Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tirol Variety Pack Mini (milk mochi included)

Tirol releases a constant stream of "variety packs" for about a dollar (100 yen) a pack. When I first started doing these reviews, I was interested in trying all the various packs, but my enthusiasm has since waned. One of the reasons for this is that often these packs include a couple of old flavors and perhaps one or two limited edition or new flavors. You can pretty much bet on the mix being calculated so that the newer flavor is there to lure people to buy 9 candies to sample one or two.

From the top to the bottom: Bis, Almond, Cappucino, Milk Mochi

The package contains 9 candies and the distribution is annoying. They give you 3 of the rather pedestrian "Bis" (biscuit) candies instead of tripling up on the mini version of one of the "premium" flavor candies. I counted how many were in more than one pack when I bought this at the store, so I'm sure it wasn't just the packet I bought.

The candies are molded with a top pattern like most mini versions of Tirol chocolates except for the almond one which has an almond embossed on top of it (click this picture to load a larger version to see more detail).

Cappucino Choco:
This smells a lot like instant coffee. There are two distinct layers and each is a different flavor. The taste is mixed between slightly bitter instant coffee (like Nescafé) and sweet milky white chocolate. Most Tirol candies I've had are very soft, but this is dense and chalky with a strong snap. If you like instant coffee and white chocolate, you'll love this. If you're looking more for an espresso taste, which I'd prefer, this is okay, but not great. I think the coffee portion would have benefited from a little cinnamon to add depth to the flavor.

This smells like milk chocolate or cocoa powder. It tastes like pretty decent milk chocolate with a super crispy deeply roasted and crunchy almond. There's a nice mix of almond and chocolate flavor but a bit of a bitter aftertaste from the chocolate.

Milk Mochi:
This flavor is the one which compelled me to purchase the mix. It smells like white chocolate and, unfortunately, tastes mostly like overly sweet white chocolate with a chewy gummy center. There seems to be a tiny lemon note. To get a sense of the mochi center, I sucked off the coating from the second half of the piece I sampled so I could eat only the gummy. It had very little flavor, but nice texture. This was a big disappointment.

I already knew that the Bis was going to be a little bland, crunchy cookie in milk chocolate and it smelled like cheap chocolate. The chocolate tastes flat, like there isn't enough milk in it and there's too much sugar. It's also firmer that usual for a Tirol chocolate. There's a lot of crunch from the cookie which dominates most of it, There's also a rather intense cocoa flavor from the thin chocolate coating. It seems that the chocolate was made extra potent so that less of it could be used to surround the cookie while still holding the chocolate flavor.

The almond was the winner from this pack. The rest was fairly disappointing, but by no means bad. I'll finish the bag eventually, but I have no desire to buy any of the varieties included in this bag again except the almond. The milk mochi variety is classified as "rare" on the Tirol web site and comes in two different color packages (blue and pink). It also says that you can only get these in variety packs, which I believe means there is no premium version sold individually. It's not worth buying a variety pack for, nor worth seeking out as a rarity.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pepsi Shiso

Across the bottom of the bottle, it says "Japanese refreshing flavor".

There's a commercial from the 70's for an American dish washing liquid called "Palmolive". The catch phrase for the commercial is "you're soaking in it." If you haven't seen the commercial, here it is on YouTube:

Now, you might reasonably guess what this has to do with Pepsi Shiso. First of all, they're both green and smell like cleaning fluid of some sort. Shiso (known as Perilla in English) is an herb from the mint family and the scent of this Pepsi is a mixture of pine, mint, and fennel. The pine in particular along with the color really reminds you of the sort of thing you'd use to scrub your floors. The smell is quite potent. My husband likened it to Palmolive as well as Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo. Note that comparisons to food weren't really on the table.

I think that I was more reluctant to taste this than anything I have ever sampled before. The idea of shiso flavoring didn't trouble me, but after smelling it, I was none too keen on drinking it. The first drink really wasn't too bad. I told my husband, "it doesn't taste as bad as it smells." He suggested that Pepsi use that as a slogan in marketing this beverage.

The flavor definitely carries a bit of a soapiness to it because it seems a bit perfume-like. It has a quasi-mint aftertaste and a strong pine-like front end. There really does not seem to be any "Pepsi" flavor in the mix at all. Because the first sip of it wasn't too bad, I was actually inclined to give it a rating higher than Pepsi White at first, but the second and third sips were leading to a really bad build-up of the strong herbal flavors. It became pretty unbearable about 2/3 of the way through the small glass I poured. I nearly got to the bottom, before my stomach started to rebel and twist up a bit in knots. The rest of it is going down the drain, though perhaps first I should see about cleaning the toilet with it.

This is what I'd call a noble effort on Pepsi's part to infuse a unique and interesting flavor into their drink. If it were muted a bit, it might work, or it may render calling it "Shiso" irrelevant much in the way that Green Tea Coke was so subtle as to not really taste much like tea. At any rate, unless you want to try washing your hair in Pepsi, I'd recommend giving this a miss.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Variety Friday: McDonald's Quarter Pounder "Big Mouth" Campaign

I don't watch much television, and I watch even less Japanese television as a subset of my limited viewing hours. That means I rarely, if ever, see Japanese commercials. I'm sure many people view that as an utterly wasted opportunity since you often see weird Japanese commercials featured on American shows about the "world's funniest commercials". The truth is that most Japanese commercials are painfully boring, just like those in other countries. Only the odd strange one makes it onto American T.V.

I also rarely eat fast food of any stripe, and even more rarely eat at McDonald's. Most of my knowledge of what goes on comes via my husband, who eats out once a week (though not generally at Mickey D's) and occasionally allows himself an indulgence like a Quarter Pounder. After one such dip into the beef-filled fast food pond, he brought home the items pictured at the top of this post and I set about investigating why he was given a pink button featuring a disco ball.

Screenshot taken from McDonald's Quarter Pounder page

This particular campaign relates to a "rose color" T-shirt campaign and commercials featuring "Big Mouth" (an Asian hip hop band, or at least I think that's the group being featured in the ads - I'm not a J-pop aficionado). Currently, the campaign's information can be accessed via their Quarter Pounder page. There is a vast amount of information and a lot of different things going on including commercials, information on the making of those commercials, a rose color T-shirt "shop", and a "wiki" for the Quarter Pounder which features things like how to make a Quarter Pounder out of paper, manners for eating the burger (like not eating it with chopsticks) and ASCII art of a burger. It's all pretty silly stuff and you can see it even if you can't read Japanese by clicking on the "Wiki" in English and just systematically clicking on various hot spots on the image.

Screenshot taken from McDonald's Quarter Pounder page

For the consumers of the Quarter Pounder, you get a plastic packet with a button and a card. The button designs mirror (at least some) of the rose colored T-shirt designs. The card has a scratch-off area. If the card says "hazure"(はずれ), you don't get a T-shirt.

The campaign runs from June 19 to July 21 of this year. I can't say that I'd recommend anyone rush there to get a pink button with a weird picture on it and a chance to win a pink T-shirt, but if you're headed that way anyway, perhaps I've at least helped you understand why you're being given such peculiar and useless items.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sweetened Condensed Milk Cake

Back home (that'd be the U.S. for me), condensed milk is associated with baking, particularly in certain fudge and candy recipes. Very few people ever consider condensed milk as something that you consume directly on other foods like fruit or cake. In Japan, tubes of sweetened condensed milk are often sold next to strawberries because it is used like a condiment or dessert topping.

Personally, I find the taste of pure condensed milk a bit funky, though I know a lot of people (both foreign and Japanese) who really like it. One of my former coworkers, a British lady, loved to eat the stuff she bought in Japan right out of the tube. It was ambrosia to her. It is so suited to tastes in Japan that Krispy Kreme has made a "cream cheese" donut which is actually full of tangy sweetened condensed milk. I've had it, and I didn't care for it.

These were made by snack food powerhouse Morinaga. The web site listed on the box points you to their biscuits web site, but these cakes are not listed in the products section of the site they direct you to. I did find a generic listing on their main site, but it didn't provide much information. I can't track the history of this product, but I think these cakes are an old-fashioned product for them and I'm pretty sure that I have seen them around since I first came to Japan nearly two decades ago. I think this is one of those things which appeals to older folks with a sense of nostalgia rather than to the younger market in Japan. The box design, with an old-fashioned picture of a bastardized version of Elsie the Borden cow supports this idea if nothing else.

My husband picked up this box of 6 sandwich cakes at a discount sweets shop. Each is about 5 cm./2 in. in diameter. The cake on the outside is called しっとりケーキ (shittori cake) which is a sort of moist, soft cake. There are recipes for these types of cakes as well as cookies on the web. The main components are "soft flour", margarine, and sugar. These cakes are made with shortening instead of margarine and also include tapioca. The cake is a bit dense, but very soft and moist.

The cakes smell vaguely of a bakery. It's a nondescript smell you associate with baked goods rather than a particular flavor. The filling is creamy, lightly sweetened and tastes of milk. It doesn't carry much of a condensed milk flavor, but that is a bit of a plus in my opinion. The ratio of cake to filling is pretty well-balanced. The texture is very good and I liked these quite a bit. My husband, on the other hand, felt that they were fine, but that they were too bland for him and that the calorie to pleasure ratio didn't justify eating them. Keep in mind that he likes things sweeter than I and texture weighs more heavily in how much I like something than flavor. This is a good type of treat to enjoy if you aren't a fan of super sweet things. Each cake is a relatively modest 135 calories per cake and a box of 6 costs about 200 yen ($2.23).

This is the sort of thing I'd pick up on a whim if I was seriously in the mood for a cream filled cake. I'd also welcome being given one as a gift at the office if someone was doling out tea-time treats. I imagine a box of these would also be nice to keep on hand if you frequently encountered unexpected guests and wanted cakes that weren't going to go stale if they were stored for a long time to serve with tea or coffee on hand. The expiration date on these was about 4 months from when they were purchased.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ito En Salty Lemon

When it's really hot and the sun is beating down on your, there are certain things that sound really good. One is the notion of ice cold lemonade. Another is something salty in order to replenish what you've been sweating out. Of course, I don't actually sweat much so I'm guessing I don't lose much salt. Nonetheless, as I trudged around in the blazing sun feeling dehydrated and overheated, I was thinking this salty lemon beverage would really hit the spot.

This drink was made by a company called Ito En which makes a variety of other beverages including tea drinks, fruit and vegetable juices, and sports drinks. They're also controlling Tully's coffee brand in Japan and Evian water. The company was established in 1966, which makes it a relatively young business by Japanese standards. They're best known for their bottled teas, especially green tea and barley tea.

The Salty Lemon is touted as being "calorie off". This is Japanese English for reduced calorie. The entire 500 ml. bottle has 81 calories and is sweetened with Sucralose artificial sweetener. It also has 1000 mg of Vitamin C and, of course, added vitamins and lemon are ingredients.

This smells ever so vaguely lemony with a tiny hint of something which is slightly medicinal. The first thing that surprised me when I poured it was that it wasn't carbonated. For some reason, I expected it to be fizzy, but there was really no reason for me to expect that to be so. The best way I can sum up the flavor is that it tastes like a Vitamin C supplement dissolved in water. The lemon flavor is very subdued. It has no acidity or bite and mainly seems like a weak lemon isotonic drink. It's not exactly repugnant, but it's not really pleasant either. Mainly, it's weakly lemon and weakly salty and lightly sweet. It really does remind me of what you'd get if you dissolved some sort of powdered medicine or supplement in a glass of water and drank it for your health.

If I were parched and had no water at hand, I'd drink this. However, there is no joy in it and I threw away the rest of the bottle. Certainly, I wouldn't buy it again, nor would I recommend it to any but someone who was sick and wanted to drink down a bunch of Vitamin C.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Garlic Butter Sembei

Thanks to the experimentation that this blog has encouraged me to do, I've changed from being indifferent to sembei to being quite the fan of it. In fact, I can safely say that it's something I'm going to miss when I eventually return to the U.S.

While this change of heart on the minor topic of sembei has been great for me, it's not been so good for my husband. He hates the smell of sembei and my occasional indulgence in a cracker or two puts him out. The solution, of course, is to not eat any sembei in front of him. That being said, I believe I have found a sembei that even a sembei hater might like.

I found this small (30 gram/1 oz.) bag for about 150 yen ($1.45) at FamilyMart. I've struck gold several times at FamilyMart while searching for sembei-based snacks in atypical flavors. A few of my favorites from there include the corn potage and wasabi sembei.

These rice crackers smell just like garlic bread and taste almost as good as the real deal. They don't even carry the telltale scent of baked rice cracker that you usually get with sembei. The flavor is a well-balanced blend of garlic with butter, salt and parsley. The crackers are about half the size of your average sembei, but they're light and the whole bag only has 145 calories.

I loved these and would recommend them over something like a potato chip any day. They're a limited edition from Kameida Seika which will be in shops for only about 4 months so you need to get out and sample them now while you have a chance. Even my husband, who dislikes sembei, liked these.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sequoia Salty Vanilla Chocolate

My husband and I were meandering around a Family Mart convenience store when he spied this "salty vanilla" Sequoia bar. For those who don't know, Sequoia is an original Japanese brand of wafer bar. It isn't a KitKat knock-off. It just looks like one. He said, "this looks like something I'd like," and hence a review was born. I'm always much more likely to try something if I know I'll just have a bit and he'll finish the rest. This is one way to keep the sweets consumption under control for me, though I can't say it works so well for him. It's not that Sequoia bars are too huge for one person to eat, mind you. They're about the total volume of two and a half KitKat fingers.

I sort of wonder how someone decided that salt and vanilla would be a good combination. A comedic collision like the ones about gettings one's chocolate in another's peanut butter comes to mind, but I'm guessing this has more to do with the people at Furuta jumping on the salty vanilla bandwagon or just plain running out of ideas for what they could easily slap together without spending a fortunate on food coloring. I can see the buchos (higher level managers) brainstorming and talking about new flavors. Suggestions for grape, blueberry, or melon are bandied about but no one wants to buy purple, blue or green food dye. The guy who suggested salting down the white chocolate probably got an extra bonus.

I kept this bar in the refrigerator because the weather has been so hot lately. Nonetheless, this was very soft when I took it out for pictures. I wouldn't carry this around in my pocket for long in the summer.

The chocolate coating is advertised as "milk cream" and the "center is "vanilla cream". I think that part of the problem I had with this bar is that I couldn't taste either vanilla or salt much at all, and that is likely because the flavoring is not in the coating, but only between the wafers. Mainly, I could taste shattering white chocolate sweetness. This is an incredibly cloying bar. The strange thing is that I kind of liked it despite that, but probably only in the way that one sometimes really likes a super strong hit of sugar. The flavor had very little depth. I am confident that I wouldn't be so fond of it on a revisit.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Variety Friday: A Poll About the Reviews You Like

My readership has been slowly growing and I'm hoping I can get some of my readers to share their thoughts about what sort of reviews they most enjoy so I'd like to conduct a poll to ask about which reviews are of the greatest interests. A poll should be posted at the top of the sidebar on the right, but please feel free to leave a comment if there's something in particular that you're interested in which does not appear in the poll.

Also, and I hate to say this but many years of dealing with commenters and online communities forces me to do so but, I'm not interested in comments about what you don't want to read about so much as what you want to hear about more often. I'm not looking to eliminate all coverage of certain types of snacks so much as step up the frequency of those which are more popular. I want to keep variety in the blog, but I also want to give you more of what you like best.

Thanks a lot for reading!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kameida Black and White Pepper Sembei

Most people are familiar with Peugeot. It's a car maker, right? Well, a few months ago, I learned that they make pepper mills. In fact, they've been making pepper mills since 1842. I think they need to work on their brand name recognition for their cooking instruments. No company wants to only be known for its world class cars when it's got a line of fine pepper and salt mills for the discerning culinary types out there.

Of course, I'm by no means a discerning culinary type, but I do like coarsely ground black pepper in big visible bits. When I make a salad, I break out the pepper and salt mills to liberally sprinkled it with crunchy seasoning. Given my predilection for highly visible spices, I couldn't resist this bag of sembei. In fact, I noticed that there were two types with visible pepper on display, so I wonder if several food manufacturers have bought themselves some fine Peugeot pepper mills and decided to put them to good use.

Each is individually wrapped and 33 calories for each 7 cm (2.7 in.) cracker. The ingredients include two kinds of rice, vegetable oil, black pepper, salt, fish extract powder, garlic powder, extract of kelp powder, soy sauce powder, garlic oil, onion powder, and white pepper. As you can see, the white pepper is far down on the list. I have a feeling someone added a pinch into the seasoning mix just so they could put a more interesting graphic on the bag and that it doesn't figure at all in the overall taste.

These sembei have an excellent, crispy texture and feel deep-fried (hence the vegetable oil being second on the ingredients list). They are pretty salty in a good way and the little flecks of pepper burned the corners of my mouth. Still, that being said, I could have used a little more pepper. It's probably just about right for a normal human being who doesn't love black pepper as much as I do.

I enjoyed these quite a lot and would certainly consider buying them again. However, I'll probably give another pepper sembei a try first just in case the other maker was a bit more liberal with the coarse pepper bits.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Maple Monimo Chocolate Wafer

I love small portions for sweets, and I definitely live in the right country for buying things in small quantities. One of the reasons I review so much Tirol chocolate is that it is sold in roughly one inch (30 mm) square blocks that are individually wrapped and sold for a small price. This means two bites, a few calories, and no temptation to overindulge. By and large though, Tirol has been the only manufacturer to regularly offer such small morsels for individual sale.

Because I like a company that offers its products in a fashion which saves me from myself, I was happy to come across Monimo brand squares which appear to be a knock-off of Tirol types of candies. They are the exact same size as Tirol Premium chocolates and about the same price. The company that makes these is Nikkoh Co., Ltd. which is located in Gifu, Japan and was established in 1954. In addition to a small line of chocolates, they make jellies (what we call gelatin) and bottle beverages like ramune (a kind of Japanese soda) and cream soda.

These chocolates come wrapped in the exact same fashion as Tirol candies. That is, they are wrapped in foil-lined paper and then in a thin layer of plastic with nutritional information large folded under the candy. This particular chocolate was 59 calories. Unlike Tirol, it's not stamped with a design but rather with a message to "Relax!" I have no idea why it says "Modena" on it, but it is interesting to note that it is the name of a breed of "fancy pigeon". Let's hope that has nothing to do with the candy's ingredients.

Since spring is here and it's warm and humid all the time, my candy melted just a little en route to my apartment. I put it in the refrigerator immediately, but the chocolate is on the soft side even when kept quite cold. The candy smells like regular chocolate. There isn't a hint of maple in the scent at all. The chocolate itself tastes somehow cheap. Even though it is made with cocoa butter, that ingredient comes pretty far down the line.

The chocolate has that familiar bittersweet chocolate aftertaste that one often finds in Japanese chocolate, but it's a bit stranger than usual. I think that slightly funky aftertaste comes from the maple flavor in between the wafers. The problem is that there is so little wafer and so little maple flavor, that you can't tell exactly what it is. The wafer is crispy and nice, particularly as a pairing with the soft chocolate coating, but ultimately it's just not that impressive.

This wasn't bad by a long shot, but I definitely wouldn't choose to revisit it. If I had known what it was like before purchasing it, I probably wouldn't have bothered. It's not the least bit offensive or anything. It's just not all that exciting or delicious. On the bright side, it didn't appear to taste anything like a fancy pigeon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ramune KitKat Mini

My husband and I were perusing a discount snack shop and they had a sign up that said that the next KitKat flavor to be released on June 16, 2009 will be "ramune" flavor. Ramune is a Japanese "soda" flavor which has a distinctive bottle that has a marble in it. It comes in different flavors but was originally a lemon-lime flavor mix, but there are actually a variety of flavors which are sold as ramune.

When I first came to Japan, I thought of ramune as "weird blue" flavor since it seemed a lot of the "soda" flavor candies and drinks were blue. It's not a bad flavor, but it's not really that great either. My guess is that most of the ramune that I've sampled is artificially flavored and therefore not the best quality.

The interesting thing is that, like many "Japanese" foods, ramune is actually something brought to Japan by a European person. In this case, a Scotsmen. One thing that sometimes irks me is that I'll see people talking about recipes for "Japanese bread" or "Japanese cheesecake" or whatnot. Prior to various Europeans introducing certain types of food culture, Japan didn't have a culture which included traditional baking with wheat (or almond) flour. There really is no such thing as "Japanese bread" or "Japanese cake" which is put in an oven and baked. There are only European recipes which are popular in Japan.

At any rate, ramune is actually a phonetic approximation of "lemonade". Le = Ra (), Mo = Mu (ム), Nade = Ne (ネ). This may not make sense just looking at the spelling, but keep in mind that Japanese uses phonetic characters which, for the most part, are consonant vowel pairs and not single letters and "lemonade" doesn't use a "lee" sound, but a "lay". There are some sounds in English that the Japanese can't reproduce because they don't exist in their language.

At any rate, it is a logical choice for a summer KitKat release to choose a beverage that is so linked with the change of season in Japan. The choice Nestle Japan will make in terms of flavor is also an interesting one. Given that there is variation in ramune flavors in sweets and sodas, they had some flexibility.

When you open the package, the first thing you smell is bubble gum. The bars are pale bluish-green and about half the length of the usual KitKat finger. I paid 30 yen (about 30 cents) for one mini bar at 7-11. You can buy big bags of these for about 300-350 yen ($3-$3.45) and get 20 bars at once, but I preferred to pay more and get less for an unknown candy.

The first bite of this is of distinct and clear, but good, bubble gum flavor. Despite being a white chocolate-based KitKat, it's not overpoweringly sweet. The finishing flavor is like fizzy sour candy that you had as a kid. You know, the sort which you got for Halloween and put in a glass of water sometimes to see how it dissolved and then if you were really brave, you drank the water.

I thought this was pretty good and my husband loved it. In fact, he's considering buying a whole large bag of the mini bars to keep around as a sweet at work. I'd definitely buy these again, though I probably won't have the chance given how short-lived these specialty flavor KitKats seem to be these days. If you can sample this, I'd recommend you do unless you really dislike bubble gum flavor.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Crunky Almond Chocolate

Back when I was still working at a Japanese company, I used to fuel my late day energy lag with chocolate covered almonds. Most convenience stores carry at least one of several varieties of them. My favorite was Meiji's. The only problem was that the box was 105 grams (3.7 oz.) and resistance was futile. Buying a box was tantamount to admitting that I was going to overindulge in a big way. Chocolate-covered nuts are very dense in calories.

The Crunky Almond chocolates come in a box which is more manageable at 37 grams (1.3 oz.). The whole box is 212 calories or 22 calories per candy and cost 99 yen. Because the Meiji box is bigger, it costs about 180-200 yen. Note that Lotte, which makes Crunky products, has their own version of chocolate covered almonds both with and without crispy bits in the coating. These Crunky almonds seem to duplicate their existing product.

The candy looks and feels almost exactly like other types of chocolate-covered almonds. It's smooth and shiny and has almost no smell at all because of the shiny waxy coating. This gives them a very polished look, like part of a good bridge mix.

Despite my affinity for chocolate-covered almonds, I strung out eating this box for quite awhile, eating about one-third at a time. The first time I tried them, I couldn't sense much chocolate taste at all, but I think that was because my sense of smell and taste were suppressed for some reason. Initially, I thought that it was the waxy coating on the outside because sucking on them for awhile seemed to open up the flavor in a way that just crunching on them didn't. The second and third samplings were much richer and more appealing. The chocolate is deep, familiar Japanese bittersweet chocolate. It pairs well with a deeply roasted, crunchy almond.

The "Crunky" crunchy bits didn't do much for the overall experience except dilute the intensity of the chocolate a small amount. There's a hint of their malted puff flavor as a leftover taste, but it's not very strong. The almond and chocolate mostly overwhelm the puffs. The puffs do add a bit more crunch to the chocolates, but I'm not sure that it really needs it since the chocolate coating is solid and a little hard and the almond very crunchy.

These were quite good, but I can't say that they're necessarily better than a regular chocolate-covered almond. The main benefit of these over the other varieties is that the portion control is nicer for someone like me who finds it hard to resist the bigger boxes. I'd definitely buy these again, but if I saw them side by side with the Meiji almonds in the same portions, I'd still probably go for the pure chocolate coating of the regular chocolate-covered almonds.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Variety Friday: Domino's Hot Sub Procured

Image pinched from Domino's web site.

In last week's Variety Friday post, I mentioned that my husband and I were planning on giving Domino's new hot subs a try. I had actually planned on adding a bit to the end of that post talking about our experience, but something strange happened on the way to the pizza place.

There's a Domino's about a 3 or 4 minute walk from our apartment. It's a really tiny place with an entryway that is about as big as two phone booths stacked side by side, but there's enough of a kitchen behind it to do what they have to do to serve and deliver pizza to our neighborhood. When we walked down there around 1:00 pm, it was locked up tight. Since it is open 7 days a week, and at lunch time, this was a bit strange. In fact, there was a Japanese man who was clearly lurking outside waiting to see if they opened. After a short wait, he started trying to call the shop on his cell phone to no avail. We gave up pretty quickly and walked away. This is why this is a separate review rather than an addendum to last week's post.

Today, we had better luck around the same time of day and procured our sandwiches. My husband also ordered their rather pricey "juicy fried chicken" (at about $5 (510 yen) for only 4 small pieces) because he wasn't confident that the sandwiches were going to have enough meat to satisfy him. The people who took our order were very nice and energetic and fielded my husband's questions about whether or not mayonnaise (which he dislikes) was on the meat sub. I should note that you have to be very careful about asking such questions in Japan because even raising the point often makes them conclude that you want the food you're asking about. He had to make sure they knew he didn't want mayonnaise because the first thing they assumed was that he was asking to have mayo added to the sandwich. The exchange was something like this:

Husband: Does the meat sub have mayo?
Helpful clerk1: No, it doesn't.
Helpful clerk2: Yes, we have mayonnaise!
Husband: No, no, I don't want mayonnaise, I want to know if you put it on usually.
Helpful clerk2: No, not usually, but we can!
Husband: No, no, I don't want any.

I think this type of response comes from an overzealous desire to please the customer's every wish if it is at all possible.

There are sites which specialize in showing you how food looks on the packaging or in the advertising as compared to the real thing. The outside of our sandwiches really did resemble the ones in the advertisement (pictured at the top of this post), though they were toasted a bit more darkly and had cheese running down them in a few spots.

I ordered the roasted chicken hot sub with the full knowledge that it might not have all that much chicken. I would call the chicken quantity barely adequate. The bread was nice, fresh and crispy and the cheese good and gooey. The chicken was moist and nice white meat. The chicken was smothered in pesto mayonnaise and topped with melted cheese. I've mentioned before that mayonnaise is like the 4th food group in Japan. They love it to pieces, but I certainly could have done with a lot less of this. In fact, mostly, all I could taste was the pesto mayo with glimpses of the chicken.

My husband's meat sub was closer to a pizza sandwich and had more meat although the slices of the three types of meat were pretty thin. On the bottom is pizza sauce then what the Japanese call "pepperoni salami" (which is not the same as pepperoni in the U.S.), then "fresh ham" (not heavily cured), and finally the weird ass Japanese "wieners" that have a funky taste all their own. I didn't sample it, but my husband liked this and said he'd buy it again, even given the somewhat heavy price tag for a 15 cm (6 inch) sandwich.

Strangely, the meat sub was the cheapest of the sandwiches at 550 yen (about $5.50) despite clearly having more meat than the roast chicken which was 680 yen (about $6.75). Usually, meat is the priciest element of any food order here. I guess that they were charging me more for the heaping helping of pesto mayonnaise. At any rate, while I would be willing to try one of these subs again, I won't be giving the roast pesto mayonnaise with a side of chicken a shot again. I'd probably try the jalapeno next time, provided they don't discontinue these before I get around to having another.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Snow Inn" Soft Sembei (Salad flavor)

Back when I reviewed black soy bean sembei, one of the commenters (Sophia) advised me not to be wary of the frosted sembei because they have a sweet and salty thing going on. Since I'm a fan of chocolate paired with salt, I figured I'd take her advice and give them a try.

There are many varieties of frosted rice crackers and I decided to just go for what was on sale This large bag with 24 crackers (12 packs of 2) was 168 yen (about $1.60). Each cracker is about 7.5 cm (about 3 in.) in size. "Soft" sembei appears to mean that the crackers are puffier and have more air in them than the flatter, cracker-like crackers I've tried before. They're not actually soft though. They are quite crispy. They simply aren't as brittle as some other sembei. From a salted snack point of view, "soft" sembei are like cheese puffs and "hard" ones are like potato chips.

The company that makes these is Sanko Seika. They make a great many varieties of rice-based snacks. The company was established in 1962 and is headquartered in Niigata. I've noticed a lot of the food manufacturers in Japan are not based in Tokyo. I guess that they grew up around the agricultural concerns that their products are made from and had no reason to move to one of the more expensive metropolises like Tokyo or Osaka. Sanko Seika apparently is known among Japanese for their old television ads which featured a slogan which amounted to "oh, the Sanko wafer is smiling at you." I wish I could find an ad on YouTube, but all I could find was a pretty pointless video of someone inspecting the back of a packet of sembei slowly and opening it up.

The front of the bag says "salad" on it. The combination of frosted sugary "salad" is one that doesn't necessarily sit well with me, but I figure it's a food-based adventure. This is far easier than a real adventure like, say climbing Mt. Everest. Because I'm 44 years old and have a bad back, funky sembei is about all I can manage on the adventure front.

The ingredients for these sembei include rice, sugar, vegetable oil, salt, skim milk, gelatin, fruit milk oligosaccharides, lactose, light hydrolyzate, whipped cream, soy sauce powder, and seasoning. I'm not sure where any of that amounts to "salad" and I'm a bit surprised to see "sugar" as the second biggest ingredient after rice. Despite the high amount of sugar, there are only 70 calories for 2 crackers. Considering the size of them, 35 calories apiece isn't bad.

These sembei smell mainly like average rice crackers with just a hint of soy sauce. If you eat them with the sugary side down so that it hits your tongue more strongly, you get a good sense of the mix of flavors. It's a very difficult thing to describe because I guess the closest I can come to describing it is what it'd be like if you ate frosted flakes with diluted soy sauce and salt. It's very weird. That's not to say that it is bad, but it's definitely an acquired taste and unique.

I liked these, and I will definitely eat the remainder of the bag through time, but I don't think I'd buy this particular flavor again. It's not that I don't enjoy them necessarily, but I can't see craving them. The hard part for me is the soy sauce taste with the sugary frosting. I'm not a great fan of soy sauce to begin with, though I generally don't mind it.

The texture of these crackers is excellent and eating them from that viewpoint is very satisfying. I'm just not getting over the mix of flavors. I'd recommend trying them if you have a chance though. There's every chance someone with tastes that run differently than mine might enjoy them. Certainly many Japanese folks do.

This sembei was also reviewed at Snack Love.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tirol Purple Potato Chocolate

When I was a kid, purple was my favorite flavor for pretty much anything. My mother bought plastic tubes of syrup which you stuck in the freezer and then squeezed out and sucked on until your tongue turned purple. Purple was also my favorite lollipop, Kool-Aid, and sno-cone. Of course, "purple" was supposed to mean "grape", but none of that kid's stuff tasted like real grape. I don't know what flavor it was, but it was probably sugar, purple food coloring, and a little citric acid for bite.

As one becomes an adult, purple food starts to take on a different feel. Except for grapes, it seems like a "wrong" color for food as it carries with it the memory of those artificial treats from when I was too young to know or care what I was eating. For this reason, purple potato Tirol chocolate looks funky. It smells great though, like a yummy roasted sweet potato that you buy from a cart on the street in Tokyo in winter.

My candy melted a little across the top even though we haven't seen a day higher than 83 degrees and I have been keeping this in the refrigerator full-time. My guess is that it happened in transit and is a result of the fact that the chocolate coating is relatively soft. This makes it easy to bite into. The coating is fairly sweet and carries a strong, but not overpowering sweet potato flavor. The cookie adds texture and has no flavor of its own. When I cut this in half and saw that the center was a cookie, I was disappointed and thought that some sort of bean jam or mochi filling might have been better. After eating it though, I think that the cookie was probably the best choice to cut the sweetness a bit.

This was 40 yen (about 37 cents) at a local Family Mart and has 52 calories for its 1 inch square (2.54 cm) size. It's a nice little morsel if you love sweet potatoes (and I do). I'd definitely consider buying it again, though I'm not sure that I could eat more than one at a time. It's unique and enjoyable, but not the sort of thing you're going to put away in large amounts. I'd count that as a benefit.