Friday, May 29, 2009

Variety Friday: Where the Action Is

I'm sure that many of my readers have spent hours speculating on the glamorous life of a Japanese snack food reviewer. You're wondering what it's really like hunting down salty and sweet treats for review in the land of cosplayers and robotic dogs. Well, thanks to the magic of Google Maps, you can see where I shop and virtually pound the pavement of the same streets that I do.

I frequently refer to a 99 yen shop where I pick up various goodies. Every time I refer to that place, it is this particular store:

The Japanese written on the street on the left says "tomare", which means "stop".

The street to the left goes down an alley into an all residential area. The one on the right is a major street through Tokyo which will eventually lead directly to Shinjuku, a major business and shopping district.

If the shop looks a bit dingy and rundown, then the picture is showing you the absolute truth. This place is no more than 500 square feet in size and located in a building that used to house a Family Mart convenience store. This location, incidentally, is marked in my personal history as the exact spot where I fell off my bike, hurt my back, and set myself up for a lifetime of serious back pain about 16 years ago.

The shop is named "Shop 99" in this picture, but it used to be called QQ. "Kyu" which sounds like "Q" is "9" in Japanese so QQ is a clever way of referring to 99. I guess that the shop's owners though that was too subtle though and change it to the numbers. I go to this shop more often than any other because it's about a 3-minute walk from my apartment and sells useful food items in addition to snacks for relatively cheap prices. In fact, low-fat milk, bread, and eggs are actually cheaper here than regular supermarkets. Snack-wise, it's good for cheap, off-brand goodies and products that either sell regularly, are nearly off the market, or didn't sell well enough to begin with and have been relegated to the bargain bin. It also carries nearly every Tirol assortment that has ever been released.

If you'd like to travel along the virtual street with me, you can follow the path down the street on the right with me. That's where my other two major haunts for snack shopping are located.

The next snack hotspot on my journey as we travel down the same major street is Family Mart:

Family Mart is very rare among the shops in my area because it actually has a parking lot. Very few places have one.

Family Mart is the best place for finding new products that have a short run of it or limited edition products. They tend to carry the latest Tirol Premium chocolates (but not the assortments), new KitKats, and smaller size, esoteric flavors of sembei and salted snack foods. Everything is about 30-50% more expensive than in Shop 99, so I only buy the types of things which I know I won't locate elsewhere in Family Mart.

And, as we journey further down the street (if you want to follow along, Family Mart is here on Google maps), we get to my last regular haunt, Inageya supermarket:

If I mention picking something up at a local market, this is the place. It's good for family packs of sembei, the occasional limited edition cookie products and Pocky as well as bean cakes and other more traditional snacks.

These are by no means my only options. The truth is my husband probably buys about 20% of the items I review at other places like New Days (which is only located in Japan Railway "JR" stations) and various shops near where he works. There is also a discount snack shop near another market that I visit infrequently. However, the lion's share of what I review comes from these three rather dismal, grey, and boring places. I'm betting that ordering your snacks via mail services seems a lot more exciting now by comparison.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gorgonzola Cheese and Pepper Cheese Snack

When I spied this packet of crackers in a convenience store, I didn't pay much attention to much more than the slices of gold yellow cheese and the emblem of the maker on the package. Kameda Seika makes great salted snacks and you can't go wrong with cheese.

Upon closer inspection (i.e., actually reading the package), I noticed that these lack truth in advertising. While the package shows what appears to be a slice of cheddar or at least processed cheese, these are made with Gouda (which is a buttery white cheese) and Gorgonzola cheese. For those who don't know, that's a pungent, strongly flavored blue cheese which is white and has veins of mold running through it. Considering the fact that these are made with 48% cheese, one can expect some really strong cheese flavor.

Another point that I didn't notice until I opened the bag and dumped them out for picture-taking was that there are what look like tiny alien eggs in the bag. Once again, actually reading the package reveals that they are flavored with black pepper so this is a mix of both cheesy crackers and peppery balls.

When I opened the bag, I was hit by a very strong smell of cheese. This is almost certainly the Gorgonzola effect. I ate one of the little round ones first and it was very peppery, but not overly hot. Tasting a little square cracker separately, I found it super strong, particularly with the blue cheese flavor. When eating them together, the pepper tends to cut through the intense cheesiness and make a very strong, savory mix. I found it to be an excellent combination, but those who don't like pepper or strong, stinky cheeses may find it too intense. The only thing I didn't like was that they seemed to have a sweet finishing taste which I could have done without.

Both types of crackers are very crispy and fresh. They're made with soy beans, black beans and rice flour and a wide variety of flavorings including chicken, pork, onion and garlic. The bag is 40 grams (1.4 oz.) and 169 calories. It cost a little over 100 yen (a dollar).

The flavor of these is very complex and it hits your tongue like a strong, savory flavor bomb. I just wish there were more of the little peppery balls in the mix as the cheese flavor on the crackers is so strong that I'd like a few more of the other kind to off-set the blue cheese flavor. I liked these, and I'd seriously consider getting them again if I run across them naturally. The main problem is that you can only get these at convenience stores and they will be on the shelves for only 120 days.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tirol Air In Salty Vanilla Premium

The Japanese are crazy about "soft cream". That's the sort of processed non-dairy product that oozes out of machines in family restaurants and Dairy Queens. By the way, does anyone else think that there should be a royal marriage between the Dairy Queen and the Burger King? Okay, maybe not. Anyway, putting a picture of a "soft cream" cone on one of these candies is sure to evoke memories of creamy artificial deliciousness.

The Air In aspect of this means that it is an aerated chocolate like Lotte's Airs. That means less candy for your yen. Given that this is a small, single piece candy, I think introducing air into the equation is grumble-inducing. For those who don't know from my other reviews, Tirol premium candies are about 1-inch square (2.55 cm) candies what are sold individually for about 30-40 yen (about 35 cents).

This was on offer at a local Family Mart convenience store. It's the second "salty vanilla" snack I ran across at the same time. The other was a Sequoia bar. This makes me think we're seeing the makings of the next food fad in Japan.

This smelled strongly of vanilla and white chocolate. When I cut it in half for the detailed picture, it was very crumbly and soft. Usually, the air bubble-filled chocolates are firm and the bubbles provide a somewhat "crispy" textural sense, but this was just soft all the way through, even though I took it right out of the refrigerator.

The flavor at first was intensely sweet vanilla followed by very, very salty. I'm not sure, but I think I actually crunched on a large bit of kosher salt. This was good in that it's the first salty vanilla treat where I could actually taste the salt. It was bad in that the flavors were really intense, too intense. Where most of these sweets are too bland and don't go far enough in laying on the flavors, but this one has gone too far in the other direction.

I wanted to like this and came really close, but it's just too much. I don't regret sampling it because it was interesting. However, I don't think I would go for it again.

Incidentally, Tirol is doing desktop pictures showing ice cream for May as well as have added some new pictures to their previous line-up. If you're interested in downloading them, they can be had here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Copan Italian Pizza French Bread Crisps

"Copan" brand toasted bread snacks have been around for ages, but they haven't really lured me in. Part of the reason for this may be that I'm not sure where they fall on the snack continuum. They seem more like a form of a bread stick than a snack. It was just hard to get excited about something that looked like a flat crouton.

Today, I saw the 42 gram bag of Italian pizza flavor Copan and decided to finally dive in. It was only 98 yen (about a dollar), and the flavor sounded appealing enough. Maybe I was misplacing a craving for pizza.

The bag contains a lot of little 5 cm (2 in.) pieces of what look like slivers of French bread sliced from a tiny loaf. They smell like those jars of "pizza seasoning" you sometimes find in greasy pizza joints. The scent includes tomato, Parmesan cheese, oregano, and a hint of the distinctive yeastiness of bread.

These don't taste like pizza, but that's no surprise. It's unrealistic to expect a little dry bit of bread to be like pizza. What they do taste like is really nicely toasted French bread with a lot of good seasoning. The tomato and cheese flavor are especially present and fairly "real" tasting. There's a nice tanginess to them and a deep savory flavor that comes from adding in some chicken and shrimp flavors. The texture is perfectly crunchy and they are neither too dry nor too oily. Someone definitely did a good job with the toasting process.

Much to my surprise, I loved these. I ate the whole bag (all 230 calories of them) at once. Once you get started, it's really hard to stop eating them. I'd definitely buy these again, provided that I didn't mind consuming all those calories at once.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pineapple Hi-Chew

There are a great many fans of Hi-Chew out there and I believe the pineapple flavor has been recommended to me by multiple people. And, I do like pineapple, but I'm not a fan of fruit-flavored candies. You wouldn't find me buying something like a Skittles or Starburst in the U.S., and I don't buy Hi-Chew. My husband, however, does so I have found myself in a position to review this oft-enjoyed treat.

Note that there are at least two kinds of pineapple Hi-Chew. This version is an Okinawa version. The stamp design on the package says "Okinawa" in Japanese on it. My guess is that you're supposed to only be buying this as a souvenir when you visit the southern part of Japan, but my husband picked this up in a sweets shop in Tokyo. The other version is "Golden Pineapple", and it's supposed to be sweeter than this version.

Hi-Chew are like a cross between gum and a caramel. They are chewy for awhile then melt away. I found this strange when I tried my first Hi-Chew, but rather liked it this time around. It's like having gum that never loses its flavor or makes your jaw tired.

The pineapple Hi-Chew smells a bit strange to me. There is a pineapple smell in there, but there's something else which I can't identify. It's organic, but ever so slightly unpleasant. The pineapple flavor in this is quite nice. It tastes like the real thing at first then there is some sort of secondary artificial flavor that kicks in. I believe this is the taste of the gum base that makes this a candy rather than a piece of, well, pineapple. The finish seems to send a burst of stronger, tart and acidic pineapple flavor over your tongue.

This was good, and I think someone who is more enamored of fruit flavored candies and the Hi-Chew texture would really love this. For me though, it is definitely the sort of thing I'd have to be in the mood for. I'd certainly buy it again if I had a yen for it (no pun intended).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Variety Friday: A Little Community Spirit

The readership of this blog has steadily grown since I started it in September of 2008. While I'd love to see it explode, I know that it takes awhile for people to find you and it takes a steady stream of regular and frequent posting to help ensure that Google will send interested parties your way.

That being said, I owe a great deal to two other bloggers who through their linking to my blog have helped build my readership. One of those bloggers is Bryan at Cheap Eats and Cheaplander. The other is the great and powerful Marvo at The Impulsive Buy. Every time I get a little link love from these fellows, my readership jumps and I really, really appreciate it.

Both of these fellows are "big guns" in the blogging review world. They're the sort who could easily choose to ignore the likes of a little start-up like me, but they were generous early and often. Some people with established blogs and a lot of readers will not link to smaller blogs because they don't like to direct their readers to blogs that may fade away quickly. They also don't want to add links on their main pages only to find that they edited their site to add a blogger who started strong, but dropped down to once a month posting or removed their blog entirely after a short stint. I can understand the reservations some people may have in this regard, and I don't blame them. However, it makes me appreciate the support other bloggers, both big and small, give me by linking to me all the more.

Because I'm still a small fry relatively speaking (about 400 readers per day, unless Marvo links to one of my posts then I get a big, happy surprise when I check my numbers), I know how others feel about trying to draw readers to their blogs. Because of this, I'm more than happy to link to other reviewers. If you'd like to be linked to, please e-mail me by following the information in the FYI section.

Additionally, if you have reviewed a product that I have reviewed in the past, I will go back to my archived review and link to your review at the end of mine if you leave a comment on the relevant review. I try to catch and add in reviews of the same products as I find them, but I don't always manage to add the other reviews because I have to add them when I have time to edit my archived post. Most of my blog writing is in the afternoon or early evening. The lion's share of my blog reading occurs in the bleary-eyed morning hours. The struggle to focus my eyes on the page helps wake me up. Since the reading and writing occur at different times, it's easy for me to intend to add the link, but to forget by the time I start work on the blog.

If you're not already reading Marvo's blog and Bryan's blogs, please do yourself a favor and subscribe to them. They deserve your love. And they already have mine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sweet Potato Chocolate Biscuits

Even though I'm not a fan of mixing chocolate with vegetables like sweet potato or pumpkin, I find it hard to resist anything containing either of those vegetables. When I saw this box of chocolate sweet potato cookies, I immediately thought of Koala's March biscuits because the hexagonal box shape is the same, they both sell for about 100 yen (about a dollar) and are typically stocked near the cash register. However, Koala's March cookies are made by Lotte and these are made by Glico.

The box features a happy cartoon sweet potato winking at you as a little girl tugs at a vine attached to it. I never understood the logic of having a happy version of the thing being chopped up and eaten as a representative on the packaging. Am I supposed to think the sweet potato coyly wants to flirt with me until I decide I want to eat it (hence the winking)? The package also boasts that there is 3% sweet potato and 1.7% cocoa mass in the cookies. They don't boast about it on the front, but eating all 50 grams (1.7 oz.) of these will set you back 259 calories.

The cookies are quite small and there are about 20 of them in the box. It'd be very easy to eat them all in one sitting from a volume point of view unless you were making a concerted effort not to do so. They're so tiny that eating them feels a little like tossing goldfish crackers or popcorn in your mouth.

The cookies smell vaguely of chocolate and even less so of sweet potato. The first bite reveals a very strong sweet potato taste which is not entirely pleasant. Once your taste buds get over the flavor shock, the sweet potato flavor mellows a lot. As long as you keep eating these tiny, crispy cookies, you're having a good experience. If you give your tongue time to recover, then it starts all over again with a big burst of overly strong flavor. Clearly, they're not kidding about being 3% sweet potato.

The chocolate flavor is very weak. To get any sense of it, you have to let the side with chocolate on it melt on your tongue for awhile. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this though as I think the balance of chocolate to sweet potato is pretty good when you just eat them as you would any other cookie. These are nice and I'd certainly consider getting them again if I was in the mood. I'm not sure that they could be any better, but I wouldn't say that they're absolutely the greatest cookie ever. However, they're a nice enough tea time treat for their price and the size.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Twin Dome Vanilla Cream Cake (Japan's Twinkie)

Imagine finding a Twinkie that had a sponge cake that was fresher and softer. Further, imagine the cream filling is actually made with whipped cream and milk rather than vegetable shortening. If you can wrap your head around such a fantasy notion, then you can imagine what the Twin Dome cake by Fujipan is like. This cake is the closest Japan has ever come to the Twinkie in my experience.

You can pick up a package with two cakes for about 100 yen (about a dollar) at some convenience stores. The cakes are 202 calories each and each is about 8 cm (3.1 inches) in diameter at the widest point along the base. Note that a Twinkie, which is the closest comparison, has only 150 calories for 1.5 oz. of cake and cream filling. I'd say that the Twin Domes are about the same total volume as a Twinkie, but the higher calorie count is the price you pay for the real cream filling with its higher fat content.

Each cake is blessed with a generous dollop of very soft and smooth whipped cream in the center. The cream is lightly sweet and the cake tastes like good, fake vanilla and is sweeter than the filling. The cake is a soft, fresh sponge. It's not really dry, but also not really moist. It's an excellent combination of textures and mild flavors. It's a little more on the sweet side than usual for Japanese cakes, but not cloyingly so.

I recommend sampling these with no reservations. This is one of the best snack cakes I've ever had, and even my fussy husband likes them. The only thing is that I'd recommend buying one only if you have someone to split it with so you don't end up gobbling down 400 calories of delicious cream-filled cake in one sitting.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cheese Potato Otsumame Arare

I was drawn to this snack by the picture of the baked potatoes covered in gooey cheese. While I wasn't entirely fooled into thinking that a bunch of little pellets flavored with whey and cheese powders was going to fill my mouth with the flavor of cheesy baked potato, I figured I'd see how close this came. Incidentally, this is another one of those snacks which is designed specifically to be consumed with alcoholic beverages (otsumame). There is an endless parade of them in Japan.

"Arare" means "hail" in Japanese. It's used in reference to food to indicate that something is being produced in little pellet-like pieces. I guess this is supposed to make them easier to eat when you're too drunk to bite off bits of a potato chip without having it crumble into your lap, or your beer glass. Japanese snack manufacturers are so considerate.

The bag is full of small pouches of what are essentially sembei (rice cracker) pellets and peanuts. Each pouch is 12 grams (.4 oz.) and contains a very small portion of peanuts and tiny cracker bits. The amount pictured above is the entire content of one little triangular packet. This portion contains 63 calories, which seems like a lot for such a tiny amount. The peanuts are average in size and comparing them to the sembei gives you a good idea of how small the pellets are. The entire bag cost about 170 yen, or about $1.60 or so in U.S. dollars.

Despite the fact that potatoes are on the cover, glutinous rice is the first ingredient, followed by peanuts. "Potato powder" and smoke flavoring are added in addition to cheese powder, yeast extract, and other seasonings. The smokey flavor is what hits you the most when you bite into these. It's somewhat surprising that they don't smell like much of anything given how intense the smoke flavor is. After the first nibble, the smoke flavor gives way to more of a cheesy bite. The peanuts are blanched so they aren't too intense. It's a nice mix. The texture is pleasantly crunchy.

I liked these, but I'm a bit dissatisfied with the wastefulness that comes along with putting nine tiny plastic packages in the bag. I'm all for portion control, but this is such a small amount that I have the sense that they are more for handing out at parties than for personal snacking. I imagine most people would want just a little more than what is in one package. I'd consider buying these again if I were in the right mood or if I wanted to exercise extremely judicious control of my eating.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Apple Vinegar KitKat

This particular KitKat has a few fewer calories than the average one. Most of the other varieties are 110-120 calories for two fingers. This one is only 100. That vinegar must be good for you!

Yes, you read that right. This is a vinegar flavored KitKat. This sounds a lot stranger to us Western folks perhaps than to Japanese people, who actually have "drinking vinegar" which they consume for health purposes. That is why there is a picture of a refreshing glass of iced vinegar on the front of the box.

If you're interested, there's a survey about the vinegar drinking habits of Japanese folks on the excellent web site, What Japan Thinks. According to the survey, about 56% of Japanese people have at one time or another drunk vinegar. The biggest reason they drink it appears to be to relieve fatigue. Mind you, I don't believe vinegar necessarily helps with anything health-wise, but I'm betting that it probably isn't bad for you and there's probably a chance it's beneficial.

The packaging is interesting because they're using the same inner package wrapper design as the apple KitKat. However, this is a white chocolate-based KitKat rather than a milk one like the plain apple variety.

The bar smells mildly of apple. There is no scent of vinegar that I could detect. The first bite of this tasted like apple cider. I didn't have much of a sense of the vinegar taste until the second bite where it leaped up and tickled the back of my nose. As I finished off the first finger, I had a strong sense of apple vinegar flavor building up.

The surprising thing about this is that it's really not bad. It's not the sort of thing that you'd sample and think the flavors are discordant. The apple vinegar flavor offsets the sweetness of the white chocolate without creating a weird combination. My feelings about this are similar to the ones I had with the Muscat of Alexandria KitKat. That is that I think it's interesting and am happy to have sampled something unique, but I won't be craving it or buying it again. Once is enough.

Note that there is also a lemon vinegar KitKat on the market, but I haven't run across it yet. Both the apple and lemon vinegar KitKats are part of a campaign by Nestlé to get people to use chilled KitKats in summer sweets preparations. There are recipes for concoctions on the cooking web site. The apple vinegar recipes include one for "healthy ice" which is a frozen concoction including (among other ingredients) apples, sugar, condensed milk, cocoa powder and the apple vinegar KitKat. There's also a recipe for "refreshing mousse" which includes the same KitKat, tofu, honey, and yogurt.

This was also reviewed at Snack Love.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Variety Friday: Tastes Change

In comments recently, Kelly, who runs the snack blog Sweet Pursuits, asked me if I felt that my tastes were "American" and if that influenced how I reacted to Japanese snacks. The interesting thing is that this thought had been on my mind quite recently while I was reviewing the Tyrant Habanero Anbiriba rods. However, my thought was not that my tastes were so American, but rather that I wondered if they had drifted so far from that of an average American's that my responses to various foods might be quite atypical now. In regard to the habanero rods, I was wondering if Americans, who have a lot more choices when it comes to very hot and spicy foods flavored with hot peppers (due to Mexican cuisine influences) might find the Japanese habanero snacks tame by comparison.

There are several reasons why I think my tastes may be different from those of my fellow Americans. I have been in Japan for 20 years so I've been eating food that has been altered for the Japanese market for nearly as long as I have spent eating American food. I left the U.S. when I was 24 years old, so I'm closing in on having spent as much of my life here as there. I have to imagine I've grown accustomed to the way in which food is presented for Japanese tastes.

When I first came to Japan, a lot of staples seemed to taste very strange to me. In particular, milk tasted very "off". To this day, I'm not sure why milk is so different in Japan than in the U.S., but I think it has something to do with the fact that Tokyo gets a lot of heat treated dairy products which are meant to last on the shelves far longer than milk back home. And, please note, that "back home" for me means rural Pennsylvania where cows are everywhere and the very freshest milk is never far away. Your mileage may vary.

These days, I only occasionally notice anything amiss in the milk products here, and generally those are the ESL (Extended Shelf Life) products which are probably radiated, boiled, and processed into a new incarnation of "dairy". Now, Japanese milk tastes "normal" to me. The same applies to butter. Japanese butter is far less sweet and creamy than American butter, but this is something I'd forgotten completely until quite recently. The butter shortage in Japan afforded me a chance to taste imported U.S. butter again for the first time in nearly two decades and it was amazingly good.

Also, after Kelly's question got me thinking, I looked back on my reviews. My reviews of Japanese snacks or those based on traditional Japanese cuisine (except the Oshiruko KitKat) like sembei, bean cakes, etc. are generally quite favorable. That means I actually tend to like Japanese traditional snacks. I think that I tend to be the least pleased with Japanese adaptations of any food based on cheese products or lame implementations of foreign foods or their concepts. Since I rarely eat Japanese processed cheese (and 95% of Japanese cheese is processed), this is probably one of the areas where I have had zero acclimation to this particular food as it has been modified for the Japanese market. Almost all of the cheese I eat in Japan is imported, mostly from Australia, New Zealand, England, and occasionally America. I haven't forgotten what real (and good quality) cheese tastes like, so I have a very low tolerance for the processed or artificial nature of related products.

The bottom line, however, is that all tastes vary among individuals regardless of where they live or what foods they grew up eating. One of the reasons I link to reviews of the same snacks on other blogs at the bottom of some of my posts is that I think there is value in different perspectives on the same product. No one can speak to or for the taste buds of other people. They can only speak for themselves. The best I can hope to do is explain my feelings about something well enough to help others understand what has shaped my perceptions so that they can consider if their response might be the same.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Japanese "Golden Oranges"

Fruit in Tokyo is fairly expensive save for a few items like bananas. Even they are only "cheap" by comparison to things like apples which range from about a dollar to up to $3.00 each. Therefore, I am not an adventurous purchaser of fruit. I tend to buy only what I'm sure I like because the risk of investing in bad fruit is simply not worth it. I also grew up in a household where one did not waste the smallest amount of food so the idea of tossing out perfectly good food, which I merely find unpalatable, rubs me the wrong way.

For this reason, Japanese fresh fruit, which is a favored snack of mine, doesn't show up very often for review. Mainly, I'm reviewing it only when it is given to me by Japanese friends, acquaintances or students. Also, a lot of the sorts of things that are not common abroad aren't available in shops anyway. Most of them are regional and you only get them when a distant friend of a friend in Tokyo tries to unload a large portion of their overflowing harvest.

One of my students was given a large portion of Japanese golden oranges by a coworker and she fobbed some off on me. She didn't tell me the Japanese name and my research didn't turn it up. Searches turned up the Japanese equivalent of loquats, kumquats, and fortunella, but none of those was correct. Trying to find the Japanese name of something when you only have a vague description in English, particularly when the fruit is uncommon or unavailable in other countries is a tough feat to pull off.

Each of these oranges is quite small, about the size of a tangerine (or mikan in Japan). The color of the skin is orange-yellow rather than the sunny yellow of a lemon. They smell incredible, like a citrus blend. I didn't use the peel for anything, but I imagine the potential is there for tea, potpourri or even baking using the rind.

The fruit inside is lighter than an orange and it separates easily from the relatively thick skin. The pith sticks like a second flesh where it sticks rather than as stringy bits like in a conventional orange. The taste is like a cross between an orange and a grapefruit without any of the grapefruit bitterness. It was really quite refreshing and tasty. It's not too sweet, but not sour or bitter.

Though I love citrus flavors in cooking or juice, I don't tend to eat the fruit itself very often because I don't like the texture or the acid. These would win out easily over a navel orange (that is, a "regular" orange), but I'd still be more likely to buy Japanese tangerines (mikan) rather than these golden oranges. If they were cheap or if I got them as a gift again, I'd certainly welcome having them again and would definitely recommend sampling them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Morinaga Milk Chocolate Bar

Three of the biggest snack food producers in Japan each have their own plain milk chocolate bar. These types of bars would be the equivalent of a plain Hershey bar back in the U.S. I've sampled Lotte's Ghana and Meiji's milk chocolate bar so I decided I'd go for the trifecta and sample Morinaga's as well.

The Morinaga bar resembles the Meiji one rather closely both in terms of the outer wrapper design and the foil inner wrapper that is consumed by the oversized paper outer wrapper that fits it like pants that haven't been hemmed properly. Both bars look and feel cheap when you compare their packaging to the solid red box a Ghana bar comes in. The only difference is that Morinaga's currently sports a poster illustration by Raymond Savignac. There are 20 different poster designs meant to add novelty to the wrapper's design, but I only saw one design available at my local market. There's also a blurb on the bar about the "Angel Smile Project" which is designed to help out children through sales of chocolate around the world.

The bar looks and feels almost exactly like Meiji's bar with it being separated into 12 squares (at 28 calories a square for a total of 340 calories for the bar) and having the company's name pressed into each one. If they weren't two fairly great rivals, I'd wonder if the bars weren't made by the same company and distributed with slightly different wrappers. The taste is a little different though, so I'm sure they're not the same. The Morinaga bar tastes a lot like hot cocoa and seems to have less cocoa butter than its competitors, particularly Ghana which is a richly fatty bar.

The Morinaga chocolate is solid, but has a soft snap (hence the reason the squares tend not to break along the lines cleanly). There is an element of bittersweet chocolate in almost all Japanese chocolate (except plain KitKats) and often an aftertaste associated with it. This bar was no exception, but it wasn't as unpleasant as the aftertaste from the Meiji bar.

I will note that Morinaga is the only bar that overtly states that the cocoa beans they use are from Japan. Lotte's beans are from, rather unsurprisingly, Ghana, and Meiji doesn't say where its are from and just talks about the roasting process.

Now that I've had all three bars, I'd rank them as follows:

1. Ghana
2. Morinaga
3. Meiji

If you're in the mood for a plain chocolate bar, probably any of them would do if you had a glass of milk or coffee around as a palate cleanser, but if you have a choice, I'd suggest going with Ghana because it has less of a bitter aftertaste and is so rich. They all cost about the same, though I can get Ghana for about 10 yen (10 cents) less than the other two bars most of the time.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

White Gratin Curl

Sometimes you see a product and never give its name a second thought. Take the "Curl" line of processed corn snacks as an example. I've seen a variety of these little cups of salted snack food badness around for well over a decade, but I never noticed that they are straight sticks. There's absolutely nothing curly about these curls except the flourishes on the katakana writing of the name.

Most of the time, Curl products (made by Meiji) are flavored with curry or cheese, so this white gratin variation caught my eye. One of my favorite foods from Japanese restaurants early on during my stay was a mushroom rice gratin that was sold at an ostensibly "Mexican" restaurant near my home. With fond memories of that dish (before the restaurant swapped to Korean barbecue joint), I picked this up.

After peeling off the foil top, I gave it a sniff and was greeted with the scent of cheese powder, much like that in thousands of other cheesy corn snacks, though this was a bit less pungent than something like Cheetos. The first taste was of cheese, followed by onion, corn and a hint of parsley. These are rather salted, but not overdone. The texture is light and crispy. They remind me of a super puffy Cheeto.

The flavorings in these include pork oil, chicken extract powder, cheese powder, onion powder, whey powder, and parsley. It's nicely savory and has slightly interesting flavors, but is dominated by a rather artificial cheese and onion taste. The entire 41 gram (1.4 oz.) container has 228 calories. It felt like a whole lot of calories for very little substance and that is one reason that I wouldn't buy these again. It just felt like too little pleasure for the caloric investment. If I'm going to go for something salty as food amusement, I think I can do better elsewhere.

Note: This product is named after a corn puff type snack which actually is curl-shaped. I realize it is a brand name rather than a description of the snacks in this cup.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chocolate Banana Tart Petit Bit

I always find Japanese companies with Western-sounding names a bit strange. It's like they are trying too hard to be sophisticated or are somehow denying their heritage. To be fair, I find Western companies with Japanese names pretentious and irritating. They're trying too hard to sound hip, cool, or quirky. This company could be about an area of France or a Kentucky whiskey (Bourbon). My research indicates that this is about the French version, not the boozy one.

Bourbon has been around since 1924 and the name has changed a few times since it was first established. It's major products are Al Forte cookies which feature embossed chocolate on one side and a cookie on the other and "Bit" chocolates. "Bit" is sold either as larger individual squares or in packets as "Petit Bit". The Petit Bit package has 10 pieces of about 2.5 cm x 1.5 cm (1 in. x .6 in.) and comes in a wide variety of flavors including blueberry mousse, strawberry, almond, and bitter chocolate. The variety I'm reviewing today is 29 calories per candy. My husband picked up this banana tart variety at "New Days" convenience store where he says they're having a bit of a banana-flavored treats explosion.

Since I generally have a bad reaction to banana treats, I didn't expect to like this. As soon as I unwrapped the package, a strong banana scent wafted out at me and I was further discouraged. The candy is half chocolate and half banana with little pellets of cookie in the center. The flavor is surprisingly realistic. The banana tastes a lot like a real banana, albeit a very ripe one. The cookie pellets mainly lend texture and the chocolate tastes a lot like chocolate syrup. In fact, this very much reminds me of a banana split's banana and chocolate combination.

This was surprisingly good. The flavors are strong, but well-matched. The combination of the slightly soft chocolate with the crispy cookie bits is quite nice and the portions easy to control. If you're a fan of banana splits or chocolate banana tarts, I'd recommending giving this a try.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Variety Friday: McHotdog Mega Sausage

Image pilfered from McDonald's Japan.

The food that people choose to eat for breakfast has always been more interesting to me than any other meal of the day. We're all willing to be a little adventurous at lunch or supper time, but the type of food that one is willing to shovel into one's face after stumbling out of bed is generally more limited. If people are going to be conservative about their eating habits or eat whatever is considered "traditional" for that meal in their culture, you're going to see that reflected more often in breakfast.

What does all of this talk of breakfast have to do with the McHotdog Mega Sausage? Well, believe it or not, this item is only available for breakfast. If you want to get your over-sized wiener on, you'll have to get to a Mickey D's before 10:30. The ad on the site offers (in English, no less) the following words about this dog: Energy? Fun? Love? Beyond! I'm not sure what the obsession is with putting "love" into product ads where we wouldn't consider inserting such a word, but given the massive size of this sausage, the implications are interesting.

The advertising also says that this dog is 200% tastier for its huge size. I guess if it's bigger than the usual McHotdog, then there's probably more taste, but personally I find that Japanese wieners taste funny. They always have a bit of a strange funky taste. I'm guessing this is simply a reflection of different meat products being used in them, likely more pork. Japanese "hamburger" is laced with ground pork because they favor it over beef.

The interesting thing about this sandwich, and I'm sure that's the inescapable conclusion everyone who has glanced at the picture has reached, is that the bun seems Lilliputian compared to the sausage trying to make a home in it. It looks funky, but it's probably not a bad idea. The bread looks sized mainly to provide a tidy way to hold the hot dog rather than as something to be evenly portioned as you eat it. That means more protein and less carbohydrate which makes for a more energetic morning start. The nutrition information for this sausage fest states that it is 506 calories and 33.5 grams of fat (eep), so eating one may not be so bad on the carb front, but it's not really good for you either.

Personally, I can't see myself scarfing down a big wiener for breakfast so I'm not likely to rouse myself before 10:30 and traipse off to the local McDonald's. I'm generally pretty conservative about breakfast and favor a bit of toast or some other typical American carbohydrate-heavy food. If you're more adventurous, you'll want to get one of these sooner rather than later because the Mega Sausage is going to be around for a limited time.

Oh yes, all the possible double entendres in this piece should be interpreted in the worst possible way.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tyrant Habanero "Anbiriba Rod"

The "Tyrant Habanero" brand of spicy rings (by Tohato) has been around for quite a few years and I'm a big fan of them. In fact, I like them so much that I don't buy them because I know I'll eat the whole bag. As has been remarked by more than one person who has imprudently scarfed down a whole bag, they taste great going in, but are really not so great coming out. Ahem.

The rings, which I have not reviewed previously, are pretty much the same as these "rods" except that the rods are rolled out versions. they're thinner, easier to eat, and in a smaller package. The good part about this is that, if you can't stop yourself from foolishly eating them all, it isn't nearly as painful later on. The cup contains 35 grams (1.2 oz.) of small rods and 150 calories. They also do not appear to be quite as densely coated as the rings so they're somewhat less spicy, but it is the same spice coating and mixture.

The spices on these sticks include tomato, onion, garlic, pork, mushroom, and chicken flavor powders as well as habanero puree. Because the habanero pepper is so potent, eating a lot of them (especially the ring version) continuously tends to burn out your taste buds ability to sense anything but heat. If you eat them slowly, you get a better sense of the savory nature of the other spices, particularly the tomato. These are potato-based processed snacks, but you really can't taste the potato much through the spices.

These are thin and crispy and I prefer these rods over the rings both in terms of shape and the ability to bite into them without worrying about the shape of the ring landing awkwardly (or painfully) against your teeth or gums. These are fairly hot so you have to have a slightly strong tongue to enjoy them. I've had hotter things than these, mind you, but they are not for those with a sensitivity to spicy things. I would definitely get these again, but I'm a huge fan of hot foods.

If you'd like to display the evil jack-o-lantern style pepper on your desktop, you can download desktop pictures of it from Tohato here. There's an extra freaky one which looks like a bunch of people worshiping the evil pepper. Let's hope it's not some weird new cult.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Country Ma'am 5 Flavor Cookie Assortment

Back when I first moved to Japan, there was a "Fujiya" cake shop close to the train station nearest my apartment. The shop sold elaborate freshly made cakes for a pretty hefty price as well as packaged sweets. The shop featured a "life size" (about the size of a 6 year-old child) statue of the company's lip-licking mascot, Peko-chan. Fans of Peko-chan can join a fan club on Fujiya's web site and get their hands on a variety of junk bearing her likeness.

The Fujiya cake shop closed up some time ago, but I still run across their mass-produced sweets on occasion. They make a ubiquitous milk fondant filled chocolate with Peko-chan on the cover and Country Ma'am cookies. As I mentioned in a previous review, Country Ma'am are a soft, chewy cookie with a crispy exterior which are even better when microwaved.

This box of assorted cookies includes the usual cocoa chocolate chip and vanilla as well as three new flavors: cream cheese, strawberry, and "delicious chocolate". There are two of each kind of cookie in the box, but I'm only going to review the three new flavors since I already reviewed the vanilla and cocoa in the aforementioned review. Ten small cookies are sold for about 200 yen ($2.18). Since the big bag of cocoa and vanilla cookies alone is about 400 yen ($4.36) and contains 24 cookies, you're paying a slight premium for the new flavors.

From left: strawberry, cream cheese, delicious chocolate
(Click this image for a more detailed, larger one.)

All of the cookies have the same basic texture. The outside is crispy and the inside is moist and chewy. The strawberry one seems a little strange though since it seems like pinkish dough was applied to the outside of a vanilla cookie. The interior is not pink.
  • strawberry: This smells pleasantly of real strawberries. The taste is slightly tart, with a nice real strawberry flavor and it is mildly sweet. There was exactly one white chocolate chip on the edge of this.
  • cream cheese: This one smelled very faintly of cream cheese and had a nice tangy cream cheese flavor. Like the strawberry, there was exactly one white chocolate chip stuck in the top.
  • delicious chocolate: They smelled nicely chocolatey and the taste as compared to the regular "cocoa" flavor was of deeper chocolate. I'd say it was marginally better than the cocoa version. There also appeared to be a few tiny fragments of nuts in this, but you can't taste them because they're too small. The ingredients list for this cookie mentioned almond paste, but I couldn't detect any of it in the taste.
The packaging is rather misleading and I think that it has been digitally constructed to make you think that all of the cookies are full of chocolate chips. The cream cheese and strawberry seem like they were made by having a machine drop just one chip on the corner as that was all that was in each of them. I get the feeling that that chip is simply there to add the slightest bit of credibility to the "choco chip" claim written on the packages. That being said, I don't think the cookies suffer at all for their lack of chips. They probably would be too sweet with more of them.

These were all nice cookies with good flavor and excellent texture, but they carry the tiniest hint of an artificial flavor which I connect with the preservatives or the packaging. The texture is unique among the various cookies you can buy in Japan and is about as close to homemade that you can get from packaged cookies. That is not to say they are anywhere near as good as a home-baked chewy cookie, but they're nice in a pinch.