Friday, May 19, 2017

Surprise Find: Nasoya Shirataki Fettucine Pasta



Last week, I talked about things in Japanese food culture that taste like nothing. Coincidentally, I found the quintessential food that tastes like nothing - shirataki noodles made from konnyaku. The Japanese version of these are usually translucent and look like deep sea creatures spindly body parts or particularly disturbing worms. I had them a few times in stews when I lived in Japan and I found them creepy and disgusting both in texture and appearance. However, these noodles are what many Americans have often pined for; they are a food with almost zero calories.

Of course, most people who want to eat as much as they want without the pain of gaining weight are thinking about zero-calorie pizza or chocolate, not flavor-free noodles sold in a stinky briny solution that you have to drain and rinse off. This particular brand by Nasoya isn't the only variety out there, but I believe they are all sold in the refrigerated section of stores in bags of fluid. If you read the reviews for the product (and others like it) on Amazon, there are lots of complaints about the indescribably bad odor that comes off of them when you release them from their watery prison.

If you go to the Amazon link, you'll also see that they sell for about $56 for a case of 12. That's $4.66 per bag for something which includes just two servings of noodles. It's a very steep price for something which is a component of a meal and not a meal unto itself. The reason that this is a "surprise find" for me is not only my (as mentioned in previous posts) rural isolation and limited grocery store options, but the price I paid for these. I found these at the local Grocery Outlet for 37 cents a bag.

Unlike the ginger rice crackers that I got for 50 cents, I did not lose my head and buy 24 of these. One reason was that there were only five bags in stock. Another was that I'd never tried these before and their expiration date was within four days of my purchase. Still, I bought three bags because, how bad could they be? The answer to that question is, "It depends on how you prepare them." My first two runs with the first bag were between so-so and not-so-good. My final one, in which I took my recently expired noodles from the last two bags and just tossed it all into one big dish, worked much, much better.

I should note that these are more troublesome than conventional pasta in some ways. First, you do have to drain them and rinse them well and the fluid inside carries a bouquet that will wilt any nearby foliage. I recommend just holding your nose and doing a fast dump and rinse. It doesn't last long. It's like getting a shot at the doctor. A short amount of unpleasantness then it's all over.

After you rinse and drain them, you need to boil them for 1-2 minutes. I actually tasted a noodle right out of the rinse (not right out of the bag, I'm not crazy or masochistic) and it seemed perfectly cooked and fine. I think the instructions to boil them is make sure you get all of the brine off and to get them hot so they dry out better. After the quick boil, you dry fry them in a pan to get them a bit drier. I used olive oil the second time for this and just cooking spray the first time. The purpose with this isn't to toast or cook the noodles, but to get them drier and less translucent. This is supposed to improve the texture so they're more like conventional pasta.

With my first two attempts, I took the pasta and just mixed other things in with it. The first was a butternut squash soup and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This was okay, but not great. I felt the noodles texture a bit too keenly and they were super stretchy and a bit chewy compared to traditional pasta. The second time, I mixed in cheeses (cream chesse, Parmesan, mozzarella) and that was the worst. I also learned that these fettucine noodles seem to be designed for someone who prefers to spend more of the meal time twirling a fork than eating as they are miles long. In fact, if the scene in "Lady and the Tramp" were to be redone with these noodles, it'd take them about a year to eat up the noodle enough to meet in the middle. I vowed to cut them apart next time I ate them (and I took kitchen scissors to them as planned - I recommend this step).

These noodles really need a sauce to give them flavor. For my final preparation, I went all out and sauteed onions, garlic, bell pepper, mushrooms, and (hydrated and flavored) TVP in olive oil then added a jarred creamy tomato and roasted garlic sauce. I added the dry-fried noodles to this and it was indistinguishable from regular pasta.

The main benefits of this besides the super low calories and low carb count is that they are loaded with fiber. The main downside is that they aren't as versatile as regular pasta as they need something else to take on the flavor of. You couldn't just toss these in olive oil and Parmesan cheese to create a side dish. The biggest demerit though is that they are usually quite expensive. Nearly every vendor you can mail order these from sells them for $2.50 a bag (often much more) and you need to buy large amounts at once.

In terms of how I feel about these, I think that it's hard to get too excited about noodles in general, but I'd buy them again in a heartbeat provided that I could get a bargain on them (a dollar or less per bag). This would not be for any reason other than the fact that these are supremely healthy. While I wouldn't expect to get them for 37 cents a bag again, I'd probably pay as much as $2 each if I were in the serious mood for pasta, which I will admit is not very often for me as I'm not much of a noodle person. If you're on a special diet (low-carb, Keto, whatever) though, these can be quite a Godsend to vary your mundane eating options. I imagine the extra effort and the unpleasant odors associated with the noodles would be something that one could develop a tolerance for after a few weeks of eating mostly meat, cheese, non-starchy vegetables, and avocados.

Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 37 cents/bag



Friday, May 12, 2017

Harajuku Mochi Chocolat Sakura



Natto is often considered to be the most unique and strange food experience when it comes to introducing Japanese cuisine to foreigners. It's stinky, sticky, and reminds you of mucous. While as a singular food, natto may indeed be one of the strangest things you can eat in Japan, there is a class of food that I discovered is a bit bigger and more broadly used than what I regard as its nearest Western cousin. That is a group of foods that, after processing, are fairly flavorless. 

My first experience with this came when I mentioned to a student that the chanko nabe (a sort of sumo wrestler's stew) that I'd had on my tour of a sumo stable had these weird little grey blocks with black specks in them that found distasteful in appearance. The student practically gushed about how wonderful konnyaku was and how much she loved it. She said it tasted so good and was really healthy. I told her I didn't eaten these little somewhat gelatinous blocks because the reminded me of frog's eggs and asked what they tasted like. She paused and said, "They don't taste like anything."

Such was my experience in Japan with certain foods. People would tell me something was fantastic, but it didn't taste like much of anything. That included jiggly blocks of pale tofu, konnyaku, and mochi. While we have bland foods in the U.S. (potatoes, rice), we don't have foods that are processed and end up flavorless with the exception of gelatin... at least not that I can think of. And, even if we do have such foods, we lack the same level of enthusiasm that I saw for them in Japan. 

Most of these foods are about their texture as well as the flavors that they can absorb from other ingredients. It took me awhile to come around to enjoying such foods, but it helps that I'm a texture junky. Mochi in particular is very much about how it stretches and the sort of chewy, softness it offers. Fresh mochi is amazing. Stale stuff is inedible. When you order shelf-stable sweets like this Harajuku Mochi Chocolate, there is always a risk that it'll be tough as you don't know how long it has been sitting around or how well it is packed. I'm pleased to say that this much have industrial strength oxygen absorber packets and is sealed well. 



The mochi comes in a square box with a little plastic two-pronged fork so you can stab the hands of people who try to eat your delicious, delicious mochi without piercing the skin and risking a lawsuit. Though there are ample numbers of pieces, they are quite small. Each is a little bigger than a quarter and fairly thin as mochi goes. The "chocolate" is a soft, creamy white substance that runs thinly through the center. When you eat it, it imparts sweetness, but there is too little to get a good sense of flavor or creaminess. 



Each bit of mochi is a soft little pillow that is somewhat chewy, but easy to bite into. Even after I'd opened the package and consumed the mochi over several weeks, they remained fresh to the last morsel. The first hit on your tongue is sweetness, perhaps from the coating which could be cornstarch mixed with powdered sugar. It could also just be that the filling is spread evenly enough and is sweet enough to leave a lasting impression.

The second bite is more floral and yields more cherry notes. On the back-end of a tasting, it can even leave a whisper of herb-like and slightly medicinal flavor, but not in a negative way. As mochi goes, this is fairly flavorful, sweet without being cloying. Of course, mochi often lacks a very strong flavor so saying it is "flavorful" isn't meant to convey that it's a flavor-blasted experience, but just that it is present.

In terms of how I liked this, I liked them very well and was happy to have tried them. That being said, I mainly chose these because it is spring and sakura is a seasonal flavor that won't be around in several months. I likely would not buy them again as I regard this more as a curiosity purchase than a standard snack that I'd like to have again. If you enjoy sakura's cherry and floral notes, then you likely will enjoy this more than me (and I did enjoy them). If not, you may want to try a flavor more akin to your tastes like chocolate or green tea.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 10.2 oz.
Price: $9.95


Friday, May 5, 2017

Suprise Find: Ginger Frosted Sembei



As I mentioned in my "I'm back" post, I now live in a very remote area. What is more, I also live in a small town (less than 10,000 people). There are very few local markets and I can charitably say that local tastes match local political views; they are very conservative. That means that the restaurants around me focus mostly on burgers, bad steak, pizza, pasta with heavy sauces, Americanized Mexican, and sandwiches. The most exotic place is a Thai restaurant and there is one American Chinese place which offers very pedestrian options.

I'm not mentioning this to criticize the local food scene because I know that one's taste in food is one of those things that is shaped by experience. People like what they like because it is what they grew up with and it's not like the people who live in rural areas made a conscious decision to have limited food options. If anything, we can blame their parents and grandparents. I certainly can say my parents have terrible taste in food and any restaurant scene that their patronage cultivated would be populated by places with leathery, over-cooked meat, canned vegetables, noodles, and potatoes. It would be even more grim than the reality I currently live in.

The reason that I mention the limits here is that any Japanese food I find at local markets outside of Pocky and some more common cooking ingredients (soy sauce, rice vinegar, etc.) are a suprise find. When I locate one of these finds, I'm stunned because I can't imagine the locals buying them. That leads me to today's shocking find of frosted ginger sembei.

I found these at Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. I've been told it's the west coast equivalent of Aldi's, but I can't verify that as I've never been in an Aldi's. The thing they are supposed to have in common is food at low prices because it was over-produced, unpopular, or is getting on in years. I'm guessing this sembei showed up because it was unpopular, but it's hard to know for sure.

The first shocker was that it was in a local market at all. The second was that it was being sold for 50 cents a bag. In the Bay Area, I had to pay $4-$6 per bag for this same brand of sembei. In Japan, this would cost the equivalent of $1.50-$2.00 for a bag. It was insanely cheap by any estimate. I bought 25 bags. I am not exaggerating. My pantry has stacks and stacks of these.

The difficulty in marketing these to the American market is explained somewhat by the description panel on the lower right panel of the bag. In particular, the fact that the manufacturer feels it is necessary to say, "no topping needed" is revealing. Americans see rice crackers as a savory item that needs a topping like a Quaker rice cake. Buyers have no idea what these are until after they've purchased them. In fact, when I bought them, the cashier looked perplexed at what they were. I'm guessing just me, and possibly the Japanese members of the taiko club a great many miles South of me, are the only customers and potential customers who know what these are.


What these are is a very, very tasty snack with a surface that makes you think of the moon with luscious sugary craters. They'd better be great if I'm going to drown myself in stacks of crispiness. They are light and somewhat sweet with enough ginger to whisper kindly at your tongue, but not to overwhelm. They snap without being too brittle and actually do melt in your mouth if you leave them in there long enough. It's easy to eat far too many at one sitting, but given that each large cracker is only 25 calories, it's hard to get fat on them. I've actually be fairly responsible with these and limit myself to one packet (two crackers) per day. I will likely have my stash for months at that rate, but they come with an enormous oxygen absorber packet so I'm betting they won't go stale. If they start to, I'll just have to watch a good movie and start consuming them by the bag-full so as not to waste my luxurious investment of $12.50.

I should note that I had confidence in these and how good they'd be because the company that mades them, Kameda, is one that I recognized from my time in Japan. In fact, I have reviewed no small number of their sembei in the past including one sweet variety made of chocolate. They rarely let me down and I was pleasantly surprised to see something from that company at a local market. While this clearly is packaged for the American market (since everything is in English), the rice crackers (sembei) themselves are precisely the same as what you'd get if you shopped in Tokyo. And, yes, I'd absolutely buy them again, even at a higher price.

Information:

Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 50 cents/bag