Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tirol Chocolate Milk Nougat

Most of the Tirol chocolate that you find in Japan is sold in tiny little squares. I found this larger bar, which is about the size of three of the smaller size candies, for 25 yen at a local 99 yen store. The old-fashioned wrapper, which seems to feature the FTD florist character in profile when he was a child, is rather curious compared to the newer, cuter package styles. This is the only Tirol candy sold as a bar sold in this size.

When I bought this bar, I thought it was a plain chocolate bar because the top just says "chocolate". The side also appears to simply say "chocolate" (in Japanese) as well, but if you look on the bottom, just under the Japanese word for chocolate is the Japanese for "nougat". So, when I bit into this bar, I was rather shocked to encounter some tough resistance from what I thought was some form of caramel.

While the texture of the nougat is tough and hard to bite through, and, like caramel, it sticks to your teeth, the taste is definitely nougat. The filling tastes a lot like a Three Musketeers bar though the texture is like eating taffy. This is a pretty typical texture combination for Tirol chocolates. The non-"premium" size of their kinako mochi candy has a similar tough to chew interior surrounded by a soft, sweet, mildly crumbly and easily melted exterior.

The bar smells like sweet, milky chocolate and the nougat has a very nice flavor, but I wouldn't want to eat this too often for fear of losing a filling. I also don't like to have to jog little blobs of nougat out of my teeth with my tongue. The portion control on this is great. It's small enough to satisfy without having to reach for another bar, unlike the smaller Tirol candies. It's only 113 calories for this 22 gram/.77 oz. bar.

There aren't many nougat bars in Japan, so if I was in the mood for it, I'd buy this again. I just wish the interior was less tough. Aside from the texture issue, this is a very enjoyable little bar. If you don't mind a good chew, you might want to sample this.

If you like the Tirol designs you've seen in the reviews of their candy on this site, you can download some wallpapers of this bar's design (though honestly, you'd look like a pedophile with a Greek God complex if you sported this design on your computer) or some of the other characters that have been shown on their wrappers including the little blobby cartoon fellow who looks like Shmoo on the kinako mochi candy.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Valentine Krispy Kreme Donuts (Japan only)

Before all the Krispy Kreme haters jump on the soap boxes and start to talk about how bad the donuts are or how they are the nutritional scourge of all human civilization, and how I am a total idiot for forking over my hard-earned cash for buying these, let me say that they were a gift. Personally, the only Krispy Kremes I like are the original glazed, and even then occasionally. I actually like Mister Donut more, though I can't say that I eat donuts often or am an aficionado of them necessarily. No, my husband is the one who adores donuts. He even dreams about them from time to time, but that's a story for an entirely other sort of blog.

These donuts are on sale at Krisipy Kreme branches in Japan from January 21 to March 14. The reason the sale ends so late is because of the clever way in which Valentine's Day was essentially cleaved in two as a sweets buying fest. The Japanese have women give men sweets on February 14 and the men give women sweets on March 14 for "White Day." The donuts are meant to cover all the available holiday sweet treats territory so that Krispy Kreme doesn't have to come up with any more specialty items.

The donut on the left is a "mocha chocolate heart". It didn't fare very well in transit. You can see that the whipped cream frosting smeared all over the wax paper that was meant to keep it safe and sound. The topping is bitter chocolate cookie "crunch". The truth is that it isn't very crunchy or very bitter, but rather more firm and soft. It's like stale cookies. The frosting is coffee-flavored whipped cream and the streaks of brown coating are just some sort of coffee flavored white chocolate stuff.

The mocha chocolate heart smells like coffee and caramel, though there is no caramel in it. It's not very sweet and has a mild coffee flavor and no chocolate flavor that I could detect. I didn't take a picture of the inside of the donut because there's nothing in there but more donut. This is pretty "bready", though the yeast donut flavor certainly isn't bad. I like whipped cream-based frosting, but this was all texture and little taste. While I have no issues with a less sweet donut, I wish the flavors were more multi-layered and/or intense. I will note that a round version of this particular mix of ingredients was available at some point in Krispy Kreme Japan's history, and it was just as unimpressive in its previous incarnation.

The donut on the right is a "strawberry double heart." The pink coating, which is also like a colored white chocolate in that it is firm rather than soft like frosting or icing, is made with Polish senga sengana strawberries as are the little freeze dried bits of strawberry on one side. There's a white chocolate heart stuck on the right side, which is where the "double heart" name comes from. This donut smelled of strawberry in a good way. It also had a reasonable though relatively weak strawberry flavor including a hint of tartness. The underlying donut was fresh and yeasty, but, again, there is no filling in it. This is definitely the better of these two donuts.

Both of these donuts are 180 yen (about $2) each and not bad as long as they are fresh. However, the flavor is just really weak on both of them and the textural elements pretty "blah". I wouldn't buy these and I wouldn't recommend them over other types of more flavorful donuts from Krispy Kreme. These are clearly made for style over substance, and the mocha one seriously does not travel well, so it's unlikely to look pretty for a recipient.

Most baked goods with any sort of glaze or frosting have been altered to reduce the sugar and increase the fat for the Japanese market. One of the reasons that Japanese sweets are sometimes as high or higher in calories than American sweets despite having less sugar is the higher fat content of those sweets. Sugar, like salt, can intensify and carry flavor (which is why humans tend to like sugary and salty things). If you reduce the sugar, you've got to enhance flavor through other methods and that so often doesn't happen in Japan and Krispy Kreme joins a long line of pastry makers who haven't adjusted the flavor profile while reducing the sugar.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Valentine KitKat (Lemon)

The outside of the box says something like "for someone important". One has to wonder how important a person who receives this can possibly be if you're only going to buy them a KitKat bar at a convenience store for Valentine's Day. Of course, as I mentioned in the previous post, these things aren't given to one's dearest love. They're given out of obligation to coworkers and other males that one is obliged to.

This box has a special set-up on the inside so you can write a message for the recipient. You're supposed to tear off the top and fold the box into a single packet box with the message concealed inside. If you look at the top picture, you can see indentations to help you bend it properly. That means that the important person gets two fingers only. That's okay, because you can eat the others yourself. Unlike conventional KitKat packaging, calorie information appears nowhere on this box or the packages. This is par for the course for food that is intended to be given as a gift in Japan. They don't want to spoil the enjoyment with the painful reality.

These bars smell pleasantly lemony. The outside is a little soft, and is, of course, white chocolate infused with lemon. It's sweet at first and is followed by a good lemon tartness. These remind me of some lemon candy in the U.S., possibly a lemon drop, but I can't say for sure. These are really nice and have a great "freshness" from the lemon. I think that the sourness of lemon also does a good job of mitigating the tendency to produce overly sweet white chocolate-based KitKats. I'd definitely recommend picking this one up and sampling it, or buying one for a Valentine and keeping the other for yourself.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chocolat Framboise Marble Pocky

For those who don't live in Japan, I'll give the shortest possible explanation of how Valentine's Day works in this country. Women buy men chocolates. Men don't buy women anything. I'm sure that every Western man who ever felt pressure to find the perfect Valentine's gift is dialing up an Asian dating service and putting in an order for a Japanese girl right now.

I should note that a lot of women are obliged to give chocolates to men they don't even like. They also give to men who they are friends and acquaintances with. It's not about romance. That means that there is a whopping great marketing opportunity for confectioners to sell a ton of low rent candy and chocolate-based items to women who have to give their bosses and coworkers token gifts on February 14. Most companies rise to the occasion and get out there with themed items which feature the color red and hearts, though they don't always overtly state "Valentine's candy" so that the items can be bought any time by anyone.

This leads us nicely to this Chocolat Framboise Pocky. It's clearly been released for the Valentine's Day crowd (note the hearts on the box). There are three sleeves with 4 sticks each inside the box and each package has hearts all over it as well. Red fruit like strawberry, cherry, and raspberry are particularly popular inclusions for these treats, and liquor-infused candy is also readily available. I guess that men are supposed to enjoy boozy chocolates. Framboise is a sort of raspberry beer, so these sticks are three great Valentine's Day concepts fused into one - chocolate, liquor, and red fruit. How can it lose as a marketing concept?

These sticks smell very good. They smell both of chocolate and raspberry. The coating is relatively generous and the flavor is quite strong. Note that the raspberry flavor is pretty intense so you have to really like raspberry to enjoy these.The first bite tastes of dark chocolate and the second brings the raspberry more heavily into play. The coating is pretty much the usual for Pocky, a little soft and easy to bite into, and the sticks are crunchy and fresh. The sweetness is just about right and the fruit flavor doesn't taste artificial or perfume-like. The quality level is really surprising for such a "common" snack. These have cocoa butter, butter, and raspberry powder. I really liked these and I'd definitely buy them again if they were to be available after the Valentine's season ends.

Though I haven't been a fan of Pocky throughout most of my time in Japan, I have not been disappointed in the flavors I have tried. Considering that the calorie count on these is so modest, 4 sticks at 93 calories, I think that these are a very good choice as a sweet treat for anyone.

Friday, January 23, 2009

W Purin (Double Pudding) Tirol Chocolates

Japanese manufacturers often get props for their packaging and I can say for certain from experience that how a product is presented is very important to Japanese people. This box of Tirol chocolates is a pretty good example of clever and inventive packaging that can lure you into making a purchase, though the cleverness of it may escape you if your aren't already familiar with the company's standard product packaging.

The box for these candies is shaped like a big version of their conventional wrapping on each individual candy. The box contains 18 small candies and sells for about 300 yen ($3.30). Their usual plastic bags of small candy are 100 yen ($1.10) for 9 candies. That means you're paying 33% more for this attractive box and, with any luck, the better quality candy than usual inside. When I opened the box, I noted that the there's an inner bag which has hearts printed all over it. I believe this means this is intended to be bought for Valentine's Day gift giving, though there is no external indication of such.

Click any picture for a version which is larger and has more detail.

There are 4 different designs for the individual candy packages, but only two kinds of candy. I'm not sure why they bothered to do this, but my husband and I sampled them all to make sure. The two flavors are custard (orange and white labels on the left) and chocolate pudding (white and brown labels on the right).

The custard flavor is an approximation of "purin". This is creme caramel or custard with a slightly burnt or bitter caramel sauce on top of it. The chocolate one is supposed to be the same thing only made with chocolate custard instead of plain. Each candy has a chocolate coating which is a bit on the soft side (no snap or crumbling when bitten into) and a soft center with a little flavored sauce on top of it.

The custard flavor is an excellent approximation of the type of purin you buy in little plastic containers in markets and convenience stores in Japan. The sauce is liquid and tastes of burnt caramel. The interior looks like and has the texture of pudding. It smells vaguely of coconut, but there is no coconut in the ingredients list. My only problem with it is that it was just a bit too sweet for me, as is often the case with white chocolates. My husband, who has a far greater tolerance for intense sweets than I, loved it.

I was a much greater fan of the chocolate version, which was smooth, creamy, and tasted just like chocolate pudding to me. The coating on the chocolate one is a little firmer, as is the center. The chocolate flavor is very deep and I'm guessing that the sauce in it is chocolate syrup. At only 40 calories per candy, they're a not too naughty indulgence with a ton of flavor.

These are the first soft center pedestrian (available in supermarkets and convenience stores) Japanese chocolates I've felt had a very nice ganache-like center. Most of the soft-centered candies tend to have something missing or something added. A lot of them are too firm or chalky. These were nice, soft, and creamy. They aren't premium candies, but they have the smooth feel and deep flavor of a designer chocolate. I'd definitely recommend these as a Valentine's gift for someone who you don't want to send a strong message of love to, or just buy a box for yourself and eat them slowly.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Black Sugar Kinako KitKat (Mini)

After a very satisfying experience with a Tirol Kinako Premium chocolate, I was in the market for all things kinako (toasted soy flour). In fact, I was ready to go on a kinako-flavored foods binge. When I saw this big bag of mini KitKats with a shallow bowl full of kinako on prominent display, I happily cracked open my wallet for the 285 yen ($2.91) to buy it.

I have had several experiences to date where I expected to love something and bought a big portion and then regretted it and where I expected to be indifferent to something so I bought a small portion and wish I'd gotten more. I need to keep those experiences foremost in my mind when I opt to buy a big bag of mini bars because it'll save me some money and the guilt associated with buying a lot of something and tossing it out or giving it away.

I love black sugar and I like kinako a lot. The problem is that the marriage of these elements with a KitKat is far less gratifying. The main problem as my taste buds see things is that brown sugar (called "black sugar" in Japan) doesn't naturally go well with chocolate. This is one of those rare situations where I would have liked it more if Nestlé had used a white chocolate base and flavored it with brown sugar rather than used a milk chocolate base and worked the brown sugar into the cream in the wafers.

The bars look like regular KitKats, but smell vaguely of brown sugar. They taste strongly of molasses with chocolate. These are not two great tastes that taste great together in my opinion, particularly because the molasses flavor is really strong. It reminds me of having foolishly sampled molasses straight from a bottle as a child. The kinako flavor seems to be completely overwhelmed by the black sugar/molasses flavor and the chocolate is an unwelcome passenger which is along for the ride in the back seat.

It's unfortunate that this isn't better balanced because the filling has potential. There's a slightly grainy sugary texture to the filling between the wafers which is nice and the bars are firm and fresh. Some of the mini KitKats I've tried before melted easily on the fingers at room temperature, but these weren't messy in that way at all. Each mini bar is 66 calories of black sugar badness.

If you really love molasses, you may like this. Then again, I think that you'd have to love huffing open jars of molasses to enjoy this and I don't know if anyone's tastes run so kinkily.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Honey Lemon Hi-Chew

Hi-Chew is one of the most reviewed snack foods among those who talk about such things. Prior to this post, I was a Hi-Chew virgin. Yes, I've been in Japan for 20 years and never felt compelled to sample one of these. In fact, I can't honestly say that I was compelled this time since my husband bought this for us to try.

This Hi-Chew flavor is somewhat special in that it can only be purchased at "New Days" convenience stores in Tokyo, at least that's what the sign at New Days said. They could be trying to express unfounded Hi-Chew Honey Lemon superiority. That being said, I'm not sure why they'd make such a bold claim if it weren't true. New Days is a chain of stores that is only located in Japan Railway (JR) stations.

If like me, you have never had a Hi-Chew before, it's a soft blob of candy which is like non-sticky taffy. It greatly feels like gum that melts in your mouth as you chew it, which is no surprise considering the name includes "chew". It smells vaguely of honey and gum and oddly had little or no lemon scent.

The taste at first is mostly lemon, and a strong flavor at that, followed by the honey. Both flavors become quite present as you chew. It reminds me of a lemony honey cough drop without the medicine aspects. It's good, but it hurt my teeth as I chewed it. It could be just that my teeth were sensitive at the time, but it rather turned me off to eating more of them. Each candy is 18 calories and there are 12 of them in a pack for about a dollar (99 yen).

These are nice, but the honey lemon pairing is a little too etched in my mind as something that goes with cough drops rather than with candy. These are immensely flavorful and the texture is quite nice, but they're not my cup of tea.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"(Year of the) Ox" Chocolates

This year is the year of the ox on the Chinese zodiac and though the Chinese New Year hasn't quite kicked in yet, the Japanese one has. Many people sent out their New Year's postcards with ox designs on them, and there are also a variety of ox-themed goods to buy and give as gifts.

The box of chocolates above is the size of a postcard and was given to my husband as a gift. They were made by SoEi Foods Corporation, a company that is mainly concerned with wholesale unrefined products as well as running its own agricultural concerns. They do make a few finished products under the "Sheer Delicacy" brand which I've never seen in my local markets including something called "Moco Dome" which is a little dome shaped bit of pressed corn flakes with a base of chocolate or strawberry chocolate. There's also a few varieties of little cocoa-powder dusted chocolates full of ganache which I'd like to get my hands on, but they are either not marketed in Tokyo or to the stores near me.

Though the box looks like it should contain one large postcard-sized bar, it contains 10 tiny little bars individually wrapped with the same picture as the box. The packaging is quite attractive and I could easily see a salesman picking up a box or two at a far-flung station while he's out visiting a client and giving them to the people working in the office to snack on. That is often the market for these sorts of things.

The chocolates themselves are very generic looking. They simply have the word "chocolate written on them. I imagine that ShoEi uses the same small bars in a vast variety of packages depending on who they are marketed to. The chocolates have no snap and are rather soft, but slightly chalky in texture. They aren't as fatty as many commercial chocolates such as those made by Morinaga or Lotte as evidenced by their slower melt in your mouth. They also don't have as sharp a chocolate flavor and are relatively mild milk chocolate.

For a generic chocolate, these are nice enough, but nothing impressive. They have less of a strong acidic or bitter aftertaste than Lotte's Ghana or Morinaga's milk chocolate bar. It's nice that even the generic stuff in Japan has cocoa butter. Most of these sorts of candy in the U.S. is made with vegetable oil because when the chocolate comes second to the packaging, the manufacturers seem to think they can slip in second-rate ingredients. I wouldn't buy these for myself because I'm guessing that the attractive packaging pushes up the price, but I'd probably be happy to buy generic bars for a reduced price if I had access to them in the store for about 80 yen (90 cents).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Genius" Kyrorochan Choco Balls

The theme of candy targeted toward kids who are studying or taking exams continues in January with this latest member of the "choco ball" family. Choco balls are little pea-sized candies with different fillings and shiny chocolate exteriors. Their mascot changes in appearance to suit the flavor being offered. In this case, he has donned his mortarboard and graduation gown to hawk his candies. Presumably, consuming these will make you feel smarter, or help you pass your tests, or at least assist in the cultivation of a cavity.

Since I'm not taking any tests, I'm mainly interested in how they taste. I was drawn to these because the picture on the outside of the box is reminiscent of malted milk balls. Based on the Japanese description, I didn't expect malted milk taste, but I was mainly looking at the same sort of textural experience as malted milk balls.

The information on the outside of the box says that these are made with grape sugar. In fact, this appears to be a pretty important point as it is mentioned twice (and prominently) on the front. I'm not sure if grape sugar makes you smarter or is supposed to be healthier or what, but it's apparently a big deal. Note that these do not taste like grape in any way.

As promised, the center of these Choco Balls is super crispy. It tastes vaguely of corn flakes though I think it was made with potato as well as that is one of the ingredients. The chocolate is strong and nicely sweet. It's just intense enough to keep the chocolate flavor present even though it is greatly outweighed proportionally by the crispy interior. By the third one, the chocolate gets a bit stronger. Though the interior is a little airy, the center is denser than a malted milk ball. It's not hard to chew or bite into, but it is brittle.

I liked these, but they're a little expensive for a small portion at about 160 yen ($1.76 U.S.D.) per 35 gram/1.2 oz. box. They're also a bit hefty on calories (185 for the whole box) for what is mainly a texture-based pleasure. I think they'd make for nice movie-watching munching because there are a lot of them and the box design makes them easy to fish out while you're focusing on something else and you wouldn't have to really be think about how you should be paying attention to the deeper tastes or complex flavor. If I were in the mood for a super crunchy chocolate treat, I'd buy these again. However, I'm guessing they'll be gone after exams are over.

Incidentally, eating these didn't make me feel any smarter, but it did make my teeth hurt a little, so let's hear it for new cavities.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Yuzu Shoyu (Soy Sauce) Potato Chips

If you spend any reasonable amount of time in Japan, you'll notice that flavors come in and out of fashion. Some flavors stay after their run of popularity and others vanish. Right now, we're riding a wave of yuzu flavored foods. First, there was the yuzu KitKat and recently I spied some yuzu sembei (rice crackers) and now these chips. I'm sure there is more out there and more yet to come. In case you forgot, or don't know, yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that is a little like lemon in terms of how it is used. It is frequently added to sauces (including soy sauce, or as it is called in Japanese, shoyu) and used for dipping other foods.

Yuzu is pretty flexible and can be used in both sweet and savory food effectively. Despite the fact that it's sour and can be bitter, it's one of the more approachable flavors for Western folks because it tends to be used in relative moderation when flavoring foods, so I bought this bag with relatively positive expectations.

The big one is sticking its tongue out at you.

The chips smell a bit like lemon, pepper, and vinegar. I'm sure that they smell just like yuzu to Japanese folks, but I'm trying to frame their scent with Western nostrils. They taste tangy and citrus-like with an extremely mild bitter aftertaste. The soy sauce element is quite subdued and mainly manifests itself as a lingering "meaty" taste. It adds a bit of savory balance to the tart yuzu flavor.

These chips are flavored with a lot of classic Japanese flavors. Besides yuzu and soy sauce, there is also katsuoboshi (a sort of fish flake) and kombu (a type of seaweed) flavoring in these. The only thing I think I'd like to see is a little more salt on these.

Most chips work best when paired with food as an accompaniment, but these are the kind of thing with a distinctive flavor and are good eaten alone with just a beverage. They're very good, but not the sort of good that makes you want to scarf them down. I think that these would be enjoyed by anyone who likes salt and vinegar chips or lemon, though they may seem a bit strange to some folks. I'd definitely sample these again if they don't vanish forever once the yuzu fad is over.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Daigaku Imo (Japanese Candied Sweet Potato) KitKat

This bar is another adaptation of a Japanese treat to KitKat form. The last time I tried one of these adaptations, it was a disaster. However, I think it's difficult to really spoil sweet potato. The worst that Nestlé Japan could do is likely make it anemic in flavor and overly sweet. That is their usual means of failing rather than making something utterly awful.

This bar was introduced in January and clearly plays to high school kids. As some may have read on Wikipedia, Japanese KitKats are often given to kids studying for or taking entrance exams because the phrase "kitto katsu" (which roughly translates to "you will succeed/win") resembles the name of the bar. It's a way of wishing one luck or offering encouragement in candy form. This one is more closely marketed at such kids because "daigaku" means "university" ("imo" means potato). The food this was modeled after, the candied sweet potato dish called daigaku imo, was named that way because it was popular in university towns. If the name isn't enough to convince you that this is targeted at such kids, the fact that there's a picture on the back of the hat commonly worn with high school boys' uniforms is a giveaway.

This bar is constructed with a variety of flavors. The coating is sweet potato chocolate. The creme between the wafers is soy sauce powder, sweet potato powder, and black sesame powder. It smells heavily of sweet potato with a hint of black sesame. The first bite tastes like sweet potato cake with an aftertaste of black sesame. The next few bites reveal a lovely complex mix of the sweet and the savory with the soy and black sesame underscoring the sweet potato chocolate coating.

This is a very good approximation of the candied sweet potatoes and a great tasting bar. This is by far one of the best limited edition KitKats I've tried. I think they balanced the savory aspects with the sweet ones exceptionally well. The nice thing about it is that, while it's very good, it's not the sort of thing you want to scarf down. It's more in line with a delicacy you enjoy and savor, then can wait to enjoy again.

This bar is also reviewed at Sweet Pursuits.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Crispy Ring Doughnuts

I can't remember when "Crispy Ring" doughnut were introduced in Japan, but I suspect that they came after "Krispy Kreme" opened up its first shop in Tokyo. The first branch opened about two years ago and there are still lines of people waiting to get inside that branch nearly every hour of every day. One can see how businesses may want to capitalize on Krispy Kreme's success by introducing a product with a similar name.

I should note that doughnuts are something that the Japanese bakers do very poorly unless they are doing so through a branch of a foreign doughnut maker. The only places to reliably get good doughnuts are dedicated doughnut shops like Mister Donut, Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme or New York Donut. It's almost impossible to get a good doughnut at the average Japanese bakery (though they have great bread) or at a market. Such doughnuts are usually either way too bread-like, too cake-like, too dry, or just plain freaky in some fashion. Any doughnut you buy in a plastic package with a tray is to be regarded with suspicion.

The Crispy Ring doughnuts appear to be aping the classic Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut both in shape and with the amount of glaze. The size of the doughnut though is much smaller than a conventional one. Each doughnut is about 110 calories and there are 4 to a pack so I'm guessing it'd take two of these to equal the volume of a Krispy Kreme ring.

When you open the package, you smell a good doughnut smell with the distinctive sweetness you associate with glazed doughnuts . This is actually a very rare experience for a packaged doughnut in Japan. The doughnuts are a little dry, but they don't have the tendency to make your mouth feel like the Sahara as most dry doughnut do. They are quite light, but not as airy as a Krispy Kreme glazed. The glaze on these is actually good, though not as heavily sweet as what you get from a doughnut shop's fresh doughnut .

These are surprisingly good for what they are, though I'm betting the average packaged doughnut in a Western country would beat them by a country mile. In Japan though, you have to modify your expectations. That's my way of saying doughnut beggars can't be too choosy. If you're in the mood for a doughnut and not near a real doughnut shop, these would definitely be a reasonable choice to accompany your coffee. They don't compare to a good fresh doughnut, but they have the benefit of being only 99 yen (about a dollar) for 4 small ones. They also have better shelf stability so you can buy one package, have two for breakfast and save two for the next day with little drop in quality.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mikan Fruit from an 8,000 Year-Old Tree

Mikan is a variety of mandarin orange that is grown and quite popular in Japan, but originated in China. It's very popular in the winter and is used as part of a traditional decoration (kagami mochi), topping two balls of mochi (rice cake). Around this time of year, they are cheap and available everywhere. I'm pretty sure that most people don't actually have to buy them as they seem to be given away in great quantity. The particular mikan I'm going to write about today were given to me as part of a "first meeting of the new year" gift.

Very few snacks are more common in Japan in winter than mikan. Japanese folks have been known to just sit around the kotatsu (a low heated table) and eat whole bags of them. They're small and relatively mild for a citrus fruit. They're smaller and less fragrant than oranges and less acidic. Usually, they're a little sweet, but there are variations in both juice content and sweetness levels.

Three mikan for size comparison. The biggest one is average in size. The tiny one is about the size of a crab apple or 1.5 strawberries.

The area of Japan most famous for mikan growing is Wakayama and the mikan I was given are from that area. I was actually given two types. Some of them are somewhat smaller than average and the others are absolutely tiny. The tiny ones are the special ones. They were supposedly grown on an 8,000 year old tree in Wakayama or from one of the trees that sprouted from its fallen branches.

How does the fruit of an 8,000 year-old tree taste compared to that of those of a lesser pedigree? It tastes pretty darn good. Of the three mikan above, the tiny one has the least pith and is the sweetest. The largest one has the most pith, is slightly sour, and is the least juicy. (It was not among the fruit I was given as a gift, but part of a bag I bought at a 99 yen shop for comparison.)

The Japanese tend to make a big deal out of the origin of produce or various dishes and how certain foods are a specialty of one area or company or another. I always think that's a bit silly, but I must say that these are very nice little pieces of fruit. I don't know what they cost if you have to buy them, but I'm told you can only buy them at Sembikiya fruit shop in Ginza if you're shopping for them in Tokyo. I'm betting they're not cheap.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Blueberry and Strawberry Cheesecake KitKats

The number of KitKat flavors in Japan is pretty well known by most people actually living here and abroad. In fact, I'm guessing we're not too far away from Nestlé Japan exhausting all the potential flavors and having to travel the road of the Harry Potter Jelly Belly jellybeans. That is, we'll get flavors like "sumo wrestler's sweaty salty belly" or "geisha lipstick" in the near future.

Until such a time as Nestlé Japan formulates a taste resembling things like the "emperor's belly button lint" to continue to expand its line, we'll have to amuse ourselves with the ever changing sizes and packaging that are being offered to add more variety to the KitKat line. You can now buy single finger sized bars for about twice the cost of a regular bar's contents. The cheesecake varieties I'm reviewing here were 40 yen (43 cents) each and were sold individually whereas you'd get 4 fingers for about 100 yen (around a dollar) in a regular bar.

Being a huge fan of cheesecake, I was looking forward to sampling these bars. Opening the wrappers provided further encouragement as they each smelled rather strongly of cream cheese and vaguely of their respective berry flavors. The bars look identical to one another despite being different flavors and I wondered if I'd be able to tell the difference between them if I mixed them up.

Taste, unfortunately, did not go hand-in-hand with the scent of cheesecake. I found the cheese flavor to be very subdued and mainly the bars just tasted of the sweetness of white chocolate. The strawberry bar carried some of the tartness of berries, but the blueberry one was quite weak in my opinion. All in all, these were a big disappointment for a cheesecake fan.

I wanted to test how strong the berry components were in a blind taste test so I gave my husband half of each bar and asked if he could tell which was which. He immediately discerned which was strawberry and which was blueberry, but he his impression of the intensity of the berry flavors was the opposite of mine. That is, he felt that the blueberry was more powerful. He did agree, however that the cheesecake component was very weak and mainly the bars were like white chocolate flavored with berry, though he does like white chocolate more than I.

These are not bad bars, though they are a little too sweet for my tastes. The portion control of buying these packets is very appealing, but the expense and wastefulness certainly are cause to hesitate. There was no calorie information given on the packet, but I'd guess that these are probably about the same as any other KitKats and will set you back 50-60 calories per finger. There is a list of ingredients which includes "natural cheese". Note that sometimes "cheesecake" in Japan includes things like Gouda or processed cheese and not cream cheese so it's hard to know what the cheese component in these really is, not that you could actually taste it anyway.

As a footnote to this review, I'll mention an experience my husband had with these bars. In Tokyo, it's not uncommon for certain buildings to rent their space to a seller for a few days or a week then for a new seller to rent that space. Each seller offers different items. One week it might be kitchen wares and the next a tea seller. Sometimes, they sell a potpourri of discounted items. My husband was looking around one of these short term sellers shops and saw that 30-unit cases of strawberry or blueberry cheesecake KitKats that would normally sell in convenience stores for a total of 1260 yen ($13.88) were on sale for 500 yen ($5.50). My husband wondered if they were sold off the back of a truck or something and continued to look around the shop.

The seller noticed his attention and came up and gave him two free samples. A short while later, he offered him the box for only 400 yen ($4.40). In the entire time we've lived in Japan, we've never spontaneously been offered a discount to entice us to buy. It's just not that common, at least in Tokyo. At that price, my husband decided it was worth it to buy them, though we both are still curious as to why there was such a drive to unload these. The expiration date on the box is September 2009, so it's not like they're anywhere near their sell-by date.

These KitKats are also reviewed at Snack Love.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

KitKat Mail: Update

When I originally posted about the "KitKat Mail", I didn't expect to buy one, but my husband brought one home last night. I figured an update mainly to show pictures would be in order.

The back of the box (left side) is for writing a message to your child. You have to put the message on the outside since the box is tightly sealed and nothing can be inserted into it. The front (right side) is for addressing the box. The little box that says "stamp" tells you to use a 140 yen stamp.

Inside the box is a cardboard support and 4 individually-wrapped fingers. As I suspected, the volume of candy is the same as a normal bar (for about double the price of a regular bar).

At select stores during the early sales period, you might be given a free eraser with your purchase. On the back (in Japanese), it tells you that this is not a chocolate KitKat and that it is an eraser. I guess they were worried that you might try to eat the eraser. ;-)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Baby Star Crispy Ramen Mini (pizza)

I'm not a ramen fan. In fact, I'm pretty much not into noodles of any kind, though I will eat pasta on occasion. I guess part of the reason for this is the fact that I lived at home during college and never had to subsist on cases of Top Ramen to make ends meet and therefore was denied the dubious salty, carby pleasures of dehydrated noodles. Nonetheless, there is no insignificant sacrifice I won't make on the altar of snack food reviewing so I decided to buy something I never would have purchased before starting this blog.

Bei is the fellow on the left. His twin Bi is on the right. They are dressed in Chinese garb because they endorse ramen. It's important to have ethnically correct cartoon mascots, after all.

Though it boggles the mind that the Japanese need to sell seasoned ramen noodles in little snack packages when they have so many opportunities to eat proper ramen, they do indeed sell it in tiny packets for snacking purposes. I found this 21 gram (.7 oz.) packet in the 4 for 99 yen (99 cents) bin at the local 99 yen shop along with several other flavors.

Since I don't eat ramen, I wasn't familiar with the company that makes these, Oyasu Company (おやすカンパニ). Their slogan, by the way, is "plentiful and happy." They make a variety of ramen under the name "baby star" which has twin mascots named "bei-chan" and "bi-chan". Put their names together and it's "baby" ("ei" in Japanese is pronounced similar to "a" in English). The mascots are garbed differently depending on the flavor of the product. The pizza ramen has the "gondolier Bei" on it because pizza is Italian. If you explore their web site, you'll see that Bei is quite the international dresser. There's cowboy, boat captain, astronaut, farmer, and maharajah Bei among others. Because Japan is a paternalistic culture, poor old Bi only gets one extra outfit.

As one might expect, the bag is full of crispy ramen noodle fragments. They smell like typical pizza seasoning (tomato and cheesy whey, mostly) with a hint of some sort of meaty smell. The ingredients reveal that beef extract is included as well as paprika and cheese, tomato and pizza powders. They are very crunchy, but in such small pieces that it's a bit hard to eat them. You have to grab a whole bunch between your fingers, drop a few down your shirt, and aim the remainder into your mouth. They're actually pretty good, but the pizza flavor saturates your taste buds pretty fast and you get more of a meat flavor mixed with a salty ramen taste.

These are pretty nice and I think they'd satisfy if you wanted a super salty junk food fix in a very tiny portion. The whole bag is 105 calories. It's total trash, but it's enjoyable. I guess that's why so many young people live on ramen throughout their college years.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Senga Sengana Strawberry KitKat

All things strawberry come into season in the winter in Tokyo. This KitKat is one amongst many strawberry treats I've been seeing as of late. The hook for this particular limited edition flavor is that it's supposed to be sweet and sour with the real fragrance of strawberries. I'll be the judge of that, Nestlé Japan.

"Senga Sengana", by the way, is a variety of strawberry. They grow in rambling vines and are known for retaining their shape, color and flavor even when subjected to preservation methods like freeze drying. They're supposed to have a pleasant aroma and tangy flavor. They would seem to be ideal for use in candy.

The ingredients list some sort of "strawberry sugar powder" as an ingredient. This is the extent of their use of Polish freeze-dried Senga Sengana strawberries in this KitKat. The bars smell like strawberry cake frosting, though they don't smell very intense. I'd say that they failed on living up to the claim that these have the fragrance of strawberries.

I could be mistaken, but the wafer portion of these bars seems narrower than usual and the coating thicker on the sides than regular KitKats. Both the filling and the coating are a Pepto-Bismal pink. The first bite is immensely sweet, but does taste strawberry flavored. In fact, this is the first time I have ever eaten a KitKat and got throat burning sweetness on the first bite. There is a bit of a sourness as an aftertaste, but it's really not very present.

This isn't a bad KitKat, but it's certainly not a great one. It doesn't taste artificial which is really no small feat for a lot of flavored chocolate, but it also is far too sweet to be a pleasant treat. Eating one made me want to rinse my tongue off to get the sweet flavor out of my mouth and I could only manage to eat one of the fingers in the packet I opened.

I should admit that I am not a serious fan of anything strawberry flavored. I love real berries, but flavored stuff doesn't tend to inspire me. My husband, on the other hand, loves all things strawberry, so I had him sample it to give it a fairer test. He wasn't a fan either. He couldn't pinpoint what was wrong, but he said it just didn't taste as good as he'd hoped. Both of us felt it came on too strong and sweet then had a strange aftertaste. So, this is definitely one of those KitKats which will sit around for awhile before the other half gets eaten, if ever.

This KitKat is also reviewed on Snack Love.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Zakkuru Bacon Pepper

In the salted snacks section of the local 99 yen shop, I found this pepper and bacon flavored specimen. As you can see, little simple cartoon characters are cavorting happily and gnawing on some sort of substance that resembles a pretzel. After looking at the cover, I looked no further and tossed them in my shopping basket.

One of the cool but sometimes scary things about living in Japan is that you sometimes buy something with one expectation and get something entirely different. This was one of those times. This is not a packet of pretzels. It's actually a bag of fried, flavored croutons. If these were intended to garnish a salad, that'd be just fine, but these are meant to be consumed as a snack with beer or soft drinks. I'm not sure who sits around thinking they'd like to consume stale bits of deep fried bread with their beer, but I don't think I'd want to attend a party hosted by such a person.

To be honest, I'm a huge fan of croutons and have been known to snack on the yummy salted Ceasar Cardini croutons that can be purchased in industrial-sized bags at Costco. Therefore, I approached these at least somewhat open-minded.

When you open the bag, you smell ham, not bacon. The flavor is essentially a mixture of ham and oil. They are exceptionally meaty tasting and acceptably salty, though the ham flavor tends to saturate your tongue and die off after a few croutons. Mainly, you start to sense the bread and the oil. The texture is very crunchy and pretty much as you'd expect from a crouton. They tend to crumble rather more easily than usual salad croutons because they've been fried. In fact, if you bite into them and look at the unflavored interior, you can see where the oil has penetrated the bread.

Though these are called "bacon pepper", they don't have much of a pepper flavor at all. The ingredients include pork extract powder, chicken extract powder, and, very oddly, peanut butter. There are 291 calories in one 55 gram (1.9 oz.) bag. This makes them densely caloric for essentially a snack of ham-flavored dried bread bits. While these weren't awful, they weren't great, and I won't be revisiting them again. Note that Tohato also offers a caramel flavored crouton snack, but I think I'll give that a miss.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Mister Donut Fukubako and Fried Bread Donut

The unopened "lucky box". The box is about 40 cm/15.7 in. x 30 cm/11.8 in. x 25 cm/9.8 in. in size.

Around the New Year's holidays, many Japanese shops sell the equivalent of a "grab bag" or what translates to a "lucky bag" (fukubukuro - fuku=lucky, bukuro=bag). Often the contents of these bags are unknown, but sometimes they are known in whole or in part. The main selling point of these grab bags is that the value of the contents exceeds the sale price of the bag.

Contents of the box as originally packaged. (Click this picture to see a larger version for more detail.)

Mister Donut, a chain of doughnut shops which is very popular in Japan and originated in the United States, sells a "lucky box" (bako = box) rather than a bag. The boxes cost 2000 yen ($22.16) and come with a variety of items as well as coupons which can be used to redeem 20 doughnuts. Since the doughnuts range in price from a little over 100 yen ($1.10) to a little under 140 yen ($1.55), the coupons alone are worth the cost of the box. If you would normally eat 20 doughnuts in a three month span of time, you can't lose on the deal. It is important to note, however, that the coupons expire at the end of March. If you tend to buy slightly more expensive doughnuts, you can save about 700 yen ($7.45) and will pretty much break even if you buy the cheapest ones.

The contents of the box unwrapped.

In addition to the tickets for 20 doughnuts, you get a variety of souvenir Mister Donut Pon de Lion goods this year. Last year's box focused on the Pingu the penguin character and was rather a different mix of items. In fact, it was far more oriented toward adults and had more useful items (particularly dishes) than this year's box, which seems to have a lot of things for young children. There's always a cutesy calendar in every box since calendars are distributed by many companies for the New Year's holidays. There are also Pon de Lion themed items as follows: a cell phone strap, a flat square plate, a coin bank, a clock, and a baby blanket.

The baby blanket could double as a lap blankets for someone in winter (or overly air conditioned summers). Lap blankets are very popular among office ladies in Japan because they seem to have reptilian metabolisms and be constantly in danger of freezing to death. The blanket is super soft, but very thin, so I doubt it'd provide good warmth.

Everything in the box is amazingly cute and I'm sure that any kid would be delighted to have the items to play with for a bit. For an adult, mainly the coupons are where the value lies. You also get an envelope with five 20% off coupons, but they're also only good until March 2009. Last year, similar coupons were included in the back of the schedule book in the fukubako we bought but we never used them. Eating 20 doughnuts in 3 months even between 2 people had us donutted out so the coupons went unused.

In addition to picking up this year's fukubako, we decided to sample a new doughnut. This is a custard and whipped cream "kara-age" pan doughnut, or "fried bread doughnut. In addition to the custard and whipped cream version, there's also a whipped cream and red bean (adzuki) version, but I wanted to get something my husband would sample, too, and he would not partake of adzuki. This is a slightly large pastry because it's about the size of a modestly proportioned hot dog bun so it's a good treat to share.

It smells pretty much like a generic doughnut smell though it's missing the "sweet" smell you associate with glazed donuts. The texture is very coarse and airy. It is true to the idea of being "fried bread" rather than a dense cake or light risen yeast doughnut. It comes closest to a crueller in terms of taste and texture, but it's less fine than a crueller. It's a bit dry and a bit chewy. It actually is a little sandpaper-like on the tongue, but it's hard to tell if that's due to the sugar sprinkled on the outside or the texture of the fried bread. The filling is good, but seems a little on the sparse side when you look at the proportion of cream and custard to fried bread. It's especially lacking near the ends where it's not piped in quite so evenly.

I enjoyed this. It's not too sweet and has a nice flavor to the donut itself. If it had a little more cream, I'd be happier, but I think this would be a nice, not incredibly sweet treat to have with breakfast on occasion. If your tastes run toward sweeter donuts, or you are fussy about the texture, this may not be to your liking.


Happy New Year, to all of my readers. Thank you for reading and I hope you have a wonderful 2009!