Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Random Picture #211

Pocky products on display that were eligible for the promotion - these are mostly variations on green tea.

In my post about Nijiya Japanese market, one of the things that I was told and forgot to mention was that the shop is often offered promotional items, but they are so small that they have no chance to display them. During a festival in San Jose, the Nikkei festival, they made an effort to get those items out where customers could see them.

If you look behind the blurred picture of my husband holding an inflated Pocky stick, you can see three enormous reproductions of boxes of Pocky and Glico's Pejoy. I hadn't even noticed those boxes until after I'd taken this picture as I was focusing on the sticks themselves. There was a sign at the check-out counter which said that you got "free Pocky swag" if you bought three or more boxes of Pocky. My husband is holding a sample of said swag.

Obviously, the swag are leftover inflated sticks from the display that you can see behind them. No, they weren't going to climb up and take a stick out of the display. There was a trash bag with the leftovers sitting next to a shelf with stock and in front of a refrigerator case. While hardly an elegant presentation, at least it made it easy fro them to tell us what the swag was. That made it all the easier for me to decide it wasn't worth buying three boxes of Pocky, particularly since I've never been the world's greatest Pocky fan anyway.

I'm curious about whether or not my readers would want this sort of collectible item. Would you buy three boxes of Pocky (at $1.69 each/about 170 yen) just to get one of these tubes?

Monday, April 28, 2014

KitKat Baked Purin (Pudding) mini

I've spoken before about how there must be a think tank of sorts inside Nestle Japan in which they're sitting around trying to figure out what new gimmicks they can use to try and separate their product from the horde of consumer-grade confectionery. The person who decided that they should create a way for something that usually melts to be baked probably got a gold star, and possibly some fairly quizzical looks and disapproving frowns from those who doubted his ingenuity.

Speaking of said ingenuity, I'm not sure what had to be done to these to make them bake-able without making them turn into a puddle of white chocolate goo. The ingredients list includes chocolate, wheat flour (for the wafer, no doubt), vegetable oil, lactose, sugar caramel powder, whole milk powder, cocoa powder, yeast, cacao mass, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, artificial flavor, baking soda, and "yeast food". The final item appears to be "mineral yeast" which is used to alter the way dough works (not as sticky, softer), so I don't know if it is the magic ingredient. My lack of food chemistry knowledge means that I can't pinpoint what keeps them from becoming ooey messes, but someone did some alchemical homework.

At any rate, I'm on the late side to this party because it took awhile for this to reach my shores. I found this at Nijiya market in San Jose. Given the high novelty factor, and my husband's shared interest in trying these, I forked over the $5.99 without a second thought. How often do I get a chance to set my toaster oven on fire in the name of blogging?

The instructions on the back tell you to line the toaster oven tray with foil. It explicitly says that you should not use aluminium cups or foil pans. Apparently, the difference between sheets of aluminum foil and folded containers ostensibly made with the same stuff is another chemistry lesson I need to learn. At any rate, I wasn't going to argue with the people who made the product... at least not until I actually tried the product and had a reason to do so.

Once you have lined your tray with foil and lined up your KitKats - the illustration shows four bars being made at once, but I only wanted to make two so I may be violating the recipe in some fashion - you're supposed to bake them for about two minutes at 1000 W. In Japan, my toaster oven had wattage listed on the instructions. My oven here has temperatures (in both Celsius and Fahrenheit) and food types.

So, I did some research and got myself thoroughly confused about what the temperature should be. Answers ranged from complex formulas that I tried to use, but gave me ludicrous results like I should be using 1000 degrees F. to "watts measure something different and can't be converted to temperature settings".  I decided to take the middle road and use 350 degrees because I'd rather it cooked too slowly then exploded in a burst of sugary molten madness. That temperature seemed to be a good one.

I had been warned to keep an eye on it by readers who commented on the product announcement and it is a warning I will repeat. This will go from uncooked to nicely browned in the blink of an eye. I didn't burn it, but I'm thinking it will burn fast. Do not walk away from it unless you want to risk it being ruined.

The plain, uncooked bar tastes like very sweet white chocolate and has the nuanced flavor of Japanese "purin" (pudding). It's the barest hint of caramel flavor. Since the bag touts the inclusion of .5% caramel powder, this is no surprise. When I gave it a sniff just after opening the package, caramel was the only thing I could detect aside from the white chocolate itself.

I think this is actually sweeter than other KitKats I've had recently, but that could be because many of my most recent tastings have been the "adult" versions which have tamped down sweetness levels. As an uncooked bar, it's probably a mediocre experience for someone who isn't an enormous fan of white chocolate and a bad one for someone who hates it or very sweet candy.

The sad-looking baked version.

The real question is whether or not it gains something in the baking and the answer is that it does. I sampled this slightly warm and my husband tried it cool. I wanted to try it both ways to see how the texture changed. In both states, baking it takes on a caramelized sugar flavor which reminded both of us of the sauce used in flan. It's not nearly as intense, but the bar is definitely better in its baked state.

This is what happens if you try to pick it up while warm.

In terms of whether you should eat the baked version warm or cold, I definitely say wait for it to cool. If you try to remove it from the sheet warm, it will separate and fall apart. The warm chocolate is an interesting sensation, but you loose the lacey edges which carry much of the intensified caramel flavor (and it sticks to the sheet).

A cooled half - much easier to handle and you don't lose any part of it.

The cooled version not only keeps all of the caramel edges intact, but comes off the sheet cleanly and is easier to handle. Clearly, this was never intended to be eaten warm off the sheet and, if you don't want to risk a burned tongue (I didn't get burned, but it is a risk) or a disintegrating bar, then be patient... not that I was impatient.

At the price I paid ($5.99 for a bag of 13 minis), these are 46 cents per bar. This actually is  not an outrageous price per piece. It's not exactly cheap, but it's not incredibly expensive. In Tokyo, you'd probably pay closer to $3.50-$4.00 (350-400 yen), but it's not really fair to compare import prices to domestic ones. You will always pay between 50-100% more for rare or imported items. These are currently being offered on eBay for $8.54 by someone (including shipping).

A better bet if you want to try these and have no access to an Asian market that carries them is Candysan. They have them for the bargain price of 345 yen at present, but the shipping is 480 yen. However, if you make a larger order, you get a better per item deal on shipping as it scales more slowly (or not at all) after the first item. They also carry other somewhat exotic items which may be worth trying like purple sweet potato KitKats and "big little" orange KitKats. Of course, they have other interesting items as well. At present, I'd say that Candsan offers the best prices on Japanese snacks by mail order in terms of a place that allows you to choose what you receive (as opposed to the services that send you monthly or bi-weekly surprise packages).

In terms of whether or not you should try this, I'd say that it is for people who have curiosity or desire novelty in their food rather than as a "must have" treat. It's a different sort of experience. It's fun and it tastes pretty good as well, but it's not fine quality stuff. I think it'd be a great thing to do with your friends if they're the sort that enjoy unique things and are open-minded. I imagine kids would go crazy for it as a general concept. I have to imagine that since I don't have kids. ;-) At any rate, I'm happy that I tried it, but I'm not sure that I'd go for it again. Once is a good experience, and it's enough.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sogo Bakery and Red Bean Bread review

The red bean bread on display. (Click any picture in this post to load a larger version.)

One of my late pleasures during my time in Japan was "koshian" or red bean bread. I especially enjoyed a version sold at the "Good Morning Bakery" that was about a 10-minute walk from our apartment in Asagaya. I was hoping to have a somewhat similar experience with this bread after discovering it on sale at what had to be one of the cruddiest little Chinese malls in San Jose (in an area closer to Cupertino).

The counter that comprises pretty much the entire "store front".

Sogo Bakery is a chain that has its own branches as well as sells products trough the chain of 99 Ranch Asian markets. All of the branches listed on their web site are in California. I don't know if their products can be had elsewhere, but they appear to specialize in a variety of Chinese and other sweets and breads targeted at the Asian market.

Apparently, UFOs are cheaper than Europeanism (whatever that is).

The one I went to in San Jose was at the front of a small mall that included a deli, a Chinese yogurt shop, a medicinal herbs shop, and some miscellaneous jewelry and other sundry items shops. The place was quite old and a bit dingy, though I have to say that it was worn, but not really dirty. When I used their restrooms, I noted that they were clean. If you want to know just how well-kept a space is, don't look at the middle of the floor space. Look at the corners. Most American bathrooms and older stores will have a built-up pile of crud in the corners where someone has mopped the floor hastily and a lot of it has been shoved into the corners. This place had clear corners, so someone is looking after it very well. Don't let old exteriors lead you to believe it's "dirty".

Mung bean, wife, and sun pastry buns.

The entire little mall was very interesting because the menus for the deli were only in Chinese. You had to speak Mandarin to be employed there and my husband and I were the only white people in the mall. This is the sort of situation in which most people here who are not of the dominant ethnicity of the client base feel uncomfortable in, but so many years of being a part of an extreme minority makes us just fine with walking around what other Caucasians feel is an "alien" environment. Besides, that's where all of the good finds can be found!

This option gives a whole new meaning to, "look out, he's got a grenade!"

The bakery was pretty much the usual affair for Asian places in that it had a pastry case full of elaborate decorated cakes, tarts, pies, and cupcakes in the front and less expensive bread options away from the cashier. A lot of the bread and buns were either European (including some pretty nice-looking garlic bread) or Chinese. There wasn't much in the way of green tea (so not particularly Japanese), but there were a fair number of bean items and a smattering of muffins. The prices were not especially expensive or cheap for this area. The best bargain, in my opinion, was the red bean bread at $3.75 per loaf. It's a lot for that price, and competitive with packaged, mass-produced bread that is not a store brand and is of higher quality.

A view of the red bean bread (koshian), that I had in Tokyo from the "Good Morning Bakery". One fat slice of this cost about 300 yen or about $3. This was the standard to live up to.

Regarding the concept of bread with red beans, I know it sounds horrible, but it's actually a moist, lightly sweet, and utterly delicious concept. It's more akin to cinnamon-swirled bread or jam-swirls inside of a loaf of white bread than what you might imagine. It's moister and heavier, and I'd say it makes a "light" snack except that the bread is incredibly heavy and not particularly low in calories.

A slice of the Sogo Bakery red bean bread.

In fact, I weighed the loaf of bread that I bought before tucking in and it was 1 lb. and 11 oz./765 grams! It's got some heft from the weight of the bean paste. Each slice is a whopping 240 calories, though it does make a breakfast or hardy snack all by itself.

As you can see by comparing the pictures, the Japanese koshian is much more marbled with bean paste. It is in generous swirls that integrates almost completely with the bread. The Sogo Bakery bread has had rolled out dough spread with red bean paste and it was rolled up and baked. I get the feeling the Good Morning stuff took a lot more effort to get that much distributed through it. Clearly, I got more bean for my money from the Good Morning type and it showed in the taste.

The red oval shows the misaligned slices that were changed to hide the plain end piece.

The bread is lightly sweet on its own and the areas with bean paste is a bit sweeter and carries the flavor of the paste. It's not intense, and that isn't a bad thing, but I would have liked more. The bread is fresh and soft and very good as a bread even without the beans. It makes me believe that their regular bread is probably pretty good stuff.

The hidden piece with very little in the way of red bean in it!

I also have to say that they pulled a little trick on their customers with how they package the bread. They take the outer two slices and turn them around so you can't see the end. I noticed that the two front slices seemed mismatched in terms of how the sizes lined up. It looked like they were cut off a different, smaller loaf, but then I realized they were just turned around to hide the largely plain on one side slice that was on the end. This is a bit of a cheap trick in my opinion. I realize customers won't be as attracted to the bread if one end looks plain and the other is a crust (and it is), but they should simply not include that slice rather than hide it in this manner.

Even with this little cheap trick and the fact that it wasn't as good as what I had in Japan, I'd still buy this bread again without hesitation. It's fresh, tasty, sweet, and a unique treat. I froze the loaf I bought after having a slice and I plan to have it as toast from here on (or rewarmed in the toaster oven while wrapped in foil). My experience in Japan with koshian was that it lost a lot the next day and freezing bread tends to slow down the quality loss. The only thing about this which I wish was different was the amount you buy. I would have preferred to buy no more than four slices at once since I'll be the only one eating it. It will take me a long time to consume an entire loaf. If you're near one of these bakeries (or see this bread in a market), I'd recommend picking one up and trying it. It'd be an especially good choice as a unique option at a potluck or as a baked treat for a party with open-minded friends.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kirin Salty Lychee Drink (product information)

Kirin is doing some sort of promotion in which they talk about the combination of fruit and salt. I am very aware that salt can do a lot of things for various dishes, including boost the sweetness level of various types of fruit (watermelon in particular) as well as add complexity to chocolate and other types of sweets. However, for me, adding salt to a beverage with a sweet base turns it into something resembling an isotonic drink (like Gatorade). This is not what I sign up for when I buy a (hopefully) refreshing bottle beverage.

The inspiration for this is supposed to come from Thailand where pickled lychee beverages with salt are supposed to be a mother-made tradition. I get that information from Kirin, so I don't know if it is true. At any rate, each bottle apparently has a tiny little mother preparing a drink in a miniature kitchen for you so there must be some truth to it.

Kirin recommends some "recipes" if you buy this elixir. They say you can ice it up and crush a bit of mint into it, make ice cubes out of it and eat them, or mix them with seasonal frozen fruit to make a "punch". To me, no matter how you mix it, this has disaster written all over it, but then I'm not one for salty beverages.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Random Picture #210

There was a time in the 1970s when pyramid power was a big deal. People would construct or buy little pyramid structures to sit in and meditate or masturbate or something or other to bring them more power. That sort of happiness is parodied to some extent in a Seinfeld episode in which a natural "healer" or holistic practitioner treats George for tonsillitis by having him drink some concoction while sitting under a pyramid shape (the pyramid comes in around the 3:16 mark).

Meiji obviously wants to get a piece of that pyramid power and have created a variation on the Meltykiss/Meltyblend that has a different shape. Cubes are fine, but pyramids are that much better. They also appear to be better for Meiji's bottom line as this box of chocolates cost $6. Usually, Meltykiss/Meltyblend are around $4. I'm not sure what the big boost in cost is all about, but I will have to live without the power of pyramid-shaped chocolate at that price. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

McDonald's Happy Set Toys (product information)

I occasionally read advice columns to see what sort of problems people feel they need third-party assistance with. Often, it's something along the lines of someone has been invited to a wedding that includes a shake-down for cash rather than allowing them to just buy a gift and do they have the Agony Auntie's permission to not pony up some dough. Of course, all of them say "there, there, you don't have to capitulate to this emotional blackmail for money."

At any rate, one of the more interesting letters was from a woman who ran a playgroup and had a nanny who was stopping a little boy from playing with the "girl's" toys like dolls, plastic ponies and unicorns, and, er... tampons, or whatever little girls play with these days. I wasn't a girly girl when I grew up so I'm not sure what they tend to pay attention to. At any rate, the playgroup's organizer wanted to tell the nanny to stop being so gender-biases and let the little boy play with whatever he wanted to fondle. When I saw these two starkly different sets of toys, I was thinking this is exactly the sort of thing that would get those two women fighting.

The gender lines for these sets is pretty clear. Boys are supposed to be drawn the Ultraman set on the left and girls to the Aikatsu goods on the right. The colors alone tell the story of what little boys and girls should choose, but the dainty, frilly accessories also indicate clearly that the Aikatsu junk is for the set which will one day be sashaying around an office trying to attract a suitable breadwinner for her family. After all, what is all that plastic jewelry for if not to draw attention to oneself?

The boys, apparently, are supposed to content themselves with superhero torsos on little plastic bases. I think they'd actually have more fun putting on the headbands and singing into the microphone. How can you role play superheros when they don't have a pelvis or legs?

These items became available on April 18 (duh, as you can see by the ad). If you'd like your kids to either embrace or reject gender lines, get out there and buy them some Happy Sets and collect suitable plastic crap.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Calbee Yuzu Koshoo Potato Chips

My sister-in-law is currently in Madrid visiting family. She hasn't been able to upload many pictures because of her crummy internet there, but she was able to share a picture of a "cronut" being sold in a bakery there for one Euro. Cronuts, for those who have been asleep like Rip Van Winkle for the past year or however long it has been since these were invented, were invented in New York by Dominique Ansel and they are so hot and popular that people wait in line for a long time to buy one. They have spread around the world, though not necessarily in their true (labor-intensive) form. My sister-in-law said that she tried the Spanish cronut and it was essentially deep-fried croissant (laminated) dough cut into the shape of a donut and dipped in sugar.

The Japanese are also in on this whole cronut gig, as you can see by the screenshot I've put above this paragraph. The ad acknowledges, incidentally, that these were born in New York. The Mister Donut Croissant Donut is essentially the same thing that my sister-in-law tried only sliced in half with various types of cream sandwiched in the middle and some icing on the top. It is still not a proper cronut, but closer than what was available in that Madrid bakery.

This post is not about cronuts, but rather about chips, but, as is often the case when I start in one place and end in another, I have a point to make. My point is about what sort of food fads spread like wildfire around the world, like the cronut, and what sort somehow never get off the ground. In my opinion, yuzu koshoo is one of those flavors that, if people knew what it was, would take off if it got the same sort of exposure and press and exposure that Srircha sauce, cronuts, churros, and wasabi tend to get. It is one of my favorite spicy flavors from Japan and it is very hard to find in American.

It was with considerable delight that I bought this 58-gram/~ 2 oz.-bag of Calbee yuzu koshoo chips for $1.99 at San Jose's Nijiya market. I was looking forward to the bright citrus notes of the yuzu and the spicy heat of the chili pepper. Calbee makes one of the best basic potato chips in the world. They're thin, light, crispy, and have a fresh taste that I have not encountered with chips in America. The basic chip can't be beat in my opinion. The question was whether or not the flavoring lived up to its potential. The answer is a mixed one.

When I opened the bag, the first thing I smelled was vinegar. I have to say that, in my limited experience with yuzu koshoo snacks, that was not something I tended to find. The first bite yields a little bit of the citrus flavor of the yuzu and a more potent flavor of vinegar. The chili pepper is hardly there at all and the deeper, more savory flavors of the spice don't come out unless you eat more of them.

These chips are good, very good. I'd put them in the top 15% of chips I have ever eaten, but I wouldn't put them up in the top 50% of yuzu koshoo snacks that I've had. I think these are well worth a try, but I wouldn't say they're worth zeroing in on and seeking out with all of your Popeye-level might. If you see them and you like salt and vinegar chips, these are a refreshing change of pace and a damn fine chip (as long as you like thin and light ones and not thick, greasy, kettle-style ones). I liked these, but I wanted to love them.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Variety Friday: Nijiya Japanese Market (San Jose)

I've been resisting the urge to write about local Asian/Japanese markets because I know that most of my readers cannot access the same places that I can. Of course, that was true when I lived in Japan as well, and it didn't stop me from writing about such places there. My mind is a strange and inconsistent place at times.

Nijiya is a small chain of markets that almost exclusively carries Japanese items with the odd American item thrown in to fill a niche. There are ten of them, and all but one are located in California. I am fortunate in that two are relatively close and two others are within a reasonable driving distance. Each is a little different and seems to cater to slightly varying tastes among their consumers.

The prices at Nijiya are more expensive than those in Japan, of course. This is to be expected since imports are always costlier than domestic items. When I lived in Japan, imports from other countries cost more there as well. Generally, the prices I see there are in line with the retail prices (not the common sale prices, which are lower than retail) in Tokyo, plus perhaps 10%-20% in some cases. One example of this is the bags of mini KitKats. They are $6-7 at Nijiya (unless on sale or special), and the retail price in Japan is 500 yen and you can get them on sale for as little as 250 yen if you're lucky (and if they're near the end of their life cycle).

The snack selection is always my main interest at Nijiya, of course, though they do carry a wide variety of other items like personal care goods, cooking items, fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned and jarred items. There is also a frozen section (which includes taiyaki and imagawayaki and Japanese frozen treats like ice pops and ice cream) and some "fresh" items like "roll cake" (Swiss cake roll), steam cake, and cream puffs. The more reasonably priced (close to Japanese prices) items tend to be made by Japanese companies (like Shirakiku) for the U.S. market rather than imported from Japan.

Each of the Nijiya branches is a different size. The one that I visit most often is in Mountain View and they have hand-made cream puffs (chou cream) and often have tiny little samples in plastic cups. They also carry a selection of manju made fresh at a confectioner. They also usually carry a lot of souvenir boxes of cookies, sembei, and Japanese sweets (often appropriate for the season) at prices that are too rich for my blood.

The smallest one that I occasionally visit is in Japan Town in San Jose. Due to their size limits, their selection tends to be more limited. The reason that I've decided to write a bit about Nijiya is that I had an opportunity to speak with the woman in charge of ordering snacks at the San Jose branch and was able to ask her a few questions. The woman's name was Maki, and she was very accommodating with requests. She also didn't freak out when I was taking pictures of the displays. In fact, that was how she started talking to me. She said it was the first time she'd seen someone shopping with a camera and that's when I told her that I had this blog.

Maki speaks Japanese fluently and has a Japanese name, but she looks like a grey-eyed, pale-skinned, light-brown-haired "foreigner". She looks more like she grew up in Germany or Minnesota despite her name. She told me that her grandmother was Japanese and that is how she got the Japanese name. Her appearance has caused her some issues on the job. She said that sometimes Japanese customers will come in and approach one of the Asian-looking employees expecting them to speak Japanese. When these employees, who are of Philippine or Chinese descent, summon her to handle the customer's requests, the customers say, "no, no, no!" They hear with their eyes, not their ears.

I asked Maki some questions about the selection at Nijiya. Obviously, they order what sells the most and I asked her why they didn't carry Tirol Premium chocolates anymore as the last time I got one there as in late 2012. She said they just didn't sell. My guess is that most people did not know what they were as they don't have enough press to be popular and well-known by American consumers. Since they are sometimes interesting flavors, and sell for about 50 cents (such a cheap little morsel), I was disappointed to hear that. She asked if I'd want to buy an entire box, but the truth is that I can't really promise that. I don't know if she can order them just so I can pick up a few, but it'd be nice if she could.

I was interested in what sort of snacks sold the best there and, unsurprisingly, it is green tea KitKats. She said that young kids came in and asked for them. They are good, mind you, but the selection of KitKats is so boring these days, especially considering the only flavors I tend to see are "adult sweetness" versions - usually white, semi-sweet, green tea, and strawberry. Since I am interested in trying the baked KitKats, I asked Maki about those and she said she's trying hard to order them in, but there are hang-ups with bringing in any new product. The main issue she said is that there are sometimes additives or chemicals which are not allowed in the U.S. I found this surprising because American candy seems to have more artificial crap in it than Japanese stuff (especially dyes). However, I'm sure each country has its list of acceptable and unacceptable ingredients.

Finally, I asked Maki what flavors she liked best. She wanted me to clarify if I wanted to know about sweet or savory and I asked for both. Her favorite savory variety is yuzu koshoo and I was delighted because that is one of my biggest loves as well. She pointed out some Calbee chips that were yuzu koshoo which I had missed, though, there was only one bag left. Maki said there were more in the back, but she didn't have room to put them out yet.

As for her favorite sweet snack, she pointed to the Earl Grey MeltyKiss/blend. Though I can't say it's my favorite sweet, I did review it favorably and am generally a big fan of the MeltyKiss/Blend line. It's far superior to the more popular Pocky and KitKat options.

If you're in the area, I'd highly recommend stopping by the Nijiya markets. They've got a great selection of items and, though they are more expensive than you'd get in Tokyo, they're still massively cheaper than a plane ride there. ;-) To follow what is new and interesting, you can connect with them via Facebook. The page for the San Jose branch is here. If you visit, say "hi" to Maki. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Starbucks Banana Chocolate Cream Frappucino (product information)

Bananas are one of the most accessible types of fruit in Japan. They're cheap and you can buy them nearly anywhere including conveninece stores. Of course, they tend to not be very tasty or sweet compared to some of the bananas you can get in other places (at least the Tokyo ones). I'm guessing this Starbucks concoction is going to be quite a bit sweeter and tastier than the standard imported banana (which I believe come from the Philippines). You really can't go wrong with chocolate and cream, though I'm guessing this won't live up to its potential if the banana is fake.

If you find yourself ordering one of these (I wouldn't try this as I love bananas, but not things flavored with banana), let me know what you think. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Random Picture #209

I have a love/hate relationship with Sonton and their peanut spreads. One is a bit of an abomination. The other is a dollop of heaven. The question about these "peanuts cookies" is which end of the spectrum that they represent or if they occupy a unique space between. These are the result of a pairing between Mr. Ito and Sonton. Mr. Ito is a maker of some of the less refined shelf-stable cookie products out there. His name is not encouraging. I do note that an unexpected contributor to this enterprise. It seems that Mr. Peanut's little brother has been used to come and stand in as a mascot. I'm sure that the folks at Planters are more than happy to allow their property to be "borrowed" in such a fashion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Glico Pocky Snoopy Package and Cart (product information)

One of the quaint things about riding the Shinkansen is that people sometimes come by pushing a cart with food. I haven't ridden trains in the U.S., so it's possible that it happens here as well. The whole custom of doing so reminds me of old-style rail travel (especially in Europe/the U.K.) in which people used to eat food served in a similar style.

One thing which is not so old-fashioned is the idea of a Peanuts cart which sells Pocky - some of it in special packaging. It's a cute idea. I'm sure that the Pocky are the same as usual and that they can be purchased via other outlets, but it would be nifty to see one of these while actually on a shinkansen (bullet train).

The Pocky that is contained in the special Peanuts packages is largely the same flavors as standard Pocky issues. There's a "cookie crunch" version (on the right) which I hadn't seen before, but it doesn't sound like a particularly inspiring flavor. If you're a Peanuts fan, these are going to make a pretty cool collectible, though not as cool as the cart (which would be a lot harder to get your hands on).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Careme Delicia Strawberry Fromage Chocolate/Cookie

Stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld once did a bit about how cars were named to bring to mind certain words, but to not actually use them. One of his examples as "The Integra", which was meant to evoke thoughts of "integrity". This candy/cookie combination obviously took a page from the book being referenced by such car makers. It's not "delicious", it's "Delicia".

This is another in a line of sweets designed to bring to mind a much more complex confection. I love these in theory. In practice, I'm often disappointed. I never expect them to actually taste like a real strawberry cheesecake. My only hope is that they have complexity sufficient to distinguish them from something like a plain white chocolate bar flavored with strawberry. If you're going to make such a fussy treat, then at least make sure the consumer's experience is nearly as good as the candy looks.

The candy smells delicately of strawberry. Biting into it yields a textural wonderland with the crispy little cookie providing crunch and contrast to the somewhat soft strawberry white chocolate and the even softer white "cheese" filling. The textural complexity is accompanied by flavor depth including some sense of creamy whipped cream, ever so slightly floral strawberry, and a hint of earthy grain from the cookie. I'm not going to say everyone will pick up on all three of these elements individually, but they are there if you take the time to notice during the tiny sweets brief experience in your mouth to heed its attributes.

This is a pretty impressive little treat that offers layers of complex flavoring and texture though what I can only assume is the work of tiny little fairy folk. Each is about the diameter of a nickel/five-yen coin/your big ass thumbnail but is a cookie platform with freeze-dried strawberry encasing "cheese cream" which in turn has a tiny dollop of stawberry sauce and is topped with a disc of strawberry-flavored white chocolate. It sounds like it'd send you into sugar shock, but the sweetness level is very balanced with the blandness of the cookie and the tartness of the strawberry.

All of this weighs in at only 31 calories per bite. Yes, it's a small portion, but if you compare it to a square of Milka chocolate (22 calories) or a Hershey's Kiss (25 calories), it's got a lot of bang for the calorie cost. In terms of the monetary cost, I paid a little over $2 for this at Marukai market. For 8 pieces, that is somewhat expensive, but my husband and I look at junk food as much as the experience cost as the cash. If you can eat one of these and be happy with it, then it is well worth the higher price. I can say that I'm intrigued to try more of the Delicia sweets after this and would definitely buy this one again.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reko Pizzelle (Vanilla, Anise, and Lemon)

The idea that a food is better in another country than its country of origin is not an alien one, though I do believe it's something which would be hotly debated. The idea that "Authentic" cuisine using the ingredients of the country in which the dish was developed is superior to any adaptations in other countries tends to be debated. In fact, at the moment, I'm hard-pressed to come up with any food in America that people (other than Americans) think is better here than in its home country. This could reflect the limits of my imagination, of course. Readers may feel free to share their thoughts.

Reko, the company in Cananda that makes today's focus of a review, asserts that their pizzelle are so good that they export them to the Abruzzo region of Italy. That's the area in which pizzelle were reportedly formulated. They boldly say Italians think their pizzelle are better than native offerings.

I can't speak for Italians, but I can speak for me. The truth is that I have consumed very few pizzelle in my life. For those who are even more unfamiliar with them than me, they are a thin, crispy, waffle-like cookie. They are less deeply browned and crispy than a waffle cone used for ice cream, but do have the same flavors in their mix.

These cookies were available at Cost Plus World Imports. The main reason I ended up buying them was that there was a basket of samples of the dulce de leche flavor on hand. I don't even like dulce de leche, but I liked the sample so I picked up the three other flavors that sounded even more appealing to me. I figured if the one I didn't like was good, the ones I liked would be even better.

I paid $3.50 per box of 30 cookies. There are three packs of 10 in each box (which greatly reduces the risk of them going stale) and the nutrition information says that a serving is five cookies. For me, I tend to try to keep it to three or four, tops, but I can see how easy it would be to get carried away given that they are crisp, light, and only 23 calories each. You can put away quite a few for the calorie price of less than two and a half Oreo cookies.

All of these cookies have the same basic mix and prominent flavor profile. They have a slightly carmelized flavor which says that flour, fat, and sugar have come together in a toasty orgy to create a more appealing offspring. All of the flavors are relatively subtle and come through as a secondary flavor after the overall "waffle/cookie" taste. Of the three flavors, lemon is my least favorite for not other reason than it seems to add a little too much of a citric sourness and not quite enough of a floral sense. That is not to say I dislike it. I do, but vanilla is my favorite with anise being in the middle of the pack.

The shining star of these cookies is the texture and subtlety. They are the perfect light accompaniment to tea or coffee as a light treat. The web site and packaging show them with fruit toppings, cream fillings, and chocolate between them like a waffle sandwich, but I love them plain. I think that appreciating them as a simple treat while attending to the delicate flavors is a treat and I'll definitely have them again.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mini Stop One-Handed Okonomiyaki (product information)

For those who don't know what okonomiyaki is, it's what is often referred to as a "savory pancake", though I've often seen it as more akin to a floury omelette. This is a very poor translation as it tends to be a much messier and complicated mess than a pancake. The idea that a convenience store can craft a version that you can eat with one hand is not so much revolutionary or evolutionary as de-evolutionary. I can't see this as anything but a step backward in food craft, and the description of this specimen only supports my sense of this.

The image above this paragraph is from a box of Osaka okinomiyaki sembei that I reviewed in the past. That is what okonomiyaki usually looks like and you can see that it's a complex affair which in no way resembles the slab of substances above with an egg on top.

The Mini Stop version touts its fluffy texture as well as the fact that there are wieners mixed into the dough. Wieners. I'm no expert in okonomiyaki, and I know that there are tons of regional versions, but I've never heard anyone talk about wieners in their Japanese pancake. They also mention that cabbage, bonito, and sausage (all flavored with soy sauce) are a part of their handheld abmonination.

Honestly, the whole thing as a food item doesn't sound that bad. In fact, it does seem that it has potential to be a unique savory option which would be good for a quick morning meal as long as you didn't care about your cholesterol levels. As handheld okonomiyaki, well, it's kind of like selling pizza rolls as if they were actually pizza.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Random Picture #208

What is pictured above is called "educational confectionary" according to its  maker, Kracie. I call it "playing with food", but I'll run with Kracie's description. On the left is a donut decorating kit and on the right is a candy bento one. This leads me to believe that Kracie is thinking Japan's children need to be educated in the ways of food service. I guess if your dream is working at Mister Donut, then the donut one would help set you up nicely.

This is one of those rare items which is actually available at Amazon. You can get the bento one here for an exhorbitant price and the donut one here for an even higher price. If you buy one, let me know if you learned anything. ;-)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

McDonald's Japan's "Big" (and even bigger) Breakfasts (product information)

It's interesting to see McDonald's Japan offering a "Big Breakfast" (available until 10:30 a.m. where available) because my impression of the sorts of "traditional" Japanese breakfast that I keep reading about on the internet but rarely heard anyone eat is that they are actually pretty "big". If you haven't read about it, we Western folks are told that Japanese people eat rice, fish, and miso soup for breakfat. To us, that's dinner, but there was a time when that was the common deal in Japan. Most of my students told me that ate "bread" (i.e., toast or a bun of some sort) with tea or coffee and sometimes some sort of cup-a-soup (like corn potage).

So, the idea that the breakfast on offer at McDonald's are "big" compared to what we're told Japanese eat is a strange one. It's only big compared to what my former students and I tended to eat because I'm with them in this regard - coffee and some sort of baked item is the norm.

Getting to the point though, I think it's interesting to note what passes for "big" in Japanese marketing. There are actually two versions. The one I'd term "big" is scrambled egg product, a sausage patty, an English muffin with available packets of jam, and a hash brown. To a great extent, this appears to be a deconstructed Egg McMuffin plus a hash brown. The "bigger" version (marketed as "deluxe" in Japan) also includes a couple of pancakes.

The deluxe will provide you with 934 calories of power to start your day being shoved on crowded trains, hiking to the office, and pushing papers around and nodding and saying "hai" ("yes") to everything the boss suggests. This is quite a wallop considering that Denny's grand slam (original) is a punier 770 calories for 3 eggs with cheese, two bits of bacon or sausage, and your choice of hash browns, bread, or grits. 

The big one is a more meager 628 calories. I guess that's the daintier version - perhaps more appropriate for the office lady crowd. My breakfast tends to be between 200-300 calories total, so I have to say that McDonald's does appear to be delivering on bigness, at least in terms of caloric load.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bourbon Petit Strawberry Chocolate Chip Cookies

There are some words in the English language (and I'm sure other languages as well, but this is the one I speak fluently and know the best) which carry a particular connotation. This is something which I find rather regrettable as I think words that are not meant to be derogatory should be able to retain their neutrality and be seen as purely descriptive.

I'm not talkinga bout words like "bonehead", which is clearly meant as an insult, or even things like "stupid". The type of word I'm talking about is something like "fat". This word actually is an adjective, but it's also used as an insult because being fat is seen as such a crime against humanity in our current age. Of course, it's only derogatory when we're talking about humans. If we're talking about cats, it can just be considered incredibly cute and cuddly. At least I love big fat kitties.

While "fat" is seen as having a derogatory connotation, "petit" is seen as having a fairly positive one. In fact, unless we're talking about men, I'm pretty sure petit is always seen as being a good thing. For women, shopping in the petit section is seen as an achievement. Petit animals - the sort that yap and crap everywhere - are somehow seen as adorable no matter how inbred and lacking in brain power they seem to be.

When it comes to snacks, I'm not sure of the connotation and it's interesting to note that there's a line of "petit" snacks in Japan and the French have their "petit fours", but America has "super sizing" and "Big Gulps". If anyone knows a line of "petit" snacks in the U.S., I'd like to hear about it. Mostly, I'm seeing "giant" this and that. Though, to be fair, there are "Giant Pocky" in Japan. At any rate, I'm not so sure that "petit" branding would sell in the U.S. as it does in Japan as we seem to like our women tiny, but not our food. That's a rather odd contradiction as big food makes it harder to have petit people.

As is always the case with the "petit" brand, these are tiny little cookies. Each is about the diameter of a 5-yen coin or a nickel. That's a little bigger than your thumbnail if you're me. The calorie count is 16 each. That sounds pretty demure until you consider that you could easily put away half of the package in one sitting if you weren't being careful.

Each cookie is cripsy and has a shortbread-like texture. You get hit by a burst of bittersweet chocolate chips coupled with a light strawberry flavor. The strawberry elements works far, far better than I would have imagined because it is not overly acidic nor floral. It sits in the background adding depth without clashing with the chocolate chip titans.

The texture of this is amazingly satisfying and this was a far better little cookie than I could have guessed. In fact, I loved it and no one is more surprised than I am that that was the case. I expected this to be very "meh", but this is a definite strong "happy". At $1 (about 100 yen) per package, I would definitely buy these again.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spicy Ocean Snack Dried Roasted Seaweed

Among the many free magazine subscriptions that I acquired when I started poking around for what people will give me for nothing in America was "Us" magazine. Of the freebies that I got, this is the one which I generally regret the most. For one thing, I didn't realize that it was a weekly and I have to toss out more issues than I ever imagined. For another, it's making me sad. It's not that I don't recognize most of the celebrities - though I don't - it's the way in which the material is clearly presented to make people with sad and empty lives feel like their lives are just like those of celebrities and that makes me sad, but that is a point I've mentioned before so I won't belabor it here.

At any rate, the issue that arrived today endeavored to educate the populace on why Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband (whose name I forget and really don't care enough to look up -  I think he sings for some British band like Oasis or whatnot*) have decided to "consciously uncouple". I noted that Gwyneth only feeds her kids kelp and the finest Oxygen molecules that Harrod's has to offer, and it made me think that perhaps I should live a healthier snack lifestyle.

Though I don't have access to much in the way of kelp, I have been seeing a line of "Ocean Snacks" at the local Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. I figured that, while my blogging income doesn't allow me to live a GOOPy lifestyle, it does allow me to purchase nearly expired discount seaweed products from Korea. They may actually be from North Korea, for all I know, and that might mean they're radioactive or contain Kim Jong Il's ashes or something, but they only cost 99 cents for so I can't really complain.

There are three packages with little plastic trays inhabited by the wispiest of seaweed paper. I had this stuff in Japan on occasion, but it was never as thin as this and the truth is that I like it much better this way. Eating it in Japan, whether it was wrapped around a rice ball or just eating it as a sheet, was a lot tougher when it was thicker. This seaweed paper is like onion skin writing paper, only, tastier. Each sheet is a little crispy, has the grassy notes you'd expect from seaweed, and has a little spicy red pepper kick at the end. It starts to melt a little on your tongue, but it doesn't suck all of the moisture out of your mouth. It's really a pretty good experience, especially for being something which gets washed up on the beach along with dead sea life.

In addition to trying this as a straight-on snack, I also made my first onigiri with the intention of wrapping this around it. Unfortunately, my onigiri was a "jumbo" and two sheets of this stuff couldn't wrap around it's enormous girth. It did stick very nicely to the rice, but it wasn't potent enough to add much except a small grassy note to the experience. The pepper got lost in the blandness of the sticky rice, but these aren't designed to wrap onigiri so I'm not blaming the manufacturer. I just need to make less pregnant-looking rice balls next time.

I've heard that seaweed consumption creates rather vile breath and was sure to only eat this when my husband wasn't going to be around and snogging was not a possibility. That is the only drawback to eating these. Well, there's that and the fact that 20 of the 30 calories that a pack contains are fat calories. I don't know how they manage that, but I'm guessing this is deep-fried seaweed or something. With those stats, I'm not sure that Gwyneth would approve, but I do.

*I kid. I know he sings for Cold Play, but since I don't know what either band sounds like and that they're both British bands, I figure they are essentially interchangeable to my febrile mind.