Saturday, July 31, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 23

During the festival season in the summer, shops tend to put out more items directed toward children. These Anpanman chocolates, made by confectionery giant, Fujiya, were on sale during my neighborhood's Tanabata ("star") festival. They're cute, but I'm sure that the chocolate is fairly average stuff and I'd never buy it. However, this is the sort of stuff that'd make a perfect souvenir to take home from Japan and give children.

The box says "pero pero meruhen choco" (ペロペロメルヘン), which translates into "licking fairy tales chocolate", or at least that's my best guess. Sounds like a rollicking good time.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Morinaga Lemon Tea Cookies

There are two ways to read the name of this product. One is "lemon" tea cookies and the other is "lemon tea" cookies. In most Western countries, "tea cookies" are a category unto themselves. In fact, you can find a lot of recipes on the internet for tea cookies and tea cakes. It was with that thought in mind that my husband picked up this box of sandwich cookies. He loves lemon cookies and was keen to give these a try.

I should have paid closer attention to the box design when we picked this up at Seiyu supermarket (157 yen/$1.75). The illustration is the same as the one that appears on bottles of Morinaga's various tea beverages. These are cookies flavored with tea, not cookies that are lemon and designed to be eaten with tea.

When my husband opened the first packet anticipating a nice lemon cookie, he gave it a sniff and said, "oh no." These smell strongly of Earl Grey tea and not at all of lemon. The biscuit is a nicely crisp butter-cookie-style-cookie. Since they're made with shortening and margarine, they don't have any real butter taste. The tea flavoring is carried in the cream filling in the middle and it's relatively strong. The lemon portion is incredibly weak. You mainly detect it as a faint aftertaste.

These are very nice cookies if you like tea flavoring, and I do, but my husband hates it. The only thing that makes me hesitate about buying these again is that they are 64 calories each for a cookie little bigger than an Oreo. That's a bit on the hefty side for a small treat. I really like the cookies themselves though, and would recommend trying them if you want a nice tea time snack without the tea.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Potsticker (Gyoza) Pretz

Glico is currently doing a campaign in which it is offering limited edition flavors of its Pretz pretzel sticks in either east or west Japan. I am in the eastern area so I can buy this potsticker flavor along with "scallop butter" and "ogura" (sweetened red beans). I bought the bean and potsticker (gyoza in Japanese) versions and passed on the scallop version. Western Japan is getting grilled onion, yuzu koshoo, and eel. I don't much care about any of those except yuzu koshoo, which I love as a sembei flavor.

I found these at Okashi no Marche, a new discount snack shop in a neighborhood opposite mine, for 99 yen ($1.14). Each box has two 27.5 gram (about 1 oz.) foil packets of pretzels.The ingredients list really didn't reveal much about the flavoring except that pork extract and Sucralose (the artificial sweetener) are included along with typical pretzel ingredients and additives.

When I opened the foil packet, I was hit by the familiar scent of the type of dipping sauce you get with gyoza in Japan. It's a combination of soy sauce and hot sesame oil. The first bite of the sticks revealed a pretty decently authentic representation of gyoza, without the familiar wrapper's taste. They are savory and nicely salted without being overbearing. The hot sesame oil flavor has a heat build-up, but it's not really the kind that lingers on the tongue. It tends to warm your entire mouth more evenly and is quite pleasant.

These are really good. If you're a gyoza fan, and particularly if you enjoy the dipping sauce and spicy sesame oil, I strongly recommend giving them a try. I really enjoyed them, though they are, after all, only pretzels, so I can't get too excited about them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Asahi Ultra Fiber + Vitamin C

 I'd been seeing this "ultra fiber" drink in Lawson 100 (where most goods, including this drink, are 100 yen/$1.13) for quite some time and wondered how one gets fiber into a carbonated beverage. I also wondered what it would taste like. Given the color of the beverage, I thought it might taste like orange, but you just never know what evil lurks in a Japanese soft drink.

This is made by Asahi, which is better known for its beer. The marketing information for this talks about how irregular eating habits can cause problems. It isn't overtly stated, but I'm guessing they mean hassles with your plumbing which cause you not to be able to... well, you know what one needs added fiber for. It talks about the "clean sweetness" of the taste and says that besides promoting regularity, it gives you 7,500 mg of Vitamin C.

Before I get to the actual description of this drink, let me say that it has the worst color choices for its label. It's white lettering on orange and hard as hell to read. I had the worst time finding the URL for their web site because it was so tiny and difficult to read. It didn't make the ingredients list a picnic either, but this is a zero calorie drink and had a lot of the expected chemical components like dextrose, Sucralose, and Acesulfame K. The orange color comes to us courtesy of paprika. The flavorings are not specified so I'm flying by the taste buds only.

The smell of this is slightly medicinal. It reminded me of a fruity Alka Seltzer scent. I had a lot of trouble pinning down the fruit it vaguely reminded me of. It's either peach or apricot, but probably closer to the latter. The taste isn't like the juice of that fruit though. It's more like (vigorously carbonated) seltzer water with a few twists of fruit juice and a Vitamin C tablet dissolved in it.

This was just plain weird. It wasn't awful, but it wasn't good. It really did feel like I was drinking some sort of relatively inoffensive medicine. I certainly wouldn't recommend it as something one might drink for the sheer enjoyment of it. However, if your pipes are clogged and you don't want to keep scarfing down bran or you want to try to drink something with a chance of making you feel full for awhile, it wouldn't hurt to give this a try.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sapporo Potekaru Baked Potato Chips

I've read that Japanese beer makers are targeting female customers more because they are a demographic which hasn't yet been thoroughly explored. Apparently, Japanese men are already so thoroughly on board with beer that there's really no point in pushing them any harder. I have to imagine that Sapporo, best known for its booze, created this otsumami (food meant to be enjoyed with drinks) for women to go along with getting them loaded without  getting too fat.

The advertising for these mentions that the potatoes are from Idaho and that the oil is 72% less than conventional chips. It also says that they are so light that you can eat the entire bag. Since the whole bag (33 grams/1.16 oz.) is only 138 calories, it certainly is light on the hips. The name is a combination of "pote" for "potato" and "karu" for "karui" which means "light" in Japanese.

I tried two different kinds - black pepper and consomme. There is also a plain "salt" flavor. If you pick these up at a convenience store, they're about 160 yen ($1.84) a bag. I got one of mine for that price and the other on sale for 138 yen ($1.58) at a discount snack shop called "Okashi no Marche". At present, the consomme and salt versions are easy to find at most convenience stores (I got mine at 7-11), but the black pepper is less common. These are distributed as "limited editions" in metropolitan areas only. I don't know if this is test marketing or just another case of a product living a short life for the sake of novelty then disappearing.

The chips themselves smell like potato. The flavoring on both the black pepper and consomme is on the light side. Because pepper is a stronger seasoning, I preferred them. The consomme, which has a light dusting of orangish powder, had almost no flavor besides the potato itself.

The chips are super thin and crispy. The texture is amazingly satisfying. The flavor is what you might expect from baked potato chips. It's heavy on potato and has zero oil flavor. I've had Lays brand baked chips before and I like these better. They carry less of the flavor of raw potato that you sometimes get with baked chips.

These are good and the calorie count is amazingly good for the quantity of chips. They aren't going to stack up to the experience of eating greasy, "real" fried chips, but they will gratify a desire for a crispy, salty potato-based snack. The lightness and the texture are excellent. If you like thin chips, these will definitely light your fire. If these weren't so expensive compared to other chips (which are closer to 100-130 yen for the same serving size), I'd eat them often. The price, however, makes them not quite such a great repeat buy. That being said, I've already had them twice, and if they stick around, I know I'll have them again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pepsi Strong Shot Review at the Impulsive Buy

I don't usually do this, but the marvelous Marvo has reviewed the Pepsi Strong Shot that I mentioned in a random weekend picture at the Impulsive Buy. There's video, and talk of tentacles, so I encourage everyone to give it a read and a peek.

Lotte Eco Choco Foresta Milk

Sometimes I regret not choosing a ratings system based on numbers or numerical graphical units. If I had such a system, I could rate snacks such as this Lotte Eco Choco Foresta milk chocolate a little higher for being politically correct food. The main selling point of this chocolate is that it's Rain Forest Alliance certified. That means that it encompasses all of the practices that are in vogue with the environmentally aware set like sustainable farming and the protection of rain forests in Brazil where the cocoa is farmed. I'd like to give it more credit for that.

Unfortunately, I don't have a system where I can give this chocolate more credit for being an ecologically minded product. I have to rate it only based on being chocolate. I picked this bar up at the local 99 yen ($1.10) shop where I had been actively resisting it for some months. It's not that I have any issues with it per se, but a plain chocolate bar doesn't light my fire as much as many of the other options.

The bar is 50 grams (1.76 oz.) and has 291 calories. It's divided into 15 squares so it's 19 calories per square. The bar smells like chocolate, but there is also some odd smell that comes along with many varieties of Japanese chocolate. The scent seems like a chemical smell of some sort, but I really can't identify it. The bar is firm to the touch, but strangely soft in that it easily melts when it comes in contact with your fingers for brief periods of time. I wasn't even sampling this on a hot day.

The chocolate itself is okay. It's like most Japanese chocolate in that it is marginally bittersweet and has a decently deep chocolate flavor, though nothing too exciting. It also has the same odd coffee-aftertaste flavor that is so common with Japanese chocolate bars. If your options are only plain chocolate bars or you're in need of something to cook with, you're just as well off with this as a plain Morinaga, Meiji, or Ghana bar. If you really want a nice chocolate experience though, I'd still recommend the decadent plain Dars chocolates any day.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 22

One of the food fads that has been quietly going on for at least a half year now in Japan relates to various types of rusks. I actually was not familiar with rusks until coming to Japan. I think they tend to be better known in Europe and are similar to what we call "zwieback" in the United States. That is, they are dry bits of twice-baked bread. The Japanese ones that you see on sale (like those pictured above) are often liberally covered in sugar and quite sweet.

I've sampled one of these, given to my husband by a student, and I wasn't a fan. It was far too sweet and really not all that impressive to me in any way.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Country Ma'am Crispy Cookies

Country Ma'am brand cookies have been marketed for their crispy exterior and soft chewy interior since the brand's inception. This makes the appearance of these "crispy" variety rather curious. I guess that the company has run out of bizarre flavor ideas and decided that overcooking their basic chocolate chip cookie until it is super crispy was the new way to go.

My husband picked these cookies out at Seiyu supermarket for 178 yen ($1.95) . The portion of cookie is quite small. Each is about 4 cm (1.6 in.) in diameter and there are only 12 of them in the bag. Each cookie is 48 calories. For a plain chocolate chip cookie, as opposed to a chocolate chocolate chip version which was also available, these are very dark. That's the reason that I believe this is their same basic cookie just baked longer.

The cookies smell of coconut and mild cocoa. The flavor is also very strongly coconut-based and has a pretty good chocolate chip flavor on the first bite, but it seems to fade by the second or third bite. They're also on the sweeter side. The texture is, as expected, very crispy. This has none of the nice, soft chewy aspects of the mainstream Country Ma'am cookies. That isn't a bad thing though. They're quite tasty and satisfying.

I'm not a serious fan of cookies in general, but I found these quite likable. I think they'd make a nice tea time snack if you can limit yourself to a few tiny cookies. They also probably would do well dunked in milk or coffee. They are pretty crumbly, but most people can probably dunk and put a whole one in their mouths. If you find yourself craving a Chips Ahoy, these would make a nice higher quality substitute.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kubota Pudding Mochi

Mochi, or pounded rice cake, is a fairly common component in many traditional-style Japanese treats. It doesn't tend to show up that often in the more "glamorous" snacks that are familiar to English-language speakers. Nestlé Japan has made KitKats with "mochi puffs" (that taste like mothballs), but has never made a real "mochi" KitKat. When mochi gets used in chocolates, such as Tirol's mochi sweets, it tends to really just be a bit of a gummy blob and not actual mochi. I believe this is because the texture is delicate and it can go hard, tough, or moldy easily.

Real mochi has a very fine textural element that you can't easily incorporate into things like mass produce chocolates. It's soft, slightly chewy, and delicate when used as a shell to wrap some other filling. It's a bit like a fine dough. You can see why many Japanese people prefer wagashi, traditional sweets made with a variety of indigenous ingredients including mochi, over other types of sweets because the ingredients are used in a way which maximizes their appeal rather than bastardizes them for mass production.

Since I can buy wagashi at many places in Tokyo, I have less of an impetus to buy mass-produced mochi sweets. Frankly, the same applies to Japanese people so the market shelves are not overflowing with a wide variety of them. I've only reviewed two sweets (Yukimi daifuku, yuzu mochi) which used traditional-style mochi. I found this latest entry at Seiyu supermarket for 198 yen ($2.24). There are 10 pieces in the bag and each is about 44 calories for a blob which is about 3.5 cm (1.4 in.) in diameter (that's an average since they're not circular).

These are made by a company called Kubota, which is yet another one of those small snack food makers which squeezes an occasional product onto market shelves and of which I have never heard. Annoyingly, they don't have a web site. I'm guessing their target customer is at an age at which this new-fangled "computer" stuff might seem to only be accomplished with the aid of ghosts or demons in the metal box.

The ingredients for these include barley sugar, sugar, mochi powder, gelatin, eggs, and carotene (for coloring, no doubt). The fact that the list starts with two kinds of sugar should clue you in that these are pretty sweet. When you open a packet, you don't smell anything as mochi is really just rice so it has little smell. After you cut it open, you can smell the rich, eggy pudding inside. If you've had flan or custard, you know what it smells like. I expected this to mainly be a nice textural experience. This is not only because of the soft, chewy mochi, but also the marshmallow lining around the little soft pools of custard pudding.

It was, indeed, a very nice mixture of textures, but it also tasted very good. The pudding itself was more flavorful than expected and the sweetness made up for the bland mochi. You can also actually taste the soft marshmallow. In fact, this is impressive because every component can be detected on the tongue. Everything was soft and seemed very fresh. My feeling about these after sampling one was that these would make a great souvenir for folks back home because the flavor is familiar and palatable to all but the pickiest types, and they remain uniquely Japanese because of the mochi.

The only caveat I can offer to someone before buying this is that they are rather sweet and won't suit those who are sensitive to such things. That being said, these are truly lovely to have as a little treat with a cup of tea. The fact that they are packaged in such a way as to remain fresh over a longer period of time allows you to have a wagashi-like experience without worries about them going hard or stale rapidly. You can keep a bag around for awhile and sample at will. Note that I bought these on July 12 and they're good until September 28, 2010.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sanko Seika Kongari "W" Cheese Sembei

It seems rather curious to me that the Japanese use "W" to indicate "double" considering that that letter is not a part of their alphabet. This is the second product to use "W" in this way. The first was one of my nearest and dearest loves in Japan, double cream brown sugar sembei, also made by Sanko Seika. Note that those particular sembei remain on the shelves after quite a long time, so I'm guessing they are very popular.

"Kongari" in Japanese means "browned" and these crackers have delicately brown edges and little brown bumps on their wavy surface. If nothing else, they have a nice product design. These smell like baked cheese and rice, unsurprisingly. The first bite is a nice pungent blast of cheese without being too overbearing. The crackers themselves are very crispy and what the Japanese refer to as "hard" sembei. That is, it's not airy and puffy but more brittle. The two types of cheeses that are used in these are cheddar and Camembert, and I could actually taste both, though the cheddar was actually more present. The Camembert hit more as a bit of a mellow sourness. There's also a whisper of garlic savoriness.

The extent to which I love a product is always reflected in how rapidly I polish off most of it before I write a review. I ate all but one of these within about a week, and then had to leave that one in the bag for sampling when review writing time finally caught up with me. I loved these. They had great crunch, excellent cheese flavor that had at least some verisimilitude with the taste of real cheese, and they're only 25 calories per (medium-size, think 1.5 times the size of a Triscuit) cracker. I don't know what it is about sembei, but it's so much easier to exercise portion control with them than with things like potato chips.

I found these at Okashi no Machioka for 158 yen ($1.79) for a bag of 12, but I've seen them on sale virtually everywhere. With any luck, these will join the brown sugar sembei as a market staple in the sembei sections. If you can find them, I heartily recommend trying them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Meito Strawberry Sarasara Kakigori

"Sarasara is a Japanese onomatopoeia which indicates the sound of water or sand moving smoothly (or it can also mean "squeaky clean"). In this case, I'm guessing it is used to indicate that the little ice granules will move smoothly over each other rather than stick together in icy clumps.

When the heat starts around May until it ceases somewhere in, oh, October, the number of frozen treats starts to swell. While mass market kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) cups are available year-round in select areas, the variety greatly increases during the hotter months. Fortunately for  makers of icy confections, it's hot for quite awhile in Tokyo. For someone like me who is sensitive to heat, no amount of ice cream, ice milk, or frozen anything makes enduring the weather worthwhile.

I decided that I really should review one of these low rent kakigori after having mentioned them in the Tirol polar bear chocolates review. You can see that the packaging for this cup of ice is similar to that of the Tirol candy. Also, these are a part of summer in Japan and one of the things no snack blog should avoid forever... no matter how hard one tries.

I found this particular cup of shaved ice at Inageya supermarket for 98 yen ($1.12). This one is made by Meito, a food manufacturer (established in 1953) that sells milk and milk products in addition to being a distributor for Dole in Japan. There are 200 ml. of ice in it (approximately one cup) and it's only 49 calories. That should tell you something about the substance of it.

As you can see by the cup above, this is pretty much ice with some deep pink syrup squirted into it. From the vantage point above, it looks okay. At first, I tried to scoot the flavored ice and plain ice together to mix it up, but as I got down just a bit deeper, that became rather more difficult.

Yes, apparently 98 yen won't pay for much in the way of syrup; mostly, it's just ice. Where flavor was present, it was a mildly sweet, very odd concoction which bore little resemblance to strawberry. It wasn't bad, but it almost seems like false advertising to call it "strawberry". On the occasions when I've had kakigori during festivals, this is the typical type of syrup that you get so that part is authentic.

If you want to imitate the results of this, go to your local carnival or fair and buy the cheapest, lamest snow cone you can find. Cram it in a cup and stuff it in your freezer until most of the ice bits stick together. Make sure they skimp on the syrup! If there is flavor all the way to the bottom, it's no good. Toss it out and ask for a more sub-par one.

Obviously, this was very lame and I wouldn't buy one again, nor can I recommend anyone else buy this one. To be fair, there are definitely better versions than this one around, but they are all basically the same - plain old frozen water and fake syrup. I can't understand how these things continue to take up space in freezer cases. They really do appear to cater to those with pretty low expectations. For the same price, you can buy a "Super Cup" ice cream that is far tastier.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tochoco Rice Chocolate

In our early years in Japan, my husband and I sampled a few bits of candy from local supermarkets, and I swear this tiny rice chocolate bar was one of those things we tried. It's about 8 cm (3.1 in.) long and 2.5 cm wide (.98 in.), and clearly marketed for kids. These sorts of candies are usually found in the sections of supermarkets with cheap candy in small packaging. This one sells for about 30 yen (33 cents).

As is so often the case with small companies, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing research and came up with little in the way of results. The maker, Tochoco, has no web site. However, I did find a 2007 "Confectionery Directory" which included a little information on the company such as the fact that they are located in Kanagawa prefecture and only have 70 employees. It's rather remarkable that they seem to have quite a lot of on-line outlets selling their candy (and this one in particular) given their small size. Besides this rice chocolate bar, they sell chocolate-covered corn snacks and a sort of puffed "cocoa ring" which resembles a chocolate Cheeto shaped like a flower without a center.

I think early sampling of this type of chocolate is why my husband and I sought out imported candy early on in our stay. While there are many very fine types of high quality consumer candy in Japan, there are also some pretty lackluster offerings. This bar represents some pretty low quality chocolate. The chocolate is gritty, grainy and super, super sweet. The flavor is bittersweet even though these are marketed as "mild chocolate". The rice puffs add some texture, but they are not crispy rice puffs. They're like puffed rice cereal that is relatively soft. The calorie count for this wisp of a bar, is given per 100 grams at 560 calories and the weight of the individual bar is not given. I'd guess this is about 50 calories though.

Everything about this bar screams "cheap". It's not just the price, the package design, and the poor quality chocolate (which does list cocoa butter as an ingredient, but you really can't detect it). There's also the fact that the bar itself looks very slap-dash in its presentation. This is rather unusual in Japan. The picture of the bar above may look like it has been damaged, but there were no fragments in the package so this is the way it came off the assembly line.

This was an interesting curiosity, and I did eat it all, but I wouldn't buy it again. If anything, this bar is worth sampling for some perspective about Japanese sweets. Based on my reviews and experiences with big brand bars, one might conclude that the consumer snack market is a paradise of high quality treats. That really isn't so. If you buy the "right" (or "wrong") products, you'll find that there is substandard fare out there as well.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Random Weekend Picture 21

I was taking a walk around my neighborhood and perusing the drink machines, as I always do. I have found that some of the most entertaining slogans and product names tend to crop up on drinks. This time, it wasn't the name so much as the ingredients list that caught me by surprise. I didn't know that catnip was something humans ate. Either that, or I didn't know that Yakult made drinks for cats. ;-) The Wikipedia entry for catnip mentions that it is a good insect repellent for roaches and mosquitoes. Maybe this is a way to drive away the usual Tokyo summer roach infestations from the inside.

Incidentally, "Lemorea" sounds like some sort of fantasy-land where animated citrus fruit frolic or like some sort of nasty tongue fungus disease to me. I'm not sure which is scarier.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Angel Pie (Mini)

Angel pies are something that I've seen around Japan for a long time. In fact, I think I may have purchased a box of them a very long time ago. The full size pies are about 6.5 cm or 2.5 inches in diameter. The mini ones are about 3.5 cm or 1.4 inches. The big ones are usually sold in boxes of 6 in supermarkets. I picked up this tiny one at an AM/PM convenience store for 30 yen. It was a premium price for such a small morsel, but I wouldn't be reviewing it now if I had had to buy a whole box of the big ones as my lack of a strong impression upon initial purchase years ago probably indicated I was less than overwhelmed. Also, at 40 calories, it's an indulgence that I can make without much guilt.

The Angel Pie is one of Morinaga's "biscuit line" of products. It was introduced in 1961 and is one of their better known cookie-style products. If you'd like to see a history of the pies and their packaging, you can have a peak at Morninaga's site's history of the product. You can also pick yourself up a desktop picture of a bare-assed angel munching one of the pies if you're into quasi-kiddie porn illustrations. I think this was named "Angel Pie" because of Morinaga's logo (which is an angel) as well as the notions of cloud-like marshmallow filling.

The angel pie is a fake chocolate coating over a super soft graham-cracker-style cake and a soft marshmallow filling. The softness of the pie when chewing is emphasized as a positive attribute in Morinaga's blurb on these. It doesn't smell like much at all. There's a faint whiff of cheap chocolate. The first sense you have when you bite into it is of the graham cracker-style cake. It's a weak flavor, but it's the most prominent of all of the weak flavors. You are hit, for mere seconds, by a mild chocolate flavor and finally with an odd aftertaste which I believe is supposed to be the taste of the marshmallow filling.

This was a very "blah" experience. It wasn't bad at all, but it just wasn't very good. The funky marshmallow flavoring is off-putting, but the truth is that all Japanese-made marshmallows have a strange aftertaste, so it's par for the course. The main problem is that the textures don't have enough variation and the flavors are all too weak. It's inoffensive, but I wouldn't buy it again or even eat one if I was offered one for free unless I was very, very hungry because I wouldn't feel it was worth the cost in calories.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Senjaku Diet Cocoa Candy

Back when I was working in a Japanese company, one of the office ladies used to keep a box of cocoa in the kitchen. It was in a brown box with gold writing in katakana (the phonetic alphabet for foreign words) which said "Cocoa". I never sampled that cocoa, as I wasn't a break room thief and I wasn't fond of chocolate milk. My coworkers, on the other hand, often stole my milk and mayonnaise when it suited them. That cocoa box design closely resembled the one on this package of hard candies, but it was made by Morinaga. I wonder if this is meant to bring to mind that cocoa powder which is made by a much better known company than Senjaku.

This is the first product I've reviewed by Senjaku. They make a limited, but not exceptionally narrow line of candies which mainly consists of hard candies, but there are also some gummies and pressed sugary powder candies. The company is relatively small with only 175 employees. The company makes a point of mentioning that 103 of them are women, but I'm not sure why that is relevant. In their "Diet" candy line, they have green tea, coffee, and this cocoa candy.

I found these at Seiyu supermarket for 168 yen ($1.80) for an 88 gram (3.1 oz.) bag. I looked long and hard before I bought them because "diet" often means very little in Japan. The bag says that there is a 20% calorie reduction for these candies compared to conventional types. There are 22 individually wrapped candies in the bag and each is 12.5 calories. Part of the promotional information for this states that it contains 295 mg. of Polyphenols. These are the antioxidants that are in things like coffee, wine and nuts. Of course, that number is for the entire bag.

One interesting thing about these is that they actually have their ingredients written in both Japanese and English. The first is hydrogenated glucose syrup, which I hadn't heard of before. Some research revealed that this is a modified starch which is used in sugar-free candies (and is similar to Maltitol). The second ingredient is corn syrup, which isn't surprising since I think that it's impossible to make hard candies without some sugar. Other ingredients are whey powder, cocoa powder, polydextrose, vegetable oil, cocoa paste, aspartame, and flavoring.

Unsurprisingly, these don't smell like much of anything, but a few moments on the tongue reveal a rich, deep cocoa flavor. The taste is amazingly deep and broad for a hard candy which has no milk products. It tastes like a cup of hot cocoa that is rich and chocolatey. My mouth was full for the duration with the loveliest flavor which carried just a hint of liqueur. I'm guessing the vegetable oil adds a real richness to the taste since the fat can likely be detected. Unlike many hard candies in Japan which are slick and super smooth, these have a bit of a rough texture to the candy. This in no way undermines the experience. In fact, I think it makes the sense of chocolate consumption more palpable.

These were incredible for a hard candy. After the first one, I wanted to run back to Seiyu and buy up their entire stock while they still had them available. It's so often the case that I find something I really like once and never see it again, particularly if it is made by a smaller manufacturer. If you like rich hot cocoa, and want something to give you the flavor of a cup of it without the calories (and the texture and fullness), by all means try these.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lawson VL Yaki Onigiri

I think that onigiri (rice ball) is probably the number one snack in Japan, though it isn't glamorous enough to get talked about much and is close enough to real food that it's not seen as a "snack". Any time a Japanese person feels peckish, but doesn't feel like a meal, they tend to grab one of these at convenience stores. Onigiri is on offer at most "conbini" for 100 yen ($1.14), often in a familiar triangular presentation. They usually have a filling (seafood in most cases) or are mixed with other seasoning elements (fish flakes, beans, etc.), and nori (dry, paper-like seaweed) is separated from the rice so that it can be wrapped around the rice ball without absorbing the moisture. Onigiri is a handy snack which provides energy and enough substance for a full feeling.

Before I came to actually like plain Japanese rice, I liked onigiri and occasionally bought them at 7-11 when I worked at Nova language school so very long ago (19 years ago). My favorite has always been grilled ("yaki") onigiri, which is a rice ball that has been brushed with a soy-sauce-based seasoning and cooked until the exterior is brown and slightly crispy. When my friends and I went to our favorite yakitori joint, I'd always order yaki onigiri.

These days, I tend to just make my own plain white rice and haven't enjoyed a nice grilled rice ball for a long time. Part of the reason for this is that they're much more expensive than just making rice myself. That being said, I can't grill rice balls because I don't have the proper type of grill and I'm also frankly too lazy to mess about forming the balls and brushing them with sauce.

I needed something to eat with the remaining lemon basil chicken that I reviewed previously (yes, it took me many weeks to eat the rest of them) and I figured this pack of 3 grilled rice balls from Lawson's 100 yen shop would do the trick. I figured that if I were desperate enough to eat frozen chicken, I'd probably be happy to have something else that was frozen along with it as I generally resort to frozen food in moments of fatigue, illness, or dire hunger brought on by waiting too long to start preparing food.

These rice balls are quite small. Each is about a half cup of rice pressed into a fairly firm ball. The instructions on the package offer different cooking times based on microwave wattage and how many rice balls you are cooking at once. I made only one because 93 calories of carbohydrate is enough for me for lunch. The outside of the onigiri is nicely brown with soy sauce and possibly is actually grilled. The inside is just plain rice. I put this in the microwave when it was frozen solid and one minute and ten seconds at 600 watts brought it out steaming hot.

The rice was tender, yet firm. The smell was actually very nice because of the seasoning. The soy sauce-based exterior was flavorful and had a good balance. The only thing that separated this from the yaki onigiri that I ordered at yakitori restaurants was the lack of a crispy outside. Still, I think it would be hard to make this the same as a freshly grilled rice ball, particularly when heating it in the microwave as crispness is usually the first thing you lose when freezing and irradiating food.

I liked this quite a lot and would definitely have it again if I was feeling lazy or simply wanted to keep something on hand in the freezer to have with a meal and I didn't have time to cook rice. If rice is fairly boring to you, this may float your boat because of the soy sauce flavoring. At 100 yen for 3 balls, it's also pretty reasonable economically.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kameda Seika Ponzu Sembei

I can't believe that I've been snack blogging for coming up on two years and I hadn't sampled anything flavored with ponzu until now. This wasn't willful on my part. It's just that I hadn't encountered anything flavored with it in my cursory searches. The reason this is so strange is that ponzu, a slightly sour, tart dipping sauce, is quite common in Japanese cuisine.

My first experience in Japan with ponzu was with a teppanyaki steak restaurant. My husband and I were taken to a very expensive place in a large hotel in Ikebukuro by one of his students at that time. This particular fellow worked for Toyota, and this was back in the days when Japan was a big economic threat and the world was its oyster. On his expense account (I'm sure), we were treated to small, expertly grilled bits of meat, garlic, and onion. Each small thin slice was individually handled by an expert chef and offered up in portions that would make an American weep. Among the sauces we were given to dip these small morsels was ponzu shoyu, a mixture of soy sauce and other traditional ponzu elements like lemon or yuzu.

I discovered these sembei at Family Mart for about 170 yen ($1.90). They can only be had at convenience stores for a limited time. There are 11 crackers in the bag and each is 8 cm. x 3 cm (3.1 in. x 1.2 in.) in size. The bag touts the use of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) powder, but the ingredients list also includes lemon.

Sorry for the bad picture. These actually looked just like yuzukoshoo sembei I reviewed in the past, but I decided to use a bad picture instead of recycle a better one. I'm just that stupidly honest.

As soon as I opened the bag, I could smell the familiar citrus scent of ponzu. The crackers are a savory blend of salt, vinegar, lemon, yuzu, and soy sauce. The balance of these flavors is excellent. They are neither too acidic nor too savory. I could easily eat the entire bag at one sitting if spending 326 calories on something so salty weren't a monumentally imprudent thing to do. If you do the math, you'll see that each cracker is 29.6 calories.

These are excellent, crispy crackers which feel like they're perfect for summer. There's something about the citrus and vinegar nature coupled with the seasonal heat that fits just right. They're also one of those uniquely Japanese things that are relatively accessible to foreign palates, provided that you like slightly sour things made with vinegar and citrus. I strongly recommended sampling them if you have a chance.