Friday, June 28, 2013

Yaokin Ebi Mayo and Chicken Curry Umai Bo

You can probably tell that the one on the left is the chicken curry since there's a picture of a chicken on the package, but I'm going to tell you anyway because I'm pedantic like that.

Today's items come to you (and me) courtesy of Skoshbox. These were part of the monthly goodie box that they sent me a free sample of and reviewed last week

When I was a kid, growing up in a run-down rural area of Western Pennsylvania, my parents used to "go out" in the only manner in which someone could in the area in which we lived. The only type of social experience that one could have there was at one of several little watering holes. There weren't any restaurants in the town, at least not at that time. You could go out and eat frozen, deep-fried food out of a plastic basket lined with paper and have a beer, you could stay home, or you could drive about a half hour to an hour away and look for something marginally better. 

My sister and I were too young to go out with our parents, and I imagine it would have been a colossal bore if we had; no kid wants to sit around a dark, dank, smoky room while a bunch of men and a handful of women get either quietly or noisily drunk. The highlight of my parents going out was that they'd often placate us for sitting at home with a babysitter who we hated (and we hated all of them) by bringing back tiny bags of Wise potato chips. I remember being happy when my mother would hand over 1 oz. bags of barbecue chips, and annoyed when she'd pony up plain ones.

For me, Wise brand potato chips are indelibly linked to my childhood. It's not only because they were something that I only ate as a kid, but also that they are associated with the region I grew up in. You can't get them in California. I'm guessing that, similarly, Japanese kids might connect their youth with Yaokin's umai bo. It's a salty snack "stick" which is made of puffed corn, comes in a variety of flavors and costs about 10-20 yen a stick, depending on whether you buy them individually or as part of multi-packs.

The fact that these are designed for kids is clear based on the colorful cartoon designs on the outside as well as the fact that no calorie or nutrition data is included. Kids, after all, do not have to worry about calories, right? That doesn't mean they aren't good for adults, though. It's not like there aren't people of all ages out there who are still eating Cap'n Crunch. 

Sorry for the blue cast. My photo taking situation is a bit odd at present.

The ebi mayo (shrimp mayonnaise) stick was the one I started with because I am not a fan of shrimp and I wanted to get the one I was least likely to enjoy out of the way first. I gave it a sniff, twice, and my suspicion that this was going to be very "fishy", or perhaps more accurately, "seafoody" was confirmed. I was encouraged, however, by the large amount of red powder on the outside. I associate that with "hot" and "spicy", but, on second thought, I figured that it is also a color that may be associated with, well, shrimp.

Though this smelled incredibly strongly of shrimp, the actual flavor was more balanced than I expected. The mayonnaise aspect was much more present than the shrimp. It had a nice savory undertone and was ever so slightly sweet as well as salty. Even though I hate shrimp, I really didn't have a problem with this. While I wouldn't seek it out, I wouldn't turn my nose up at it either.

The chicken curry was something I was actually looking forward to as I love both flavors. Just as was the case with the shrimp mayo version, the animal product portion of this was muted next to the other flavoring. Curry is definitely the dominant flavor. In fact, this tasted very much like Japanese curry roux. That is not to be confused in any way with Indian curry, but it is a nice flavor. This has curry flavor on top with a savory undertone and a little sweetness. 

The "umai bo" series of snacks is not meant for adults, but is marketed toward children. To that end, these are not snacks with serious flavor depth or intense or strong flavors. They are still very, very tasty and have a nice, almost fresh, corn flavor with good crunch. I like how airy these types of snacks are. They're giving you texture and the illusion of volume, but are not especially filling. 

I like these, even the shrimp one, and I hate shrimp. This is the sort of thing which I will always associate with life in Japan and a childhood there which I didn't actually experience. They're light, tasty, crispy, and portion-controlled. They're pure junk, of course, but a little junk now and then is unlikely to send anyone to an early grave.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pure Grapefruit Honey and Peach Mango Gummy (product announcement)

Image from Kanro.

One of my friends recently remarked on Facebook that part of the process of making gummi candy involves boiling animal bones. She's a vegetarian, so this was something of concern to her and she wanted to let other friends who may subscribe to her moral code know to avoid such candies. I'm rather torn at this point about whether or not to warn her about marshmallows as well, as they also often contain gelatin derived from animal products.

The rational side of me, which I try to keep firmly in check at all times, would also like to point out that this is actually not food that contributes to the death of animals. No one is killing animals to boil their bones for gelatin products. It's actually finding a use for the parts that are leftover after all of us savage omnivores have consumed the flesh. My guess is that, if we all stopped eating meat, then all gelatin-related products in America would cease to be made from bones and would be made the way they are in Japan, from seaweed. I don't think people would be raising cows to toss their meat in the trash and boil the bones.

The good news is that I can recommend Japanese marshmallows and gummy/gummi candies to her and she can enjoy them without violating her personal ethical code. Since Pure keeps offering up new and interesting flavors, there's no end to the fun you can have sampling their candies. And, they are good gummies. I've tried a lot of them and rarely disliked one. Okay, I really didn't care for the apple and ginger ale one, but the rest were quite nice.

There are actually three new flavors on offer, but I couldn't put them all in the headline. There are the grapefruit and honey and peach mango flavors pictured at the top of the post as well as a yogurt mango flavor shown above this paragraph. It's clear that mango blends are one of the more popular food fads right now. Mango has been in the spotlight for a few years now, and clearly it's popularity has not waned. The yogurt and mango flavor features a split color scheme, supposedly featuring one flavor on each side. It was released in June. The other flavors will be available at the end of the first week of July at convenience stores. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Random Picture #168

My mother was the type of person who thought a good souvenir was something which was trying hard to be clever, but actually was just really stupid. I'm not talking about things like an Eiffel Tower key chain, not that my very poor family ever went anywhere near France or anything. I'm talking more like a maternity T-shirt which says "Bahama Mama" in an attempt to make a lame wordplay on the idea of the drink and pregnancy. Yes, those are two great experiences that go great together, aren't they?

I think of things like wasabi caramels as the sort of thing people buy as a "bad souvenir" from Japan. I'm certain that they are not meant to be anything, but an interesting treat for Japanese people, but most Western folks are very preoccupied with anything that smacks as "weirdness" when it comes to Japanese food. Sugar? Wasabi? Sneak some to your coworkers when you get back from your foray into the land of the rising sun and watch the hilarity ensue! Guffaws, snorts of laughter, and a swift punch in the face for being such a supreme asshat could be yours for the price of some chewy globs mixed with wasabi powder.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rare Cheesecake Pocky and summer Pocky releases (product information)

Image from Glico.

It seems that, for summer, Glico has finally come around to my way of thinking. Part of their marketing for the "rare cheesecake" Pocky includes the idea that it tastes great chilled. As attentive readers with good memories may recall, the only way I really like Pocky is cold.

"Rare cheesecake" in Japan means the type with is creamy and closer to cream cheese than "cake". It's a version of New York cheesecake without the intense heft. At any of the dainty little cake shops in Japan, you can choose between "rare" and baked. One is usually white or off-white and the other is closer to yellow or tan. I'm guessing that these will have a pretty nice flavor which is slightly tangy and not the usual "cheese" flavor in Japan. That is, it won't taste like cheddar or Gouda or some other pungent cheese mixed with sugar.

Besides this summer offering, and this is being advertised as a limited edition summer flavor, Glico is positioning the coconut Pocky and a "tropical" flavor which is mango and pineapple. The coconut flavor has been around for ages, but I guess pairing it with the tropical flavor helps conjure up images of beaches and cool blue oceans. I'm not bothering to include an image, but the coconut box has an image of a blue ocean to counterbalance the hot-looking sunset on the mango and pineapple box.

If I run across it, I may indeed pop for the cheesecake version because I'm a sucker for "rare cheesecake" flavors, but I'll probably pass on the tropical flavors. If my readers try these out, let me know how they are and if they took you out of your daily grind and filled your head with images of relaxing beaches while on summer vacation or just made you think about chocolate-coated pretzel sticks.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Yamayoshi Bagna Cauda Potato Chips

Recently, I learned via The Impulsive Buy, that Nabisco is making watermelon Oreo cookies. Watermelon and chocolate are not a good pairing in my mind, but neither are chili and chocolate in the estimation of my stodgy mind. Some people think chili and chocolate are a dandy pairing. In fact, the Aztecs, Inca, or Mayans, or perhaps even all of them, drank chocolate with chili added to it. It's an acquired taste that's much older than modern food snobbery. Nonetheless, I'm still thinking watermelon with bitter chocolate cookies is a bizarre combo. In fact, the strangeness of it all made me nostalgic for the weird KitKat flavors in Japan, even though they have not been so weird lately.

They aren't in it for your money or anything, just the smiles and so they can personally enjoy themselves.

Fortunately, there are other mountains to climb on the unusual flavors front and that's where this bagna caude chip comes in. During my last year in Japan, bagna caude was on the ascension. It's a dip that is popular in Italy, especially ins some particular parts, and consists of olive oil, anchovies, garlic and butter. It was usually pretty expensive, and I think it's part of a trend I tend to see in economies which are on the down-swing. That is, restaurants and businesses know that poor folks aren't going to have the scratch to buy more, so they cater to more upscale buyers by offering more expensive novelties. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the market skews toward the desires of the rich. You can't get blood from a stone, after all.

At any rate, about three days before I saw this bag of bagna caude chips at Mitsuwa market, a friend posted a picture of her meal at a restaurant and it included the aforementioned Italian dip. At that time, I thought, "I wonder if there are bagna caude chips on the market in Japan." Lo and behold, they were delivered unto me for the bargain price of $1.49 (149 yen, they sell for 120 yen in Japan) for a 2 oz./60 g. bag. Though I'm not a fan of anchovies or fish in general, I was very interested in sampling this.

When I opened the bag, I felt that the scent definitely carried the essence of fish. This is no surprise because, even though there are no anchovies in this, there is "fish sauce powder" and "mackeral powder". There's also MSG. Mmmm, mmmm, good! Actually, these did not taste especially "fishy" to me at all and I only got a hint of fish after about the 4th chip. Clearly, it needs to build up a bit or I'm a lot less sensitive to fish than I might have expected. What I did get from this chip is a unique and almost overwhelming blast of savory goodness. It's not just salty, it's meaty without the meat, or, as the food snobs are saying these days, "umami". No single flavor comes through strongly, but they all blend into a mixture which is potent, but not overpowering. The chips themselves are not to be underrated as they are thin and crispy and not too greasy. They're about everything you might want from a basic chip.

I have to hand it to Yamayoshi or to the Italian folks who cultivated bagna cauda. This is a unique flavor which still tastes good. While it is, after all, just a chip, it's an interesting and satisfying one. I don't eat many chips, though I'd certainly consider buying this one again if I thought it was going to remain on the market. I can say that I believe it won't because it's a limited edition and part of a food fad. If you want to try it, I'd say get it while the getting is still good.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Skoshbox Subscription Service (Review)

I used to belong to a service called "The Macintosh Book Club". It was like the Columbia Record Club, except it offered you computer books. The amazing thing about it was that they would send the books to Japan at a time when on one would send anything there by mail order due to shipping costs. Books, fortunately, were one of those things which survived a long shipping time so they could send them by the cheaper surface mail (seamail) rate. It was awesome, until they started sending me stuff I didn't want and asking me to pay for it. Then things turned into a bit of a sticky wicket, but that was long ago in the past and I'm sure that the unfair charges they submitted (about $55) to a collection agency have been wiped off of my credit report by now.

Postage is always the sticky wicket when it comes to international buying. Even big markets here in California which are, obviously, getting bulk rates, are charging $2.50 for beverages that routinely sell for about $1.00-$1.50 in Japan because the weight makes them so expensive to get from there to here. It's also why, as I mentioned when I reviewed the Sakura Box service, that I never got into the business of procuring snacks for others and selling them. It's a harsh world, doing mail order, and even harsher with low profit margin items like food. I wanted no part of it, no matter how many people asked me to do it for them (and quite a few did).

Sakura Box, apparently, sadly decided it wasn't worth the trouble either and shuttered their mail order snacks subscription service. Fortunately, Skoshbox has stepped up to the plate to serve the needs of those who would like to treat themselves to a box of surprises/samples once a month. Skoshbox, which is ran by two childhood friends with Japanese mothers who have lived in Japan, offers a monthly box of mixed treats and goodies for $12. They sent me a box for review (free). 

Their business operates from Hawaii, which means they actually have better access to Japanese snacks than I do in my present location. Most of my students thought Hawaii actually belonged to Japan anyway, and there is a big section of the tourist industry there which is devoted to catering to Japanese visitors. Skoshbox says that all of its contents are directly sourced from Japan, and I can definitely say that what I received bears this out. All of the snacks that I buy in Japanese markets in California have stickers on the back with English translations, often placed annoyingly over the Japanese I'd like to look at. Everything I got from Skoshbox looks like it was picked up in a shop in Tokyo. The "Look" chocolate, for instance, has no translation on the back and the Hi-Chews do not English language writing on them.

Being in Hawaii means that the shipping time may be a little longer since it has to reach the mainland. My box was shipped on June 14 and arrived on June 18, so you shouldn't have to wait too long to get your goodies. I should note that a little more than a quarter of the subscription fee is eaten up by the postage. Once you also add in Skoshbox's cost of buying shipping materials (boxes, packing tissue, and postcards ain't free, buddy), you're probably looking at about $3.50-$3.75 in material costs and postage alone. Since I ran a mail order business (as I've mentioned before, selling high margin collectible records and music memorabilia), I'm sensitive to the fact that the cost of the goods isn't all that goes into such things. 

Part of the value is in the materials to get things to you. Another part is in having the folks at Skoshbox procure, pack, and haul your parcel to the post off. This makes it all the more impressive to me that they're only charging $12 a month. It's just a bit more than you'd pay for a crummy pizza at Little Ceasar's and it's a lot more fun and won't make you nearly as sick.

Now for the good stuff, which is the unboxing. When you open up your little treasure trove, you're greeted with a postcard with a Japanese pattern printed on it and the date to let you know that this is the offering for this particular month. The contents are tucked under the tissue paper. The presentation is quite lovely and you can tell attention has been given to it, just as it would be in Japan.

If you flip the card over, you'll see a description of everything in the box in English. Since there are no translations on the items, this is the only way to know what they are. That being said, you have to match the general packaging to the English by matching the description to the item it appears to describe since they aren't labeled in English. If there is no English at all, which is the case with the umaibo (tasty stick), you'll have to figure out for yourself that it's the only puffed corn snack in the box through process of elimination. Also, though several flavors of umaibo are mentioned in the description, it's not clear which flavor the included sticks are. You're flying a bit blind if you can't read Japanese. My sticks were shrimp mayonnaise and chicken curry, but two other flavors, pizza and takoyaki, are mentioned on the card. Still, it's a nice touch, and it shouldn't be too hard to match items to descriptions based on appearances and small amount of English on the snacks. You'll have to match the flavor by taste and smell if you can't read Japanese, which should be a bit of an adventure.

This is the full range of items unpacked from the box. Everything except the shoyu sembei traveled well, and it's no surprise that they would crack. It's not like they don't crack in the packages you buy them in before you even get them home from the store or even simply are broken before purchase. You don't have to see the contents here though. Skoshbox puts up a page showing the "current box" on their site so you will have a pretty good idea of what you might be getting before you get it.

One touch which I like about this is the inclusion of Japanese stationary items. It means there is something a little more permanent from the box than food items which will be eaten and possibly forgotten. Though this included "only" a white eraser, I have to say that their claim that Japanese erasers are "life changing" would have seemed a little silly to me before I came back to the U.S. and tried to use an eraser here. You'd think that something so basic would be easy to get right, but the erasers in America that I've used are terrible. They're too hard, leave smudges, and generally ineffective. The Japanese ones are one of those things that they've refined to a point of near perfection. Yes, it does make a difference what sort of eraser you have. 

I was delighted by the presentation, speed of delivery, and contents of the Skoshbox monthly box. I also feel that the price is extremely reasonable for the overall package of service plus contents. Though, obviously, you could acquire these items yourself more cheaply if you were shopping in Japan. Of course, part of the reason that one would consider this service is that one doesn't have the capacity to actually shop in Japan, so that's neither here nor there. It's a nice way to give yourself a monthly round of surprises for a modest price.

Readers of my blog who would like to purchase a Skoshbox subscription (you can cancel at any time if you get one box and want to stop), can use a special code to get a free mystery snack in their first box. The code will be valid until July 15, 2013. That code is: JPNSNACK03 

I'll be reviewing some of the food contents in upcoming posts.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kanro Pure Yogurt Mango Gummi (product announcement)

I once sat down and tried to organize lists of seasonal flavors in Japan. In fact, one day, this list will make it into some sort of blog post since there are definitely patterns to the releases based on how hot or cold it is outside. Just as "Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride" tea is released by Celestial Seasonings each winter as Halloween comes our way, spring starts seeing sakura (cherry/cherry blossom) flavored snacks. 

Kanro is releasing a yogurt and mango gummi and saying that it has a "summer" feeling. I'm not sure that mango is a summer fruit for Japan, unless they are getting lots of imports from Mexico, but I do know that it was once a fad to eat dried mango and now it has become as much a part of regular Japanese living as tiramisu, which also began its days as a fad food and stayed on pretty much forever. 

The release date on this is given as "mid-June", so it may already be out or soon be in stores. Most Pure flavors make their way to Nijiya markets so I'm hoping to get a crack at this in the future. I've only met one or two Pure flavors that I didn't like, and I'm guessing this is probably pretty good. If you get your hands on it before I do, feel free to leave a comment and let me know what I might be in for. If it sucks, you might be saving me a couple of bucks and I'd certainly be grateful for the head's up.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Random Picture #167

How can you make a Koala more adorable? Well, first, you "chibify" it by drawing it in a simple and cute Japanese-style. Second, you add a bow to its sweet little head. Third, you show it in cute little situations that humans tend to engage in. For those who didn't study psychology, that's called, "anthropomorphizing" and kids do it a lot, adults, too, but not quite so often.

Lotte has taken it's mascot's extreme cuteness and shaped a tin like its head. You can eat the packets of chocolatey biscuits inside, and then keep the tin for other things. There's also a charming little key chain so that you can remember to pick up more cookies on your way home from work. These tins have been sold in several of the Japanese and Korean markets that I frequent, but they tend to be rather over-priced for what they are. If I were still living in Japan and could buy these more cheaply (though probably not actually cheap), I still wouldn't buy this because this is the sort of thing which looks great in the store, but tends to get shoved into a closet at home. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mister Ito American Soft Uji Matcha Chocolate Chip Cookies (product information)

Image lifted from Candysan's web site. And, no, they did not bribe me to link to them. They just had the biggest picture that I could rip off. 

I couldn't figure out why a brand being named "Mr. Ito" struck me as funny. After all, we have "Mrs. Fields" in the United States, and her cookies were pretty popular until she sold out and they started to be sucky mall fare. Also, just as "Mrs. Fields" and "Mr. Ito" are both real people using their real names, unlike, say "Mrs. Butterworth". So, what's the weirdness? Well, it's the combination of Asian and occidental (Note: I am prohibited from using "oriental" as a pairing with "occidental" because I'm home now and must be politically correct at all times, even if the Japanese use the word "oriental" themselves.) It's not "Ito-san", it's Mr. Ito.

The folks at Mr. Ito are nothing if not international, and that's what compelled me to highlight these cookies as a product. They were released in February 2012, so they're actually a bit long in the tooth. They caught my eye because of the strange irony of a cookie called "American Soft" being sold in a green tea flavor. Further research reveals that the target market for these is 20-50-year-old Japanese ladies. There's very little "American" about them, beyond the half-Westernized name of the company's founder and the chocolate chips.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Morinaga Kinako Mochi Choco Ball

Candy makers speak in a sort of code. As children, we come to understand this code, but, as an adult, I had completely forgotten about the spycraft of sweets marketed toward the short set. For instance, "hot" in candy code often means, "strong cinnamon". It does not mean that chili is infused into the mix. That is only the case for candy designed for adult buyers and candy snobs who think that mixing hot stuff with sweet stuff is the bee's knees.

American candy makers have their code words and Japanese ones do as well. This was a fact I had not considered when I spied this box of "kinako mochi" or "toasted soy bean and pounded rice cake" flavor of Choco Ball. When I think "mochi", I think of chewy, slightly elastic, and soft covering on the outside of a traditional Japanese sweet. In candy code, however, "mochi" is what they call "gummi". That is necessarily a bad thing, but my level of enthusiasm would have been dialed back a bit had I remembered that this contained a core of German ingenuity rather than stretchy Japanese rice.

I found this small box (26 grams, a little under an ounce) of candy at Mitsuwa Japanese market on what I would consider a "very good day" in terms of scoring both interesting and affordable snacks. It was $1.19 (119 yen), which is still more expensive than it is in Japan (85 yen or 85 cents), but is very reasonable for an import.

When I flipped open the "beak" on the top of the box, I felt the very familiar scent of kinako "chocolate"; that is to say, white chocolate infused with toasted soybean. This is a smell that I love and welcome, and I think that kinako makes a very good match for white chocolate because it has no sweetness. I carries more of a nutty flavor from the roasting and only a hint of its soy roots. When I say, "soy", think soy beans, not tofu. There is quite a big flavor difference.

Each tiny little ball is about the size of an M & M, though, obviously, shaped differently. There 19 balls in the box, and the whole thing is 118 calories (about 6 calories per ball). I tried to get a cutaway view, but they're too small and soft for that. Biting into the white chocolate exterior causes the outer portion to crumble off of the gummy inside. Clearly, these are meant to be eaten in one go. Considering the small size, I imagine they're much more likely to be designed to be consumed a few at a time rather than in two bites. 

The outside has a nice sweetness and an earthy, nutty flavor from the kinako. The gummy inside is fresh, soft, and chewy, but it's so small that you have to make a special effort to get much of a "chew" in on it. That's okay. It invites you to be mindful of the experience. My tongue detected no flavor from the gummy inside, but that is no surprise both because of the size and the fact that they probably wouldn't trouble themselves to infuse it with something resembling the mild flavor of rice cake.

I really liked this, but I'm a kinako junkie. I think this is a very approachable option for those who may be a bit reluctant to try Japanese sweets, especially since it tastes a little bit like peanut butter. If you can find a box for a reasonable price, I say, go for it. 

If you're interested in a wallpaper showing Kyro-chan, the illustrated bird mascot on Choco Ball, you can download a few designs here

Friday, June 14, 2013

Frutabella Bananada Cremosa

When I hear a word with "cream" or even "creme" as part of the name, I expect, well, rich, fatty, white goodness. What I don't expect is a brown turd-like object which clearly has nothing to do with skimming the fat off of fresh milk. Life is just full of surprises. They're not necessarily happy ones that inspire giddy, girlish glee, but they are technically "surprises" in that they find you totally off-guard.

My husband picked up this object at the Portuguese deli and market at which I found my Brazilian Pez. He saw "banana" and decided this was of interest to him. I saw "cremosa" and thought it might be of interest to me. It ended up that we were both wrong. This food-like item is of no interest to either of us, though we did gamely give it a try despite its resemblance to bodily waste.

It should be noted that I don't speak Portuguese, though I did study a little Spanish and they're like cousins to one another. However, that really didn't help much in this case because "cremosa" means "creamy" and that was simply a big, fat lie. Even if I understood perfectly, I still would have been mislead.

Be honest. Your first thought was, "who forgot to flush!"

What this is is a wad of sugary fruit puree that has enough cohesion to not smoosh into a smattering of paste, but is still very pliable. It's more grainy than "creamy", though I have to say that it probably is about as "creamy" as pureed banana mixed with sugar and potassium sorbate is going to get. The flavor is strange in that brown sugar dominates. The "banana" aspect mainly comes through as a sour, nearly rotten banana taste at the end of each bite. On the bright side, and in what I see as the only sunny side of this, the dusting crunchy sugary coating on the outside adds an interesting textural element to the banana goo. If nothing else, this product reinforces my already strong sense that Japan isn't the only place where they sell weird food.

This is a profoundly weird thing, which I'm sure is supposed to be health because it's fruit and only 92 calories for a blob about the length of my thumb. The web site for this product talks about how bananas have great nutritional benefits as does potassium. I agree with their logic, but not with the monstrosity they've created from a perfectly good banana. I say, stick to a real banana and give this mass of fruit paste a miss.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

KitKat Salty Caramel Big Little Bites (product information)

Image from Nestle Japan

Somewhere in the scattered contents of my memory, which as of late is being filled up with information about psychotropic drugs, how to diagnose mental health disorders, and grammar and punctuation points, I recall some sort of salted caramel KitKat offering from Nestle Japan. A search on Google yielded confirmation of this fact, from this very blog. You know you've posted too much when you don't even remember your own content.

So, Nestle Japan has decided to offer the equivalent of their former big bar release chopped up in tinier bits and enrobed in a little more chocolate. The original was good, and I'm sure these are, too, but we see a lack of imagination in play again from Nestle Japan. Still, better the mundane devil that sells than the creative angel that doesn't.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Random Picture #166

The display above is from a sembei shop in Sugamo, aka, the old ladies Harajuku. That means that the former was the shopping mecca for the retired set just as the latter was that for the pink-mohawk and kilt-wearing crowd that was under 21. These rice crackers feature the likenesses of common cartoon characters in Japan. Two are easily recognizable, even by those who are not animation dorks (the pair in the middle, Hello Kitty and Pikachu). Flanking them are the lesser-known characters (in the West) of Anpanman and Doraemon.

It is my feeling that everything is what it is for a reason and that, if you take a moment and think, that you can learn something about people and culture. When I went to an exhibit of Incan art in Tokyo, I noticed the motifs on the artifacts and what they said about the ancient culture. The same can be seen in modern culture, but you have to stop and ponder. This is from Sugamo, and it tells you more than sembei makers with too much time on their hands indulge in copyright infringement. This is the place for grandmas to buy their red underpants, but they're selling rice crackers with designs for children on them at the premium price of 400 yen (about $4.00) a cracker. That means that they are marketing to grandmas so that they'll buy expensive stuff for the grandchildren as much as offering to gird her loins in scarlet for the right price.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Calpis and Misdo Collaboration Donuts and Drinks (product announcement)

Some matches are made in heaven. Some are made in hell. This one feels like it was made in Albuquerque. This is the marriage no one was waiting for, and it'll finally be here on July 7, 2013. For reasons I'm sure are well understood in Japan, Mister Donut has decided to release Calpis donuts and drinks. In brackets, the Japanese on each of the products above says "Calpis" and anything that is blue also says "soda" (which is to say, ramune, which likely will just taste like bubble gum). Anything that is red is strawberry and the drink with the orange goop at the bottom is mango.

If you decide that you simply aren't getting enough Calpis by mixing it in with your donuts and drinks, you can buy a combination that allows you get a glass and stirrer as part of a set. The one that is 580 yen ($5.80) is a "drink set" which is one donut, one drink and a glass and the one that is 700 yen ($7.00) is a "donut set" which includes 5 donuts and a glass. If you don't think that these glasses are worth the extra scratch, there's a little surprise that may change your mind.

The bottom of each glass has a Mister Donut design on the bottom. The blue one has "pon de lion" and the pink one a french cruller design which features a lamb. This added cuteness surely will enhance the value of the glasses such that you will now longer be embarrassed to drink from a glass which has a word on it which sounds like "bovine urine" when you say it allowed. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Yuki & Love Japanese Style Peanut Mochi

Have you ever wondered which part of an Oreo cookie makes the cookie better? Is it the slightly bitter, not terribly sweet and crispy outer cookie or the creamy, sweet death-mush in the center. If eating habits are any indication, that is, our tendency to mush together two cookies divorced of one half of their outer cookie sandwich, then the filling is the star of the show. That being said, in Japan, they used to sell only the outer cookie sans the sugary goo. Tastes are relative, after all.

When thinking about mochi treats, one can ask the same question, though I'm figuring those that are not aficionados of Japanese traditional sweets would say, "neither". Those who are connoisseurs would likely say, "both." As someone who just buys snacks for a living, I'm definitely saying the proof is in the rice cake (mochi) and that a substandard mochi experience will make or break the experience. 

The peanut filling of this is lightly sweet, dense, and pretty fatty. The texture is rich, but it's a little kludgy, like "natural" peanut butter before it has been stirred (though not quite that bad). The mochi is where things fall apart. It's actually nicely balanced in terms of taste and lends a sweetness from the rice cake having been infused with a bit of sugar and a nuttiness due to the powder on the exterior. The place where it all goes wrong is the mochi's texture.

The first time I tried a "Yuki & Love" Japanese style mochi, I loved it. It was soft and tasty with a delicate taro (like a potato, only, not) filling. I was so excited that I was dying to try another flavor and scooped up boxes of other varieties when I found them on sale. The second time was a more so-so experience, but that was largely due to the weirdness of the brown sugar flavor in that one. This time, the mochi was just crummy. It was too thick and rubbery, like chewy on the eraser on the end of a number 2 pencil. I don't know if this was old or if they just did a bad job on this particular one, but it really ruined the experience. Despite being quite good with the flavor (and being an enormous fan of all things peanut butter), I didn't finish the box. I kept going back and trying them, even microwaving them to soften the thick exterior, but it didn't help. I ended up throwing out half of the box because they just weren't worth the 130 calories per rubbery lump.

I hope this was a "bad batch", but I'm unlikely to try this variety again. I'm not giving up on the brand and will try another, but if it doesn't get better after the next sampling, I'll be saying goodbye to "Yuki & Love", or at least their Japanese style mochi offerings.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Garoto Orange and Guarana Candy

I grew up in a what would have once been called a "two-horse town". That is, a place so small that it only had two horses. That's a bit of an exaggeration though. I think my town was small enough to get by with one horse, provided that it was a little less broken down and ancient than the people it was expected to convey.

The thing about living in such a small place is that you have very limited options. There were two stores, literally. There as a "general store" which had a gas station in front (2 pumps, no waiting) and a garage to the right as well as a "supermarket" which had more food at more reasonable prices. People only went to the general store for food when the other store was closed or they were too lazy to go to a "real" store. Other than these places, there was a bank, a post office, and a couple of broken down private businesses including a funeral home. There was not much to explore and you knew every single available option.

Now that I live in the suburbs and have access to bigger shopping spaces, I'm finding that my options are very wide as long as I'm willing to get in a car and take a few minutes to do some research on the internet to find what is out there in that big, bad, wide world. My husband's family had been going to San Jose for decades to buy Spanish sausages at a Portuguese market and I'd poked around it a few times when they went for chorizo. The selection of cured meat is vast, but grocery options are tiny. However, I discovered that there is a second Portuguese market not too far from there which carries more groceries and a far broader array of imported snacks.

Despite the vast selection, I was pretty timid with my first choice. In fact, after picking up a $7 loaf of cinnamon sweet bread (which was fantastic), I grabbed today's review fodder at the register for a quarter as we were on our way out. It was an afterthought and the price, a quarter (25 yen), reflected that. I didn't really even pay attention to what I was buying except I knew that "naranja" means orange and I'll take anything orange.

It turned out that this is essentially Portuguese Pez. They are slightly bigger, but they have the same combination of shiny exterior and chalky exterior. I don't know if they have dispensers in Brazil, which is the location of the company that makes this, Garoto. The company seems to make chocolate for the most part and I could not find any reference to this candy on their web site. Actually, I couldn't find much of anything to do with their products on the site. It's mostly dedicated to various types of PR related to world cup soccer. The truth was that I learned more about the company via Wikipedia than from their own site. For instance, Nestle bought them in 2012, but they operate independently.

The truth is that, aside from the addition of guarana, this is very standard kid's candy. It's sweet, has a nice crumbly, crunchy texture and a strong orange component which comes on a bit overbearing at first then mellows out. The guarana comes across as an almost minty and rather strange aftertaste. It's supposed to taste like apples or berries, but it just seemed odd in this.

I can't complain about a tiny package of candy bought for a quarter on the spur of the moment. I can say that I was uninspired and won't buy it again. That said, their chocolates look interesting and, one day, when I make it back to that shop, I'll try something a little more adventurous by Garoto.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

KitKat Cookies & Cream Big Bar (Product Announcement)

Image from Nestle Japan.

I love the KitKat big bars, but I hate white chocolate and have never been a big fan of cookies & cream as a candy flavor. In fact, I feel that the whole point of the cookies and cream concept is to add textural variation and flavor to ice cream. As a candy bar with cookies that add texture and its own flavor already, it seems silly to add cookies and cream to cookies and white chocolate. OK, perhaps it's not so  much "silly" as quite unimaginative. These big bars are coming to a convenience store in Japan soon and if I was still there, I would not bother to buy one. If you're more open to conventional flavors than me, let me know if you've tried this. I'm guessing that it'll have 5 layers of satisfying crunch surrounded by somewhat too sweet and perhaps even slightly chalky white chocolate infused with just a hint of bitter chocolate cookie and some creamy richness, though not enough of the good stuff to justify the calorie load.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Random Picture #165

Pictures courtesy of Nestle Japan

Usually, my random pictures are my own pictures. This one, however, falls into a category that I can't quite fit in anywhere else, but I wanted to share it. It comes from Nestle Japan and I was not sure what it was all about at first because they posted the picture with a question to see what sort of speculation fans could come up with.

My research would indicate this is old stuff... unless it is new stuff. When I tried to find any reference to gold bars shaped like KitKats, I found news articles from 2008 about a campaign in the Middle East in which consumers of KitKats had the chance to win real gold bars. However, the answer that was eventually revealed was far less interesting. 

Apparently, they were teasing people by showing a portion of something as boring as a marketing award for the best team worldwide that works for Nestle. For 2012, the Japanese team had been given this award, which is called the George Harris Marketing Excellence Award and it was, in large part, a response to the "adult sweetness" campaigns and redirecting their marketing toward adults in Japan. I'm sorry to say that it is not some sort of new and exotic flavor, but I will congratulate the Japanese team on pulling their brand out of the quagmire of bizarre flavor offerings and coming up with something that boosted sales. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

McDonald's Pork Tatsuta (product information)

Image from McDonald's Japan

I'm not sure how aware people outside of Japan are of the "chicken tatsuta" which is seasonally available in Japan, but it became so familiar to me that I took it for granted that "everyone" would know what it was. This is akin to my assuming everyone knows what Cap'n Crunch cereal is and how it is regarded and will get jokes about it chewing up the roof of your mouth (and being the most awesome of sugar cereals in the universe).

For those who don't know, this is a common, but inconsistent offering at McDonald's Japan that usually includes a formed chicken patty (formed from what sort of chicken parts, I'm not sure) that is cooked with ginger and served with a special sauce and cabbage. Currently, a special version of the chicken tatsuta has a sauce that includes yuzu (Japanese citron) and daikon (Japanese radish), though regular version of this sandwich just includes some less exotically augmented mayonnaise with ginger and soy sauce.

McDonald's Japan released a variation on this burger on May 31 with pork kicking the venerable chicken version off the bun. The pork version uses an onion ginger sauce and will set you back 506 calories. That's a bit weightier than the 389 for the regular chicken tatsuta and 417 for the special new limited edition version. Most of that is coming from the whopping 33.4 grams of fat in the piggy version (17.4 grams are in the special chicken version). I'm betting it's plenty juicy and tasty, but not necessarily any healthier than a Big Mac which has 30.7 grams of fat and 557 calories. Still, no one is hitting the golden arches because they think it's health food. Eat, drink, and make merry with your fries, for tomorrow, you can diet.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Nanao Green Tea Papiro Cookies

When I hear "Nanao", I think "monitors", not confections. Apparently, my knowledge is rather outdated, however, because that company is now called Eizo, no doubt because they were tired of people walking into their stores and expecting sweet, sweet candy and finding that gnawing on the edges of a display did nothing but damage their dental work. Actually, I'm sure that the display maker is much better known than Nanao Confectionary, which is a relatively small business in Kitakyushu with a mere 280 employees as compared to mighty Eizo's stable of 1637. When you're me, you learn these types of things. I do this not because such things are important, but just because the information is out there... like a digital Mt. Everest only with much less death and excitement.

I know Nanao Confectionary best from the "Golusia" gaufrette European-style cookies and their even tastier Japanese-style ginger cookies. I reviewed both of these products favorably, and probably underestimated the appeal of the latter in my review. With a good track record, I was looking forward to sampling these papiro cookies. Incidentally, "papiro" is French for "papyrus" and refers to the fact that these are thin sheets of dough wrapped around themselves like a paper scroll. Papyrus scrolls, however, are not filled with tasty cream, just things like Egyptian hieroglyphs and family histories that Dan Brown can use to write novels.

I've had similar ones in Japan before, so I had some idea what to expect. My previous experiences taught me that these would be a crispy outer shell with supremely light, fatty filling. In fact, they are a rolled version of the gaufrette cookies and are likely made with exactly the same recipe. The outer shell is rather hard and quite brittle. It's mainly there for texture and as a delivery mechanism for the light as a cloud cream filling and it's modest green tea notes with faint sweetness. This is one of those very subtle Japanese sweets that is designed more for texture than taste. Your tongue has to almost strain to detect the flavors, but your mouth is so happy for the feeling that it's indifferent to the effort. At about 47 calories per small cookie (each is about the size of my pinkie finger, only a bit fatter), they won't break the calorie bank as long as you have some self-control.

I liked these a fair bit and I'd buy them again, but I have to confess that I have a lot of nostalgia associated with this style of snack and that they aren't especially sweet or strong-tasting. I found them and a Japanese market for about $2.20 (220 yen) and probably overpaid for them at that price. I think this is the sort of thing that Daiso Japan carries for $1.50 when they carry them. In fact, they often carry the vanilla papiro version of this so I may see if I can pick it up and try it out, too. Unfortunately, you can't order these online from Daiso Japan as their snack selection is very limited for web shoppers (it's much better in the actual stores).

If you like something subtle with some satisfying textural contrasts, then you may enjoy these. I'm not sure, however, that what is to my tastes in this case would necessarily suit my readers.