Monday, April 9, 2012

Zero Calorie Black Sugar Kinako Warabi Mochi

 I lived on a big island (that'd be Japan for those who are incredibly dim or haven't been reading this blog for awhile) for 23 years and am currently taking my ease on a much, much smaller island and will be here for the next 6 weeks or so. These two (groups of) islands have very little in common and I'm dealing with some heavy duty reverse culture shock right now. The only thing they seem to have in common are higher prices than mainland America. In Japan, prices are higher because, well, it's Japan. The island I'm on now has higher prices because all goods must be brought in by ferry and there's an added cost.

One of the things that people do three times a week here is offer a chance to give away or take free items that are no longer of use. There are huge stacks of second-hand clothes, a few very clean-looking toilets, dishes, etc. I guess that, in a place on which there are few shops and it's hard to bring in new things, people are attentive to making the most of what crosses the water and makes it onto this particular island.

It strikes me that this "take it or leave it" approach to used goods would never be popular back in Japan, especially not in Tokyo. One reason for this is that Japanese folks tend to be squeamish about second-hand stuff. I often asked students if they would take something for nothing in various circumstances and they overwhelmingly said "no". For instance, I asked if they'd pick up a gorgeous pair of boots in the right size that were left at the side of the street with a sign that said "free". Even if I said they were guaranteed clean, they'd say they wouldn't take them. I also used to do a lesson in which people would answer a question about whether or not they'd like to win the lottery and get a lot of money and they also say "no" because money had no meaning if they didn't work for it.

I don't know if people were being honest with themselves about not taking something for nothing, but the answer was given often enough for me to believe there is a strong cultural underpinning which says that it's always best to pay for what you get in sweat or cash. Certainly, the relative dearth of zero calorie foods in Japan often made me think that people felt that every ounce of pleasure had to be balanced with an ounce of potential body fat. Now that I'm back in the U.S., I can see all too well that the desire to get something (sweet food) and pay nothing (calorie-free) is much more strongly reflected in the options available in stores.

Shortly before I left Japan, I found this gelatin at a Lawson convenience store (228 yen/$2.77) and jumped on it for two reasons. First of all, I am American and would prefer not to pay for my pleasure, at least not in increased fat cells. Certainly, I paid a fair bit in cash for a single serving (about a cup)of calorie-free gelatin dessert. Warabi mochi, incidentally, is a traditional Japanese dessert which consists of gelatin-like soft blobs with little flavor themselves that are served with toasted soybean flour (kinako) and molasses honey (brown/black sugar syrup). The real deal is addictively delicious and chock full of sugar. The chance to have my warabi mochi without the sugar was too good to pass up.

Of course, the Japanese are right about having to pay for things in order to have them be worthwhile. There was no way a zero calorie gelatin dessert was going to live up to the real deal, but hope does spring eternal. There were two major problems with this and the first was that the texture was nowhere near the gentle, soft blobs of delight of warabi mochi. It was like weird stretchy gelatin dessert. Imagine trying to spoon some Jell-O to your mouth and having it fight by by resisting. The second problem was that this was super sweet with an unpleasantly intense brown sugar flavor. To me, it seemed like eating brown sugar out of the bag with a spoon. The nutty soy notes of kinako were entirely absent, despite the name of the product.

This wasn't exactly the most vile thing I've ever eaten, but it wasn't great. I've actually consumed plenty of Japanese zero calorie gelatin desserts and they were all pretty similar to what I can get in America save the fact that many had nata de coco in them (which I loved). This was different and therefore a more interesting experience, but not necessarily a better one. 

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