors is simply a winner which transcends the appeal of any individual component.

10. Senjaku Diet Cocoa Candy
I have purchased bag after bag of these chocolate hard candies. They have an intensity and a feeling on the tongue which makes you think of a chocolate bar in a manner that no other hard candy has ever conveyed to me. I try to keep two extra bags on hand at all times because both my husband and I eat them. When you've got a chocolate or sweet craving, these are 12 calories of satisfaction. I hope they never go off the market.

11. Eichoseika Fluffy Chocolate Sembei
This list was originally going to be only 10 items, but this seasonally available treat forced me to add one more. Available each year from September to March, this "sembei" is not what you'd expect. It's not a hard, crispy little rice cracker, but a puffy ball of melt in your mouth white chocolate and vanilla ambrosia. It is an amazing taste and texture experience which I liken to balls of vanilla ice cream without the need for refrigeration.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Random Picture #93

There are so many Christmas and holiday-themed snacks around that I have a ton of pictures that will never see the light of this web site. It seems that every year there is just a little more Christmas in Japan and I really am happy to see it. Yes, I know it's all crass commercialism, but I try to look at the positive side of it; there are more shiny, pretty packages with warm holiday themes. 

That being said, though I love the package design on these 350 ml. (about the size of a can) Coke offerings, I can't bring myself to buy them. They're called "splash balls" and are meant to resemble the bulbs on a Christmas tree and they are a cute concept, but ultimately bad value when you can find a 500 ml. bottle for as little as 78 yen at places like Seiyu (99 cents). 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Muji Amashoku

When you think movie snacks, you're probably thinking popcorn, M & M's, chocolate-covered raisins, or some sort of candy that can be shoveled into your mouth in small bits such as to mislead you about the true amount you are consuming. You probably aren't thinking "Japanese baked goods", but this amashoku (sweet bun) was purchased for me to consume during a viewing of Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol. 

I didn't plan to be so unconventional, but the theater we went to was fused with Muji (in what I'm sure was a painful transporter accident). If you don't want to look that up and don't know what it is, I'll tell you it is a worldwide seller of household goods, clothing, and other assorted crap that emphasizes minimalism. It's the "no brand" brand. The fact that it is considered "cool" always makes me smirk since I grew up poor and buying "generics" which were what no one wanted because of their plain black on white labels. If only they'd chosen a different color scheme (Muji's is black text on tan with deep red lines), they might have been painfully hip instead of fodder for people who knew the humiliation of shopping with food stamps.

Since Muji had a shop in the basement and first floor of the theater, we killed time before the main feature by perusing one of the shops. There is a minimum of 20 minutes of advertising and coming attractions and we were lied to about the starting time and subjected to 13 minutes of ads even though we waited until near the starting time. At any rate, since Japanese theaters allow you to bring in your own snacks (hurrah!), I was drawn to the compact packet of amashoku for a mere 126 yen. Each small bun is a little bigger in diameter than a 500 yen coin/American half dollar and a mere 27 calories. 

All amashoku is a little on the dry side, but not in a way which is especially unpleasant. It has a textural quality which crosses between bread, a cookie, and cake. It has the texture of the top of a muffin, the dryness of bread, and a bit of the delicate inner texture of cake. Really fresh amashoku that you buy in bakeries has a slightly crispy top. Pre-packaged types like this are pretty much soft all the way through, but that doesn't make them bad.

The flavor is of margarine, sugar and something that reminds me of anise at the end. It's a very distinctive flavor which I encounter with all sorts of amashoku, but I can't find anything in on-line recipes which would account for this taste. The basics are flour, butter, sugar, and egg. These were sweeter than some amashoku, but not too sweet and quite tasty. For a texture junky like me, they really hit the spot. 

Since Muji is worldwide, there's a chance that these can be bought in other countries at their shops. I was already a fan of amashoku, but they are on the "plain" side. If you're someone who likes carbs that aren't too oily or painfully sweet, I'd recommend giving them a try. I'll certainly have them again.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tohato Tyrant Habanero Spicy Cheese Crackers

Have you ever kept a pepper in the refrigerator for far too long? They get all soft and shriveled up. In the end, you've got a flaccid item which is a shadow of its former self. If the red pepper graphic on this bag were truly representative of the flavor of the snack inside, it'd look like one of the aforementioned aged peppers. 

Of course, I was unaware of this when I decided to pick up this discounted bag of salted snacks at "My Basket". I figured it was part of the Tyrant Habanero line which generally does a good job of burning my mouth until I get an endorphin rush. For the discounted price of about 66 yen (85 cents), it was hard to not buy them, especially with the promise of "spicy cheese" with some heat. I should have guessed that there was a reason that they were discounted. On the bright side, there are only 215 calories for the whole bag.

These crackers have a modest cheese flavor which is heavy on the sour powdered milk flavor and weak on the delicious cheese pungency. That is chased rather meekly by a bit of a hot pepper bite. It's actually not so much a bite as a half-hearted nip at the air rather than draws any blood. The crackers are hollow, but not as crispy as their American cousin, the Goldfish cracker. There are also a smattering of peanuts mixed in, but not enough to give you some with every small mouthful. They also are so much heavier than the crackers that they fall to the bottom so you can't really eat them as a mix unless you empty the 45-gram (1.6 oz.) bag into a dish or burrow to the bottom of the narrow bag. 

These are not bad at all, but with the evil jack-o-lantern pepper on the front and the promise of "habanero", I expected something in the way of flavorful teeth. If you are the type of person who wants to fool yourself into thinking you can handle hot peppers, this is the ticket for you. If you want something that'll leave your mouth burning for a little while, give them a pass. Personally, I wouldn't have them again. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Random Picture #92

Christmas tins, tubs and boots are out in force in Japanese supermarkets. Most kids get only one Christmas present in Japan, and I guess this might be one of them. I have an odd fascination with these things. There's something neat about the large volume of snacks settled in these things, though the truth is that most of the food in them is pretty low-rent stuff and the whole is not worth the sum of the parts. These canisters, which are made of plastic, are probably supposed to be used for some other purpose when the snacks are consumed (possibly a trash can?).

Though I kind of want to try one of these, the truth is that I don't like that cat and I can't bring myself to spend 1000 yen (about $13) knowing I'm contributing to its continued presence on this planet, no matter how alluring a barrel full of random snacks is to me. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tohato All Azuki Cookies

I once said that I was on a quest to sample all of the "All (Fruit)" line of cookies and then I promptly forgot that this was one of my snack blog missions. In fact, I forgot that I had any missions of any sort, but perhaps all of the incessant commercials playing in Shinjuku station for the newest Mission Impossible movie sparked my memory. I must say that I wonder if it costs more to run ads in a station that about a million people walk through than it costs to run ads on television in Japan. That has nothing to do with these cookies unless Tom Cruise decides to appear in ads for them in the future. That's not outside of the realm of possibility, but I think that he's unlikely to smile and bite into cookies that smell a bit like mold or dirt, as these ones do.

That's right, these cookies smell pretty rank. Their unique bouquet reminded me very much of the dreaded oshiruko KitKat. Still, I'm nothing if not game to sample new foods, especially when I've already forked over my 100 yen ($1.24) to procure a bag of them and the only other option is to toss them and forfeit a review opportunity. I found these at Lawson 100, but you can find them pretty much anywhere that carries the All Fruit cookies. They are seasonal and will vanish after winter and reappear next autumn. So, if you want some cookies that smell like a zombie's armpit, act before it warms up.

All derogatory comments about the aroma of these cookies aside, they are actually quite enjoyable. The basic cookie used in the All Fruit line has a good flavor and texture. They are slightly flaky but soft. They're like a cross between a biscuit and a pie. Sandwiched between them are bits of moist sweetened azuki beans. There is also kinako  (toasted soybean powder) and black sugar syrup flavoring added, though the influence of these two ingredients are so subtle that you can barely detect them. They're like a voice in the next room that you can't make out, but they are nonetheless, present and contributing something to the overall taste. For all I know, they're also adding their own personal touch to the funk coming off of them as well. 

I'm not an enormous fan of red beans. The truth is that I like white bean sweets more than red, but I bought these believing that the moist nature of azuki would lend itself well to these cookies. That theory is supported by the taste, though there really should be more beans in them. It seems like Tohato continues to scale back the "fruit" portion of this line all of the time and you get more basic cookie and less of the filling then I recall in some of my previous reviews of these. Still, these are good and I recommend them. Just hold your nose when you open the bag and put the portion you want to eat on a plate so that the smell isn't so powerful.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mister Donut Snow Doll (Man) Donut

How cute... there's snow on his nose! Wait, that's not snow...

I hope everyone enjoyed the togarashi mayo rice chips review on Monday. I chose that to offset the utterly bland and typical nature of today's review of a new Christmas donut offering by the fine folks at MisDo. They're offering several flavor variations on this snowman concoction, but none of them is really something to get all worked up about the oddness of. There is chocolate, green tea, strawberry and angel cream. Because none of these is very exotic, at least not for Japan, I went for what I love, angel cream. That is to say, plain old sweetened whipped cream. If you want me to put something in my mouth, all you have to do is slather it in whipped cream... and, no, that's not how my husband won me over. 

Besides these little snowmen, there are also some vaguely modified versions of other standard Mister Donut offerings such as a churro "wreath" with white chocolate frosting and a few candy-coated bits for holy berries and two (strawberry and chocolate) frosted versions of the venerable "pon de ring" donut with sprinkles. I think that it's probably too much to expect that any chain store is going to invent an entirely new concept for the holidays. It's easier just to slather new frosting on an old one. If it's good enough for Krispy Kreme, it's certainly good enough for Mister Donut.

This is actually two small donuts of different types rather than one. The smallness of them is reflected in the fact that the whole thing is still only 253 calories. The top piece is a ball of yeast-raised dough with frosting and some supremely sweet cherry-flavored M-&-M-style candies on it. When fresh, it's a nice enough morsel, but a little too sweet for my tastes. The bottom isn't actually a donut, but rather a chou. If you don't know what a chou is, then you haven't lived in Japan in which chou cream are everywhere and the results of a long ago food fad. It's an area, slightly tough and chewy pastry which seems mainly geared toward acting as a receptacle for cream or pudding.

The chou base is pretty much like every other consumer-level chou I've had in Japan and as I described it in the aforementioned paragraph. A "scarf" (or "wreath) of whipped cream cements the top and bottom together and about 1/3 of the chou donut has cream in it. The rest is just plain old chou. I don't know if this is how it is supposed to be or if I got a defective one that had cream inside that it shouldn't have had or lacked cream throughout the interior as it should have had.

Experiences like this are hard to rate because this was a pretty nice donut. I enjoyed eating it, but given the other options, I wouldn't buy it again. That assertion is a reflection of how much I like other donuts, not that there is anything bad about this at all. The regular angel cream at Mister Donut has as much whipped cream, fewer calories, and has a more tender donut exterior which is superior to either of the donuts in this concoction, but I certainly did enjoy this so it gets a "happy", despite my feeling this is the last time I'll sample this. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Random Picture #91

Regional KitKats would be a lot more impressive to me if they were actually confined to the region they supposed spawn from within. As it is, no one is exactly zealously guarding carrying them over the borders of one prefecture into another. In fact, no one seems to be stopping them from being sold at every major station in Tokyo and in particular at Narita airport. That's okay. I think the whole regional food thing is overplayed in Japan anyway and if you want to get on your yubari melon KitKat (a Hokkaido version), all you have to do is good enough at a claw game ("UFO Catcher") to knock the box into the hole. Trust me when I say it is easier said than done.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Kameda Seika Togarashi Mayonnaise Rice Snack

Since I was a psychology major and continue to study psychology of my own volition to this day, I often run across various studies and theories about human behavior. One of them is that choice is good for people, but too much choice is very stressful for them. Having three types of chip to choose from is good. Having 20 is just going to make you stand in the aisle biting your nails trying to decide what to buy.

Apparently, most American manufacturers don't know about such studies as there are eleventy-billion (that's an "imaginary number" in every sense of the term) varieties of everything back home. How fortunate for me that I live in Japan where the only thing they saturate me with choice about are fish, tofu, panty fetish items and anime characters, none of which is of any particular interest to me. While there may be a ton of Kit-Kat flavors, more than three are rarely offered at once. These "Okome Kitchen" ("Rice Kitchen"), a brand made by my favorite sembei maker Kameda Seika, snacks come in three varieties, too. I found these on the shelf at a little market near my house for 100 yen ($1.24) per bag and had my pick from among red pepper and mayo, garlic and black pepper, and wasabi and salt. I choose the mayo because I figured it'd be the hardest child to love in this little snack family.

A good whiff of the freshly opened bag gives you the familiar scent of mayonnaise, as should be expected. The first bite, as is so often the case, is the best because you get the depth of flavor most acutely with a clean palate. The flavor of Japanese mayonnaise with it's eggy and rich taste comes through potently, but not overwhelmingly followed by a nice spicy hit of red pepper. The blending of these two components is damn near perfect as the mayonnaise taste is cleaved beautifully by the pepper's heat. There are also some savory flavors added in to provide a better backdrop including cheese, vinegar, pepper, chicken and seafood. These components don't come through as individual tastes, but as a melange of seasoning. This blending of savory spices with hot pepper stops this from tasting like you're sucking on a tube of mayonnaise.

The chips are light and cripsy and have the feel of being baked rather than fried, though vegetable oil is the third ingredient after rice and rice flour. This is like a cross between sembei (rice cracker) and a processed potato snack, but in a good way. They're a bit on the smallish side, at about half the size of a standard chip,  so it's easy to find yourself popping two or three in your mouth at once. Fortunately, the entire 60 gram (about 2 oz.) bag is only around 300 calories so you can indulge fairly freely without paying too heavy a price.

I was surprised that I really enjoyed these. I think mayonnaise flavoring is something which is quite easy to overdo and get very wrong, but felt this was well-balanced. While I can't say I was over-the-moon about these such that I'd be buying them again and again until they're taken off the market (and ultimately, they won't be around because that's the way it is in Japan), but I'd definitely buy them again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Yaokin Vegetable Salad Umaibo

Some time ago, I bought a variety pack of Yaokin salted snacks which included 5 varieties of "umaibo". "Umai" is "delicious" and "bo" means stick. I figured that this would cover pretty much all of the umaibo I'd ever want or need to sample. These are very cheap kid's snacks, and tend to be a bit greasy, nicely crispy, and fairly flavorful. Their main appeal is in the texture, which is a large airy corn puff, and their relatively strong natural corn flavor. Though they come in different flavors, but are generally a similar experience with a backbone of savory flavors like garlic, onion, chicken, beef and pork with another flavor layer added into the mix as the dominant one. Their main appeal, frankly, is that they are incredibly cheap and come with sometimes amusing package designs.

The reason I find myself reviewing another umaibo is not that the package is claiming that they have added more deliciousness (umai uppu!), but rather that my husband was handed a magazine in a plastic bag that also included this umaibo. Free snacks! All you have to do is be on the right street corner when someone is handing out a magazine which is almost all advertising and almost no actual content. If you want to buy one for yourself, they'll set you back about 10 yen (13 cents) at most supermarkets or snack shops.

Though this claims to be "vegetable" flavor, it smells rather fishy. I'm not sure why that should be because it doesn't taste fishy. In fact, it's hard to pin down what it tastes like at all because there is a general melange of spices. The ingredients list includes cabbage, onion, bell pepper, potato, and garlic seasonings. It tastes pretty good in the way that things that are very, very bad for you can taste. There is so much oil on the exterior that placing it on a tissue to take a picture left an oily spot on it.

Since I didn't buy this, I can't really speak to "buying it again", but if someone gave me another one for free, I'd certainly eat one again. All of these Yaokin snacks are economical salted snack niceness. There's no nutrition data on these, but I imagine they're made with damaged fats and have little of redeeming value. Still, the portion size is smallish and the texture is good and they are flavorful. Next time someone gives you one for free, I recommend taking it.