Saturday, February 27, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 1

I'm starting a new feature where I post a random snack-related picture of some product that I'm not reviewing, but I believe might be of interest to readers. I've noticed that I have a pretty big collection of pictures of food items taken in supermarkets or other shops. I'd like to share in a small way some of the experience of shopping in Japan beyond the things I actually buy and review. These sorts of pictures will show up randomly (when I find one I want to share), with minimal information, and always as a bonus post on the weekend. They won't replace the regular weekday posts. I hope they are of interest to my readers. :-)

As part of the push to sell more KitKats to students studying for exams, Nestlé Japan is offering a jar of instant coffee with a box of a handful of mini KitKats on the side. The minis have a space on the back of them to write a message. This is how you know they are marketed toward people wanting to offer gifts of encouragement (and caffeine) to students. Note that the pink box design with flowers matches other products aimed toward students.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Taiko Sembei

When Japanese people explain sembei, they sometimes call it a cracker and at other times a cookie. It turns out that sembei is one of those words like "biscuit" in English. That is, it can apply to more than one type of food. Taiko sembei is not a rice cracker, but a dense cookie.

The reason these are called "taiko" (Japanese drum) sembei is that two cookies are wrapped together in a little shrink-wrapped package. The cookies are meant to resemble the two ends of a drum. I bought a big package with 10 double packets in it for about 200 yen ($2.22). That means that each generously sized cookie is only 10 yen (11 cents) each. That makes these much cheaper than Japanese-made Western-style cookies.

These are made by a company named Nanao Seika. The company started doing business in 1957 by making "crackers" (these cookies are called crackers on their web site). Their main products continue to be hard cookies and crackers, but they also make doughnuts and fruit gelatin snacks (called "jelly" in Japan, but they are essentially what we call gelatin or "Jell-O".) Their line of products is limited, and as far as I know they have no "signature" products which are commonly exported, though I'd be surprised if their peanut sembei or these taiko sembei didn't make their way into Asian supermarkets in other countries.

These cookies are dense, dry and brittle. There are three or four roasted and unsalted peanuts in the center of each cookie. The cookie itself is lightly sweet and tastes of toasted flour, margarine, and mild sweetness. They are incredibly crunchy and have a flavor which is just a bit shy of being burnt.

The only thing which I'm not necessarily happy about is that they're a little dense in calories for a cookie which isn't very sweet. The calorie information states that there are 475 calories for 100 grams, but they don't give the weight of the entire bag. My unreliable kitchen scale places 6 cookies at 100 grams. That makes each cookie about 70-80 calories, and I'm always going to eat two because of the packaging style and the fact that they will most certainly be no good if they are stale.

I really like these, but texture often factors more strongly into my enjoyment of things than taste. These are not very sweet and they lack the flaky nature of most butter cookies. They remind me of what might happen if you flattened some yellow cake batter into as dense a disc as possible and then cooked it to the "dark" toast setting. I'd definitely buy these again, though not incredibly often, but I can't guarantee that others would find them as appealing as I do.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Takenoko no Sato Strawberry Tart Cookies

Recently, I heard a new word and that word is "wankle". I came by it via Cheap Eats, a blog that I have read for quite a long time. The term is of Brian's own invention, and I believe all of us reviewers should do our best to put it into the mainstream. The thumbnail explanation is that it is when you start a review talking about something unrelated to the product at hand. I would also say it relates to talking about things that have nothing to do with the product as you get deeper into the review as well.

Personally, I go out of my way to "wankle", especially on products which I have reviewed dozens of times before like KitKats. There are only so many ways that you can talk about taste, texture, and aroma before it all starts to get pretty boring. Of course, if I can find some trivia or history about the product, I don't need to wankle, but once you've talked about a company once or twice, you're out of material.

After reading Brian's post, I wondered how my readers feel about wankling. Do they prefer that writers just get down and talk about the food or do they want to hear insane ramblings in order to up the amusement quota of the post? Personally, my favorite reviewers are the ones who wankle the most like Brian at Cheap Eats and Marvo at The Impulsive Buy.

The thing is that I feel that I wankle the most on products which are really pretty boring because they aren't unique or interesting in any way to write about, but may be appealing to eat. These strawberry tree-shaped cookies, for instance, are just another food float in the parade of nature-shaped cookies that are part of this line of products. They're shaped like trees. They're individually wrapped. That's pretty much it.

My husband was the driving force behind the purchase of thse cookies. He paid about 150 yen ($1.67) for a 40 gram box (about 10 little cookies, I didn't count) and you'll pack in 220 calories if you each them all. They smell faintly of strawberry and the texture is very crispy with a softer top coating of white chocolate. The cookie is very bland and a little hard with a "generic" cookie flavor. The strawberry is nicely sweet strawberry with very little tartness.

As is often the case with this line of cookies, eating them is mainly a textural experience with a little strawberry chocolate sweetness to add interest. The ingredients include "butter oil" and "shortening". That's two likely damaged fats. Now I'm not health nut or I wouldn't be doing a snack blog, but I want something a little more for my efforts than a crunchy, sweet biscuit. These were certainly nice enough, but not worth a revisit. They were sweeter than I would have liked and the "custard" portion of the "tart" flavor didn't come through in the taste at all. The other point about this is that I'm really unhappy with the fact that these tiny little cookies each come in their own foil packet. It's just immensely wasteful for something which is not particularly fragile or in need of that sort of protection.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lipton Peach Tea Zero

Occasionally, people will write me an e-mail or leave a comment asking how, as a reviewer, one might score freebies for review purposes. My answer is, "when you find out, let me know." Since I don't get paid for this blog, and make pennies on each post from advertising most days, I'm very cheap about acquiring the food I review. Take this Lipton Zero Peach Tea for example. I had seen it at several convenience stores and pondered sampling it, but thought I didn't want the experience enough to fork over a whole 100 yen ($1.10). Yes, I'm really that cheap.

I was cruising the dairy and juice aisle at the local market when I noticed that they had a carton marked down to 80 yen (88 cents) with an expiration date of tomorrow. I decided that was the price at which they'd pry the yen out of my grubby, cheap fingers. The thing I can't figure out is what can go bad in this tea. It's essentially water, peach juice, and chemicals.

Note that I'm overstating my cheapness a bit here. I will pay more for things which I'm really keen to sample, but beverages that are not carbonated are close to lowest on my list of things to try as I can make pretty much anything which isn't fizzy. It's hard for me to pay for tea when I can make it with a teabag for about 7 yen (8 cents) and add my own artificial sweetener.

Like the Lipton Zero orange tea, I can't figure out how peach juice can be used in this and it can still be zero calorie. Still, the carton says that this has 3% peach juice and I believe them based on the flavor. It smells lightly of peaches and has a nice, refreshing peach taste coupled with slightly bitter straight tea flavor. Perhaps I'm getting used to the way artificial sweeteners are mixed into zero calorie Japanese drinks, but I wasn't really troubled by any aftertaste. In fact, I thought this was a really good fruit tea blend and would definitely consider buying it again if I'm too lazy to brew my own tea and feeling like a bit of a spendthrift.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Glico Bacon Pretz

One of the lessons I teach my students is about the environment and food. It explains that many forest are cut down to create pastures for cattle so that we can have cheap burgers at places like MacDonald's. At the end of that lesson, there's a list of foods and students are asked if they are willing to sacrifice eating those foods in order to reduce the damage done to the environment. Bacon or ham is listed, and my students say they would never give it up. That being said, they say they don't eat a lot of it, but they do like to add small amounts of bacon to various dishes to enhance flavor.

Bacon is such an intensely flavorful food that it lends itself well to being a seasoning rather than a main dish, and it can be a truly wonderful flavoring in salted snack foods when used properly. I've had some good and not so good experiences with bacon-flavored salted snacks in Japan, and I'm pleased to say that these Pretz pretzels sticks fall into the "good" category.

I picked up this 48 gram (1.7 oz.) bag at a local market for 98 yen ($1.09) where it was on sale with another "new" flavor which didn't really light my fire, tomato. It's not that I don't like tomato, but rather that I'd rather get my tomato flavor from, well, tomatoes. I also think there's a chance tomato will be "ketchup" when it comes to salted snack seasoning. There are a plethora of delicate 10 cm. (about 4 in.) long sticks in the bag and it conveniently has a Ziploc-style top to allow you to reseal it.

When you open the bag, it smells rather "hammy" inside. The sticks are so thin and delicate that it's easy to break them. They have a very "fresh" yeast-like flavor and are just salty enough. The bacon flavor is very present, but not overbearing and the finish is of black pepper. They're not hot at all though and there's no cumulative heat effect. The ingredients include pork extract, soy sauce seasoning, onion powder, and bacon extract.

These were really good pretzels. They're not sublime or "to die for", but if I were in the market for a salted snack, I'd definitely add these to my basket again. The seasoning is really well-balanced and there are a lot of sticks for the 229 calories in the entire bag.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Limited Edition Banana KitKat Mini

I would like to issue a plea to Nestle Japan to please stop issuing new KitKat flavors. I can't come up with any more creative ways to talk about them anymore. I'm tapped out, Nestle Japan, but I can't resist your weird flavor choices or the attractive ones that sound more appealing than they actually taste. For that matter, my husband can't either, and that's why I'm reviewing this banana KitKat today. He likes banana, so we bought this bag of minis at Okashi No Machioka where it was languishing in a bargain bin for 197 yen ($2.14). In fact, we waited about 6 months for the price to go down.

The package says that the banana flavor in these comes from Southern Japan. Sometimes I really wonder why the origin of food matters that much to the Japanese, but many companies make a point of saying the ingredients come from Japan. My husband found a packet of baby biscuits (for teething, most likely) that made a big deal out of them being made with Japanese rice. You wouldn't want your baby to start off life with the wrong sort of rice!

The problem with banana treats is always that there is a high chance that they'll taste fake, even when they're real. This KitKat is no exception. It tastes like it has artificial banana flavor mixed in with it. It's not bad at all, but you have to like chocolate and real banana that tastes fake. One good thing that I can say for it is that it's not overbearing in its banana flavor. It's not particularly mild either.

I didn't hate this at all, but I felt it was a waste of calories after consuming the 66 in the bar. My husband, who is far more tolerant of banana treats than me, also was relatively unexcited about these. He took the remainder of the bag to work where he will slowly consume them. Frankly though, I would have tossed out the rest. The enjoyment to junk food ratio was just too low.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Few Milestones, and Thanks to the Readers

No, I am not reviewing the snack pasta, but I thought the idea was funny enough to take a picture.

There are a few milestones that this blog has reached or will soon reach and I wanted to thank my readers for their support. Recently, I reached 100 followers on Blogger and my subscription via RSS is days away from reaching 300 (currently, it's at 296 and that number goes up rather steadily as of February 23, I hit the 300 mark!). Also, my average number of visitors as represented by independent IP addresses is now about 450 per day; that is quite good considering the fact that that number represents individuals, not page views, and the fact that I don't post on weekends. For a blog as "young" as this one (and considering that I'm hardly great at marketing my blog), these are nice numbers.

Seeing these numbers increase steadily encourages me to continue. This blog is fun to do, but it is also a lot of work to keep at it on a regular basis. I really appreciate everyone who follows me and takes time from their day to read or even just come and check out the pictures. I especially appreciate the people who have their own sites who link to mine. Thanks so much to everyone for your kindness!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Meiji Fran Whipps - Hazelnut and Bitter Chocolate

One of my friends told me that Pocky taste like stale pretzels dipped in chocolate. While I don't quite have his low estimation for the exceedingly popular stick-based sweets, I'm not over the moon for them either. It takes a fairly enticing looking flavor and the promise of a more generous coating on the stick to get me to toss a box of Pocky (or Pocky-like) sweets in my basket and pry my hard-earned yen out of my hand. That's why Pocky is perhaps under-represented on this blog. If you are looking for more Pocky than I am offering, I recommend adding Pocky Watch to your reading list (if you haven't already), which by its very nature is going to give you more pretzel stick love as well as other reviews of many interesting things.

Fran is Meiji's take on Glico's popular Pocky. I rarely take note of Fran in the shops because the flavors don't tend to grab me. However, anything with hazelnuts is like a magnet for this talking flower. I believe that Nutella is the food of the gods, after all. So, when I found this at the local 99 yen ($1.12) shop, I tossed it in the basket. It helps that each serving is only 89 calories so I can snack sensibly.

The box contains 4 foil packets with 3 sticks in each. The sticks are cocoa flavored and double-coated with white and somewhat bittersweet chocolate with a few pieces of hazelnut embedded in them. I should note that Fran sticks seem more like cookies than pretzels to my taste and texture senses. They smell pretty much like cocoa powder. When I first bit into it, I had a profound feeling of disappointment. It seemed to mainly taste like cheap chocolate and had a bit of a taste which I associate with preservatives. By the time I reached the second stick, other flavors started to come out. Primarily, there was a whipped cream flavor from the white coating that started to really bloom. Unfortunately, the hazelnut flavor was so weak as to nearly be absent.

While I was disappointed in the lack of hazelnut flavor, I'm as much a fan of whipped cream as those particular nuts so I really liked this once the taste of cheap chocolate vanished and the mixture of bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream took over. One of the many things I've learned about tasting from snack blogging is that your tongue grows acclimated to flavors or takes awhile to warm up to them so you have to give things a bit of a chance to develop before you reach a conclusion. This was definitely one of those experiences where my initial sense of the product was bad, but it seriously grew on me.

If your patience and tastes run similar to mine, you might enjoy this. That being said, I can't say this was a slam dunk "happy" rating. It came a little close to indifferent because having to eat 1/3 of a packet before I could really enjoy the rest is somewhat of a sacrifice. Nonetheless, I could see myself buying these again.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lotte Glamatic Cassis Gum

I've seen "Glamatic" brand gum around for quite some time and have actively avoided it. The packaging is super sparkly and the writing is stylized in a fashion that makes it clear that Lotte is trying to attract 12-year-old girls, or those who think like them. I figure anything that is trying so hard to show style carries a high risk of lacking substance.

As I've mentioned before, sometimes I like to have gum on hand for throat moistening purposes. There's nothing that gets the old saliva going like gum. That being said, I still don't like to chew gum. It makes me feel like a cow chewing its minty-flavored cud.

Lotte mustn't think much of this gum because it's buried in the list of "other gums" on their gum page. I guess it isn't getting the push that Fit's is in terms of promotional potential. Given my bad impression of Fit's, I can't say I believe Lotte has it's priorities straight.

I chose this gum mainly because it is flavored "cassis" (essentially, a grape-like berry) without the addition of mint. I'm not a fan of the fruit plus mint flavors that dominant the chewing gum sections in Japan and it was slim pickings. So, I had to buy the frilly girly gum for prepubescent girls and look like a pathetic 45 year old who doesn't know her age.

A pack of 14 pieces about the size of a Chiclet or Dentyne gum costs 100 yen ($1.10). The gum is sugarless, which is important to me because I care about my teeth. It's made with both Maltitol and Aspartame. It smells a bit perfume-like at first, and tastes a bit like it as well. One of the slogans for the gum is something like "a makeover for your breath". I think it's supposed to make you think you'll smell pleasantly of perfume. After that first hit passes it has a pretty pleasant grape flavor which is relatively short-lived. I'd say it holds its flavor for a maximum of 10 minutes.

This is actually pretty decent gum. The grape flavor is not a kid's flavor, but actually similar to cassis. The shell is crisp and the gum inside is soft and easy to chew. I'd definitely buy this gum again if I was sick of sucking on herbal throat drops and wanted to chew gum to keep my throat from getting dry, even if it does look like I'm outside of the market for it by at least 2 decades.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

7-11 Yuzu Sherbet

I've been a fan of orange sherbet since I was a young adult, but haven't had easy access to it since coming to Japan. It simply isn't something that tends to be carried in Japanese markets and convenience stores. I'm guessing this is because there is a kind of ice that is meant to resemble kakigori (Japanese shaved ice with syrup, like a sophisticated snow cone) that serves a similar area of the market. This "ice" is generally offered in ramune ("soda", lemonade or bubble gum flavor), lemon, and orange flavors so I think it occupies the same citrus-flavored, non-cream-based frozen confection niche as sherbet.

These Japanese ice treats are nice, but their texture is rather pebbly and they tend to be too sweet and syrupy. It's like a compressed version of shaved ice. It has the general flavor of kakigori, but lacks the fine textural benefits that you get with real shaved ice. It also tends to start melting and turn into slush pretty quickly. Essentially, it's a cheap knock-off of something which is much better in its original form.

I was very surprised to discover this yuzu sherbet in the freezer case at my local 7-11. It was 100 yen ($1.10) for a 110 milliliter serving (about a half cup). There are 80 calories in one serving and most of that is coming from sugar as that is the first ingredient. Since yuzu is like lemon, it's not surprising that lots of sugar has to be added to make it palatable in sweets.

This sherbet smells citrus-like, but only faintly. Sherbet just isn't one of those things with a strong scent. The flavor is a good mix of yuzu and just the right level of sweetness. Since the flavor of yuzu is unique, I can only say that it is like a cross between grapefruit and lemon, with just a hint of orange in the finish. The texture is pretty much spot-on for sherbet. It's a little grainy, but not in a bad way. It's simply what happens when a frozen confection is made which doesn't have cream in it.

The standard I hold sherbet to is the type of stuff that I pay a fortune for at Baskin Robbins because that is pretty much the only place in Japan that consistently sells sherbet of any sort. This isn't quite up to the same quality as Baskin Robbins's product, but it is also quite a lot cheaper and just as tasty. Mainly, the texture isn't quite up to the standard of old 31 Flavors varieties.

If this sticks around past the winter yuzu trend, I will definitely buy it again. In fact, I wouldn't mind stocking up on it just to keep it around. If you like sherbet in citrus flavors, it's a no-brainer to sample this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Iwatsuka Shirabe Sembei

Recently, I did an interview with a young woman who needed to talk to an established blogger for part of a senior project at university and I used the word "sembei" with her assuming that she'd know what it meant. I thought that sembei (or "rice cracker" in English) was one of those Japanese words like "sushi" or "karaoke" that had infiltrated American culture such that its meaning was known. Reading food sites that love to toss around a much more esoteric Japanese word, umami (savory or meaty), has perhaps mislead me into thinking Japanese food vocabulary is more pervasive than it really is. The fact that sembei is not a household word back home was brought home by the fact that my friend Shawn also did not know what it mean, and he reads cooking blogs.

That was a bit of a lesson for me in not assuming the words I toss around are going to be understood by everyone and that I need to take care to explain in English for new, infrequent, or selective readers. I don't want to appear to be one of those people who blithely tosses out words in Japanese to show off my language skills (which frankly are not worth any sort of showy display, believe me) or assuming everyone operates from the same experiences as me.

Getting back to the topic at hand, which is this Iwatsuka sembei. This was the second bag of rice crackers that I opted to sample when I found a sale going on at Okashi no Machioka. That sale was two bags for 250 yen. I chose this not knowing what "shirabe" was. In fact, after quite a bit of searching, I still don't know what it is. I can say that the ingredients listed for this are: Non-glutinous rice, vegetable oil, sugar, starch, glucose, soy sauce powder, salt, seasoning and, caramel coloring. Incidentally, the company that made this, Iwatsuka Seika, started out as a manufacturer of caramel syrup starch.

I can also say that "shirabe" in Japanese appears to have several different meanings based on my fruitless searches. It is a type of drum. It also seems to be some sort of pervy porn comic book (manga) name as I kept turning up the same result which showed some barely dressed woman displaying her backside. If someone knows the food-related meaning of "shirabe", I'd appreciate a word in the comments.

One thing I did come across again and again in my searches was the fact that many Japanese bloggers mentioned this sembei in the same breath as the "Happy Turn" sembei which I reviewed previously. This sembei has a similar vinegar-like flavor, though it seems coupled more prominently with a somewhat fishy flavor. It's also a salty and sweet mixture with the sweetness hitting your tongue at the end.

These are very good, though I think I liked the Happy Turn 200% better for its more intense flavor. That being said, these were excellent value with 36 crackers (18 packs of 2) for only 125 yen ($1.40). The crackers are on the smallish side at about 6 cm x 3.5 cm (2.3 in. x 1.4 in.), but one packet is enough for a satisfying little nibble or to fulfill a crispy, salty snack craving. They're only 31 calories per packet as well so they're a pretty low calorie salty treat. I'd definitely buy them again, particularly if I found them on sale.

Though Iwatsuka's main line of products is more family and adult oriented, they do have a cutesy mascot (a pink bear?) that you can download some pdf files for including stationary and a papercraft envelope, a calendar, postcard designs, and desktop pictures.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tirol Rilakkuma Variety Pack

Since I'm not one to be obsessed with all things cute, I was relatively unfamiliar with the character of Rilakkuma until I started reading Shibuya 246. The character is the blog's unofficial mascot. To me, Rilakkuma seems like the next in a long line of cute Japanese characters that take people by storm. In my uneducated (about cute characters) mind, the cuteness crown was first worn by Hello Kitty and then passed on to Pikachu, and now is being worn by Rilakkuma. I seem to see more and more merchandise bearing the little bear's likeness everyday.

I haven't bought a Tirol variety pack for a long time because I've been so disappointed in them as of late, and I didn't buy this one either. This was given to my husband as a gift after he shared some KitKats with a student. Gift-giving in Japan is a lot like that. You give people things and they feel they need to balance the scale. I'm not sure what this cost, but a pretty good guess would be 100-150 yen ($1.12-$1.68) for 9 candies that are about 1 inch (2.54 cm) square.

The packet shows three flavors on the front: purin (custard/pudding), mitarashii dango (a type of Japanese sweet) and hot cake. This mix is typical for these variety packs in that there is one new and appealing flavor, hot cake in this case, and a couple of repeat flavors from the past. You have to get a bunch of flavors you've already had or don't want to get the one that you do want. I've seen the hot cake flavor (which is a new one) in other similar variety packs as well.

If you look at the picture above, you'll see that there are 4 chocolates cut in half and three of them are the same. Despite the fact that I opened 4 differently designed packages (one of each in the bag), I got mostly mitarashii dango flavor, one hotcake, and no purin. The packets have different cute pictures on them, but the flavors are not marked so I'm guessing that either by design or by random chance, I got almost all of one flavor.

I had sampled the mitarashii dango flavor before, and this time it seemed rather worse. Maybe it was my disappointment at getting so many of it and it being a flavor I reviewed before. It was identical in terms of texture. It had a gummy center with some dark sauce surrounded by white chocolate. I thought it had a very strong soy flavor mixed with intense sweetness whereas I detected bitter orange last time. It's a very strange mix and not very pleasant.

The hotcake is a white chocolate shell over a biscuit with a little syrup that has been absorbed by the cookie. It was very sweet with a very fake butter flavor and a lot of white chocolate. There was not much of a maple or syrup flavor. The cookie adds texture, but no taste.

I would review the purin, but there weren't any in the package.

I liked the hot cake one, though I'm not sure that I'd buy it even if I could get 9 or 10 in a package by itself. It's very sweet. The entire pack gets an unhappy rating because of the poor balance of flavors which constitutes false advertising and because I wasn't very fond of the mitarashii dango flavor. If you're a super fan of Rilakkuma, you might want to pick this up and keep it intact for the packets and their cute designs. Otherwise, I'd recommend giving it a wide berth.

The hot cake chocolate was also reviewed at Snack Love by ebidebby.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Variety Friday: Valentine's Day 2010

As is the case every year in Japan, multiple marketing techniques are being employed to try and convince consumers to buy more. Though I'm sure most of my readers are already familiar enough with Japanese culture to know this, Japanese custom on Valentine's Day is different from that in Western countries. Women usually give chocolates to men for Valentine's Day and men are supposed to give candies or cookies to women in a concocted holiday called "White Day" in March.

This custom has largely made for the habit of women giving "obligation chocolate" or "giri choco" to men of status or authority rather than gifts related to romance. Lately though, there has been an effort made to expand the types of people who receive the chocolates with a particular emphasis on "tomo choco" or "friendship chocolate".

The chocolate at the top of this post has backward writing as yet another attempt to expand the recipient market. Men are supposed to flip the Japanese custom and give these to women. Note that not many candy companies do this. In fact, I believe that only Morinaga does it.

I've read several other explanations of why this candy has backward writing; one is that it represents that the custom in Japan is backward and another is that it has to do with the fact that Japanese is read right to left rather than left to right, but I believe that both of these explanations are incorrect. After all, a culture does not present its normal practices as being the opposite of another country's (as it sees the other country as the one which is flipped, not its own) and I've never seen English written in this fashion to emulate how Japanese characters are written.

Nestlé Japan has re-introduced its line of raspberry and passionfruit KitKats for the holidays. They issued them in two different box colors, brown and pink, but there appears to be no reason for this other than an aesthetic option. The bars themselves are identical in composition. I reviewed these mild dark chocolate with raspberry filling (and very little passionfruit) in a previous post last summer when mini bars were offered with some Nescafé instant coffee. I liked them then and I like them now, but I was struck a little more profoundly this time by the sense that the raspberry was artificial. I'm guessing that's because I ate more at once than when I had the mini bars.

In addition to a plethora of chocolate-based candies, there are also special baking displays set up in markets. The idea is for women to decorate pre-made cakes or make their own sweets to share on Valentine's day. Very few young women in Japan are bakers so most of the time a basic sponge cake is on offer and can be served with strawberries and whipped cream along with some cute little heart-shaped chocolate medallions. I've never actually known a woman who baked something for this holiday, so I can't say who they share such treats with.

Happy Valentine's Day, to those who like the holiday. To those who hate it, perhaps you can find some satisfaction in knowing that it's not generally observed as a holiday for couples in Japan. It's just pure crass commercialism without any of the pesky love-based sentiment.

Previous posts and reviews related to Valentine's Day offerings in Japan can be read by going here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Iwatsuka Soft Mochi Rice Snack

I think someone needs to start a Japanese food blog, preferably one about fast food or frozen food, that is called "There's Corn On My Pizza." Someone else should start one called "Sembei Adventures" and focus on rice crackers. Heaven knows there are more than enough varieties of sembei around to devote an entire blog to them and I just don't have what it takes to do that particular job. My husband hates the smell of sembei so I can't even eat it when he's around without causing offense.

While my husband was at work, I sampled this puffy mochi sembei that is studded with bits of roasted soybean. I've been seeing it in various incarnations for quite some time. Sometimes these puffed up crackers are coated with kinako, but more often than not they have black or brown fragments of soy beans in them. This is called "soft" sembei because it's airy inside rather than crispy and brittle.

I found these at Okashi no Machioka sweets shop. They were on sale, 2 bags for 250 yen ($2.74). You could buy two of a favorite or pair one variety with any of a variety of Iwatsuka Seika's sembei. Most of these types of bags are 178 yen ($1.95), so that's a discount of about 53 yen (53 cents) a bag. I chose this and what appears to be a sweet variety because the other types were familiar or shrimp-flavored. It's pretty good value for 15 crackers.

Since this was my first experience with this particular variety of sembei, I was surprised that it smelled like popcorn and peanuts. In fact, the little packets that these come in mustn't be sealed very well because the entire bag smelled strongly before I even breached the individual packets. The texture is a cross between Styrofoam packing peanuts and popcorn. It's a little strange, honestly. Biting through the outer part which is slightly firm and crispy is fine, but the middle is weird. The flavor is also a bit like popcorn, albeit with more of a rice-like hint mixed with roasted soybeans.

I ate two of these and enjoyed the second one more than the first. They're decent enough, but I prefer "hard" sembei which is crispier, more cracker-like, and also more flavorful. These would be more appealing to me if they were more savory, or even just saltier. All that air does mean each 6.5 cm x 3 cm (2.6 in. x 1.2 in.) cracker is only 26 calories, but even that isn't enough to make me want to buy them again. It's not that they're bad at all, and I'll surely finish the bag, but simply that they weren't flavorful enough for me and I didn't like the texture.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kinsei Purple Potato and Sweet Potato Jellies

In what I have to imagine is a last gasp of seasonal treats for winter, I came across this bag of purple and sweet potato jelly candies at Seiyu supermarket. The front of the bag touts the fact that they have potato "paste" in them. I'm not certain how one makes "potato paste", but it doesn't sound appetizing. Nonetheless, seeing these little jewel-colored cubes of candy through the clear plastic package drew me in.

Like many of these relatively unglamorous types of candies, these are made by a "no name" company which doesn't have a web presence. I couldn't research anything about them and I can only say that their logo and name, Kinsei (金成), are unfamiliar to me.

Most of the hard candy, jellies, and manju that are sold in clear plastic packages in bigger markets are made by such companies and they're the final frontier in Japanese snack adventuring. They're far less likely to be constructed in the same manner as European-style treats or contain familiar flavors and they're a bigger mystery to those who are unfamiliar with Japanese snacks. I like to try these types of things, but I often feel they are of far lesser interest to my readers than things like Pocky, Japanese KitKats, chocolates, and Hi-Chew. Also, frankly, I can't eat them fast enough to sample them constantly as they tend to be in family-size bags.

There were 15 candies in my bag and 10 were purple potato and only 5 sweet potato. I don't know if this was just the luck of the draw, or intentional. It did seem like quite an uneven distribution though. I had to calculate the calories based on the weight of the entire bag because the information was only given as per 100 grams. Each candy is about 31 calories.

note the edible wrapping sticking far above the cube of jelly

When you unwrap a jelly, it has what looks like an over-sized thin bit of plastic film wrapped around the sticky cube. The film is edible rice wrapping which is similar to the coating on medical gel caps. I had to figure this out by tearing some off and putting it in my mouth to see if it'd melt. It doesn't add any taste, but it is an odd texture sensation to bite through what feels like thin cellophane wrapping. It's hard to escape the feeling that you were too stupid to take off the wrapper. Soon enough, the wrapper has melted away though.

Both of the jellies are firm, but not rubbery. They are easy to bite into and chew. The texture seems strange at first, but I quickly got used to it and rather liked it. It's like a very chunky version of a classic Western-style fruit gem without all of the sugary coating. It also turned out that it didn't matter how many yellow and purple cubes there were as they did not taste appreciably different. Both had a nice sweet potato flavor, were quite sweet, but not too over the top and the exact same texture.

I really liked these. In fact, the more I ate them, the more I enjoyed them and thought one or two were a great sweet to have with a cup of tea. If you like sweet potato and jelly candies, definitely give these a go if you run across a bag of them. The only thing keeping these from getting a "very happy" rating is the wrappers. I wish they were more carefully wrapped so that the excess didn't stick out around the cube and make you think you were eating plastic.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cheerio Mega 700 Lemon

There's an episode of Seinfeld about a Pakistani restaurant owner who occupies a space near Jerry's apartment that seems to doom anyone who does business there to fail. The location seems practically cursed. I've got a few places near my apartment that similarly seem to suffer that problem. It doesn't matter who sets up shop or what sort of place they open, they close down in a year or so. Walking by these places always makes me feel a little sad. This feeling was dredged up when I bought this bottle of "Cheerio", despite the names connotations of "cheer", happy goodbyes, and breakfast cereal.

Bottles of Cheerio drink sat in a cardboard box outside of the local convenience store for months as I walked by the shop. The number of unpurchased bottles never seemed to go down so I'm guessing nearly no one bought any, or the store had every nook and cranny of its storage space filled with more of it. It's a mark of the power of the tendency to anthropomorphize that I felt sorry for the company that made this as its product was neglected by consumers.

The manufacturer is Cheerio Corporation. It's interesting that a relatively minor beverage maker has an English Wikipedia entry when some bigger companies do not. I expected to have to mine the Japanese Wikipedia site for more on them, but my life was made a bit easier. Apparently, this company's drinks are available in a limited area for the most part and that's why I was unfamiliar with them despite my many years of shopping in Tokyo.

I finally gave in and bought a bottle of this when some of it was moved into the refrigerated section of the store rather than parked outside. I also noticed that it had "calorie off" written on it and only has 16 calories per 100 ml. The bottle is huge at 700 ml, so it's 112 calories if you drink it all at once. The first ingredient is "grape sugar", but this is also sweetened with Acesulfame K and fortified with Vitamin C. My guess is this is marketed at the same people who purchase C.C. Lemon.

I didn't know if this was carbonated or not when I bought it, but it turns out that it is not. It smells lemony, but the scent is not powerful. The flavor is mild and close to "lemon water" or weak lemonade rather than a lemon drink. It's pleasant and light, but not sour and lacks a citric acid bite. I think that the type of people who like to have water with a slice of lemon would really enjoy this, and I thought it tasted fine. The main issue for someone like me is that I like stronger flavors. With lemon in particular, I'd like some sourness with my lemon and prefer some more acidity. I think that, had this been carbonated, I might have liked it more as is.

I wouldn't say this isn't worth trying. I actually think it is quite fine. It's just a little bit on the bland side for my tastes. I would buy it again if I were in the mood for something really mild and light, but that tends not to happen very often with me so I'm rather indifferent to it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Roasted Sweet Potato KitKat

It's no secret that I am not a great food photographer and I'm comfortable with this fact. I don't consider myself so much a purveyor of great pictures as much as a writer. The pictures are just here to make the blog a little more interesting to look at and to show people what things look like as a point of reference. That being said, despite their second-class citizen status, I spend as much or more time taking and processing pictures as I do writing the reviews.

One of the things that causes me a great deal of consternation is the lack of light in my apartment. I literally get no sunlight at all because of my apartment's position in the bottom, center part of our apartment building and because we are surrounded by taller buildings. I've seen all sorts of tutorials on how to take better food pictures and they all start with natural light and reflectors so that you don't get all sorts of glare off of the things you're taking shots of when the flash is used. At any rate, I shrug my shoulders and keep taking my mediocre shots.

Every once in awhile, there is a food that I try to take a shot of which just kicks my ass. That is, no matter how hard I try, my camera won't focus. Usually, this happens with light-colored foods like white chocolate candy or light-colored cookies. I'm talking about this because my ass got handed to me by this sweet potato KitKat. I took 12 shots during two separate picture-taking sessions and then gave up. This is why you don't get yet another shot of the insides of a KitKat that looks pretty much like any other KitKat. I'm sure you're all disappointed but will somehow manage to carry on with your days as if all were well and good. (If you're really desperate, you can look at the daigaku imo KitKat, which looks very similar except that the filling between the wafers on it is kind of grey and this one had a whiter filling.)

This KitKat has been around for months and months and I've avoided it because it's sold as part of a multi-pack which is includes 7 regular milk chocolate KitKats and 6 roasted sweet potato ones. What is more, it was usually sold for over 300 yen ($3.35). I just didn't want or need a lot of plain KitKats along for the ride and refused to buy it despite quite a strong desire to sample the sweet potato ones. Fortunately, these finally went on sale at Okashi no Machioka for 197 yen ($2.20) and that was cheap enough for me to cave in.

I should have caved earlier because I loved this KitKat. It smells of white chocolate and sweet potato, which is to say, quite sweet. It tastes very sweet as well and has just the right amount of sweet potato flavoring. This is a difficult balance in some cases. Too much tastes like rotting potato and too little makes it hard to detect the flavor at all. There's also a certain sense of "creaminess" to it. It's hard to pin down but it's both a flavor and a sense of texture, though the bar is pretty much your usual firm chocolate with crispy wafer bar.

Each bar is 69 calories, and I should be glad that these are too expensive to get just any time and that they are made less appealing because of the inclusion of regular bars. I'd be wanting to have these all of the time if I could just buy them as single bars any time. If you like real sweet potatoes, there's a decent chance you'll like these quite a lot.

This has been reviewed at many other blogs by people far less fussy than me, but the easiest one for me to find a review on: Jen's KitKat Blog.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Maple KitKat Mini

Back when I was working at a Japanese office, one of my coworkers was an amiable, but rather goofy, American fellow named Scott. Scott used to make up weird hobbies and interests when students asked him questions because he got bored giving the same answers. Among the things he said was that he was interested in dancing (and he'd vary the type of dance, but it was ballet for awhile), ska music, and Harvey Keitel. Of course, anyone who knows who Harvey Keitel is knows that no one could possibly be interested in Harvey Keitel, but cultural differences allowed Scott to pull off this type of transparent lying.

I'm not a fan of lying to people for the sake of amusing myself. In fact, I'm not a fan of lying in general. Scott and I did have two things in common though. Both of us are writers and enjoy writing for its own sake, though Scott was a fiction writer and I'm strictly non-fiction. He wrote a short story called "The Man With the Golden Penis" (I kid you not), and I write about things like why Japanese service is polite and professional, but sometimes robotic in nature.

The other thing that Scott and I had/have in common is that neither of us likes pure maple syrup. In one of those discussions that can only occur when you're sitting at work bored but trapped at your desk, we talked about how we both preferred pancake syrup to 100% maple syrup because we didn't care for the strength of the hard stuff. Of course, this makes us heretics. It also reflects the fact that I don't like really strong maple flavor in candies, cakes, etc. I'm not sure if it's very flattering to share this taste sensitivity with a man who writes stories about men with golden ding-dongs, but it is a fact nonetheless.

My husband and I came across these maple mini KitKats at Okashi no Machioka discount candy shop. He snapped them up immediately for 280 yen ($3.10) as he is an enormous fan of maple. There is an unlucky number of little bars in the bag, thirteen. Each small pair of fingers is 69 calories and would probably make about 1.25 regular fingers if laid end-to-end. The bag mentions that the maple sugar used in these is derived from syrup from Quebec, Canada. Of course, it fails to mention what percentage of the bars is composed of this fine quality product.

I had very low expectations of these because of my aversion to maple syrup, but ended up surprised. These smell lightly and pleasantly of maple. The taste is super sweet white chocolate with very weak maple notes that tend to be revealed more with subsequent bites. My husband found these wanting on the maple taste front, but I found them just right for me. I'm not sure why the super sweet white chocolate base didn't hit me as overwhelming this time as it so often does, but I liked them enough to have a second mini the next day.

I can recommend this provisionally. I think serious maple syrup fans are going to be disappointed, as my husband was, and those who really dislike very sweet white chocolate will want to give them a pass. Those who, like me, find a little maple flavor appealing may find them much more enjoyable. That being said, I had my mini bar with a cup of tea the first time and a cup of coffee the second time so I'd also recommend a good palate cleanser between bites.