Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sanshin Curry Sembei

Something about this packet of curry sembei rubbed me the wrong way when I saw it elegantly displayed in a cardboard box at the local 99 yen shop. I like curry, but the package put me off. I think that the cartoon of a turban-wearing man might be a part of it. It could be the fact that the graphic is a bit cheap-looking with the over-sized head and the tiny body. It could also be the bizarre disconnect between the relatively lifeless expression on the face and the "thumbs up" gesture, or it could simply be it all carries strong hints of politically incorrect packaging.

At any rate, my desire to give curry sembei a sampling overcame my apprehension. I do love curry and this bag claims 18 spices have been used to season these rice crackers. The packet is actually quite small at 45 grams (1.6oz.) so I won't be wasting much if they end up being a bust. The entire bag contains 204 calories and half a bag seems about right for snacking.

When I opened the bag, the very strong and familiar scent of curry powder wafted up to my nostrils. This was quite welcome as I prefer a strong flavoring over a weak one and these did not disappoint on that front. The flavor is rich, potent, and slightly hot at the finish. If I were judging these on the flavor alone, I'd be pretty satisfied.

Unfortunately, texture plays a huge role in things like sembei and these failed rather badly on that front. Sembei ought to be crisp and fresh, but these seemed like they had drawn a little damp. They are still a bit crispy, but also rather spongy. I don't know if this is an issue with how they are made or if they have absorbed moisture from the seasonings coating them as time has gone by. The expiration date on my bag was May 24, 2009 which is relatively soon by snack dating standards. The maker of these sembei, Sanshin, is a relatively small manufacturer that has been in business since 1972 and makes a small variety of crackers and chips. You'd think they'd have a method down for keeping them crispy, so I'm attributing the dampness to age and possibly just the curry flavoring in particular rather than the company's lackluster production methods on the whole.

I loved the intense curry flavor on these, and I will slowly finish the bag. However, I don't think I'd buy them again because of the texture issues and I can't recommend anyone else pick them up.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cheese Cream Stick Pie (Yamazakipan brand)

Sometimes I get a craving for a cheese danish, then I remember I live in Tokyo and there are no real cheese danishes around. At other times, I get that craving and I forget that I live in Tokyo and what resembles a "cheese danish" is some sort of Frankensteinish hybrid between savory cheese bread and sweet cream cheese breakfast pastry. During the latter times, I end up buying something like the item pictured above. In my quest for a cheese danish, I missed one very important clue about this item. There is a wedge of what looks like Swiss cheese pictured on the package.

When I removed the "stick pie" from its package, the smell of baked Gouda on bread wafted up at me and expectations were immediately lowered. Sure, it may look like a golden flaky pastry filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with crumbly bakery goodness, but the crumb-like things on the top are grated cheese of some variety, not sweet bits of flour, fat and sugar.

The inside looks pretty encouraging with a reasonably generous piping of sweetened cream cheese. The first bite is rather tasty as you get a strong sense of the cream cheese flavor, but it is followed by the funky aftertaste of savory cheese. I wouldn't say it totally ruins the experience, but it does make it far less enjoyable.

Since I bought this in a plastic package at a convenience store for 99 yen ($1.07), it would be unfair to expect the pastry portion to be fresh and crispy, particularly since it had an expiration date 6 days from the date of purchase. The "pie" portion was a bit like a day-old croissant. It used to be crispy and flaky, but had absorbed moisture to the extent that it was pretty flat and lifeless. It tasted good though and had a good flavor, but I think I'd have to catch it very quickly after stocking to get a really nice texture out of the pie.

Yamazaki pan makes a lot of these types of items for convenience stores and it's generally a hit and miss proposition. Their cakes are usually good, but the pastries often let you down. This Franken-pastry (not Al Franken) was certainly a letdown and I won't be re-visiting it again if my memory of the experience holds up.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chocolateworks Tobacco Chocolate

Sometimes, you just have to buy something because the packaging is irresistible. When I see a pack of candy cigarettes with a big, phallic-looking rocket and the words "Discharge" written across the top, it doesn't matter what I expect the stuff inside to taste like, I have to buy it. While these are produced for the Japanese market, they are actually made in Holland. The packaging is pretty clever. It includes a "warning" about consuming candy cigarettes and tooth decay much like real cigarette warnings about smoking-related maladies. The package also opens in the same fashion as a real cigarette pack.

When I was a kid, candy cigarettes were readily available, but nowadays you can't get them because parents are afraid that emulating smoking behavior would lead to actual smoking. The "cigarettes" that were sold back then were chalky white sticks of brittle candy. These are soft, very sweet rods of chocolate double-wrapped tightly in white paper. In fact, they're so tightly wrapped that it's hard to peel off the paper. It's my guess that the melted confection if poured into the paper tube and sets inside of it. The chocolate contains no cocoa butter and is not very good at all. It smells very much like a bowl of cheap instant chocolate pudding and lacks the strong cocoa overtones of Japanese made chocolate.

These were 63 yen (70 cents) at a Family Mart convenience store and are clearly marketed at kids. There were two different labels and this one was the only one that was funny. The other one had a train on the front and said "Locomotion," so I don't think that this was intentionally funny so much as bad translation from Dutch to English. I wouldn't buy these again for the chocolate because it was low quality with too little chocolate flavor and too much sugar, but I'd buy them again for the novelty if another package came along that piqued my interest.

Incidentally, in Japan, cigarettes are called "tobacco" (ta-ba-ko or たばこ). That is, they use the English word altered phonetically to suit Japanese pronunciation. That is why these are named "Tobacco Chocolate" rather than the equivalent in Japanese of "chocolate cigarettes".

Monday, April 27, 2009

Purple Potato Pretz

There is a wide variety of flavored Pretz brand pretzels available in Japanese markets right now. Since my first lackluster experience with Pretz (Cheddar Pretz), I have been finding it hard to work up any enthusiasm for the basil, pumpkin, and tomato versions that have been around for ages. The idea of a "purple potato" version sounded more intriguing.

To be honest, I'm not even sure what a purple potato is. The front of the bag shows the average sweet potato with purple skin and yellow flesh as well as a purple flesh version. Part of what makes this appealing is the idea that I might be ingesting some sort of earth-alien hybrid vegetable or perhaps the bastard offspring of a grape that happened to mate with a standard sweet potato. Sure, it's possible. I'm not crazy.

The purple potato Pretz are not just sweet potato flavored. They also include olive oil and hibiscus. I'm not sure what hibiscus tastes like, but there is a picture of some nice-looking pink flowers accompanied by the bottom of a pot of golden olive oil on the back of the bag. The bag is 42 grams (1.5 oz.) and 203 calories. I picked it up for 98 yen (about a dollar) at a drug store, but I think these tend to be slightly more expensive in markets and convenience stores.

When you open the bag, you smell a nice sweet potato scent. The pretzels are rather freakishly purple looking, but they are not artificially colored. The first bite is of salty sweet potato followed by a trace of olive oil and a very faint floral note. The flavor has good depth and seems strange at first, but it really grew on me. They're both sweet and savory and have an interesting mix of earthy flavors that come together quite well.

If you like sweet potatoes and aren't a purist, I'd strongly recommend giving these a try. I would definitely buy them again. The only risk is of eating them all at once.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Variety Friday: The Banana Fad

The winter preoccupation with kinako (toasted soy flour) and mochi (rice cake) seems to be entering it's end game. The new fad is banana. My husband was given the sticker pictured above when he bought a banana doughnut at the Doughnut Plant. The flip side of this sticker gives a short history of both Chiquita Banana and the New York City Doughnut Plant chains. Unfortunately, the donut itself left something to be desired.

At any rate, banana-flavored items are everywhere right now. Various sweets are exploding in places like New Days convenience store. I've also noticed banana pretzel sticks (like Pocky), cookies, cakes, and various other sweets in the local markets.

I wonder how it is decided that every company is going to start pumping out food in one particular flavor. Awhile ago, there was a huge rush on all of the bananas in Japan because an overweight television personality mentioned that she lost weight by eating bananas for or with breakfast each morning. Though the show she discussed her diet on said that her technique would work if one ate any fruit, everyone fixated on bananas. For awhile, those of us who enjoyed the occasional banana couldn't find any in the shops, but that seemed to have settled down.

That craze for real bananas may or may not have spawned the current fad. It might be that companies felt that a positive association was being formed or that people who had been noshing on bananas for the past 6 months or so have developed a taste for them. At any rate, this is the fad at hand at the moment so a few banana treats are likely to be reviewed soon.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Maple & Vanilla Caffe Latte

When I was working full-time in a Japanese office, I used to indulge myself once or twice a week with the purchase of a Caffé Latte milk and coffee beverage. At that time, there was no Starbucks down the street and my choices for coffee were making my own when I was zonked out and dazed in the morning or picking up a plastic cup of cold Caffé Latte. I opted for the cold coffee, though I wasn't necessarily happy with all of the sugar that was in it. When sugarless versions were later released, I was pretty happy with that, though I had to add my own sweetener.

After a few years, I gave up on this indulgence because of the waste of the plastic packaging and the relatively high cost. At a convenience store, these usually cost 150 yen (about $1.50) for 240 ml (8 oz.), though the one I'm reviewing today was at a 99 yen shop (about $1). This is one of the few brands of the many, many coffees that you can buy in cans, cartons, or plastic cups in Japan that I actually like because there's so much milk in it that it's not bitter or overly acidic. It also carries with it the image of being a relatively high profile beverage since commercials featuring Jodie Foster and Winona Ryder have advertised it.

Since the mixture of maple and vanilla sounded interesting, and I hadn't had one of these for years, I thought I'd give this a try. Flavored coffees are always a big gamble though because they usually seem to be infused with a lot of artificial flavors or the added flavors are too strong. A sniff of this revealed just the smallest hint of vanilla and no maple scent at all. Mainly, it just smelled like coffee. The first sip though was overwhelmingly chemical tasting. The vanilla hit super hard and the maple rather less so. Subsequent sips revealed more of the maple and the strongly artificial vanilla taste relented a bit, but to the last drop, the flavor didn't taste like anything that may occur in nature.

There is real maple syrup in this, but there is no listing of vanilla among the ingredients. I'm guessing that much of the artificial taste is in some sort of cheap vanilla substitute, but I could be wrong. Perhaps someone just overdid it a bit. The entire cup is 145 calories. This means that you'd be better off drinking a can of Coca-Cola if you're trying to avoid sugar and fat as it'd be lower calorie and probably deliver enough caffeine.

This was okay. I didn't have any trouble drinking the rest of it, but mainly that's because it was pleasantly sweet and still coffee despite the flavorings. I'd certainly never buy it again, but more importantly, had I known what it would have tasted like before buying it, I'd have given it a miss.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bambi White Pudding Caramels

Animals seem to be quite good at producing various caramels in Japan. This box of "Bambi" caramels was purchased at the same time as the ferocious Ezo brown bear strawberry caramels. There must be some sort of woodland critters production facility in Hokkaido. They probably have to keep the bears and deer separated when they have meetings just in case there is a heated disagreement and the bear does something unseemly.

While these caramels are called "white pudding", they are actually condensed milk ("dulce de leche") flavor. You can buy tubes of sweetened condensed milk in Japan and it is often eaten on strawberries. While condensed milk tends to be used in baking or in preparing sweet desserts back home, the Japanese use it fro more direct consumption like putting it on shaved ice (like a snow cone) and using it in coffee. These caramels are like a somewhat soft cube version of it rather than pudding.

These smell like milk and sugar, unsurprisingly. The cubes are rather firm when you first put them in your mouth, but warm up and grow soft fairly quickly. They have a strong milky flavor and are fairly sweet, but not sickenly so. Fortunately, they don't stick to your teeth like, but can have a more peanut butter type of tendency to stick in a blob to your gums, palate, or teeth.

One box of these was 99 yen (about a dollar) for 18 caramels and these are pleasant enough. There is no calorie information, but I'm guessing they're probably about 20 calories or so each. The flavor is nice and sweet, but you have to be a fan of condensed milk straight from the can to really love these, and I can't say that I am. Certainly these are quite tasty and well made. It's the sort of thing I'd happily keep in a drawer in my desk and consume when I was in the mood, but it wouldn't be a mainstay or something I'd find myself craving.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nabisco Spicy Barbeque "Potato Crisps"

The Onion has an AV Club feature called "Taste Test". For the most part, they tend to cover things which they expect to be pretty bad. I've found that doing a food review blog sort of encourages this sort of perverse seeking out of the sort of food stuffs that most sensible people would avoid. Though one might assume that those who have a chance to taste a lot of different things may seek out more exotic experiences, I don't think this has anything to do with boredom. I believe it has everything to do with the fact that you get a lot more mileage out of bad food than good food when you're writing.

In the spirit of buying something which I expected to be bad, I picked up the bag of "potato crisps" pictured above for 99 yen ($1.00). Two points about it drew my attention. First of all, it is made by Nabisco and I rarely see or buy their products in Japan. Though they are well known in the United States, they don't have nearly such an expansive product line-up here. I believe their best known item is the Picola cookie which is a thin rolled up sugar cookie filled with various types of "cream".

The second point that caught my attention was the name of the product. Since the Japanese use "potato chips" in Japanese, there is no reason to name these "crisps" unless one is British or these aren't real chips. If they're not real chips, then whatever processed concoction they turn out to be may be more interesting (though probably less tasty) than an actual chip.

When I opened the bag, I was greeted by carefully processed "crisps". They are different shapes and sizes and they're ridged just like a normal ridge cut potato chip might be. However, they are bumpy all over in a way you don't see from frying, but rather from uniform baking and rising. Sure enough, these are Pringles-style processed chips without the orderliness or the can.

The smell when you open the bag is intensely spicy. There's a melange of flavors so it's hard to identify any one scent. There is a hint of tomato in the smell, but not in the ingredients list. The primary ingredient is "potato flakes" and the flavorings include pork extract powder, soy sauce, and "sauce" powders. My guess is that the vague "sauce" is where the tomato comes from and it's meant to be generic barbeque sauce flavoring.

The first bite is spicy and salty and a bit overwhelming. As you eat a few more, you get a strong sense of a meaty flavor and with a ketchup chaser. The chips are very crispy and light, though they are still very fattening. One bag is 65 grams (2.2 oz.) and 348 calories. There's a slight artificial aftertaste, but it's not nearly as strong as you get from Pringles processed chips.

I liked these just fine. If my options were limited and I wanted a salted snack, this would certainly come out ahead of a lot of other contenders. If I wanted a spicy chip, I'd take this over a better plain potato chip and I'd certainly put it near the top of the processed chips I've tried, but I'd still opt for Lay's or another big brand barbeque over these.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Marukajiri KitKat

I knew this bar wasn't going to be greatly different from a normal KitKat bar, but it's one of those things I bought because I wanted to eat it, not because it was going to be one of those oddball Japanese things. I bought this bar because it has a lot of layers of wide wafers and I love wafers because ut's thicker, wider and longer than a standard KitKat bar. It's essentially a full-size candy bar in KitKat form. It's like an enlarged KitKat finger, and I hope all you perverts aren't conjuring up nasty images as a result of my saying that.

This bar was released on January 12 in Japan and I'm sure it's just another brick in the KitKat wall, though it's a very welcome one. It has a thick milk chocolate coating and five layers of wafer. It's 236 calories, and I allowed myself to eat it all at once.

One thing this bar proves is that you can't beat a classic combination. I'd go buy a dozen of these and eat one every day for 12 days if I were allowing myself to be so overindulgent. The chocolate is creamy, milky, and has the right balance of chocolate flavor and sweetness. I don't know about KitKats in the U.S. these days since a lot of confectioners are replacing cocoa butter with vegetable oil (using "mockalate" instead of "chocolate"), but this is made with plenty of cocoa butter and is very good. The one thing I notice about this KitKat is that the basic milk chocolate and wafer combination KitKat isn't overly sweet. All of the specialty bars suffer from too much sweetness, but these are much mellower.

If this were a regular offering, I'd buy it over the average KitKat bar because of the greater proportion of wafer to chocolate. If you're a wafer fan, hoarde these while you can. They're mainly available at convenience stores rather than regular supermarkets.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Variety Friday: American and Japanese "Tastes"

If you ask Japanese people who have been to the U.S. about the food, they will always say at least one, if not all of the following:
  • the portions are very big
  • the food is too oily/fatty
  • the food is too sweet
These observations are true from a certain perspective. Certainly the food portions in the U.S. are very big, but I have always believed that this is because we're not really expecting to scarf it all down at once, but rather that part of the restaurant culture in the U.S. is providing value by allowing you to take whatever you don't eat home in a doggy bag. You can feel a little better about paying more for someone else to cook if you get two meals out of it. Also, food in general is substantially cheaper in the U.S. so a bigger part of the restaurant's expense is labor and location-related. They can afford to pile on the food.

I can also agree that some food is sweeter and some food is oilier in the U.S. compared to Japan. That being said, some food in Japan is sweeter and some food is oilier than in than in the U.S. The latter perspective isn't one Japanese people tend to have because they view the foods which are sweeter or fattier from a Western perspective as being standard rather than unusual.

I've noted in multiple reviews that Japanese chocolate is richer than American chocolate. It is sometimes higher in calories despite being less sweet in many cases because of the higher fat content. This mainly affects the texture, but it also affects the taste to some extent. Chocolate isn't the only thing which tends to contain more fat and less sugar. Baked goods in particular are often loaded with more fat and have less sugar. This is why the muffins and cakes tend to be dry compared to Western versions.

The added fat doesn't stop with sweets though. Things like soup, particularly ramen, have a lot more oil floating around in them than their Western counterparts. There's also tonkatsu (breaded fried pork cutlets), Japanese curry and tempura (breaded fried vegetables or seafood) which are pretty well-known parts of Japanese cuisine. French fries and fried chicken get singled out as Western atrocities because they are deep fried, but it's not like the Japanese don't have deep frying in their food culture as well. What is worse, some of the tonkatsu is designed to be extra juicy by layering thin fatty pork rather than simply using one thicker bit of it.

Personally, I have no problem with people having fatty foods in their food culture. In fact, I tend to think that fat in general has been villified far too much. Consumption of fat makes you feel fuller than carbohydrates. It's only an issue when you eat too much or are eating damaged fats. The main reason I point out the fact that Japanese food has plenty of fat is that most people fail to recognize how prevalent it is in Japanese processed food and in food preparations outside of sushi and sashimi.

In regards to sugar, it is fair to say that most sweets are less sweet in Japan. You can't really say the same for some other foods though. Salted snack foods often have sugar or Sucralose added to them so you get a unique combination of salt and sweetness in various corn snacks in many cases. Bread products also often taste very sweet. In particular, various rolls and buns which are ostensibly designed for sandwiches are strangely sweet. It's not uncommon to see a package of dinner rolls or long buns that look like they'd suit a hot dog with an illustration picturing ham and lettuce artfully tucked into the buns. If you buy such buns thinking you'll make yourself a nice sandwich, you'll find that hey make appallingly bad sandwiches unless you like your ham or tuna salad with sugar sprinkled on it.

At one point in time, there even used to be Japanese toothpaste that contained sugar. I doubt that it is still on the market as I'm hoping someone figured out that sugar in toothpaste rather defeated the purpose. I was warned about said dental application when I first arrived in Japan and encouraged to use imported toothpaste to prevent cavities forming as a result of exercising good dental hygiene.

Finally, from an American viewpoint, you tend to notice that Japanese food on the whole is very salty. It's not only the use of soy sauce, but also the fact that a lot of simple food preparation comes with a good dose of salt. I had my gall bladder removed and was served apples with salt on them (and wasn't allowed to leave the hospital until I ate them as well as the rice I was served). It's also common to eat cucumbers encrusted with salt in the summer and to sprinkle salt on your watermelon.

Tastes are a matter of, well, taste. You get used to what you grow up with and everything else seems weird. Americans like American food and Japanese like Japanese food, and criticism comes from the deviations from the expected norm. The health problems in America tend to come from eating too much or eating imbalanced diets rather than from an overabundance of sugary and fatty foods in the cuisine relative to the presence of such foods in other cultures. Japan gets a good rap because the people are healthier, but they eat a much more balanced diet and have built-in portion control as well as run to the doctor frequently for the tiniest of medical problems (so small problems are caught and corrected early). It's not that they don't have food with lots of fat and sugar, it just isn't a problem for them given other factors

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Prime Gateau Berry Cookies

Back when I was working for a company that dealt with a lot of manufacturers, I used to talk to students who worked in food sciences. Part of their work was learning how to prepare, process, and package food so that taste was preserved or enhanced. From listening to those students, I got a sense of how hard it must be to perform the proper alchemy to produce a tasty food product.

I know from experience that incorporating any sort of fruit flavor into various foods is tricky at best. Too much and you're overwhelmed by unpleasantly intense flavor and too little and the taste whispers so softly that you can't get a sense of it. You might guess that these cookies have erred on one side or another or I wouldn't be bringing the whole thing up.

These berry gateau cookies are similar to the cocoa version that I reviewed earlier. There are 8 individually wrapped cookies for about 170 yen ($1.90) a box and each cookie is about 33 calories. From external appearances, the berry cookies seem to be identical to the cocoa versions except that the cookie portion is pink.

The cookies smell of chocolate and faintly of strawberry. The cookie portion looked a bit rough compared to the nice, smooth cocoa cookies. It's as if the dough had been overworked or raggedly cut. The cookie is crisp and the chocolate on the soft side. The first taste is one of intense dark, slightly bitter chocolate along with strong, tart strawberry. The two flavors appear to be battling to overpower each other and the result is fairly unpleasant. Since the second bite is less strong than the first, it becomes more bearable after the first bite, but not necessarily good.

For my tastes, the chocolate is just too deep and intense, particularly when paired with a strong strawberry flavor. What was worse was the fact that I was left with a strong, unpleasant aftertaste that lingered for quite awhile after eating the cookies. I definitely would not buy these again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Black Thunder Cocoa Cookie Crunch

"Black Thunder" sounds like the name of a hyper-caffeinated beverage, or possibly an adult film star of African descent with a premature ejaculation issue. It doesn't sound like the name of a relatively unassuming but tasty little candy bar which can be had for a bargain price of 27 yen (25 cents).

This bar, which is similar in shape, size and appearance to the Yuraku Almond Caramel Latte bar and made by the same company has such a dumb name that I have skipped buying one for quite some time. I was worried that there was going to be some jolting, harsh flavor included to represent the "pow" of the "thunder". Now that I've sampled it, I know why it's called "Black Thunder", though it certainly isn't a name we'd choose in English. The "black" part comes from dark bits of bittersweet chocolate cookie. The "thunder" part comes from the crunchiness of the bar which you can "hear" in your ears as you chew.

The bar smells very weakly of cocoa. The chocolate is soft and a little waxy, but not unpleasant. The cookie bits inside are crunchy and the chocolate chips so lacking in distinct taste that they can't really be separated from the coating. Despite the fact that this doesn't sound great from what I've written, this is an enjoyable bar. In fact, the first bite immediately reminded me of chocolate-covered Oreo cookies from back home. This is perhaps just a little less sweet, but it's definitely a close approximation.

Once again, Yuraku has surprised me. This is another smallish (about 3 inches long by 1.5 inches wide) bar from that company which provides satisfaction in a compact package for around 100 calories and a very small price. If you miss chocolate covered Oreos from back home, or just like crispy chocolate-covered cookies, you'll want to sample this.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fried Cut Mochi Puffs (Kameida Seika brand)

I've been on a bit of a mochi kick lately, so I decided to make this packet of fried mochi puffs my next very Japanese snack experiment. I've had mochi (rice pounded into a taffy-like consistency) in several forms, but never all puffed up and salty like this. I wondered if the end product would end up tasting like the fresh stuff in any way.

This bag cost 180 yen ($2) and contains 100 grams (3.5 oz.) of fried rice cake bits. It sounds like this should be healthier than a bag of chips, but there are 581 calories in this bag. That's 166 calories per ounce (28 grams) and it'd be easy to eat between half and all of the bag in one sitting of munchy goodness. For the record, one ounce (28 grams) of plain chips is about 155 calories. These are brought to you by Kameida Seika, maker of the tasty edamame rice crackers I reviewed earlier. By the way, the "cut" in the name probably refers to the scoring on the mochi which gives it a different texture when fried up.

Unlike many other Japanese snacks, these do not come in individual packages for easy portion control. They come in one big plastic tray. This makes it even harder to control eating too many at once. The primary ingredients are rice and vegetable oil. They're salted and made with soy, yeast, and chicken flavorings. The puffs are rather craggy and look a bit like Styrofoam packing peanuts, especially on the inside. They smell slightly like oil. The bag promises that these are crunchy and "light", though the calorie information doesn't bear out the claim that they're light nutritionally.

Despite the discouraging aroma, these are very tasty. They are super crunchy and salted at just the perfect level. The flavor is very hard to pin down, but
they carry a hint of the flavor of a sembei cracker (unsurprisingly), a slight oily flavor, and a meaty flavor which is difficult to pin down. I'm guessing that the combination of soy, yeast and chicken is blended such that nothing dominates, but they all form a pleasant melange.

I really liked these. I ate the bag in two sittings and felt bad for all those nasty, empty calories. I would definitely get these again if I were being indulgent. I wish they weren't so bad for me, because I could easily eat these on a regular basis. I think they're as tasty or tastier than potato chips.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Espresso Coffee KitKat

Espresso coffee conjures up notions of dark, syrupy, rich flavors. To be honest, I'm not man enough to drink espresso. Since I'm a woman, that's not something that I view as a particular failing. I'm more of a milk and sugar type of female than a super black coffee type.

I think the fact that I don't generally actually drink espresso is important to keep in mind when you consider my evaluation of this KitKat. Chances are that, if it lived up to the tradition of true espresso, I wouldn't like it. Fortunately, this is a good "failure" from my point of view. In this case, a white chocolate-based KitKat has been used to advantage. Mixing strong coffee flavor with sweet white chocolate takes the edge off the bitterness and reminds one more of a latte with a bite or even some fairly nice instant coffee.

This bar smells very weakly of coffee and the first bite is pretty sweet. Subsequent bites progressively reveal more and more of a bitter finish with a slightly salty edge. This bit of salt works exceptionally well. It amplifies the coffee bitterness and blunts the sweetness.

I really enjoyed this bar and would certainly consider buying it again if I was in the mood. I think it'd serve well as a substitute for a sweet coffee beverage. I'm not sure that it will suit everyone, but I think it's worth at least trying if you're a coffee fan.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Variety Friday: McDonald's Cheese Katsu Burger

There are a variety of sites which love to point out how horribly bad for you various American dishes are. One of them is "This Is Why You're Fat", but there are also articles on various health sites about the horror of menu items at "family restaurants" (Appleby's, Denny's, etc.) as well as the wide host of fast food joints.

Sites like "This Is Why You're Fat" are full of extreme examples of unusual menu items or concoctions that most people eat infrequently or have never seen or heard of before. The implication, based on the title of the site, is that people are overweight because they eat stuff like this, presumably on a sufficiently regular basis to pile on pounds. While it's entertaining to look at the absurd concoctions, they really have nothing to do why most people are overweight.

The assumption about bad food worldwide is that America is responsible for the worst of it and to whatever extent it has spread, it's all America's fault. This doesn't take into account the fact that it takes two to tango, as it were. American fast food or restaurants offer the food, but locals have to choose to eat it. No one is forcing it down the throats of unsuspecting victims. They're voluntarily consuming foods of suspect nutritional value.

The thing that most people don't realize if they've never been abroad or paid attention to foreign food (a group of people that presumably doesn't include my readers as you're clearly interested in foreign food) is that each country has its own versions of the type of monstrosities that you see in the U.S. This includes huge over-sized food items which look like they're designed for an army to eat. Some restaurants offer 4.5 lb. (about 2 kg.) tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) meals or parfaits (ice cream layered with fruit, cream and sauce) that are 3 feet (91 cm) high in Japan. These items, like those in the U.S. which are grotesque, are mainly on menus for attention and publicity, but occasionally people buy them and eat them. If you don't believe me, do a YouTube search on scrawny professional glutton "Gal Sone". You'll find her scarfing down some restaurant's freak concoction somewhere and still looking like she weighs all of 90 lbs.

In addition to the oddities, there are also a lot of nutrition bombs which are seasonal or regular fare formulated especially for the market they're being sold in. Enter the McDonald's Cheese Katsu Burger. This is a heavily breaded, fried sliver or two of pork wrapped around a piece of processed cheese and served on a bun with tonkatsu sauce, mayonnaise and a few scraps of lettuce. There's very little with which to recommend this sandwich. It's clearly designed to offer the least amount of protein while still being legally allowed to call it a pork cutlet. It's a relatively small burger and is about 500 calories with a lot of fat.

The fact that this type of "burger" is marketed to suit Japanese tastes shows that Americans aren't the only ones who favor food which is really bad for them. It also shows that American business isn't the only one taking advantage of peoples preference for tasty garbage over healthy cuisine. McDonald's may be a U.S. business, but the Japanese branches and the direction they take are controlled by a Japanese man, Den Fujita. Mr. Fujita is known for running the business as a "one man show" and making decisions and choices according to what he feels will suit the market. So, if you're going to blame anyone for feeding junk like this cheese pork cutlet burger to the Japanese, blame him.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Yahoo! Majimori Corn Snack Tonkotsu Rich Miso

This is the second of two Majimori corn snacks based on ramen flavors. The first variety was "brown oil, garlic, and pork bone" flavor and I was rather fond of it. As I mentioned in the previous review, this product is a collaboration between several companies - Maruchan, Yahoo Japan, Frito-Lay and Tokyo Web Week 1.

Tonkotsu is the Japanese word for pork bone so both of the Majimori flavors are made with pork flavor. Since ramen is often flavored with pork, this is no surprise. By the way, ramen in Japan is sometimes the same sort of dried out noodles with salty flavor packets that is so common in Western countries, but the really good stuff is sold at food stands or restaurants and it's rather far removed from the cheap stuff college students use to fortify them when they've spent too much on beer and are looking at providing themselves with sustenance on a few dollars they found crammed under their roommates dirty socks.

The bar that is set for matching good ramen is significantly higher than the bar with living up to really cheap, dehydrated ramen. Since the first variety that I tried lived up to the complexity of the flavor, I fully expected this one to as well and I wasn't disappointed. Once again, all of the elements of well made ramen were there.

If you open the bag and give it a good sniff, you can smell cabbage, corn and a bit of a spicy, oil smell which is reminiscent of sesame oil. The interesting thing about the corn aroma and taste is that it is not the processed corn snack variety. It's the actual taste and smell of corn kernels. The cabbage flavor is also very present as is the taste of oily pork. The finish on them is one of spicy heat.

Unlike the brown oil pork and garlic flavor, the first bite has complex and rich flavors. You don't need to keep eating for the flavor to build its way up. I liked this, but the thing about both of the Majimori flavors is that they so successfully carry the oily flavor of ramen broth and this makes it less appealing for me personally. I imagine this is great for lovers of oil infused with rich, dense flavors, but it's just not my thing. I'd certainly give these another try if I was in the mood. Given my particular tastes though, that mood is unlikely to come around very often.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fujiya Peach Nectar

Something that calls itself a "nectar" has a lot to live up to. Nectar, after all, is the drink of the gods. Hearing the word conjures up thoughts of sublimely wonderful flavors. I'm guessing that Fujiya didn't really have that in mind when they named this drink. In fact, I'm guessing they just looked up some translation of a Japanese word and said, "sounds cool" (only in Japanese), and named it so.

I have seen this canned drink in vending machines for a very, very long time. Since it was released in 1964 (the year I was born), this is not a big shock, but I never felt compelled to try it until now. The can lists that there is 30% fruit in this and that fruit puree is in it. The first ingredient is peaches followed by sugars of various types and vitamin C. The entire can (350 ml./12 oz.) has 159 calories. That's a bit high calorie, but it's to be expected given how much sugar, both from the fruit and added, that there is in this.

The juice is not carbonated and is very cloudy. It smells just like fresh peaches. The taste is just like biting into a fresh, perfectly ripened peach. It's a bit sweeter than the real deal, but it works well in a beverage.

I loved this. It was refreshing, sweet, delicious, and tasted so much like a real peach that if someone served it in a glass and said it was freshly pureed and squeezed peach juice, I'd believe it. If you like peaches, I wholeheartedly recommend this. I think it'd also make an excellent substitute for a dessert if you're in the mood for something sweet.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Country Ma'am Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Translations are a tricky thing. Take the word "kaboucha", for instance. In Japanese, it means pumpkin. In English, the concept of a pumpkin is usually that of a big, round orange thing which you scoop the guts out of and carve weird faces in or make a pie from. In Japan, it's a small green thing that tastes like squash and you use it in stews or eat it as a vegetable side dish. It doesn't taste the same as an American pumpkin, yet it is nearly as versatile. Mainly, it just has a more potent hit of squash taste which tends to shine through more strongly when you use it in things like cookies and cakes.

If you buy any sweets with pumpkin included, you have to learn to expect that squash flavor. You also have to forget about any notion of spices being added to cut through the vegetable nature. There will be no cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger included.

There 16 individually wrapped cookies in the bag. Each cookie is 50 calories and quite small at 4 cm in diameter (1.6 in.). They are made with "pumpkin paste" and pumpkin-flavored chocolate chips. All of the chips are yellow to reflect this fact.

Country Ma'am cookies have a signature texture combination which you will find in every single cookie produced under that brand name. They are crunchy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. It's a very gratifying cookie on that front and lends itself to being heated in the microwave. There are instructions on the side of the bag advising you how long to heat them in the microwave or toaster oven.

These smell very faintly of squash and mostly just smell like a basic cookie. They are quite sweet, but not over the top. The balance of sugar with the vegetable taste of the pumpkin is well-matched. The chips are much sweeter than the cookie itself.

These are enjoyable, but a bit of an acquired taste. I think they slightly challenge the palate and that they won't be as tasty to people who have no experience with similar foods. Surprisingly, my husband liked these even though he doesn't like kaboucha (Japanese pumpkin). I wouldn't buy these again, but we'll finish the bag and I certainly don't regret having had a chance to sample them.