Friday, March 30, 2012

Kamakura Pudding Cream Daifuku

My husband and I went to Kamakura to call upon the giant Buddha (daibutsu) several weeks ago because that's the sort of thing a person does before leaving a country forever. Honestly speaking, every time I have to write or say that we are going away "forever", I feel strange. I really cannot see us coming back after 23 years here, but you just never know where the winds will blow and compel you to go.

I should note, for no reason other than I want to put it out there, that we're leaving Japan very happy with Japan. There tend to be different ways of exiting this place. One is people who are here on a contract and the clock runs out so they go home with an interesting year under their belts. Another are people who are so fed up that they just want to blow this popsicle stand. Few operate in our situation and that is that we feel fulfilled and are going out on top. Seriously, life here has been better than ever (aside from my thyroid tumor) before. It's an awesome feeling that we're leaving something positive to face a new challenge rather than thinking we've played this scene or abandoning this sinking ship like self-serving rats. It's like a relationship break-up in which both sides mutually accept that it's the best thing to do and that nothing went so wrong so much as it's time to move on.

Anyway, the big Buddha sits there looking serene and peaceful and the shops around him offer souvenirs both tacky and tasteful, and also things that have the potential to be "tasty". (See my obvious wordplay there? I'm not nearly as clever as I would like to be.) My husband and I scrutinized the items on offer and decided to go for this sunnily boxed daifuku. With ingredients like whipped cream, eggs, and sugar, we knew there was a good chance that this would be very right because it sounded so very wrong. Also, the Buddha looks pretty happy holding pudding on the box front. How could it be bad if it pleases him so much? And would a cartoon Buddha lie to us about his authentic reaction to a treat?

When it said "pudding cream", I thought we were getting pounded rice cake (mochi) filled with custard. That is a tasty enough possibility, but not as interesting as what it really was. It is actually pudding and cream. The center is a dense, soft concoction of "whipped cream" which has the consistency of whipped Crisco shortening and a somewhat coconutty flavor. The mochi mainly provides a soft and highly flexible wrapper and the pudding a hint of rich, vanilla custard flavor. This was a little tricky to eat because it is so soft, but it's not incredibly gooey because the fillings are relatively firm for their type. The filling texture is amazingly creamy and satisfying and couples well with the chewy mochi.

I loved these and would definitely buy another box of 16 for about 1400 yen ($17) again if I make my way to Kamakura again. That being said, nutritionally, I'm sure these are pure poison as that filling has to contain hydrogenated oils. Since this was a souvenir, there was little nutritional information on the box (of course). The Japanese confectioners who provide such things don't want to put a damper on your party by letting you know how bad such things are for you. Still, they are rather small (about 4 cm./1.7 in. in diameter) and if you can manage to just eat one a day until the box is done (which is what my husband and I did), then the damage will be minimal.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Random Picture #106

It may surprise no one that I have been taking pictures of food all over Japan like a mad woman since I know that I'll not have the chance to do so in the future. That being said, I still hold out hope for interesting shots to share even after I go home. Who knows what sort of shopping experiences I'll have in California (where I'll eventually end up, but am not starting from). It's not exactly a wasteland when it comes to Japanese food. Even when I lived there 23 years ago, I was able to buy packets of instant miso soup at a local Safeway. 

Some experiences will never quite be the same no matter what, and one of them will be the Japanese bakery experience. For one thing, I expect everything to be much bigger back home. I also expect that presentation will be less impressive. Finally, I expect far less decadent textures and richness. All Japanese bread products are on the fat-heavy side in my experience. Of course, this picture is meant to illustrate the "cute" side. 

One of my Japanese friends started a Facebook group for animal breads and I joined rather belatedly and found this picture of bear bread. Actually, I found that the vast majority of animal bread in Japan is "bear bread" as it's probably easiest to make, but am still hoping to participate in the group with some more imaginative offerings after I get back to the U.S.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Glico Tomato Cheeza

Just after graduating from college, I was desperate to get a job as my guaranteed student loans were going to require their first payment come August. With a B.A. in Psychology in hand, I was ready to take on the universe, but the universe wasn't exactly clamoring for my "expertise". As a stop-gap job, I took work at a Lutheran summer camp as a "crafts counselor". The irony of being called a "counselor" at a job which was essentially a sort of babysitting and teaching kids how to put together pre-packaged kits as a holder of a newly minted psychology degree was not lost on me.

The truth is that I was rotten at that job for several reasons. I have never been good with kids and I was impatient and sometimes angry with them. Another was that I was inexperienced and immature. I barely remember what I did, but I do know that I was oblivious enough about my poor performance that I asked the camp heads for a reference when I applied for my next job. I got that job, but they didn't exactly praise me. They said that I scared the kids. I guess I was lucky that the next job, which was directly related to my degree and far more fulfilling and appropriate for my personality, decided to take me despite the poor referral. Fortunately, I've gotten a bit better with kids (and all people in general) through time.

The reason that I am starting a review with this slice of my personal history is that there was something that happened during my time at that camp which reminded me of these crackers. One of the other counselors had to have her wisdom teeth pulled and was unable to eat solid food. On "hoagie day" (that's submarine sandwiches), she really wanted to have one, but was incapable of chewing one up. She asked the lunch ladies to puree one for her so she could drink her hoagie. After she sipped some of it, we asked her how it was. She said it tasted as you'd expect, but it was all wrong because of the loss of the textures and layers.

To me, that is a pretty good summary of this Cheeza release. This combines the tangy flavor of tomato with Camembert cheese. If I were to eat a cracker, a wedge of cheese, and a tomato, I'd think that was some good eating. In this configuration, the distillation of the cheese and fruit into powders that are pressed into the cracker seems awkward. It isn't helped by the fact that the Camembert, which is usually a mild cheese, seems incredibly intense and pungent. Camembert cheese powder is the first ingredient, and you can really taste the truth in that order.

I found this at Okashi no Machioka discount snack shop for 100 yen ($1.21). That's rather cheaper than supermarket and convenience store prices which tend to run closer to 147 yen ($1.78).  That gets you 42 grams and 214 calories of little crispy, fresh-tasting crackers. Cheeza crackers always taste cool on the tongue as the result of some alchemy I cannot fathom.

Usually, I like intense cheese flavors, but there's something about this which just doesn't work very well for me. Cheeza boasts its high cheese percentage and that is generally a good thing. I rarely find that I dislike their flavors, and I did eat the entire bag of this. However, I wouldn't buy it again.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lotte Strawberry Custard Cake

Despite the impressions of those who don't actually live in Japan, who believe that every trip to the "konbini" (convenience store) is a delightful parade of wasabi KitKats, cucumber Pepsis, and kinako Doritos, most of the variations on snacks here are pretty boring. It'd be like the movie "Groundhog Day", before Bill Murray figures out that he can use the time to actually have new and different experiences and improve himself.

Most varieties are seasonally oriented with sakura (cherry, sort of) being on the shelves right now, and strawberry being the year-round favorite way to spice up the mainstream versions of everything. In the U.S., I think this is also common. If it works in its pure form, try it again with strawberry. In Japan, the next phase is to do it with green tea. In the U.S., it tends to be making it with peanut butter next time around. 

It is clear that fake strawberry seems to be a world-wide crowd pleaser and my husband wanted to try this one. Well, he wanted to try it and play a UFO Catcher game (crane/claw game) for fun and this was a reasonably acceptable prize. That means I paid for this without buying it in a store, but these are readily available in supermarkets all over Japan. If they aren't currently available, you can rest-assured that they'll come back in the rotation again soon enough. It is as inevitable as the tides, and smutty jokes on The Impulsive Buy by Marvo. 

Pitting a Lotte Custard cake against the likes of these would be like pitting a donkey in a race with a champion thoroughbred. 

I favorably reviewed Lotte's original custard cake taking it at face value. That is, I didn't compare it to beautifully made hand-designed cakes. It's important to remember that 6 shelf stable packaged cakes for tossing into a backpack or desk drawer aren't meant to rival something from the fancy cake shop that you can't shop at because each of them costs more than your usual lunch at Subway (note: I did not buy the pictured cakes, but was given them as a gift by a generous student). 

The strawberry version was just as "good" as the plain version in that it was a serviceable sponge cake with cream filling that had the air of preservation in its foil confines. However, there were 6 cakes in the box and only one of them had a decent amount of well spread strawberry on top of the cream. The remainder had just a smidge off to one side. This didn't in any way make them less pleasant, but if you were in it for the strawberry, you'd be bound to be just a little disappointed. The one cake which did have a reasonable amount of strawberry reminded me of the cheap disc-shaped sponge cakes with an indentation in the middle that my mother used to buy in 6-packs for strawberry shortcake. We'd make them by putting a modest amount of berries in the center, a heap of sugar, and then pouring whole milk on them for a soggy treat. It was good in the way that cheap things can sometimes be good despite not actually resembling honest "food". 

I enjoyed these much as liked their plain sibling, but the truth is that I probably wouldn't buy this particular version again. If all of them had as much strawberry goo distribution as the one "winner" in the box, I'd buy a box again for the nostalgia reminder from my childhood. As it is, I think I'd just as soon go with the regular version since they can't get their machines to squeeze out the strawberry properly.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Random Picture #105

Rilakkuma, the "relax bear", is starting to outpace "Hello Kitty" as Japan's most desirable corporate shill. It's no surprise that it's easier easier to find the lazy bear at your local convenience store than the silent feline. He's encouraging Japan to mellow out, eat some gelatin and have a "happy holiday picnic". It'll only cost you 398 yen to have it out of a keepsake mug ($4.80) which probably would cost you a buck or less if it was sold without the added cost of gaining the rights to the cartoon bear's image. Obviously, I did not buy this. While the prospect of lemon gelatin is certainly somewhat appealing, I'd rather buy it from a plastic container for 200-300 yen less than this, but I am trying not to acquire new possessions to cart back home to America.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Kyoto Fukudaruma Cookies

In the eyes of many people who are not me, I have failed on many fronts as a foreigner in Japan. One of my many failures is not having gone to Kyoto during my long stay in the country. Apparently, this means I have failed to appreciate the culture and am simply existing in my gaijin bubble. Never mind that I have penetrated the deepest and most intimate recesses of Tokyo so often that I could be arrested for my perversity. Never mind that I know more about sumo than even an old curmudgeon who spends his days in Ryogoku chowing down on chanko nabe (sumo stew). Never mind that I can tell you the name of most of the food makers in Japan because I've sampled such a broad range of snacks. I haven't been to Kyoto!

One might ask why I haven't been to Kyoto, Japan's former capital. Well, the reasons are relatively simple. First, it's expensive to take a Shinkansen and I'd have to stay in a hotel overnight. Day trips to surrounding environs don't set me back nearly as much as travel outside the area and contrary to popular belief, foreigners who work in Japan aren't rolling in dough. The other reasons really relate to the fact that no one has told me something about the area which would lure me there. The food is traditional Japanese cuisine, particularly kaiseki (multi-course meals of traditional dishes that are beautifully presented) which sounds nice enough, but my husband doesn't like such food and I'm often so-so on it. Of course, one of my many character flaws is that I don't enjoy seafood and am indifferent to fish. The sweets, I've been told, are lots and lots of green tea delicacies, and I've mentioned before that I'm just "okay" with green tea. So, there's not much on the food front. 

There are, however, temples! Yes, temples are so rare across Japan that I may actually walk as long as 20 minutes sometimes without seeing one. I realize the Kyoto temples are different. They're older, bigger, and exist in Kyoto. I enjoy a glance at a good temple, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to pop for a Shinkansen ticket to see more of them. All in all, if someone covered my costs, I'd be delighted to go to Kyoto, but it just doesn't seem like it's a place that would light my fire. Yes, I'm a big "fail".

Fortunately for me, my Japanese friends are far greater successes than I and occasionally go to Kyoto. They're the reason I know so much about the lures (for others, clearly, I'm immune to the "bait"). One of those friends was kind enough to bring me back a bag of Kyoto Fukudaruma cookies as a souvenir. This delighted me no end because I could tell by looking at them that they are kin to soba boro cookies, which I absolutely love.

Like soba borrow, they have a burnt sugar taste which resembles dark caramel with a side of buckwheat. They are light and crispy. The main difference between soba boro and these fukudaruma (which means, "luck doll", by the way) is that these little fellows have what looks like a mustache and are smaller and harder. They mainly are a little denser in texture and slightly less intense in taste. They were so good, it was hard not to eat them by the handful like popcorn.

While I can't say that fukudaruma cookies are good enough to lure me to Kyoto, I can say that they are delicious and that I'd buy them again if they showed up somewhere near me. If you like crispy cookies with an earthy grain and dark sugar taste, you should pick them up as well.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Vanilla KitKat Big Bar

There's a song by Barenaked Ladies which my husband has listened to many times in which about a million lyrics are disgorged in about 3 seconds that has a line which says something about vanilla being the finest of the flavors. As a kid, I would have vehemently disagreed with this, but, as an adult, I'm definitely much closer to agreeing with. I realize that one of the reasons "vanilla" was not good when I was a kid was that most of what was marketed at that time as "vanilla" was simply "absence of chocolate". An ice cream cone from the local "Tastee Freeze" was pretty much milk flavored with some artificial flavoring tossed in. It wasn't even an approximation of vanilla, but rather some sort of flavor that was supposed to enhance the consumption of a cone of white soft serve.

I think that since the days of my ancient childhood (I am all of 47, after all), consumers have gotten more sophisticated about vanilla. The price of vanilla beans would indicate there is some reason to believe that is so. They wouldn't be so expensive if demand were not fairly high. Nestle Japan decided that they were going to go "for real" in this vanilla KitKat bar and the package boasts the inclusion of real vanilla beans and 13% "vanilla paste". I was not sure at all what "vanilla paste" was, but a little research said that it is vanilla beans mixed with a thick sweet syrup made with sugar and a thickener. It's supposed to be good for making ice cream and is used in gourmet cooking. I may be a tad cynical, but I'm guessing this KitKat isn't using the highest quality vanilla bean paste in every bar.

I should note that this purchase was something my husband desired more than me. He's a great fan of white chocolate and I'm decidedly "so-so" on it as I generally find it too sweet. For that reason, I'm going to go with his rating on this bar instead of mine. I will share my impressions, however, since I can't really speak for his taste buds. I can only say that he said, "I really liked it!" I can also say that he ate all but the bite I took for review purposes by himself.

Regarding my feelings, it was, as expected, too sweet. There were nice little black flecks of vanilla beans in the white chocolate and the inner filling was brown (not white) so there wasn't an overload of white chocolate. The wafers were, as always, crispy and satisfying and the extra number of them in a Big Bar were welcome. However, there was a funky flavor to the white chocolate which overpowered any sense of the vanilla beans authenticity. I thought it tasted like chemicals, but it may simply be something about white chocolate that rubbed me the wrong way.

So, for me, this would be an "unhappy sumo" rating as I wouldn't have finished the bar. For my husband, it'd definitely be happy as he ate most of it in one sitting. If you want one, they're at most convenience stores for about 120 yen ($1.44) for now. Fans of really sweet bars should love it. Those like me, perhaps not so much.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Random Picture #104

Click to see a larger image.

Sometimes you have to wonder just how much cultural differences affect perception. Take the illustrations on these two bags of sembei (rice crackers). To me, the inset pictures look like worms crawling out of the crackers. To a Japanese consumer, does this look like fish or shrimp goodness climbing into the crackers? I've never wanted to know sales stats on a particular product as much as I'd like to know them about these.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Kanro Green Tea Candy

I once read a book called "Turning Japanese" by a nisei, a young man born of Japanese parents in the United States. He had been raised entirely in America and culturally, aside from the influence of his family, he was American. I read the book quite some time ago, but I recall that I didn't like it. I recall that he visited Japan at one point and reached a lot of odd conclusions about how he was actually Japanese based on a lot of superficial and tenuous links. Among the few things I remember was that he didn't like to drink a lot at once and that he learned/concluded/speculated/guessed that Japanese people had small bladders and didn't like to drink a lot either. My feeling about that is that he clearly has never been to a "nomikai" or "drinking party" in which businessmen can imbibe copious amounts of fluids regardless of their supposedly teeny tiny bladders and long-suffering livers.

This fellow was hardly the only person who felt he was "turning Japanese" from just spending some time hobnobbing with the locals, and at least he had a family cultural heritage and bloodline to back up his claims (though, as an American, I don't believe blood determines ethnicity, but rather culture... this is my particular bias). I've known more than enough lily white foreigner who felt he or she was "turning Japanese". One of my former coworkers, a British woman, came here with a head full of voluminously curly brown hair and an eclectic wardrobe. She left here with black, straight hair and the same sort of muted, boring wardrobe that you see in autumn in Tokyo. Another claims that all things Japanese are superior to all things back in her home country, or at least she did up until Fukushima when all of her faith in Japanese society crumbled with the nuclear reactors' external housing.

One of the reasons I spent a lot of my early years in Japan actively rejecting anything that was "too Japanese" was that I felt people who were clearly not of this culture pretending they could somehow be of it was foolish and, frankly, embarrassing. Let's face it, this is not an inclusive culture and the only person you fool is yourself if you believe assimilation is possible. It was a huge turn-off for me when people "went native" and lost all perspective about the yin and yang of life in all cultures. Unfortunately, my distaste for such people manifested in distaste for the things they attached themselves to and it wasn't until I started blogging about life in Japan and doing this food blog in particular that I started to more fully open up and embrace what was on offer. Beans in my sweets? Stretchy rice cake? Green tea sweets? No thank you.

Well, I've grown up a bit and I adore beans in my sweets now and have turned into a real mochi aficionado. However, I still have not strongly taken to green tea treats. If I'm served a cup of green tea with a meal set, I'll drink it. I'll even drink the cup my husband is served, too, but I won't order one or pay extra for it. If I'm given a green tea-flavored cake by a student, I'll eat it and probably enjoy it to some extent, but I won't buy it myself. With this in mind, no one was more surprised than me to find that I had a craving for something green tea flavored and found myself purchasing these Kanro green tea hard candies. I don't know what came over me. Perhaps I grew up just a little bit more in my final month in Japan or I just am so bored with the usual options that I was ready for something "new".

I found these for about 150 yen at Okashi no Machioka discount snack shop. Each sugarless candy is a nice shiny green pellet and only about 11 calories. There are two varieties. One has milk in it and the other is pretty much the "straight" green tea (matcha) version. The milk one is less bitter and mellow. The darker one carries much more of the usual straightforward bitterness of tea as you drink it from a cup, albeit with sweetness. Both of these have a rounder flavor and texture than conventional hard candies and are super smooth on the tongue. Though they are sugarless, they include margarine (yes, margarine) as an ingredient as well as cream, and I believe the added fat adds to the smooth, slightly rich feeling in your mouth.

When I consumed one of these on the way home from work, my husband got a funny look on his face and asked what I had in my mouth. I told him it was a green tea candy to which he tactfully replied that something smelled "funky". That was his nice way of saying that he really didn't care much for the stink of the candy. That means that I'm far less likely to buy these again. However, if I really loved them, I would keep buying them and eat them when he's not around. There are other things I love that he finds the scent of unpleasant that I buy and eat anyway (like sembei), but the bar is raised if he finds it nasty to be around, especially if it inhibits talking or kissing. Personally, I think these are pretty nice for green tea candies and if I developed another inexplicable desire for a green tea sweet, I might even buy them again. I imagine a true green tea fan would find them quite enjoyable, but I think this will be my last bag. I guess that I'm really not "turning Japanese" as they aren't quite suited to my tastes.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Variety Friday: Yokohama Chinatown Food and Snacks

Click any picture to see a larger version. This is one of several gates to enter the Chinatown area.

Since deciding to leave Japan, my husband and I have been revisiting and visiting various places with the knowledge that this will be our last chance to do so, at least for quite some time. One of the places we went to a very long time ago was Yokohama's Chinatown and neither of us remembered what it was like. When we got there, we learned that it certainly wasn't what we expected.

The main draw of this particular Chinatown is supposed to be the food. The area is rather small and populated with ostentatiously decorated restaurant facades, snack and sweets stores, and stands and shops selling very tacky items. It's like a Chinese tourist trap conveniently set up in Japan so that Japanese tourists don't have to go all the way to China to get their dose of unrealistic Chinese cuisine and souvenirs. None of this really bothered me at all. I'm all for the occasional immersion in kitsch and I don't take life that seriously. It's important to take things at the level they are offered for what they are instead of what you think they might be or should be.

Chestnuts and shrimp chips, a winning combination. The shrimp chips looked very much like pork rinds. 

That being said, I did have one expectation of Chinatown in Yokohama and that was that the food would be different and "better" than Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. The main idea is that it's supposed to be a bit more authentic than Japanized versions in my neck of the woods. What I found was well beneath expectations. The main disappointment was that there was so much repetition of the same food and even the same vendors. Every street had several people pushing samples of roasted chestnuts on people quite aggressively and even the sample-crazy Japanese (usually, they descend on them like starving wolves) were turning them down right and left. Steamed buns filled with pork and meat filling were also on every corner. The only difference between them and those in Tokyo was that they were enormous and more expensive. In terms of the restaurants, it wasn't that every place tended to offer the same range of dishes, though that was very much the case, but that the same chain of restaurants were repeated throughout the limited Chinatown area. It was literally the same food in many places, not just a varied presentation on mabo-dofu or cashew chicken. 

Garlic ribs and shumai.

My husband and I ran across no fewer than 4 and quite possibly more "tabehodai" ("all you can eat") restaurants with the same pricing structure and signage. People stood on the streets trying to press fliers for such establishments into our hands and touted that you could stuff yourself silly for 1980 yen (a little under $25). These weren't buffets (or what is called "viking" in Japan), but places at which you paid your money and then ordered what you wanted. I had limited experience with this sort of thing at a buffet in Shinjuku which was part buffet and part "ask us for the stuff you want". It was a huge pain in the ass trying to track down and ask for things which were not in the buffet as waiters and waitresses in such places aren't exactly making themselves as available as possible to customers. I've also heard (after our trip) that the food quality at such places is not particularly good, so it's probably best that we passed.

Fried rice, cashew chicken and unidentified soup.

We walked along the side streets and lesser trafficked areas searching for places off the main drag which might offer less common food options. In the main areas, there were mainly the same dishes we see everywhere in Tokyo. We settled for a place which had a rib dish my husband hadn't seen at every other Chinese joint between Shinjuku and Yokohama. I bought the "safe" option, a cashew chicken set off of the lunch menu for 1480 yen ($18.20), and he got the adventurous ones, garlic ribs from the a la carte menu for 1800 yen ($22.13). The set came with fried rice (cha-han), a soup I'd never had before which seemed to be beef-broth based and was full of little stringy things (not egg, trust me) and mushrooms, one lone shumai (dumpling), and annin dofu (almond pudding). His ribs came with nothing, but usually there is too much food for both of us when we order a set.

The cashew chicken was fine, but fairly par for the course. The fried rice was better than average, but the portion was amazingly tiny. Usually, we're given enough rice that it exceeds what both of us need. This time, I'm pretty sure a Japanese child would have found the scant amount lacking. I'm not a big eater of carbohydrates with a meal and it takes a very stingy portion to disappoint me, but this place managed. The soup was tasty enough, but too fatty and a bit viscous, so it had a strange texture. I didn't have the shumai, but my husband said it was perfectly average and the annin dofu was bitter and unpleasant. The whole meal was less than impressive except for the garlic ribs, which were deep fried and freshly made. It didn't help that the service was quite poor. They served one dish at a time, including the cashew chicken sans rice, with long gaps between subsequent dishes and ignored our water glasses. I've been told by Japanese folks that bad service is par for the course in Chinatown, but I can only say that my experience would lend credence to that assertion but is insufficient to prove it. One of the things I'm pretty sure of is that in all but the most expensive places, most of the food at the Chinese places in Chinatown are not fresh or handmade. I'm pretty sure all of my set food was reheated. All in all, the whole restaurant scene disappointed us.

Coconut and egg tarts. They tasted like disappointment.

We weren't in it only for the restaurant meal though. I also wanted to try Chinese sweets. Once again, there was a huge amount of repetition with the same types and flavors of mooncakes, fried dough, steam cakes, and cookies on offer. There was a lot of coconut-based food and we found a place selling a coconut tart paired with a custard one and bought it. They were supposedly freshly made, but the shells were obviously factory made and filled. Though this wasn't something we saw for sale everywhere and was sold at a shop that didn't sell mass-made food, the tarts were very disappointing. The filling was lackluster and too sweet in the pudding one and the shells were tough. The coconut filling was dry and flat in taste.

Peanut Cake (more like a cookie) and Peanut Cake Slice (a peanut brittle). 

We also found a dingy little store that was selling what appeared to be an unusual range of snacks and picked up some "peanut cake" packaged snacks. One was a sort of brittle and the other was more like a flaky cookie. The brittle was fine except that it had an odd taste to it, as if some strange spice were in the mix (reminiscent of Chinese Five Spice). While not bad, that aftertaste diminished the experience. I think it also could have used more salt. The other  "peanut cake" was a block divided into three segments that tasted like as super rich peanut butter cookie mixed with peanut butter fudge. It was a true winner and well worth the 170 yen ($2.09) we paid for it. 

Obviously, I couldn't leave without buying a mooncake since it is such a well-known Chinese snack food and there were so many varieties around. I also had about a dozen shops from which to buy them and settled on a pumpkin one from a relatively nice-looking shop. A very small cake, about half the size of my palm, was 200 yen ($2.46). Note that I could not locate any shops which sold actual fresh mooncakes. They all seemed to be selling ones that were wrapped in plastic and had an oxygen absorber packet in them. This was a disappointment, but I have had plenty of preserved Japanese bean cakes which were awesomely delicious. 

Unfortunately, my mooncake experience was not to be so positive. I took it home and photographed it for review. The smell was a bit light on the pumpkin, though the center was very orange. The pumpkin flavor was there, though it was lightly sweet such that the flavor wasn't enhanced much and diluted enough with fat and other ingredients that it wasn't carrying through any pure pumpkin taste. The main issue was that it had a weird taste that I associate with canned food (like Vienna sausages) and a smell that I associate with opening up a can of dog food. I can only guess that this was due to the outer cake or some preservative. 

Going to Yokohma's Chinatown is an interesting experience from the viewpoint of seeing an area with a unique dynamic. However, I wouldn't recommend going there for the food and am surprised at positive reviews of it. Most Japanese people who I've spoken with about it (before relating my experience) have answered the question of "is the food good" with what I call the "mouth says yes and the eyes say no" answer. When pressed, they say it is decidedly so-so. I think that's pretty reasonable assessment of the food experience, but the whole area has a lot to offer for it's over-the-top look and sales pitches, proximity to other sightseeing attractions (like the waterfront and foreigner cemetery), and relative walkability. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Random Picture #103

Click to see a larger version. 

My husband and I recently paid a visit to the famous Chinatown in Yokohama. We did this because the food is supposed to be so good and more authentic than what you can get in other parts of Japan. We walked around and discovered that the food selection is highly limited. You mainly see the same food over and over again at various restaurants and snack shops and I went into enough shops to assert that with confidence. On Friday, I will review a few of the things we picked up. For now, I'm showing you a storefront selling a typical array of sweets including mooncakes, almond cookies, fried dough twists, steam cakes, and sesame mochi balls. I've had the sesame mochi balls in a restaurant before and they were awesome, but likely fresher than what was on offer in these shops. I've also had steam cakes and they are spectacular from Japanese makers, but so calorific that I passed. And, I passed on the fried dough twists as they sort of scared me since they were hard as a rock.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Awashimado Adzuki Bean Boy Cake

I chose this treat entirely for one reason and that was that "adzuki bean boy" is too cool a name for a product to pass up. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is why a "Po Boy" sandwich is popular wherever it is popular. I'm too lazy to do research into where that might be, and I actually don't know of what the sandwich is composed. Still, I'd order one if I saw it on a menu because it has "boy" in the name. In fact, the only thing better than attaching "boy" to a product name is adding "monkey". If this had been named "Adzuki Bean Monkey", I would have bought a half dozen on the spot. If it had been "Adzuki Bean Monkey Boy," I'd have cleaned out their entire stock.

As it was, I wish I had bought more than one after sampling this. This was one lovely bean treat. In fact, to me, it tastes like what "Japanese cookie dough" would taste like if the Japanese weren't utterly grossed out by the idea of eating raw cookie dough (which they are for the most part). The outside is a soft cake like wrapping with little to add to the experience other than a neat packaging. The center is super moist and sweet with a rich, buttery flavor and a soft texture except where it is studded with beans that add a grainier feel. The package calls it "milk taste" but I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean. It doesn't taste like milk so much as the aforementioned cookie dough with bits of adzuki bean to spice it up.

I found these for 98 yen (about $1.24) at Inageya supermarket and since buying the first one, I have purchased three more. The company that makes them makes a variety of bean-based sweets including a delicious super moist sweet potato version which I have also eaten three of. This is the sort of thing I'm going to seriously and truly miss when I go back home as I'm sure they will be a rare find with their short shelf life. Right now, my consumption of them is limited by the desire not to get fat on moist tasty bean cakes. Though these may seem healthy, they pack a big punch calorie-wise at 260 calories each and are full of fat and sugar. I'm not fooling myself that this is much better than eating a candy bar or big cookie. Still, I consider it well worth the investment in dietary fats and sugar, but I have to buy one at a time or risk eating myself sick.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Montoile Mochi Mochi Kinako Mochi

I've been on a big mochi snack kick as of late. It could be that my affinity for the stretchy, chewy textural delights of pounded rice cake have finally lodged in my brain after years of having them. It could be that I have a death wish and like to take risks with my snacks. After all, the two most dangerous foods in Japan are venomous blowfish (fugu) and mochi, which many people choke to death on over the New Year's holiday. Of course, they eat big honking blobs and I'm nibbling on delightful little packets of it full of sweet fillings.

When I spied this package of mochi treats, I snapped it up in no time because it not only is a mochi snack, but is a collaboration with Tirol. For those who haven't had Tirol's reputation written into their memory cells by my copious numbers of reviews of their products, they make little square chocolates with unique wrappers. Many people collect the wrappers and many more pick up their blocks of limited edition "premium" chocolates for sampling. In my case, I can say that I've probably been as disappointed in their offerings as delighted, but I love trying them. It's a small amount for a small investment, and usually a pretty interesting taste experience regardless of how good I believe it is.

This combines Tirol's kinako mochi chocolate with Montoile's "Mochi Mochi" brand. This is a brand which I had not encountered prior to this, but the company makes a lot of this type of small mochi based treat as a shelf-stable snack. They also collaborate with a wide variety of company's including snack cake makers and Bambi caramels. Besides this kinako variety, they make a coffee and "milk" collaboration with Tirol.

Each little blob of mochi is filled with marshmallow and has a core of kinako chocolate. The size of the entire piece is about the diameter of a quarter with a pea-size chocolate center. Most of the kinako flavor comes from the powder on the outside of the mochi, but a flavor burst comes from the center with the kinako chocolate bit. The mochi and marshmallow mainly add texture, but there is also a little sweetness from the marshmallow.

This is pretty good, but hardly the greatest mochi experience or kinako snack I've ever had. I'm not sure that a shelf-stable mochi snack really gains much from having a bit of Tirol chocolate put in the center. That being said, I liked these a lot because I think the marshmallow filling complements the mochi and kinako well. It isn't as good as a "real" mochi snack like something fresh and filled with bean jam, but it isn't a bad thing to have around for a quick chewy bite.

I found this at Inageya supermarket for about 150 yen($1.86) and you get about 10 pieces for that. Each is about 28 calories. I think this is interesting as a novelty, but I don't think I'd buy it again. Oddly, however, I think that,  had I found this back home, I'd regard it more highly. Right now, I have free and easy access to freshly made mochi at traditional sweets shops. Packaged shelf stable treats like this are far less valuable in the face of fresher options. If you find this in an Asian grocer, I'd certainly recommend it if your options don't include fresher versions. It's not the real deal, but it's pretty good nonetheless.