Monday, December 31, 2012

Tirol Egg Tart Chocolates

While I was walking around a supermarket on December 26th, the day of after Christmas sales, a woman could not get over the fact that Valentine's cards were already on display. Though it does seem a little fast, like they haven't cleared away the corpse of one holiday before putting the warm body of the next in its place, it isn't too terribly shocking. After all, it is next up on the rotation of heavily commercially exploitable holidays in the U.S.

After a visit to this thoroughly normal market, I went on to Nijiya Japanese market to see if they had anything exciting available and came across a bag of Tirol egg tart chocolates. I was surprised to see them because I had recently researched Tirol's current line-up and this particular option was nowhere to be found. Since it was only $2.49 (212 yen) and I do love real egg tarts, I picked it up without looking too carefully at the packaging.

After getting it home and inspecting it more carefully, I noticed that the motif is for Easter. This is rather bizarre for several reasons. First of all, if the Japanese are releasing Easter candy in December, they are way ahead of the game and making a shop which is already stocking Valentine's cards look like amateurs in the game of holiday gun-jumping. Second, Easter has not yet really penetrated Japan as a secular holiday. When I left last year, Baskin Robbins was the only place with a regular option showcasing things like bunnies and colored eggs. I couldn't figure out what the deal was with this candy. It just didn't fit on two fronts.

Nine candies, four package colors, one flavor. Don't let the variation fool you. It's all the same stuff. 

Of course, the Japanese have never needed an excuse to superimpose a Western motif on a place where it does not belong. There is a somewhat famous story told about a nativity scene at a big department store in Tokyo which was absolutely authentic save for the fact that jolly old St. Nick was standing there along with the wise men admiring baby Jesus. A little mix and match adds spice to life, after all, and in Japan, who knows the difference or cares? It's not like Americans don't do it all of the time as well if the way in which Japanese food is prepared here is any indication.

The answer to this little mystery was printed on the back of the bag in the expiration date. I never check such things before I buy them unless they are on sale, but this said it expires in January 2013. The most obvious conclusion is not that this is an early Easter release, but rather a really really old bag of candy. I'm not sure how this happened but I'm guessing that a case of these got lost in the shuffle or put back after it didn't sell somewhere around last March. That being said, I was still in Japan at that time, and I never saw this on the shelves. Trust me, I was looking. Whatever the case may be, I'm guessing this won't be an easy one to find unless you also have access to a Nijiya Japanese market with some pretty old stock or wait for a new re-release to show up at a more appropriate time later this spring in Tokyo. It'll likely be the same candy, but with updated graphics on the packaging.

My efforts to cut it in half for a detailed shot caused it to totally shatter.

As for the candy itself, I didn't have high hopes because this is a "regular" rather than a premium Tirol candy. These tend to have a much higher failure rate on the flavor meter because they are smaller (equivalent volume to a Hershey's Kiss with a thyroid issue) and less sophisticated. It turns out that keeping my expectations low was a good idea. The candy is comprised of three parts: a semi-sweet base (which the explanation claims is milk chocolate, but doesn't taste like it), a crunchy, a biscuit center and a "custard choco" top. Each morsel is only 34 calories, but it's also just two small bites.

The semi-sweet base dominates the candy such that you can't really get a good handle on the "custard" flavor. The crunchy little cookie gives you a nice textural contrast but otherwise doesn't contribute anything. It was only at the end that I got just a hint of the mildly eggy taste of the white chocolate top. All in all, not a bad little chocolate, but utterly unremarkable.

Chances are that I couldn't buy this again even if I were inclined to, but due to the fact that it really doesn't taste like much other than not terribly sweet semi-sweet chocolate (a good thing, to be sure), I can't see any reason to buy it again short of as a freaky Easter gift of outdated Japanese candy.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sina Ginger Candy

Like many unlucky souls out there, my body was invaded by cold germs as the weather turned from warm to cold. Incidentally, one of my pet peeves (besides the phrase "pet peeve", which I hate) is people speaking as if cold weather increases the risk of catching a cold. We catch colds because of the abrupt changes in temperature causing stress on our bodies and making us more susceptible to illnesses, not being exposed to cold air. That's why you're just as likely to catch a summer "cold" as a winter one. The fact that a week of coughing, sneezing, and blowing your nose as your immune system struggles to force these invaders out of your system is called "a cold" is probably responsible for this misunderstanding. 

At any rate, when I catch a cold, I crave strong herbal concoctions. One of the things I used to love having at this time when I was in Japan was their herbal cough drops. Another was access to Korean citron tea (something I've found can be had locally as well via Han Kook markets, hurrah!), which was often available at our local Yutakaraya. And, I would try to drink down ginger tea, as it's the sort of thing which is supposed to boost the immune system.

While still recovering from the invasion of the snot producing demons, my husband and I were perusing a Ranch 99 Market. My energy levels had plummeted through the floor at that time and I didn't have the energy to look around much, but just as we were leaving, I saw these Indonesian ginger candies. It seemed like just the ticket to moisten tissues dried out by copious amounts of mouth breathing as well as provide new armaments to my embattled immune system. I grabbed my taro mochi and this candy and got out of there before crawling into a corner and taking a nap.

The candy looks like it comes in a cigarette pack, but it's actually full of foil packets that contain sticky wads of ginger candy. They're very chewy and sticky, so, if you've got loose fillings, you want to stay away. My fillings, fortunately, seem to be firmly rooted and I could endure them. Note that these are a pretty "pure" candy because they contain only three ingredients: cane sugar, "choice" ginger and tapioca starch. The starch clearly is just dusted on the outside to keep the candy from sticking too much to the foil. The box asserts that this is "a nourishing healthy sweet suitable for the whole family at any time." That's actually more truthful for this treat than for many that make similar claims. 

The first hit on your tongue is of sweetness and then the ginger flavor quickly hits and starts its build. Within about 20 seconds, heat is started to build up from the intense ginger flavor. It'll burn the back of your throat a little and fill your mouth with warmth. While this may sound harsh, it's actually a very satisfying experience if you're the kind of person who enjoys eating candied ginger or garlic so strong it can burn.

I liked this a lot and I'd absolutely buy it again, especially for the price I paid (69 cents for a 2 oz. box with 9 pieces of candy). However, it's easy to see that this isn't the sort of candy that is for everyone. You've got to really love strong ginger and be happy with something relatively simple.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Random Picture #142

Next year is the year of the snake on the Chinese astrological calendar. That means convenience stores and markets all over Japan are selling shelf stable packages of "kagami mochi" with cute little plastic figures of snakes on them. Only in Japan could they make a slithering fanged menace that is the stuff of Indy Jones's (and my) nightmares look adorable enough to want to collect a figure of it.

If I had been paying attention, it might have been nice to collect all 12 plastic figures by buying these cheap and not very tasty bits of mochi each year, but I only picked a couple up when I was in Japan and the figures I got (a tiger and a dragon) didn't make the journey with me. Oh well, they are just cheap plastic figures, and the mochi from these offerings was really pretty much the worst. though no inedible, it didn't compare to the fresh stuff. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Winner of Tokyo Regional KitKats Contest

Kitty-chan Christmas buckets for the kiddies in Japan, because a plastic bin full of cheap treats is what all the letters to Santa are asking for.

Merry Christmas to all of my readers! I wish that I could give everyone a prize as a demonstration of the spirit of the holiday, but, alas, I have but one gift to give.

The winner was chosen by a random number generator (no favoritism here!) and it is brit_brat100. Please contact me at about sending your prize to you. Congratulations!

Thanks to all of my readers for their entries, and, of course, for reading! Happy holiday!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Yuki & Love Taro Mochi

People tend to believe that something is exclusive to an area or culture because they have no experience with it in another area or culture. When they do encounter it elsewhere, they often assume it is a copy of the food from their place of origin rather than consider that they may be the ones doing the copying. Living in Japan, I encountered many people who believed Japan invented something or some cultural aspect was absolutely indigenous. Later, a little research would often reveal that something was not Japanese at all, but rather a riff or copy of some other country's culture.

This is not exactly a criticism of Japan. It's more food for thought which I hope people will set aside and chew on when they have time. Americans, because our country is relatively young and a mutt nation of people and cultures from all over the world, tend to assume things are actually not invented here. We know we didn't invent French fries, not because they have the word "French" in them, but because we didn't invent hardly any of our cuisine (and French fries are from Belgium, right?).

At any rate, I assumed that anything which I first encountered in Japan was, by default, Japanese. By doing this blog, I have discovered that many of those things are of Chinese origin if they appear to be based on foods that tend to be more predominant in Asian culture (rice, noodles. etc.) or Portugal if they tend to be based on things you would find in Europe (wheat, almonds, etc.). That being said, I never questioned the idea that mochi or any type of Japanese sweet for that matter was purely the province of the Japanese.

It turns out that I was wrong. Other Asian countries have their own variations on pounded rice cake with various fillings. I went to a small Asian market not too far from my current residence and found a pretty reasonably priced multi-pack of mochi treats and snapped it up. When I got it home, well, let's say that either I was unlucky or Chinese-style mochi isn't exactly the same as Japanese. The mochi was thicker, tougher, and the fillings were not as finely processed. I was disappointed and rather put-off by future purchases of non-Japanese style mochi treats.

When my husband and I were exploring the 99 Ranch Asian market, I was persuaded to give the whole idea another go by the low price on several boxes of "Japanese-style" mochi. At $1.50 per box of 6, it was a bargain compared to the usual pricing for such things. Also, it says "Japanese-style" on the box, so, you know, it must be the nice, soft little pillows of mochi with smooth fillings that I got used to in Japan, right?

The company that makes these is Taiwanese and their web site is in Chinese, so I have imperfect access to the information about them. They make a lot of interesting looking sweets including some with mochi and others with cake-style enclosures. If I run across other variations by this company, I'm likely to give them a try considering that they include a lot of flavors that I like like sweet potato, mango, and brown sugar. 

The flavors on offer at Ranch 99 were brown sugar, taro, peanut, and sesame. The truth is that they all sounded good, but I chose taro because I'd never had it before. I was also inspired by what I thought was a mention/review of a McDonald's taro pie on the Impulsive Buy, but I can't seem to find said review to link to. Perhaps I dreamed it, or my mad search skills are insanely bad rather than good. I wanted to get some idea of what taro tasted like, so I splashed out the buck fifty for this version.

For those who don't know, taro is a corm. That's a way of saying it's not a potato, but sort of looks like the ugly love-child of a ginger root and a tuber. Before I even sampled this taro mochi sweet, I guessed that it would probably not have much of its own flavor, but would likely be like a potato or other starchy food that tends to reflect the flavors it is prepared with. This rather defeats the purpose of wanting to sample taro, but it's not like I stood in the supermarket deeply reflecting on this when I decided to buy this. Nobody thinks that far ahead about buying a simple box of snacks, right?

The previous paragraph is my way of saying that I still have no idea was taro tastes like. I can say that this mochi sweet tastes very nice though. The flavor seemed to have a bit of a caramel note with a hint of some sort of cream. It was quite sweet, but not over the top. The mochi case was lovely and soft, just as one would expect Japanese mochi to be. This was immensely gratifying as finding a shelf stable mochi snack for a good price has been very difficult since I came to California. The Japanese-made ones that are sold in such packaging costs between $5-$7 (421-589 yen) and tend to be in fruit flavors for some reason.

I really liked these and would buy them again in a hear beat. In fact, I regretted not buying a box of each flavor after sampling this one. While I don't think that I could count on the taste of each flavor being good, I think that the basic textural components would be similar and that is often where a good mochi sweet lives or dies.

As a little reminder to readers who may have missed it, or to those who haven't gotten around to entering, I'm offering a box of the current Tokyo regional KitKats (rum raisin) as a contest prize. You can read about it and enter here. The contest ends on Christmas day 2012, so enter early, but only once, please. Also, please remember that comments are moderated so there is a delay between your making the comment and it being posted. Many people are submitting comments two or three times because they are not showing up immediately. Rest assured that your comment will be posted and it is not necessary to submit multiple times. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tirol Christmas House and Cup (product information)

All images are from Tirol's web site

Tis the season to buy disposable Christmas decorations, and Tirol has a real cute one for those who are good with their hands. If you buy one of their boxes with multiple candies, you can assemble it into a two-story house with Christmas tree, fireplace, and Santa sneaking out after leaving huge gift-wrapped chocolates (half the size of your tree) to enjoy on Christmas day.

For the time being, you can watch a video showing you how to manipulate the box on Tirol's web site. Since the video is on the home page, there's every chance it'll vanish shortly after Christmas when it will be replaced. I'm not sure what they'll replace it with, but if it follows a new year's theme, it'll be a tiny apartment in which a family is gathered around the table eating sembei and soba while watching the New Year's song contest. 

The chocolate "presents" are premium versions (larger chocolates with more layers of varied candy) strawberry shortcake, chocolate gateau, and cheesecake flavors. All in all, a pretty uninspiring collection of flavors as the first and last are likely to taste pretty bad if my experiences with such things are telling. I'd be especially frightened of the horribleness of the cheesecake flavor as it's likely to taste of the pungent flavors of Gouda or cheddar rather than cream cheese. 

In addition to this holiday offering, there is a Christmas cup with regular (smaller, less sophisticated chocolates). It's far less inspiring on the flavor front, but contains a lot of "safer" bets like the "biscuit", almond, and coffee chocolates which are part of most mixes which are not premium. The Christmas flavors (shown in the lower left in the picture above) are kinako mochi and a white chocolate version of the standard milk chocolate biscuit (which is just chocolate around a bland little bit of cookie). 

The boxed specialty Tirol options usually show up at Japanese markets in California sooner or later, though this one may not since it has a time limit based on the holiday theme. They're also very overpriced with most boxes of 10 candies costing around $10. Considering such boxes cost 200-300 yen ($2.37-$3.60)  in Japan, this is a pretty hefty mark-up, even for an import. I might buy this in Japan to review the flavors (even though I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like two of them), but I almost certainly wouldn't buy it here at a place like Nijiya

It's a little late in the game, but you can get a cute wallpaper with a Christmas illustration for the time being. It'll change as soon as the month ends, but you can grab a new one for the next month when this one goes away.

As a little reminder to readers who may have missed it, or to those who haven't gotten around to entering, I'm offering a box of the current Tokyo regional KitKats (rum raisin) as a contest prize. You can read about it and enter here. The contest ends on Christmas day 2012, so enter early, but only once, please. Also, please remember that comments are moderated so there is a delay between your making the comment and it being posted. Many people are submitting comments two or three times because they are not showing up immediately. Rest assured that your comment will be posted and it is not necessary to submit multiple times. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Random Picture #141

Snacks are pretty common prizes in crane games in Japan. Most of the time though, they are full of sweets and salty treats in order to cater to the tastes of youthful gamers and bored salary men who prefer to get their otsumami (snacks to be eaten with drinks, usually alcoholic ones) after their skillful ministrations rather than simply by going to a convenience store.

For a game, I can understand putting in what could be considered "fun" food prizes. By "fun", I mean junk food. This machine has boxes of Calorie Mate. For those who don't know what this is, well, you can read my reviews or take my word for it that they are food-like substances that resemble a cruddy shortbread cookie. They're made essentially as meal substitutes for those who want nutrition without the bother of actually eating nutritious food. So, my though was, what sort of person both finds Calorie Mate and playing games appealing? I always saw Calorie Mate as something that people who were a shade more interested in working or studying than in relaxing would pursue, especially since, while not a bad bit of psuedo-food, it's not exactly something you turn to for pure enjoyment.

As a little reminder to readers who may have missed it, or to those who haven't gotten around to entering, I'm offering a box of the current Tokyo regional KitKats (rum raisin) as a contest prize. You can read about it and enter here. The contest ends on Christmas day 2012, so enter early, but only once, please. Also, please remember that comments are moderated so there is a delay between your making the comment and it being posted. Many people are submitting comments two or three times because they are not showing up immediately. Rest assured that your comment will be posted and it is not necessary to submit multiple times. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Yuzuiri Kurobekkou Ame (brown sugar yuzu candies)

Anyone who read last Friday's post knows that I'm all for yuzu. This candy was not, however, a jam-inspired frenzy purchase (though wouldn't it be cool if jam could inspire a frenzy? I imagine there'd be bits of toast, scones, and spoons everywhere). I've actually had this pack of hard candies tucked away in my tin full of snacks to be eaten or reviewed for quite some time. It was in the "bargain" shelves at Daiso Japan for a mere $1 instead of the usual $1.50. That means it was probably at or near its expiration date two months ago, but, hey, it's hard candy. It's not like hard candy can really go bad, right?

Well, it can't go bad, but not so pleasant things can happen. Even though this has individually wrapped and sealed candies in a sealed bag, it still seemed to get that gummy, sticky quality that you often see develop when you have a lollipop or cough drop around long enough for moisture to start to do its thing on the outer portions of it. That doesn't make it inedible, but, in the case of this candy, it made it dangerously sticky.

If you've ever wondered why lollipops are on sticks, eating a lozenge-style candy which is on the large size will make it perfectly clear. Between the slightly gooey exterior and the large size disk, I was at risk of choking to death on this or at least having it lodged in the roof of my mouth until it naturally melted away. Three times while trying to suck on this, I got it jammed between the sides of my top teeth and had to dislodge it with my finger. I have a small mouth, grant you, but this seemed like it really should be sold on a stick. After the third time, I decided to hold it in my fingers and lick it like a lollipop until it was whittled down to size. I figured that three times of getting it jammed in my mouth was more than enough snack-related death temptation.

Yuzu peel or worms? You decide.

I'm certain the reason these are so large is that they have small bits of yuzu (Japanese citron) peel embedded in the candy. If they were a more normal size for a lozenge-style candy, there would probably be bits of peel sticking out like tiny tentacles trapped in amber. The illustration on the back of the package doesn't seem to be inspiring confidence in what is embedded inside, but I'm sure they couldn't do much with the limited color palette.

My slightly melted candy. I have no one to blame but myself, really. 

My hope with most of my reviews is that I will have the same sort of experience that Roger Ebert says he wants when he sees movies. He wants to see something which is good that he hasn't seen before a million times. I want to taste something which is good that I haven't tasted before a million times. To that end, this candy is a hit. The combination of brown sugar and yuzu is a good one. This is managed by not overdoing the molasses part of the brown sugar or underplaying the citron too much. There is just enough of both to add the right play of citrus bite with brown sugar sweetness. This is a unique and tasty hard candy that is well worth the 29 calories and risk of tooth decay. There's an odd textural difference when you reach the peel in the center, but it's not necessarily unpleasant. It's just not quite what it's like to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootisie pop.

What I can't say for sure is whether or not it is worth the risk of choking if you buy these on the slightly older side or don't eat it until it has sat around and gotten a bit soft and sticky around the edges. Most people probably have bigger mouths than me and won't suffer my issues, but I'm knocking this down from a "very happy" to a "happy" based on the logistical issues I had eating it. I'd like to buy it again, but I'd either have to get sticky fingers holding it and licking it until it was smaller or I'd have to take my life in my mouth along with the candy.

As a little reminder to readers who may have missed it, or to those who haven't gotten around to entering, I'm offering a box of the current Tokyo regional KitKats (rum raisin) as a contest prize. You can read about it and enter here. The contest ends on Christmas day 2012, so enter early, but only once, please. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tokyo Regional Rum Raisin KitKat Contest

I've also recently acquired a spare box of the Tokyo regional rum raisin KitKat so it's time for a contest. Also, it is near the holiday season and wouldn't be a bad time to give something back to my readers. So, I'm running a contest to win a box of this special KitKat. It contains 12 individually wrapped mini bars, so you'll be winning enough to share with friends and family. It also seems somehow appropriate that a KitKat which is flavored with rum can be consumed around the New Year when liquor is freely flowing.  

To enter the contest, leave a comment on this post only (comments on any other post will not be eligible) and tell me what you would most like to try among the items that I have reviewed (a stroll through the archives should jog your memory if you don't have one particular item that has stuck with you). In your comment, you can just say the name of the product or you can tell me more like why it is of interest to you. The more information, the better so don't be afraid to be verbose.

This contest will run until Christmas day when I will announce the winner. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Kondo Honey Factory Yuzu Jam

This is a review which is tricky to write because I know most of my readers don't know what yuzu is. Even if I tell you that it is "Japanese citron", that doesn't necessarily convey much as it's about a fragrance and a flavor which are unfamiliar to those who haven't been exposed to it. Taste-wise, the best I can say is that it's a little like a tantalizing three-way between lemon, grapefruit, and orange, with the first two dominating the flavor menage. 

This is often sold as "marmalade" rather than in the form I'm reviewing it as here. And even this is not actually marketed as "jam". The characters on the jar do not say "yuzu jam", but rather "yuzu tea". The reason for this is that it is common in Japan to use this marmalade for a tisane. It's a little like the way that Russians sometimes sweeten tea. You stir a spoonful of jam into hot water.

However, I would not waste a precious spoonful of this by diluting it into hot water. Unlike orange marmalade, which I find vile and bitter on a bad day and barely tolerable on a good one, this is much more palatable with a delicate balance of citrus bite and sweetness. Whatever bitterness there is is balanced out of the equation, but the qualities of the fruit stop it from being cloying. The truth is that, I could eat this by the spoonful if I were inclined to allow myself. I couldn't eat the entire jar at once, mind you, but I could put away 2-3 spoonfuls at a sitting before I'd feel overwhelmed. It's just like candy to me.

Note that this is a pretty high quality yuzu jam compared to what is on shelves in most markets in Japan. This is 250 grams/8.8 oz. for about 800 yen ($9.60). The reason it is so expensive is that it is made with honey and because it is made with more yuzu. Usually, there are stringy bits of peel in a sugary base. This is more like a puree so the concentration of yuzu and the sugar component (honey) are higher quality and therefore more expensive. The nutritional profile is almost certainly better than the cheaper versions, and the flavor is a bit nicer, but I can't necessarily recommend this for a casual consumer.

Incidentally, this jam came directly from Tokyo, and it can be bought online as well, but I didn't make the purchasing decision. I asked my brother-in-law to buy some yuzu marmalade for me and carry it over when he came to the U.S. for a holiday visit and he brought me two jars of this. It is fantastic, but I'd be too cheap to make such a decision for myself. 

Though I relish eating this straight or on toast, pancakes, or scones, I can't speak for others. I can say that this is delicious and I'd be surprised if anyone who likes something which is similar to candied citrus peel (lemon, orange, citron, of course) would not enjoy this. If you're looking for a holiday treat for a foodie in your life, this would absolutely make a high quality and unique, but approachable gift. I imagine a really upscale eater would enjoy it with certain types of cheese or a good cracker. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random Picture #140

One of my more Quixotic impulses, and I actually have few of them left at the ripe old age of 48, is to try and let people see that Japan isn't all sushi, geisha, Mt. Fuji, minimalist beauty, and, of course, funky KitKats and weird Pepsi flavors. A lot of life in Japan is just as boring, lacking in creativity, and just generally unspectacular as things at home. One of the things that tends to happen when you rely on any published material to inform you is that you get the relative gold panned from miles and miles of boring river water. Trust me, there is much more river than gold dust and that is why I put up today's picture. These are big bags of bulk hard candy which were on sale at Niki no Kashi in Ameyokocho. The red and white ones are cola flavored, which not only are boring because they're hard candy, but also because they're one of the worst flavors of said candy. The black and white ones to the right are coffee flavor, which makes them marginally better.

The question I asked myself after seeing these was, "who buys them"? Seriously, who would need to  buy a big bag of hard candy like this. I've never seen them available in stores or even kids bubble vending machines. Are there hordes of Japanese grandmas out there stocking up on crappy candy for when the their grand-tykes pay them a visit? If my readers have any ideas, I'd be curious to hear them. To me, these are just giant bags of unfortunately flavored tooth decay.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Taiko Milk Caramel Sticks

I've had the empty bag from this package of milk caramel sticks ("bo") in my desk drawer for about a month. The reason for that is that I consumed them happily and quickly and did not quite get around to reviewing them. I wasn't exactly waiting for any particular reason, but since this appears to be a (hopefully) permanent fixture at Daiso Japan, I favored reviewing things with limited availability over this uniquely Japanese cookie.

The reason I'm getting around to it today is not that I don't have other things to review. The truth is that I do, but I caught a cold and my sense of taste and smell have been obliterated. I can't give anything new a fair shake right now so I'm reliving the tasty memory of these cookies. After you've eaten a whole bag (not all at once, mind you), it's rather easier to recall their flavor.

I've mentioned in previous reviews that I'm not the biggest fan of caramel, so this was my last choice among the Taiko tube-shaped cookies at Daiso Japan. Previously, I reviewed their sweet potato and brown sugar varieties and enjoyed them both. There's something about their texture and balance of sweetness that really appeals to me. They're simple in terms of flavor, but not in a bad way. The sense I get from them is one of nostalgia, but not for Japan or Japanese things. It's nostalgia that relates to times when food was made in a much simpler way rather than formulated for maximum appeal from teams of focus groups and test markets. I just get the feeling someone made these and sold them without tweaking them to death to optimize sales. 

Though sometimes "simple" can mean poorly formulated, but I really do think these are made well with their pockets of airy crispness and sugary outside. The caramel flavor is very subtle, and while quite sweet, they are not cloying. The package says they are "gentle" milk caramel flavor and I say they are all the better for that. In fact, I'd rate them as second the sweet potato version (which were sweeter, but had a flavor I enjoyed more). If you add in the fact that each cookie is about 6 inches long and only 52 calories, you're looking at a sweet treat that gives a lot of satisfaction for a low calorie price.

This is one of those unassuming treats that looks rather dicey to those who can't read Japanese and are unfamiliar with this style of snacks, but these are delicious and I would invite anyone with access to them to pick up a pack and try them in one of the three available flavors. I can't guarantee you'll like them, but there's a very low chance you'll hate them. For only $1.50 (124 yen) a package, it's not much of a risk. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Krispy Kreme Japan Christmas Offerings (product info.)

All images from Krispy Kreme Japan's site.

I was never gaga about Krispy Kreme in Japan, and it is of limited interest to me here in the U.S. The only thing that has me visiting them here at home is the fact that they appear to be the only donut shop among the myriads of donut shops my husband has investigated since our return that sells a whipped cream filled donut. Okay, it's not actually "cream", it's "creme", which means it's spun corn oil (like the filling of the currently unavailable Twinkie). Nonetheless, it is the closest I can come to the angel cream donut that I so loved and occasionally partook of from Mister Donut in Japan. It's not nearly as good as the Japanese one, and is nearly twice as caloric due to size and heavy external glazing, but it's better than nothing.

At any rate, Krispy Kreme Japan offered a steady stream of seasonal donuts. All of them pretty much were boring attempts to redress the standard basic donut with different decorations. I would look at Krispy Kreme America's offerings and actually feel they were doing more imaginative things. This year, I actually have a chance to sample what is here rather than what is "there" (Japan). In the U.S., there is a gingerbread donut, a snowman which is a regular raised donut with snowman decorations, and a red velvet cake donut. My husband tried the gingerbread one, and while tasty, it was a bit dry. The rest we took a pass on because neither of us is crazy for red velvet cake and painting a snowman design on a regular donut seems no better than having said type of donut.

By comparison, in Japan, there are more seasonal offerings:

By far, the one I'd be most interested in is the mont blanc (chestnut paste/cream) one. I'd be more impressed by it if it didn't so clearly look like their standard raised donut with a moderate (though certainly more than modest) amount of chestnut cream. If I were still working in Shinjuku, I'd pick one of these up for a try. Note that I think this flavor has far less to do with Christmas than the seasonal introduction of chestnut sweets each winter. Consider this more of a pagan donut than a Christmas one.

And, equally by far, the one I'd be least interested in would be the strawberry cheesecake one. This is because artificial strawberry isn't my idea of a good time. I have no idea what this has to do with the holidays, but it could have a vague relationship with the standard Japanese Christmas cake. That's a vanilla cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries on it. Yeah, I know, it's pretty tenuous. OKay, let's just say they don't have much in the way of imagination and everyone seems to default to strawberry when all else fails.

The real holiday deal comes through with a snowman of their own. That smile and a dollop of brown good dripping from his frosty bottom may make it look like he's got a bit of a case of holiday diarrhea going on, but he's filled with chocolate. The American snowman is just full of more donut, so kudos to the Japanese for issuing a festive snowman full of delicious brown stuff.

The thing which is most interesting to me is that the first 20,000 purchasers of a holiday dozen were/will be given candles. Each shop has a limited number and the Shinjuku Southern Terrace branch ran out pretty fast. Others may or may not still have some by the time this post appears, depending on supply and demand. The web site calls them "party candles", because nothing livens up your Christmas like candles and donuts. They go well with the Kentucky Fried Chicken that you'll surely be enjoying for the holiday.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Random Picture #139

In Japan, cans eat you.

This vending machine caught my eye because of the rather hungry-looking can on the right. These are both "Ultraman" cans that offer up lemonade with 1% juice as part of the mix. The prices are given in red because they are discounted by 20 yen (24 cents) per can (usual price is 120 yen/$1.47). When I see things like this, I wonder what the target market is, and if that market is collectors. Would they buy these cans and keep them around forever as part of their Ultraman collection? It seems a strange thing to keep, but when I was a KISS fan, I'm sure I would have kept a can of KISS Kola (of course, it would be spelled with a "K") around until it turned into battery acid that ate through the aluminum.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Wagaya Yamitsuki Corn Snack (Hot and Spicy)

"Yamitsuki" means "addictive". That means that this $1 (82 yen) bag of corn snacks has a lot to live up to. I'm not expecting it to take its place next to cocaine or even alcohol, but it should at least edge up to the position held in the aching stomachs of former Twinkie junkies and Lay's potato chip consumers who eat themselves into carb comas. 

Frankly, I was mainly drawn to this because of the promise of "hot and spicy" contents. I found it for a reduced price (but not in the bargain shelves) at the Daiso. I don't know if it being a little cheaper than the standard $1.50 per item price at the Daiso meant anything other than the fact that not every food item has to be the same price, but I could have seen it as an ill omen. The reason I didn't is that food isn't normally something I see in any way as ominous... unless it's something with an expiration date that has passed and may have living creatures reproducing in it.

Getting back to this "corn snack", I always love how Japanese snack foods are so generically called "rice snack", "corn snack", etc. Someone could have called these "hot waffles" or "spicy weaves" (though that sounds like a hair augmentation that is supposed to make the ladies want to dance the tango with you or something), but, no, they are just "corn snack". Actually, even in America, sometimes you find this type of naming convention. Safeway's rip-off of Triscuits is rather pragmatically named "Woven Wheats". I guess that the Japanese market can't be blamed for not trying any harder than the America one, especially when they're writing the name in English.

When I opened the bag, I smelled a vaguely spicy scent which seemed a bit like paprika or tomato. The pieces themselves are actually pretty large. They're about the same length as a standard potato chip, but narrower. If these look suspiciously like an elongated piece of Chex cereal, you're on the right trail. That is very much what these taste like, though they seem slightly different in texture. They even have a fairly high level of sweetness for a salty snack. The fourth ingredient, after corn flour, hydrogenated palm oil, and tapioca starch, is sugar. Clearly, these are nutritionally rather bad news just from that information alone, but it is worse that Sucralose rounds out the list because you need both sweetness and artificial sweetness. 

I am not really daunted by the ingredients as I don't expect junk food to be nutritious. As long as you don't eat too much of it, your body should be able to process the toxins. Of course, I don't drink alcohol, so my liver isn't being taxed outside of the processed snacks I eat and your mileage may vary if you find yourself at frat parties getting drunk into a stupor and waking up full of a sense that you should regret something but are unsure exactly what that might be.

The main problem with these is that they have almost zero flavor depth. Despite listing miso powder, there is a distinct lack of savory flavors. I gave this a good chance to reveal more taste, but all I got was the slightly sweet corn cereal flavor and heat. The "hot" part works at about the level at which you feel it, but there isn't actual pain, but the "spicy" fell down on the job completely.

These are, for lack of a better word, "serviceable" in that they are salty, crunchy, and hot. They're also light. The whole bag (1.94 oz./55 grams) is 240 calories, which doesn't make them much lower on the calorie totem than chips, but they feel nice and light. You can eat more of them compared to chips because they're puffier and have holes in them. This does not a great snack make though, and it is miles and miles away from addicting anyone.