Monday, May 31, 2010

Country Ma'am "Morning Toast" Cookies

It seems that a lot of new releases of funky flavors of various foods seem to show up at the same time at convenience stores. I'm sure there's some sort of rhyme or reason to the release scheduling, but I often find that there are "fertile" and "fallow" periods in my snack purchases. Sometimes I'll wander the aisles in boredom... well, the aisles are short so it's more like an extremely brief stroll... and at others I'll buy more than I can review in one week. These cookies showed up at 7-11 during what I consider a "fertile" phase for snack purchasing.

I've reviewed a lot of Country Ma'am cookies, and frankly, I had little intention of buying more in the immediate future. It's not that they aren't good cookies. They're actually pretty nice with their crispy outer shell and chewy interior. They are even more impressive if you warm them a bit in the microwave as the center takes on a quasi-brownie-like somewhat gooey interior. The main reason I was going to stay away from them is that they seem to be shrinking in size with every incarnation. These cookies are minuscule at around 3 cm in diameter (1.18 in.). I think these cookies are like a collapsing star. Some day, I'll open the bag and my hand will enter a black hole.

Generally, tiny treats don't bother me, but they're also 50 calories a pop for something which is two tiny bites at a stretch. You could easily gobble up this whole bag of 5 tiny, wastefully individually wrapped cookies and still have room for more. At least real "butter" is an ingredient in these. That's something they have going for them.

That being said, the promise of chocolate chip cookies that taste like buttered toast lured me in. I couldn't say no when I saw the little white bag on the shelf for a measly 105 yen ($1.14). When I opened the first packet, the smell of the cookies didn't encourage me as it was a bit like some sort of funky, day-old bread. My first taste was of a bit of the crispy shell that broke off in the packet. That part also tasted like weird, stale bread.

The buttery part of this cookie is concentrated in the interior, and the flavor is muted when you eat it cold. If you follow the instructions on the packet and warm it in the microwave (20 seconds is recommended for all of the cookies, but I did only one for about 8 seconds), the cookie's "butter" flavor comes alive and the center's texture is very, satisfying. It's not quite like a fresh-baked cookie, but it comes close. It's buttery, sweet, and nicely chocolate-flavored when warm.

I'm rather torn about these cookies. I liked the novel experience of their flavor combination, and unlike some of the other strange Japanese snack taste marriages that I have sampled, these two flavors ("buttered toast" and "chocolate chip cookie") went together decently. On the other hand, I'm not sure that they're worth repeating as they didn't bowl me over. Frankly, I think other Country Ma'am cookies, particularly the plain chocolate chip, are better. The best thing these have going for them is that they are thicker than average cookies from the Country Ma'am line so the gooey filling is more expansive.

If you have a chance to sample these, I recommend picking up a bag, but I also strongly advise warming them up rather than eating them as is. I think that the "toast" part is too strong when cold and the butter part is really brought out when heated. Though I can say they're worth trying, I can also say that one bag with 5 cookies is going to be "enough" for me and I wouldn't buy them again. It's not because I didn't enjoy them, but because they are too small and fattening for repeated consumption and just not significantly better than a classic chocolate chip cookie.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 14

There are many mobile food seller carts in Tokyo, especially in the summer. This one is selling takoyaki or octopus dumplings (often waggishly referred to as "octopus balls"). There are a variety of ways to make them, and you can read some of the ingredients at the linked Wikipedia page. Special pans and kitchen gadgets are sold to make takoyaki at home, but most people buy it from supermarket delis or these sorts of stalls. Notice that there are 3 mayonnaise tubes sitting on the prep area (one nearly empty on the far side of the table, and two new ones in the foreground). The Japanese do love their mayonnaise. Oddly, I have never tried takoyaki, but it is one of those things I really should get around to trying.

My husband took this picture at a shrine on New Year's Eve several years ago. He loved catching a shot of the guy slumbering in the background, particularly since this picture was taken in the mid-morning.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Clearin' Sugarless Nodo Ame Fruit

I used to teach a lesson on giving advice where I would give students a sequence of problems and they had to make a statement advising me on how to deal with the problem. One of the problems that I'd mention was, "I have a sore throat". The students often would say, "you should eat some candy." No, the students weren't thinking I'd be happier if I ate a little candy, though honestly I've always found chocolate ice cream to be the bee's knees for sore throats. You get both the chocolate enjoyment and the cooling ice cream.

The recommendation to have candy is the result of a literal translation of "nodo ame" or "throat candy". It's obviously what we'd call throat lozenges or drops. That being said, my experiences in Japan with throat soothing drops has been less than impressive. There seem to be two kinds of drops for sale. Either they are so strongly herb-packed and medicinal that they taste utterly vile or they are so weak that they might as well be lollipops. If you want sugar-free drops to spare your tooth enamel, your options are even worse.

There is one variety that I rely on which is made by Kanro. Unfortunately, this variety is somewhat difficult to locate at times, so I occasionally sample something new. While I was perusing a variety of convenience stores, I came across this pack of Clearin' fruit-flavored drops by Teicalo at Family Mart for 198 yen ($2.14). I've had one variety of Teicalo's drops before and enjoy the texture and taste of them, but find their herbal aspect too weak to feel like they help an inflamed throat. I was hoping these might be a bit better.

The ingredients in these include: Reduced maltose syrup, fruit juice (apple, grapefruit, lemons, grapes), herbal extracts, isomaltose, vitamin C, flavorings, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, and emulsifiers. It's pretty much in line with what you might expect from a sugar-free candy. Each candy is 9 calories and there are 22 of them in the bag.

The drops themselves are quite beautiful. They're partially clear with a gradient of bright color on the opposite side. The design is meant to release the herbal aspects more clearly and potently, but I don't know if it can really work like that. I do know that you taste the fruit more potently if you put the colored side down on your tongue.

grape: The grape flavor strongly reminds me of the cheap grape lollipops that I used to get as a kid. I'm talking about the kind on a white stick or a white loop of stiffened fiber that cheap people gave you for Halloween or the doctor gave you after poking you with a needle. There was the tiniest hint of some sort medicinal herbal flavor, but mainly, it was just a mundane piece of candy.

grapefruit: This one had a bit more bite and that telltale grapefruit bitterness. The herbal aspect shone through a bit more as well.

lemon: The lemon has a nice citrus bite and also is similar in herbal essence to the grapefruit. It was my favorite both in terms of flavor and the feeling that it had a medicinal impact.

green apple: Like the grape, this reminded me of a cheap lollipop with an herbal edge.

My feeling is that the herbal content of each is likely the same, but the impact on your sinuses is different based on the intensity of how you sense it. Those drops with a more intense herbal bite feel more helpful, even if they may not necessarily be more helpful. After sampling all four drops, my tongue felt pretty saturated with the herbal flavoring, but I don't think these helped my throat much more than simply chewing gum or sucking on any type of candy might have helped.

These weren't bad at all as fruit candy, though they weren't great as lozenges. If you're sensitive to strong herbal flavors and are hard-pressed to find a palatable throat drop, these might do in a pinch, but I wouldn't recommend them. Mainly, they're like sugar-free, slightly herbal lollipops.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Crunky Chestnut

I'm a sucker for anything chestnut, but I haven't been keen on white-chocolate-based Crunky bars since trying the caramel latte bar. It's not that there was anything so wrong about that bar, but I haven't been wowed by the Crunky variants. Like plain KitKats, the regular milk chocolate version of Crunky seems to always be superior to the imaginative flavor offerings.

For those who are unfamiliar with Crunky, it's Japan's version of a Nestlé's Crunch bar, which is available in Japan, but in limited markets. The main difference between Crunky and Nestlé's bar is that the former is made with crispy rice and the latter with malt puffs. That makes the crispy bits in a Crunky carry more of a cereal flavor in addition to adding texture. In Nestlé's bar, the crispy rice bits don't do much for the flavor profile.

This particular Crunky smells a bit like coffee and caramel, but in a very subdued way. One of the ingredients for this is caramel, so that part isn't surprising. I think that chestnut often carries a bit of a muted coffee-like flavor. One of the other ingredients if tamarind, a fruit that is used to make jams, drinks, and frozen confections in some Asian countries. It's also a natural laxative, though I'm hoping that has nothing to do with this bar.

The sweetness of this is not too overbearing, and the chestnut flavor seems light and earthy. It has the sense of tasting like real chestnuts at about 50% their actual intensity. Since chestnuts aren't powerfully strong anyway, it's just a bit more muted than I would prefer. I would have preferred a richer taste and I think a little salt might have developed the flavor profile a bit better.

One of the things I like about Crunky is that it gives you a lot of great texture without too much sweetness. That being said, I have to ask myself if I would buy one of these bars again. As decent an experience as this was, I'm not sure that it's an experience worth repeating, particularly if you're calorie conscious (and I am). The entire 48-gram (1.7 oz.) bar is 269 calories. There are 24 little blocks and each has 22 calories. For such a small amount of pleasure (about half the volume of a Hershey's kiss which weighs in at 25 calories), I'm not sure it's worth a repeat beyond the novelty of a first experience.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kashiwado Calcium Sem

In America, most salt is iodized to make sure that we all don't grow goiters the size of footballs in our necks. In Japan, a great deal of food is fortified with Calcium to make sure that they all don't grow up to have the posture of a question mark. In each culture, the choice of nutrient to fortify is based on the traditional diet. Americans don't eat much seafood and Japanese don't drink much milk or consume very much dairy.

Enter this Calcium sembei, which will promote strong bones and teeth without the pesky effects of lactose intolerance (which is supposedly rampant among Asians). In addition to sembei, wafers and cereal bars often have this mineral added to them. I've had the wafers and they are always rather bland affairs. Keeping that in mind, I was mainly expecting a good textural experience from these crackers rather than strong flavor.

There are 10 packets of 3 crackers in the bag. It cost about 200 yen ($2.30) at a local snack shop and is pretty decent value for the number of servings. A packet is 49 calories for the three sembei.

The crackers don't smell like anything distinct. There is a sort of generic baked rice smell, but they're not like savory sembei because they have no soy sauce, salt, or fish flavor associated with them. My first impression is that they taste like a generic baked cereal cracker that falls somewhere between Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. They are surprisingly, and almost unpleasantly sweet. They are similar to a type of inauthentic "galette" cookie that is often sold in Japan with a very thin layer of cream between them. It's a cross between a cookie and a cracker.

The sweetness drowns out most of the other flavors, but you can detect margarine in the mix. The first ingredient for these is flour, followed by sugar and margarine is fourth. I also can taste the plastic that the crackers are wrapped in. Perhaps these are a bit on the older side and have absorbed some of the polypropylene odor, but the expiration date was for the middle of next year so they can't be that old.

The texture on these is super crispy and satisfying, but the sweetness is just too much and the plastic flavor isn't helping. I may slowly finish these off as a tea accompaniment when I want something sweet but don't want to eat a lot of calories, but there's every chance that I may end up tossing them after eating one or two more packets.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pepsi Baobab

Recently, I was having a conversation with the student who gave me the wasabi KitKats that I reviewed yesterday, and she and I were talking about how there is a difference in the American and Japanese market for snacks. She asked why I believe companies like Pepsi released oddball flavors like Pepsi Shiso, Pepsi White, Pepsi Adzuki and this (at the time upcoming release) Pepsi Baobab.

I can't know for certain, but I think the Japanese market places a higher premium on novelty than the American one. We want new favorites and they want flavors of the month. Generally, I think the Japanese market wants to "taste and forget" more than Americans do (which is the only nationality I'm even remotely qualified to speak for), but I do think that these wild Pepsi flavor choices are mainly for media attention and a way of building the Pepsi brand as one that is distinct from Coca-Cola. Coke has held the market longer than Pepsi, so they have a chance with these exotic drinks to distinguish themselves.

Pepsi Baobab has one of the loveliest label designs and is a nice golden colored liquid. The design is meant to reflect the origin (Africa) of baobab, the fruit that is supposedly the basis for this drink. I had somewhat better expectations of this exotic Japanese Pepsi blend than I have had of some of the others because I think that fruit, particularly one that is known for having a lot of vitamin C (which means it may be "citrusy" in flavor) lends itself well to carbonated drinks.

When I opened the bottle and inhaled, I smelled something which is reminiscent of grapefruit. The soda on the front of the tongue doesn't taste like much at all, but as it hits the back of your mouth, it does seem to have a sweet orange with grapefruit undertones flavor. It has a dry finish, which I think may be the "Pepsi" element. The flavor is quite pleasant, but I rarely drink beverages with sugar, so this seemed a little too rich and syrupy for me. That being said, if this were available in a sugar-free version, I'd buy it regularly as a change of pace from my usual Coke Zero consumption. The flavor is light, pleasant, and like a citrus blend. It is especially nice as a summer beverage. The "grapefruit" aspect is all of the goodness without any of the bitterness. The "orange" tones are related mainly to the sweetness. This was pretty decently carbonated and had a proper "burn" while drinking it.

A 500 ml. bottle of Pepsi Baobab, currently available in all of the big name convenience stores in Japan for about 150 yen ($1.66), has 42 calories per 100 ml. That means drinking the whole bottle is 210 calories. Note that this was released today, so it should be around for awhile. I do recommend that people give it a try. This is actually pretty good, and by leaps and bounds the best oddball Japanese Pepsi flavor so far.

There's an interesting little article on baobab as a "super fruit" from the BBC here if you're interested in further reading.

This is also reviewed at The Impulsive Buy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wasabi KitKat

The wasabi KitKat is another of the regional specialties that Nestlé Japan ostensibly markets only in a particular area. This bar is a specialty of Shizuoka prefecture, and wasabi is chosen as a flavor because that area is known for its wasabi. A web site devoted to boasting of Shizuoka's benefits states that it is the birthplace of that root, and that wasabi is often used in things like ice cream, yookan (a sort of jellied bean paste loaf), and other sweets in addition to its more common use in things like sushi and savory dipping sauces. It also claims that only cool climates and clean water produce wasabi, which I guess that area must have, though those are hardly unique attributes.

I didn't go to Shizuoka, and I didn't buy these KitKats. No, I didn't pilfer them from some unsuspecting tourist returning from that region. One of my students went on a business trip to the area and kindly brought me some of the wasabi KitKats knowing my interest in Japanese snacks and that I write about such things for this blog. I asked her opinion of these, and she said that she felt that the wasabi flavor was so subdued as to not really amount to much. Her response, as well as the odd combination of something so often paired with savory foods with sweet white chocolate, piqued my interest all the more.

I can't give exact price information for these since I didn't buy them, but my husband says that a full box of regional KitKats (which can occasionally be bought at some shops in Shinjuku in Tokyo as well as Tokyo station and Narita airport) sells for 800 yen ($8.65) for 12 mini bars. One of the reasons that I have only reviewed one other regional KitKat is that I'm unwilling to pay a high price for a large portion of something I may not end up enjoying. I leave that up to Jen at Jen's KitKat blog as that is her sole oeuvre and I have far more competition for my snack-food yen.

These bars are 69 calories each, and pretty much in the range you'd expect calorie-wise for a KitKat mini. Because I only have the bars and not the box, I don't have an ingredients list, but I'm guessing that wasabi is pretty far down the list as it is not a strong component. The bar doesn't smell like wasabi at all. Mainly, it smells like white chocolate with something which is hard to pin down.

The first bite is dominated by the white chocolate sweetness followed by a sense of the grassy element of wasabi minus the heat. This isn't too surprising since wasabi's heat sometimes needs some build up to shine through. By the end of two bites, I had a stronger sense of the wasabi, but only the barest whisper of heat came through after I finished the bar. The warmth and grassy taste lingered in my mouth long after I finished the bar, but not in an extremely potent manner.

As a curiosity, this isn't bad, but it really isn't good either. The wasabi doesn't lend anything to the white chocolate in the pairing. It's a little like drinking Coke with a peanut butter sandwich. It's not gross or anything, but it's also not particularly great either. Unless you are looking for a novelty or are a serious fan of wasabi and absolutely must try everything you can get your hands on that showcases it, I wouldn't recommend buying this. Frankly, I'm really glad I got to try this because it's the sort of thing I want to do as a snack blogger, but only because I was given it as a gift. I'd certainly regret it if I bought a whole box of these.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Of Links and Trojans

Recently, I was informed via e-mail that one of the sites I'd linked to at the side was causing trojans to be downloaded. I'm very sorry that this may have affected some readers. When I am made aware of a new site, I check it and read it myself, but I don't link to every site every day (as that'd leave no time for writing posts!) so I don't always know immediately that something bad may be happening. Also, I use a Macintosh for web surfing (and Windows PC for gaming, I'm dual platform), and such problems often don't manifest on the Mac. (That's not a "pro Mac" statement. I like both of my platforms just fine. It's just an explanation of why I may not catch a problem immediately.)

If you discover a problem with a link, please e-mail me (contact information at the side) the link or leave a message telling me which link it is and politely let me know about the issue. I will investigate it on both platforms and remove any bad links. I do occasionally run the entire list of links to make sure they're not dead, though, again, I usually do this on a Macintosh. However, after this incident, I will run them on my Windows machine as well.

As for the links in question, they belonged to "Snackity Snack" and "Heat and Eat Reviews". Both sites used to be ran by the same person and I suspect that something has happened since she stopped updating them. Either someone has hacked her accounts (as she had some angry fans after ceasing to update without announcing that fact) or she has sold the domains off to someone else and they have placed something malicious into the code. At any rate, I have removed those links though it is a bit of a shame because the archived reviews were still of interest.

For the record, I would never knowingly link to a site which would damage my readers' computers. If this sort of thing happens, it has developed after I have linked to something. I get no benefits (no payment) from linking to other people's review blogs other than trying to be a "good citizen" in the reviewing community and spreading the word about related sites and have no incentive to link to a "bad" site.

As always, thanks to everyone who follows my blog. I really appreciate the support and it encourages me to continue!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 13

 A kiosk in Akihabara sells a vast array of milk drinks.

When I first came to Japan, I was surprised at the array of milk beverages. They don't just have low-fat and whole milk, but they have a wide range of fat concentrations from 0% to 4.4% fat. Skim milk with no fat is actually a little tricky to find, though low fat milk below 1% is common. There are also many flavored milks. I recall a product called "The Coffee Milk" (in English) that caught my eye when I first arrived. Fruit-flavored milk drinks and milk flavored with more native flavors like green tea and kinako are also available depending on the season. Note that all milk that I have encountered in Japan is cow's milk. These variations do not include sheep's milk, goat's milk, etc.

Japanese people tend to drink milk for health purposes rather than enjoyment in my experience. I've never had anyone say, "I love milk." As a kid, I grew up adoring milk and my family went through copious amounts of it so seeing milk as a healthy beverage rather than for pleasure was not something I was accustomed to. One of my former coworkers at a Japanese office used to drink a liter of it every day for his health. His colleagues (not me though) nicknamed him "gyunyu-san" ("Mr. Milk") for his habit. He didn't like that, unsurprisingly.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Variety Friday: Reading labels 1 - nutrition information

I often try to note the nutrition information on labels before buying snacks in Japan and to offer some of that data in my reviews. That being said, sometimes, I'm in a big hurry and only check them closely after the fact. Since most of my readers are in the United States or other foreign countries, I thought it would be useful to offer a translation table for visitors or newcomers who can't read labels themselves.

The purpose of this post, and those to follow in this series, is to allow my readers to pull up these tables or print them out and to compare what is written here to what they see on an actual label when they buy food on their own. It is my hope that this will be particularly useful to people who may buy Japanese snacks through import services that don't offer translations.

The first in this series is nutrition information and I have attempted to hit all of the major areas. However, if I missed something, let me know and I'll try to incorporate that information and post an updated table. Future posts in this series will be on ingredients and allergens. Note that I wanted to offer this in a different graphics format, but Blogger wouldn't accept them or Adobe InDesign (in which I created the table) couldn't export to other formats.

Sometimes the Japanese labels (or web sites) only include information on "sodium", but sometimes they list separately for "salt equivalence". It's my guess that this is their attempt to tell you how much table salt the sodium is equal to. Also, the nutritional concerns in Japan aren't quite the same as those back home. I cannot recall ever seeing any reference or talk about "trans fats", and rarely see information which distinguishes between saturated fats and other types. It could be that, as someone who deals with snacks and not health food, this sort of data is deemed unnecessary for the foods I look at the labels on, but I think the Japanese in general tend to get less worked up about the types of fats they consume than about things like dyes or artificial coloring.

While the absence of certain types of data is telling, so is the presence of other types. Women in Japan are obsessed with their skin and products that contain collagen mention it loudly and proudly because it is supposed to promote skin elasticity. I'm not sure if collagen is nearly as important a selling point in other countries and probably wouldn't be listed as often as it is on nutrition labels in Japan. Polyphenols, which are antioxidants, are also all the rage now and I'm seeing them listed on more products.

It is important to note that the nutritive benefits are often listed in a misleading fashion on Japanese products. There will be huge banners across a package asserting that you will be getting large amounts of a particular nutrient, but that number applies to the entire package, not to an individual serving. Most notably, I have found that hard candies with fortified nutrients give values for the whole bag rather than each candy, though by no means are hard candy makers the only ones who do this.

Calorie information is often (but not always) listed in a misleading way on products as well. It is not uncommon for drink makers to list the calorie data "per 100 ml." for a 500 ml. bottle. It is very easy if you aren't paying attention to buy a bottle of something which says "32 kcal" on it and think that is for the whole thing when the reality is that it is 160 calories. Also, many snacks list their calorie information per 100 grams (3.5 oz.), even when the package is more than 100 grams. I find myself having to do a fair bit of math to get calorie counts per serving as a result of this. If a bag says 354 calories per 100 grams, and the whole package is 180 grams with 22 pieces in it,  I'm breaking out the calculator to reach the conclusion that there are 29 calories per piece.

This manner in which calorie information is offered can be quite troublesome and I believe is intentionally misleading or confusing to make people who don't pay attention think more positively about the products. I wish it were required that all snack makers provide data on calories per piece or actual serving. Who drinks 1/5 of a bottled drink as a "serving" or 100 grams of a bag of cookies or salted snack? At any rate, the lack of a consistent method of listing calorie information makes the whole process of determining how much you're eating a little trickier so I would encourage careful scrutiny of the information if you're concerned about such things.

Though I do look at some of the nutrition information on snacks, it isn't of paramount importance to me. I deal in junk food, after all. The only information I pay serious attention to is the calories because I try not to exceed 200 calories per day for such types of food. While it is nice if something is a bit more nutritious, I'm not fooling myself about what I'm getting out of the foods. What I'm mainly getting is pleasure. Anything else is a bonus.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tirol Milk Daifuku Chocolate (Premium)

The last time I had one of Tirol's premium chocolate blocks with a map of Hokkaido on it, I was very disappointed in the results. Nonetheless, my adventurous side, and the fact that I like daifuku got the better of me and I picked up this 1" square (2.54 cm.) chocolate at Family Mart for 32 yen (35 cents).

Daifuku, for those who don't want to run off to Wikipedia, is a traditional Japanese confection made with soft, pounded rice filled with something sweet. The filling is usually beans, but it can be other things as well. Previously, I had a positive experience with yukimi daifuku ice milk. The mochi part is soft, a little stretchy and chewy with little flavor of its own. It's mainly for the interesting textural experience.

This candy is like an inside-out daifuku confection. The sweetness is on the outside and the mochi is in the center. When I sniffed this, I immediately thought of white chocolate Easter rabbits from my childhood and the chocolate itself is a nice blend of white chocolate and a little bit of a milk chocolate base. The milk chocolate base has just a whisper of the trademark Japanese bittersweet chocolate flavor. I don't know if it was the combination of these two chocolates or something particular ingredient, but this was some of the nicest white chocolate I've had in a long time. It seemed to have a flavor other than simply "very sweet", but I can't pin down what the flavor is.

The center is a little chewy blob of gummy-like substance which actually tasted and had the texture of mochi. In my past experiences with "mochi" filling from Tirol, the interior was too thick and mainly added texture. This time, it seemed to have verisimilitude to the real deal.

I really enjoyed this, though I don't think it's the sort of thing you'd be wolfing down several of at once because it's still on the sweet side. At 58 calories for a one-serving square though, it's a very fine little treat and I'd definitely recommend sampling it even if you aren't a particular fan of daifuku.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Daiichi Vanilla Bar

The Japanese seem to have a taste for sweetened condensed milk which I never developed. This is reflected in the fact that they'll squirt some from a tube onto their strawberries. In fact, there are some pervy videos out there of Japanese women provocatively squirting milky, semi-translucent fluid onto their mouths and faces. It's sweetened condensed milk, but we're supposed to think it's something else.

These are made by the same company that made the chocolate cream bar which I reviewed favorably. I bought this at Lawson's 100-yen shop where it was on display in the freezer case next to the chocolate version.

I had some hopes that this "vanilla bar" was actually vanilla. Unfortunately, I didn't taste any vanilla in it at all. The reason that I mentioned the love sweetened condensed milk at the start of this post is that this is the sort of frozen treat that is clearly designed for Japanese tastes. It doesn't smell like anything at all and the taste is like powdered milk. It's sweet but not overwhelmingly so.

The texture of the ice milk inside of this bar is much firmer than the chocolate cream bar in the interior and less brittle and hard on the outside. I even let it soften a bit to see if it would take on the same super creamy aspects as the chocolate bar, but no joy.

On the plus side, each bar is only 85 calories and you get three 75-ml. (2.5 oz.) bars for 99 yen ($1.06). On the minus side, the ingredients include palm oil and Sucralose and, though this is not bad at all, it just doesn't taste like much. Clearly, there is no vanilla flavoring in it, or so little as to not be detectable. If you like powdered or condensed milk enough to eat it in ice cream form, this might float your boat, but if you like something which is more flavorful, give this a pass. Note that this almost made "indifferent", but I can't in good conscience give that rating when I threw out the last bar rather than eat it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sanko Seika Camembert Sembei

Like all people who review things in their blogs, I often find that  my ratings system has shortcomings. The main shortcoming is with the "indifferent" rating because it means that I will eat what I have, but I won't buy that product again. I'm concerned that that will make people think that I don't actually enjoy products with such a rating. I want to say that that is not true. I can enjoy something, but not want to have it again because the threshold for buying it again isn't quite cleared. Note that this is a bigger issue for me as a reviewer than for the average person. I'm always trying to slot new things into my daily consumption and something has to be pretty freaking good to be bought again.

This Camembert cheese sembei falls into the category of "things I enjoyed, but wouldn't buy again." It's not that it wasn't adequately tasty. For the most part, it was. The problem was that it was just "good",  not "very good", or "makes-me-want-to run-out-and-stock-up-before-it-goes-off-the-shelves good".

There are two types of sembei in each little single serving bag (99 calories per bag). One is a little ball with red flecks which is supposed to be black-pepper-shrimp-flavored, but just tasted weirdly sweet and rather smoky to me. The rods are the part with Camembert cheese. The bag claims they are 10% cheese, but it's still relatively subtle because Camembert is a mild cheese. It's pleasantly salty and cheesy, but you taste the cheese better if you don't eat the little shrimp balls. The two together make for an interesting mix but the balls are too sweet on their own. I think the little Camembert rods would be good on their own.

I think that I would have given these a better rating had I reviewed them in the early days of my blog. I think these are nice enough, but the competition for my snack affection is pretty intense and these don't make the cut. If you're interested in sampling them (and I think they are worth a try if you like crunchy sembei with a bit of cheese flavor), they're available for about 170 yen ($1.82) for six 23-gram (.8 oz.) bags at Okashi no Machioka snack shops and a variety of supermarkets.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lotte "Beauty Life" Sugar-free Biscuit Chocolate

Sugarless chocolate is pretty hard to come by in Japan. You can find some types of sugar-free treats, gum and hard candy mostly, but chocolate is relatively rare. I think the Japanese take the common sense approach to sweets. Either you can have them in their full form, or you can't have them at all. People with diabetes or conditions which may require them to limit sugar consumption are largely out of luck.

This Zero chocolate has been around for a long time, though not in this packaging. I remember buying it at least 7 years ago in its plain chocolate form and not being overly impressed. For the record, I don't have a health condition that makes me want to limit sugar, but I am completely aware of two points about it which affect everyone. First, it is bad for your teeth. Second, eating sugar causes a spike and a crash so that you feel energized then very tired. Occasionally, it is nice to have a sweet and not concern oneself with these points, but there is always a price to pay in taste.

Sugar, like salt, has particular flavor aspects. There is an edge to the taste of sweets made with sugar much as there is one to foods made with salt. You can sense its absence, even when artificial sweetener is present and simulates its sweetness. That edge is absent in chocolates like Zero, and that's why they are not as good as the real thing even when they have cocoa butter and sufficient fat to emulate the real deal.When I first sampled Zero a long time ago, I noticed this flat taste, and experienced a strong bittersweet chocolate aftertaste. It was the strongest Japanese chocolate aftertaste that I'd ever experienced and literally left a bad taste in my mouth.

I decided to give this chocolate another chance when I saw the repackaged "biscuit crunch" version at Tomod's drug store. Note that this chocolate is generally more expensive than that with sugar. It's around 150 yen ($1.60) for 5 sticks that are each 10 grams (.35 oz.), each stick is 8.5 cm x 1.7 cm (3.3 in. x .67 in.). Each stick has 42 calories.

There isn't much of an aroma to this chocolate. I think it may actually have some sort of sealant to make the little bars shinier. The flavor is very intensely bittersweet chocolate which is quite sweet; you can tell it's made with artificial sweetener, but it's not really bad. It's just different. The chocolate is with crispy bits of cookie. The cookie doesn't taste like anything, but makes for a more interesting texture. I would definitely prefer the cookie version of this to the regular version.

This was good, and I'd buy it again if I were in the mood to spare myself the effects of sugar. I can't strongly recommend it for everyone, but if you want to have a sweet and avoid sugar, this is pretty good. Keep in mind that sugar-free doesn't translate into low calorie. This is actually pretty much as fattening as any sort of chocolate, but it just won't up your blood sugar levels.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 12

My husband caught these bottles of Jasmine tea in a vending machine. He couldn't help but make a certain connection between the English name and sexual preference. These are part of a series of very nice tea made by Kirin. The milk tea in this series is excellent, but like many bottled drinks in Japan is full of sugar and quite sweet.

Note that the price on these bottles of tea is 150 yen, which is a usual vending machine or convenience store price for 500 ml. (about 16 oz.) bottles. I rarely pay this price though since most supermarkets offer drinks at a discount relative to vending machines and "conbini".

Friday, May 14, 2010

Chiisana Butter Cookies

Butter is an amazing thing. It adds tenderness to baked goods, flavor to meat when it's cooked in it, and flakiness to pastry. It also transforms toast from dry bread to sublime treat. More butter has to be better than less, right?

These cookies boast 10.2% butter and claim to be handmade. The strange thing is that they look very much like they've been mass manufactured with a mass cookie press. They were amazingly cheap, 97 yen ($1.07) for a box of 16 tiny cookies (about the size of a quarter or 100 yen coin), at Seiyu supermarket. If someone handmade them, I pity them for the poor wages they must be getting.

The smell of these cookies strongly reminds me of shortbread made with butter. When I removed the first cookie from its packet, lots of crumbs came with it. You can easily eat it all in one bite, but I decided to try and savor all 27 calories of it with 2 nibbles. I love the portion size since it'd be nice to have two of these with a cup of afternoon tea, but I cringe at the wastefulness of the packaging. These cookies would be better packaged in a long plastic sleeve than in individual packets.

The flavor is somewhat buttery, but I strongly tasted margarine as well. I looked at the ingredients and these "butter" cookies have a second ingredient of "margarine". "Flour" is first and "butter" is third. There's also something to it which reminds me of cookies that have been baked on a cookie sheet that was used again and again and not washed between new batches. The texture is super crumbly, but not as fine as good shortbread cookies.

These cookies were okay, but the problem with this type of shortbread-style cookie is that the flavor profile is very shallow. They fail or succeed on the butter flavor since there are no other significant flavorings. Since there is more margarine than butter, these are very mediocre cookies. If you are desperate for a butter cookie and have no other options, these would probably do in a pinch, but I can't recommend them and wouldn't buy them again.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kanro Almond Sweets

Most nuts in Japan cost a great deal. You can generally buy rather small packets of them for about 100 yen ($1.07) at convenience stores, but they tend to be of a less than favorable grade. Because of this, you find that nuts are used rather sparingly here, and blanched or heavily roasted (but unsalted) peanuts are the most common type of nut. Almonds, which are my favorite nut, in particular are hard to come by and pricey.

Given my love of almonds, I was happy to pick up these sweets at AM/PM convenience store for somewhere in the ballpark of 200 yen ($2.15). I forgot to get a receipt so I've lost track of the precise cost. The bag is 80 grams (2.8 oz.), which was about 22 candies. They are made by Kanro, which is better known for its Puré gummy candies and Calpis-based offerings than for it's vast selection of hard candies.

These candies smelled of roasted almonds, and even though they look very hard, they easily shatter when you bite down on one. The texture is wonderfully crunchy, though the size is so small that it doesn't take much to polish one off. Their small size is reflected in the calorie count of 14 calories per candy. You can't detect them in the flavor, but one of the ingredients is "corn puffs". I'm guessing that is to enhance texture without having to include more expensive almonds.

The candy tastes both of nicely roasted almonds and of carmelized sugar. The combination is very gratifying though rather fleeting. It's easy to find yourself wanting to eat one after another. Note that these are wrapped rather loosely in gold foil packets. If you keep them around long enough, there is every chance that they'll get moist. Most hard candies in Japan are sold in sealed packets to avoid this problem in their humid sub-tropical climate.

I really enjoyed these, and I'd definitely buy them again if I could trust myself not to lose control and eat half a bag at one sitting. Though I really liked the texture, part of me wished that they were something you could suck on first, but they disintegrate too rapidly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Morinaga Funwari Chocola

 I found this at my local Lawson 100 shop for 100 yen. The bar caught my attention because of its somewhat low calorie count, only 165 calories for a 72  ml. sandwich, and the fact that it is an ice cream sandwich. 

When I cut open the plastic packaging on this ice milk sandwich, I was greeted with the greatest chocolate smell. I don't think I've ever had that sort of olfactory experience with a cheap frozen confection before. The cookie part is very soft and dusted with a powdered sugar type of substance, but it isn't as sweet. You can taste this sweetness when you bite into the soft, cake-like sandwich. The way in which the texture of the ice milk and cake-like exterior come together reminds me of the classic combination of ice cream and cake (only without the fork).

The flavor of this really blew me away. The chocolate is much deeper in flavor than most ice milk. It carries just the slightest bittersweet notes. It's not enough to put you off if you dislike darker chocolate, but it is enough to enhance the intensity of the chocolate taste. Like much of the ice milk I have had in Japan, this is very creamy and feels quite similar to real ice cream. The ingredients for this include almond oil, "fresh chocolate" (very soft chocolate which is like ganache or a truffle), and hazelnut paste. I believe the "fresh chocolate" (nama chocolate or 生チョコレート in Japanese) is the small drops of darker filling the middle of the bar which you can see in the cutaway picture. These are all expensive and unusual additions to this type of product and I believe they contribute to the overall quality of the flavor in a highly favorable manner. 

For the low price, the good flavor, and the lovely textural combination, I wholeheartedly recommend giving this a try if you can locate it. I had half of the bar at a time to really allow the brilliance of the deep flavor to strike me anew twice. I suggest savoring every bite of this lovely chocolate treat, slowly, and with undivided attention.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Grilled Cheese Sembei (Camembert)

Sometimes I feel like I'm cheating doing a snack review blog and eating things which are flavored with cheese. My readers might expect that I'll review weird or exotic items because I'm in Japan, land of the weird (and to some "exotic"). Cheese is about as safe a flavor as one can choose. Still, could anyone who likes cheese (and what sort of dairy heretic doesn't like cheese?) resist a grilled cheese rice cracker? Even if you could resist, I couldn't as cheese just so happens to be the boss of me. That's right, I'm a dairy bitch.

I found this small (1.1 oz./32 grams) bag of yaki cheese sen (grilled cheese rice crackers) at a 7-11 convenience store for 105 yen ($1.12). This particular 7-11 was far afield for me. It never ceases to surprise me that shops which are part of the same chain stock different items and that a snack I can find at the 7-11 30 minutes from my apartment aren't stocked in the one 5 minutes from it.

The big wedge of melty Camembert on the front of the package leads you to think this might be a mild cheese experience, but it's actually quite savory and on the strong side. The cheese is concentrated on one side of the crackers, but it's still immensely flavorful. The crackers themselves are what is called "soft" sembei, which means that they're slightly airy and puffy, but still quite crispy. This particular style is my preferred type.

Some of the cheese sembei I've had before has had a bit of a "burnt" cheese flavor to it, but this has been avoided in this case. These are pungent and nicely cheesy with a developed taste. This is probably aided by the various flavorings including soy sauce, pork and chicken, and fish powder. Note that none of these flavors is strong or profound, but I think they boost the savory nature and deepen the flavor. 

This is another winner from Kameda Seika, a company which makes some of the best rice crackers in Japan. I would definitely buy these again. I not only like the sembei, but I think the serving size is very good at 146 calories for a single serving with about 11 medium-size (about 6 cm./2.4 in.) crackers. This is a great treat to have on hand with a soda or, if you're the imbibing type, beer.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mixed Juice KitKat (mini)

I vowed some time ago to stop buying bags of KitKat minis in order to review them. Most of them are simply not worth having such a large quantity of and it takes forever for me to eat them. With summer coming on fast (as it always does in Tokyo), I have to keep chocolate in the refrigerator or risk it melting away. I decided that I'd only try these oddball flavors if I could find a single mini on sale at a convenience store. This tends to end up with me trolling all of my local "conbini" for single minis on sale, and mainly failing. Frankly, I wish Nestlé Japan would either stop selling things in big bags of mini bars or improve their distribution of lone minis in convenience stores. It'd sure make my life easier.

During the Golden Week holiday, a week with a string of national holidays in early May, my husband and I took a very long walk and stumbled upon a 7-11 that had the mixed juice mini that one of my commenters had told me about. One bar was about 40 yen (44 cents), I think. The truth is that I didn't save the receipt or pay much attention. I was just glad to find a single mini on sale somewhere and opened my wallet and tossed money on the counter. I had also seen this reviewed, rather unfavorably, on Jen's KitKat blog. My expectations were appropriately low.

This smelled rather "fruity" in the way that I remember children's "tootie fruitie" types of candies when I was a kid. It's like an indistinguishable mishmash of fake fruits. I think that Juicy Fruit gum has a not dissimilar scent, though the intensity of the aroma coming from this bar was far less than with that gum.

The first taste of this was of apple. Note that the wrapper doesn't show apple, and Nestlé Japan's web site says that the flavors are peach, strawberry and banana. They also indicate that this is "fresh and sweet" and ideal for family get togethers during Golden Week.

The second flavor was banana. I really didn't detect anything else except rather sweet white chocolate. The ingredients list doesn't reveal anything about the fruit used in this, but it does let you know that the orange coloring comes courtesy of paprika. Note that there is no calorie information on my package, but I'm guessing this is in the 65-70 calorie range, as is often the case with mini bars.

This wasn't bad, and I kind of enjoyed the fruitiness of it in a nostalgic way. It isn't the sort of thing that I'd like to eat again and again, but it was an interesting sampling. If you're pretty open-minded about sweet white chocolate and fruity flavors (particularly fake ones), you might enjoy a nibble of this. I definitely wouldn't recommend buying a big bag unless you're sharing with your office or friends. The bottom line is that I don't regret having a few bites of this, but I wouldn't buy it again.