Yes, I have a dirty mind. Shikuwasa, incidentally, is an Okinawan lime. However, if you'd like to think of it as another name for a carnal act, you can feel free to do so and join my demented club.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Image pinched from Pepsi's Japanese web site.
This is just a quick and brief post to say that the weird Pepsi flavor that everyone (no one?) has been waiting for is going to be "salty watermelon". This isn't a bad flavor choice actually, as watermelon and summer are inextricably linked and the Japanese do salt their melons. If you have sub-par watermelon which isn't sweet enough salting it a little will make it taste better. The same goes for apples. However, don't salt your fruit like you do your fries or you'll be filled with regret.
This flavor will be released on July 24, 2012 and will be in a 490 ml. bottle. This continues Pepsi's new trend of slicing 10 ml. from their drink bottles. Pepsi says that the graphic design featuring a big melon in front of the ocean is meant to bring to mind "the joy of summer". Given that Japan is going to endure another year of "setsuden" (energy conservation) as their energy woes from the nuclear problem in Fukushima continue, they'll need to extract all the fun they can while they cook in air conditioners set to 28 degrees C./82 degrees F.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Of course, my blog indicates that the interest level of foreigners in these types of snacks is pretty low. In a Venn diagram of Japanese snacks, there is not so much overlap between what piques Japanese interest in food and what gets my blog hits from those who have the patience to read my prattle. Trust me though when I say that you'll make any Japanese person happier with something from this type of snack than a box of chocolates unless they recognize the name as having a high price tag. Even then, they may not necessarily enjoy eating it as much, but they will definitely appreciate that you spent a wad of bills just to get something with the word "Godiva" emblazoned on it. As an aside, I've had the best luck giving Japanese people See's candy. They tend to like it a bit better because it's not as sweet as other American chocolates. My husband has been known to buy nearly 30 boxes of various sizes to give as gifts to students during visits back home. He had a lot of students, and they often gave him gifts and that was his way of returning the favor.
Getting back to the subject at hand, my husband and I first encountered these bean cakes at a traditional sweets shop in Kichijoji, home of one of the more popular areas for cherry blossom viewing (Inokashira Park) and a very popular place for middle-aged shoppers. If you go to the Wikipedia page, keep in mind that the picture there is misleading. I didn't even see it look like that during Christmas when lights are often put up. At any rate, we bought this based on being given a sample by the shop attendants so we knew what we were getting. The interior is a slightly powdery, yet still moist, clump of very finely strained white beans sweetened with sugar and margarine. It doesn't have a strong taste, but mainly lends texture as it nearly melts on the tongue and offers sweetness. The outside is a slightly chewy, but also slightly crispy shell which is dusted with cinnamon. The combination of textures and flavors is sublime.
These reminded us a bit of one of our other heavy favorites in the Japanese bean cake arena, Koganei Imo. The difference is that the cinnamon flavor is more pronounced in these and the interior is a little drier because these are shelf stable and mass produced. They are also greatly more accessible as they are sold at a variety of shops and you can only get Koganei Imo from one generational shop that hand prepares them in Ningyocho. There's a list of the shops that carry these bean cakes here, though if you can't read Japanese at all, you'll have to apply Google's translation to read the names. The shop chain that carries these is called "Chidoriya" and they have shops in department stores and various Japanese-style "malls".
Before leaving Japan, my husband and I wanted to buy a big box of these to take with us. We returned to Kichijoji two days before leaving only to find that that branch of Chidoriya had disappeared. We decided to track some down in Kita-Senju and picked up a dozen to take back. The expiration date on the box was short, but the truth is that we still have them and are still eating them. They don't seem to lose all that much even though we've had them for about two months now. As you might guess, with something we enjoy this much, we're rationing them and trying to make them last by refrigerating them.
If you go to Japan for a tourist stint or live there, I would strongly recommend tracking these down. At the very least, you can get a sample taste before you buy to see if you like them as much as we do. And if you go and carry some back to the states, bring a box for me, too. I'm pretty sure ours won't hold out a whole lot longer. ;-)
Friday, May 25, 2012
One of the ways in which the green tea he drank was different was that it wasn't really, truly green. This was a fact that he didn't relay to me until I'd sent him a bag of green tea leaves that was, well, very green. That's not to say that all of the green tea that is sold in America is not green, but just the variety he was having. However, when something sells its green tea as "authentic", I expect it to be like what I had in Japan. In the case of Celestial Seasonings Authentic Green Tea (with white tea for smooth taste)", that was not quite the case.
I guess part of the issue is that I'm not sure what makes anything "authentic". In my fevered imagination, I believe it means that it is like the original and in my bias toward Japan being the center of all things green tea, I thought that meant it should be like Japanese traditional tea. That is, it should be green and have a more than faint taste like chlorophyll. It turns out that, like many things in Japan (like "Japanese cheesecake", "Japanese bread", etc.), the origin of green tea and the truly authentic version is hardly like the Japanese one at all. Green tea originated in China and this may actually be more authentic than the green tea I had in Japan because it is akin to Chinese green tea.
I don't brew or serve my tea out of drinking glasses, but I don't have on of those cool-looking clear Captain Picard tea cups with the metal bands. ThinkGeek sells them, but I don't have one because I'm still a homeless person and have no place for cups.
When I brewed up a cup of this, I was surprised to see that it is closer to gold and that a bit of oil floats on top of it. The oils are more akin to what you sometimes see when brewing coffee. It also does not smell very grassy and it tastes a a bit like a blend of oolong tea and what I drank as green tea in Japan. It has a deeper, earthier taste rather than a profoundly grassy one. The truth is that, not being an ardent fan of Japanese green tea, I rather liked this better than what I had previously conceived of as "authentic" green tea. I liked it a lot more, and it has a cool dragon graphic on the front of the box as an added bonus.
You can get Celestial Seasonings teas at nearly any supermarket in the United States. I could actually buy them at markets in Tokyo as well, though the variety of flavors was limited and I never saw this green tea for sale there. I guess it would be just as confusing for the Japanese to buy this and see how it differed from their version of green tea as it was for me. If you can't find it anywhere else and want to try it, you can find it at Amazon. It's mellow and well-balanced and requires no sweetener or milk to make it enjoyable, though I'm guessing you could probably find bags of bulk oolong and green tea and mix up you own blend and it which would be similar and cheaper than this. However, I think they'd also taste a bit harsher and have a less spiffy graphic on the box.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
I'm pretty sure that I saw blueberry cheesecake KitKats were available in Japan in at least 4 different packages. I bought them as single stick bars quite some time ago and saw them as a regular bar with 4 fingers at one point. I also saw them in a conventional regional KitKat box. Just as I was leaving, I saw them on offer in these Mt. Fuji style boxes. The boxes are rather cute and very appealing from the viewpoint of being a souvenir from japan, but I wasn't too keen on the blueberry cheesecake KitKats when I tried them before and can't imagine these would be appreciably different. Still, I may have gone for them on "my way out the door" (leaving Japan).
Monday, May 21, 2012
People who bake know that there are different types of brown sugar. People who eat may know so as well, but for most people sugar is sugar. Most people don't know what caster, demerara, muscovado and turbinado sugar are. The more sophisticated sugar consumer tends to know three things; white, brown, and powdered. I'm no culinary snob so I don't care if people can separate different types of sugars. Unfortunately, my husband is one of the types who knows only the three shades of sweetness previously mentioned. It's dark and sugar, so, it's going to be brown sugar. Yay! Brown sugar! He loves brown sugar.
I'm here to say that kuromitsu ain't no brown sugar. It's a type of syrup that is often used on warabi mochi and other Japanese sweets. It's fine and dandy for various applications, but it's not pleasing to the palate of someone who is looking for that very definable flavor that comes with oatmeal cookies, pecan pie, and spoonfuls of cavity-creating pleasure taken straight from the brown sugar bag. The question of whether or not the flavor pairs well with the white chocolate and wafer combo of a KitKat is also a very valid one.
I'm sorry to say that, having spend 840 yen ($10.63) and having 12 mini bars (69 calories each) on hand, that it isn't the greatest pairing. Speaking as someone who likes the sublime combination of kuromitsu when drizzled over soft blobs of kinako-coated warabi mochi, I was especially disappointed, but not surprised. I think that the bland mochi and nutty toasted soy flour (kinako) are a nifty pairing, but sweet white chocolate is not its friend. It's sweet and intense paired with more sweet and slightly milky.
On top of this being a very so-so KitKat, there is also the fact that it has to be one of the oddest regions to offer a KitKat from. Nihonbashi is a business district in Tokyo. It's not a bad place to go or anything, but it's hardly a heavy tourist district and, as far as I know, it is not really related to kuromitsu. It does relate to the Mitsui family who brought Mitsukoshi department store to Japan so this may be a play on words (mitsu, Mitsui), but it seems a tenuous connection at best. I think Nestle Japan is either trying to hard, or not trying nearly hard enough.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Image pilfered from Pepsi Japan's web site
Since many of my readers also read "The Impulsive Buy" (and if you don't, you should), this product's existence should not come as a surprise to you. I'm not sure why this is called "Black" except that darkness appears to be associated with adults. The Adult Sweetness KitKat comes in a black box and is darker chocolate, after all. I guess there may be some vague connection between darkness and adulthood because that's when grown-ups do all sorts of nasty and embarrassing things that they can't do in the bright harsh light of days when judging eyes might witness their actions and unfairly condemn them. You know, things like watching Jay Leno, eating entire boxes of powdered donuts, or picking their noses. Admit it, you thought I was talking about sex there, didn't you? That's how I know you all read "The Impulsive Buy". Great dirty minds think alike.
Of course, Pepsi takes all the fun out of things by saying that the "black" labeling means "not sweet". I'm not sure how that relates to anything in reality. Sweet is a taste. Black is a color. Unless you've got Synesthesia, you're not going to be able to taste a color. It's not like there are no black sweets in Japan with black sesame treats, so this is a connection I'm missing (and talking about this has made me hungry for black licorice).
The main selling point of Pepsi Black, despite the prominence of the lemon flavoring on the label, is that it is half as sweet as regular Pepsi. This makes it essentially a duplicate effort of the previously released "Pepsi Dry." They appear to have smoothed out the aftertaste and given it a lemony bouquet but other than that, it's a re-run of a previous attempt to grab a market which should be just drinking Canada Dry ginger ale. Personally, my guess is this will be the equivalent of watered down Pepsi as a lot of cola flavor comes along with the sugar. Sugar, like salt, is a flavor carrier/booster. I doubt that more cola flavor was added to make up for the short-fall, but I could be wrong.
The strange thing about this is that it is sold in 490 ml. bottles, not the standard 500 ml. bottles. They're gypping people out of 10 ml. It will be released on June 19, 2012, but I must point out that this is not what I'd consider to be a "weird Pepsi" release. This is an expansion of the existing product line with something which, if it sells well, will likely be available for a long time to come.
The last strange flavor was Pepsi Pink and was out in November of last year. Prior to that, there was Pepsi Mont Blanc in October 2010 and Pepsi Baobab in April 2010. You can see that the time lag between strange flavor releases is starting to get longer. My guess is that they don't sell especially well because none of them taste particularly good. My feeling has always been that they do the strange flavors as a PR move to improve the name recognition of their brand relative to Coca-Cola, not because they're testing the market's thirst for esoteric flavors. Despite the impression people abroad have that Pepsi is creative and flooding the market with funky flavors, they clearly release them twice a year at most. I expect that the next odd flavor will show up in the late summer or early autumn (my money is on September), but it's not like I have an inside line at Pepsi Japan.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
As is the case in all countries, there are various categories of snacks. I tried to sample from a variety of types including otsumami (snacks to be consumed with beverages, especially alcoholic ones), kid's snacks, grandma's snacks, cheap snacks, traditional snacks (bean cakes, sembei), and modern snacks that riff on Western things. Because of that wide range of things, it was impossible for me to try everything, even within a discrete category. One of the things that I wanted to try, but never got around to was these tiny little snack sticks. On the left are salami sticks and the right are cheese sticks. Each is about an inch long and about the width of a pencil. At only 9 yen (11 cents), I knew they weren't going to be high grade snack food, but that was part of what made me want to sample them. I like to try potentially bad stuff as much as potentially good stuff. Unfortunately, I didn't buy them when I took the picture, and forgot which convenience store was carrying them. Time ran out on my opportunity to try these low-grade snacks, sadly... well, perhaps not so sad. ;-)
If you've tried these, please leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of them.
Monday, May 14, 2012
My first foray into a world that my parents and grandparents were already familiar with (i.e., super cheap cooking with the cheapest and most flatulence-inducing protein provider) was with a 1-pound (2.2 kg.) bag of black beans. I'm pleased to say that they cooked well despite it being my first attempt. Of course, it's not exactly rocket science. I just had to not be a total impatient dumb ass and keep the temperature down and stir the pot once in awhile.
The end result of my foray into dry bean land (a great name for a theme park for those who require little to amuse themselves) was a plethora of cooked black beans. What better way to put them to use than to experiment with some recipes that are off the beaten path? I looked up one of the many recipes for cakes and brownies made with black beans and promptly made my first creation. This is it:
The response you tend to get to the idea of making sweets with beans is, "ewwww!" And, the first question people tend to ask when you make such things is, "does it taste like beans?" The answer is, "no, it tastes like cake." No matter how many assurances you offer the average Western consumer, they are unlikely to truly believe you until you get them to place a bite into their yobs and allow them to personally witness the lack of beaniness.
Now, if you change the location of this situation to Japan and you are talking to a Japanese person, their response is "yum!" Well, more accurately, they will say, "oishii!" Because bean sweets are so common in Japan, they don't bat an eye at the notion that you can make a delightful treat with beans of all sorts. They've been living this reality for years, yet most Western folks are still giving you a look that says, "you're trying to get me to eat something good for me by wrapping it up in something that resembles something delicious, but you're not fooling anyone."
I asked my husband when I made the black bean cake if he would have been willing to sample it had he not had years of experience eating bean treats in Japan. He said that he was pretty sure that he would not. One of the gifts we received from our experiences with food there was an open-mindedness about food and what can and can't be used in certain dishes. The bean cake I'm reviewing today is one of the first ones that got my husband started on a profound love of such things, Kamome No Tamago (which means "sea gull's egg").
I consider this one of the "staple" consumer treats in Japan. I see them in most supermarkets year-round and they are relatively reasonably priced for a higher quality bean treat. They aren't the same as the fresh types that you can pick up at dedicated sweets shops, but they are very tasty and approachable to Western palates. Part of the reason for this is that the white bean filling is surrounded by a thin shell of soft, but firm cake coated in the thinnest layer of white chocolate. The center tastes of the stuff of cake, but is not overly sweet. The texture is moist, but not too heavy or dense. It would be unfair to say the center adds nothing to the flavor, but it also would be wrong to say it tastes like beans as Westerners tend to conceptualize them. They've been mashed into a near fudge-like texture and mixed with magic (sugar and margarine) to make them a textural and taste delight.
My husband and I usually bought our Kamome No Tamago for 525 yen ($6.56) for a pack of 6 egg-size cakes at Inageya supermarket, but I saw them at many other shops. They weren't sold at convenience stores for the most part, but they were in many different types of grocery stores and department stores. During our years in Japan, we likely consumed well over a hundred of these bean cakes between us, possibly each. They're one of the things we decided to carry back to America with us with our limited luggage weight capacity. They are worth the weight in your pack, the yen in your wallet and the calories.
Friday, May 11, 2012
When I was shopping in Tokyo, I never looked carefully at the origin of a product before I bought it. In fact, most of the time, I didn't pay attention after purchasing unless there was a reason. This carelessness about attending to the origin of products is something I intend to continue since I'm really just too damn lazy to bother to investigate where something was made. This is my roundabout way of saying I bought this sesame snap because it sounded vaguely Asian and I wanted to compare it to a sesame treat that I bought in Japan. It wasn't until I brought it home and started writing this review that I realized that it was made in Poland.
The product that I had in Japan that I want to compare this to is Daitii Seika Goma Sesame Crunch Candy. When I had this treat in Japan, I loved it. It would be pretty awesome if I could find something similar to it here. While the two products look similar, the Louck's Sesame Snap is made only with sesame seeds and the Daitii Seika candy is made with peanuts as well as white sesame seeds. This means that there will at least be less complexity of flavor.
I did a little search on the history and origin of sesame seeds because that's the sort of thing you do when you're spending your days in a cabin watching deer nibble grass in your front yard and largely isolated from civilization (as I am for now). Well, it's also what you do when you have a curiosity about food culture and how it developed based on the origins of certain crops. Sesame seeds are thought to be the world's oldest condiment, which I guess makes them more accessible but less interesting than the world's oldest aphrodisiac (which I'm guessing is oysters, or Spanish fly, depending on where you live and whether oysters or flies were more common in your area). Getting back to the point though, sesame seeds came from India originally, and most of what the world consumes comes from central America, China, and, unsurprisingly, India. Japan is apparently the world's largest importer of sesame seeds. Given how many sesame treats I had in Japan, especially black ones, that is absolutely no surprise.
I found this at a local supermarket in the impulse buy section near the register for $1.09 (87 yen). For 40 grams, that's somewhat pricey, but not out of line. I've read that these are pretty popular high energy snacks, so I'd wager most people can get them locally in the U.S. However, Amazon carries them if you want to try them and have no other access and the price is much lower than what I paid, though you do have to buy more of them at once. Note that I am not trying to necessarily toss business Amazon's way when I link to them, but rather that the same laziness that has me not checking the origin of the food I buy until long after it is in my home applies to searching out where to buy things. It's just easiest for me to see if they carry it and link to them if they do.
These smell nutty, as should be expected. The texture is like that of nut brittle, which is also unsurprising. The sesame seed flavor is fairly smooth at first, but as you finish one of the 4 slabs, it takes on a slightly bitter aftertaste. I don't know if this the effect of the concentrated flavor of naked sesame seeds encased in sugar and glucose or if it's a cooked sugar flavor manifesting itself, but I suspect it's the former.
I liked this pretty well, but it's not the bee's knees of sesame seed snacks. It certainly is inferior to my reference snack, the Daitii Seika sesame treat. The inclusion of peanuts in that snack mellows out the flavor of the seeds and adds a balance. That's not to say this is bad nor that I wouldn't buy it again. Certainly, as a nut brittle, it's a tidy little treat with a nutritional boost. I imagine it'd be especially good to carry around and eat on a long hike or bike ride. One package is 230 calories and the sesame seeds are a good source of various minerals. I'd buy this again, but not if I had a choice between this and the previously mentioned Japanese sesame candy.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Image pinched from Domino's Japan's web site.
Mother's day is the next Hallmark Holiday on the horizon and Domino's Japan has an unimaginative offering for those who prefer to phone in their gift and have it delivered to mom's doorstep. They're selling a small heart-shaped pizza with a simple topping of tomato sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella for 1300 yen ($16.29). The size isn't given, but it says that this is good as 1 or 2 servings so it must be pretty small. I guess that it would be considerate of Mom's health not to feed her too much pizza.
Monday, May 7, 2012
When I was given wasabi KitKats, I remember having a discussion about chocolate with one of my students in which I mentioned that putting chili in chocolate was fairly common in America. She was shocked, and grossed out, at the idea of this combination. Of course, she thought that including wasabi was also pretty weird, but accepted it as something reasonable as a regional variation for novelty value. This is one of those rare cases when a combination is actually a bit stranger in Japan than in the West. I've been reading about American releases of chili paired with chocolate on other blogs for years.
If you look at the top of this box, you can see that there is an old-timey picture in sepia (because that's how we can tell it's "old-timey"). This is because this flavor is supposed to represent what was popular in the Shinshu area during the Edo period. The origin of the hot pepper that is used is thought to be the Amazon basin rather than Japan. It's a transplanted flavor that is commonly called "togarashi" in Japan. Apparently, we have Columbus to thank for spreading it all over the globe, first to Europe and then to Asia. I doubt that makes up for all of the stuff the Spanish did to indigenous peoples nor does it make up for the fact that he is seen as discovering something which was hard to miss and probably was located by many explorers before him, but, hey, credit where it is due. He spread some hot peppers for us all to enjoy, especially the folks in Nagano (formerly the Shinshu area).
I picked this box of 5 mini KitKats up at the airport on my way out of Japan. I don't remember what I paid, but the retail price according to Nestle Japan's web site is 350 yen ($4.38). As is so often the case with these types of KitKat, it represents significantly bad value for the quantity, but one does not buy these for the volume, but rather the novelty. Each KitKat is two mini fingers (about the size of one and a third regular KitKat fingers) and has 67 calories.
When I opened the packet on these, I smelled a very pleasant bittersweet chocolate smell. I deeply inhaled the scent of the bar to try and detect any spiciness or hint of the chili pepper, but there was really no hint. My first bite yielded a mild, slightly sweet bittersweet chocolate flavor with the usual crispy wafer freshness of a KitKat. Only after this did I get a bit of heat on the tongue. Each subsequent bite was the same. It was a one-two punch with each flavor hitting quite distinctly.
This is a pretty nice tasting KitKat, largely because it is a slightly dark, bittersweet flavor which is not too sweet and pairs well with the wafer's crunch. However, the spicy portion seems almost superfluous. It does not detract from the chocolate, but it seems to add nothing. It's like eating a candy bar and then a little hot pepper alternatively.
I think this works best as what it is, a novelty. If you're in the area (or at the airport) and want to take something back for your friends to try which won't make them gag, but will surprise them, this ought to fit nicely. The heat isn't so intense that someone will have a burning mouth. You'd have to be extremely sensitive to hot pepper to suffer for sampling this. Though I'll finish this box (slowly), I don't think there would really be any reason to buy this again.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Image acquired from Lotte's web site.
On the other hand, one of the linguistic skills (of absolutely zero value) that I acquired in Japan was the ability to extrapolate the meaning of mangled English to its most likely original meaning. That is what leads us to this product. I wonder what most people who don't read or speak Japanese think is the the pronunciation of the product name. I would guess that most would believe it is "free-bah" as it rhymes with "Reba" (as in "Reba McIntyre", a country singer who I never listen to but looks spunky). In Japan, this is "foo-ray-bah", which is almost certainly their version of "flavor".
Image also taken from Lotte's site.
The gimmick for these pretzels rods with almonds is that there are flavor particles (otherwise known by the civilized world as "dried spices" including salt) at the bottom of the bag which you can shake to coat the foodstuffs therein. You can shake more to give the snacks within a thicker coating for a stronger flavor or you can shake less to create a milder flavor. Of course, unless the pretzels are coated with something sticky, chances are most of the spices are going to remain in the bottom of the bag. This has to work on the same principle as popcorn, which the salt will not stick to unless you coat it with lashings of melted fat or fat-like substances.
You may notice the words "furu" on the advertising and instructions. That means "shake" (it also means "fall", but I'm guessing this isn't about dropping the bag). "Otsumami" means snacks to be consumed with beverages, and usually booze. The available flavors are spicy curry, salt and pepper, and wasabi. My guess is that these are positioned to compete with Glico's Cratz, which are also bits of pretzel with almond. The main difference is that Freba is supposed to give you a choice about how intense the flavor will be and Glico is just going to dictate how much spice comes on your salted snack treat like some demented pretzel storm trooper.
If I were in Japan, I'll be honest, I wouldn't buy these for several reasons, though I would at least be tempted by the wasabi version. The main reason is that I'd lack confidence that the spice would stick to the pretzels, but also, I was hugely satisfied with Cratz and this is essentially the same product type. I also like super strong flavors on salted snacks and am perfectly happy to have Big Brother Glico decide what level of intensity is right for me.
If you like to watch video of snack foods flying in the air with bits of spice and attractive women eating pretzels, you can see the commercial for Freba on Lotte's commercial gallery web site. At present, it's the one in the lower right hand corner (though it'll probably move in the rotation through time).
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
There were many perfectly reasonable and innocent word combinations in Japan which, because of different cultural connotations, were funny to native speakers. These cans of jasmine tea, sold without milk or sugar, and marketed as "Asian Straight" would be fine if it weren't for the fact that it makes it sound like they are marketing heterosexuals of Asian origin. When I saw things like this, after the initial smile of amusement, I was reminded of the complexities of gaining true fluency in a language. The nuances and the fluidity of pop cultural references make it nearly impossible. It was good for a laugh, of course, but also a moment of empathy. No wonder my students never felt their English would be adequate. If a huge corporation like Kirin was tagging their products in a slightly funny way when they used English, what hope did my students with their limited resources to get their English perfect have?