Thursday, September 30, 2010

Morinaga Rare Cheese Dessert

There are two words that should serve as red flags to anyone seeking a snack treat. One of those words is "drink". If you find something which is called "orange drink" or "grape drink", you know that qualitatively you're going to be getting something which is closer to a lollipop in flavor and nutrition than the fruit the drink is based on. The other word is "dessert".

You'd think I would have seen this red flag, but I must have been colorblind and seen green instead when I picked up this box of "rare cheese dessert" at Yutakaraya for 189 yen ($2.22). I think that I was paying more attention to the 79 calories per serving rather than the product name. I was thinking "low-calorie cheesecake," rather than cheesecake-like substance. Silly, silly flower girl. Incidentally, "rare cheese" is what the Japanese use to describe New-York-style (unbaked) cheesecake.

Each tub contains what can best be described as cream-cheese-flavored gelatin. It's not quite as firm as American Jell-o, but it's also not the least bit creamy. The flavor is right on though. It does have all of the taste of the filling of cheesecake, but there is something which seems very "wrong" about it. Until you eat something with all of the flavor and none of the texture of cheesecake, you don't realize how integral the velvety, fatty goodness is to the experience. This tastes good, but ultimately doesn't satisfy. It is like semi-liquid sweetened cream cheese.

I don't mean to regard this product unfairly by giving it an "indifferent" rating. Morinaga did a very good job of approximating the flavor of cheesecake filling without the fat, calories, and crust. This was likely no small feat. However, I'm not sure the world really needs cream cheese gelatin, and I'm certain I won't buy this again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Random Picture 31

Last month my husband attended the Koenji Awaodori festival and took some pictures including this shot of the Colonel in a hapi coat for the festivities. He's like a big Ken doll for the Japanese as they dress him differently depending on the occasion. The Koenji Awaodori festival has over a million visitors in 2 days and features folks doing traditional harvest dancing as well as, of course, food. The KFC people sold their usual dreck, but also had a big cooler full of overpriced drinks.

Summer has finally exited, and posting this picture of the Colonel in this uniquely Japanese (and common summer) attire is my way of telling it not to let the door hit it on the ass on the way out. This past summer was long, intense, and excruciating, and I'm glad it's finally over.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kameda Roast Onion Kongari Snack

When I was a kid, I turned my nose up at things like onions. They were too strong tasting and I'd get annoyed when my parents would order pizzas with onions, or worse, slimy mushrooms. While I can't say I ever got into mushrooms (though I don't hate them anymore), I've grown to adore onions and probably eat them raw or in various dishes nearly everyday.

When I saw this "roast onion" snack at Okashi no Marche discount snack store for a paltry 100 yen ($1.16), I happily tossed it in my basket. The strange thing is that I had not seen this for sale at any convenience stores before and it is clearly one of Kameda's "convenience store (conbini) only" products. You can tell the difference because of the size. Conbini-only items often are small and meant to be single servings. This is 42 grams (about 1.5 oz.) and 174 calories.

There are two different crackers in the mix. The flat ones are all onion flavor and the round balls are supposed to be red pepper flavored. The onion chips taste a lot like the type of french-fried onion pieces you can buy in markets and use in cooking or food preparation. They are very "oniony", but also quite tasty if you love onion. The little ball-shaped crackers are not as hot as I expected them to be given that they have visible pepper flakes on them. They are a mixture of savory flavors, including soy sauce, parsley, and meat flavorings with a small amount of pepper heat. Eaten separately, you can clearly discern the flavor of each cracker. Eaten together, the onion nearly overwhelms both completely.

The crackers are fresh and have a strong flavor and quite enjoyable. That being said, they're not the sort of thing you sit around hankering for. I love onion, but perhaps not at this level of roasted intensity as a snack. I think onion works so well in cooking because it adds dimension to dishes. As the sole component and featured flavor, it is only good in small doses. I ate half this bag, really like it, and closed it up to finish another day.

If your really love onion, by all means, give this a try. However, I recommend having it with a drink and not having to kiss or speak in close quarters with anyone after eating it. I would buy this again, but not often, and not soon.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Adult Sweetness" KitKat

There are so many jokes a reviewer could make about an "adult" KitKat in terms of marital aids, pornography, etc., but as someone who has been an adult for a long time, I'd say that there are bigger realities associated with adulthood. I'm talking about things like paying taxes, being fully responsible for any crimes you commit willfully or unwittingly (not that I've ever committed a crime...), and realizing that you are neither immortal nor invincible. If eating this KitKat conveyed the sense of your own mortality, it'd truly be "adult".

In the end though, this KitKat is a brilliant example of what most Japanese KitKats are these days; they are the product of a better team of marketers and graphic designers than creative cooks. The thing that makes this "adult" is that it isn't supposed to be as sweet as most KitKats. This is achieved solely through using a very mild dark chocolate coating instead of a milk chocolate one. If you are a fan of dark chocolate that gives you an intense hit, this isn't a bar for you. It's the sort of dark chocolate flavor that cocoa sissies can find palatable.

When I opened the package, the scent reminded me of the sort of dark chocolate that I used to get at Halloween time in the form of a Hershey's  miniature that someone tossed in my trick-or-treat bag. It tasted good, which is to say that it tastes like a KitKat with marginally less sweet dark chocolate. It's really such a subtle variation on the classic presentation that it's hardly worth noting.

If you like KitKats, you'll like this. It's good and costs the same as all Japanese KitKats (120 yen ($1.43) in convenience stores, 100 yen ($1.19) at Okashi no Machioka, where I got mine), but I would avoid it at all costs if you're considering paying a premium price for one via an importer. It's simply not interesting enough to pay more for. That being said, if you're living in Japan, it's about 5% more interesting than a regular KitKat and worth picking up as a change of pace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Oyasu Ramen Contest Winner

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest and answered the question about the weirdest foods they have eaten or seen.

Via random number generator, comment #9, Kelly, won the ramen with toy prize. Please e-mail me at and provide your mailing information and I'll send along your prize!

Thanks again to all who took part!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Variety Friday: Eating Outside the Box and Dagashi

Part of the dagashi bins at a local convenience store. It includes asparagus bicsuits, Heart Chiple, fake potato snacks, and mini KitKats. Everything is 30 yen (35 cents). Click this smaller picture to see a bigger one with more detail.

Yesterday completed my "two weeks of weird", and I want to thank everyone who took the time to comment and enter the contest. I will be announcing the winner tomorrow on a special Saturday posting. Note that I didn't reply to any of the comments because any comment I write messes up picking a random numbered comment as the winner. I really enjoyed all of your answers!

The two weeks of weird was motivated by something I have started to notice as a result of blogging about Japanese snacks for a few years now. That is that there are patterns of release and limits to the variations in the types of snacks being put out with few exceptions. Things like the very obscure Pepsi or Coke releases happen only once or twice a year, so that sort of weirdness is infrequent. While Japanese KitKat variations are released at regular intervals, most of them are variations on the same themes and truly interesting ones come about no more than a handful of times per year. Most of what is "new" is actually what is old being repackaged or folded into new presentations. 

As autumn rolls around (by calendar if not by weather), I'm seeing a repeat of all of the same themes: sweet potato, marron (chestnut), and chocolates which are too easily melted in warmer weather as well as the reintroduction of some snacks that were temporarily gone and are making a return. Though I love a lot of the flavors (especially at this time of year), there is only so much to say about sampling the umpteeth sweet potato chocolate or cookie.

I chose the "weirdness" theme to force myself to sample food that is "outside the box" for me. It's all of the things that I've been seeing for decades now but passing by on my way to the more familiar territory of salted snacks, soft drinks, chocolates and cookies. While I can't say it's been a "good time", I can say that I'm glad I did it and that it has been educational both as a writer about Japanese snack foods and as a person who wants a more rounded understanding of culture and tastes in the country in which I currently reside.

One of the things I've learned is that a lot of the foods I've sampled which are for children fall under the category of "dagashi". These are cheaply made foods which used to be greatly more popular when children had less money than they do these days. Most of them sell for 20-30 yen (23-35 cents), and they are usually very poor nutritionally and aren't expected to be enjoyed by adults. Many Japanese people have a sense of nostalgia about them much in the way Americans of my generation (born in the mid 60's) may feel about penny candy. There's a very good multi-part article on dagashi here. Though I probably won't dive so deeply into these offerings again, I will try to sample them on occasion in the future just to keep expanding my experience base.

Thanks to everyone who read, and especially to those who took part in the contest!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ki-bidango (millet dumpling)

 I have been farming the kid's snacks bins of various odd snacks or things which are difficult to tell the nature of merely by looking at the package and its shape. This little bar, which is about the size of a Snickers candy bar, caught my eye both because of its graphics and the fact that I'd never heard of bidango before. I found it for a mere 28 yen (33 cents) at Okashi no Machioka, but these are the types of things that tend to show up in the kid's treats areas of supermarkets like Seiyu.

There is no information on the package about the calories or size, but it can be guessed at by comparing the average as offered on the Calories in Japanese foods site. I had to weigh it myself and it's 45 grams and that would appear to be about 140 calories for the entire bar. If this is the same composition as that on that aforementioned site, ki-bidango is rich in copper and carbohydrates.

When I unwrapped this, I wasn't sure what I was going to get. The Wikipedia page on this type of thing shows little white balls which resemble traditional dango or mochi. What was revealed looked like a block of youkan wrapped in edible plastic.

This doesn't smell like much of anything. The texture is chewy, though not tough. It is slightly reminiscent of gum without the elastic properties. In terms of taste, it's rather hard to pin down. At first, it reminded me of brown sugar or molasses, then it took on more of a red bean flavor. The taste is actually quite subtle and it's mildly and pleasantly sweet.

The ingredients include sugar water, red beans, sugar, flour, powdered mochi, vegetable oil, honey, and salt. Of course oblaat is also an ingredient because it is the edible wrapper on the outside of the sticky bar. It was actually quite difficult to cut with a knife to get this shot.

This is an interesting snack, and it's not bad at all. The taste is pleasant. The texture is interesting, and it's pretty satisfying. That being said, though I'd eat this if it was offered or given to me as a gift, I wouldn't buy it again. It's not that it's bad in any way, but rather that it's not the sort of thing I would "crave" as a sweet treat. It feels more like actual rice-based food that has been modified to become a sweet. I guess that's part of the reason that it is on offer for children. It's probably seen as more wholesome than the average chocolate bar or salty treat.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Quick Mention: This blog was reviewed

Just a quick mention that this blog was reviewed at the Japan Blog Review. It's an interesting site that will introduce those interested in Japan blogs to more of the same so you might want to give it a look.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Random Picture 30

On my other blog, I've whined about the high cost of popcorn in Japan. Most of the time, you can buy it in tiny packets of kernels which won't pop very well or you can buy these Jiffy-Pop type foil plates for about $2.00 each. These plates are about 2/3 the size of the ones you buy back home. I've never actually bought one, but the strangest thing is that this is sitting smack dab in the middle of the cereal for some reason. I don't know if that means people are eating popcorn for breakfast, or cereal as a snack with movies, or if this is put with all of the grain-based foods, but it isn't with the salted snacks as one might expect.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yotchan Tiger Brothers Plums

One of my students told me a story awhile ago about a friend of hers. When the friend was a child, she wanted to have some more "umeboshi" at dinner. Umeboshi, or pickled plums, are like pickled green olives back home. They're small and salty and are generally eaten in small quantities. Her mother didn't want her to have more because they have so much sodium and too many are bad for your health.

My students friend had a bout of night eating on the evening that her mother said no to her umeboshi desires. She sleep-walked to the kitchen and ate an entire jar of them. Her mother took her to the hospital the next day because she was afraid all of that salt might kill her. She was given fluids and lived, and her mother decided not to deny her second and third helpings on the pickled plums anymore.

One wouldn't think something which is equivalent to an olive would be something kids would go for, but I found this pack of 3 pickled plums in the kid's snacks section. It was next to the marble choco and curry corn snacks. This pack was 21 yen (25 cents) and is made by a company called "Yotchan". They make a lot of very cheap kid's snacks that could be included in these two weeks of weird because most of it is gnarled seaweed, plum, and various bits of contorted, dried out bits wrapped in plastic. Note that these pickled plums are dyed and the company also sells a version which is grayer and less colorful which are not visually enhanced.

Since I've been in Japan for a long time, and I've been in my share of restaurants, I've had umeboshi before. The truth is that I rather like the ones I've had. They're sour and sometimes mushy and somethings a quite firm (almost hard). They have a distinctive smell which is hard to relate to anything one has experienced back home. It's mainly a combination of the plum scent and a quasi-vinegary smell, but these are not made with vinegar.

These pickled plums are the firm type, and they have a pit inside of them. They're very hard, like an unripened peach. They're sour and salty like most umeboshi, but they also have a weird sweetness to them which I haven't encountered in these before. One of the ingredients is Stevia, and I really don't think it's doing anything for these.

Even though I like umeboshi, I didn't like these because of that strange sweetness. I'm also more of a fan of the softer pickled plums than the hard ones, though I generally find the harder ones okay as well. I wouldn't buy these again, and I don't plan to eat the rest of them.

If you're interested in some desktop wallpapers with Yotchan's mascot, you can download some here.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment. 

Monday, September 20, 2010


Karinto is a traditonal snack in Japan which is deep fried and coated in brown sugar.  Other flavors are also available, but the type you see most often, which resembles something you'd find floating in an unflushed toilet, are these brown sugar varieties. You can find karinto sold pretty much anywhere for a low price. I found mine at Okashi no Machioka discount snack shop in their 100 yen ($1.19) snacks area. This is a pretty typical price for karinto. The manufacturers vary, but most of them are not big companies, have no web sites and use relatively generic packaging, as was the case with the maker of my version.

This is a quintessential example of Japanese junk food as it is essentially a type of fried doughnut-style batter loaded with fat and sugar. These are not a low calorie traditional Japanese snack by any stretch of the imagination. Each piece is approximately 13 calories and is 6 cm long (2.4 in.) and just under 1 cm (.4 in.) wide. The entire 125 gram (4.4 oz.) bag is a whopping 591 calories. The first ingredients are brown sugar, sugar, and then flour.

They smell like a slightly burnt brown sugar donut with some unexpected ingredient which you can't put your finger on. They taste like a deep fried corn snack, like a Cheeto, with brown sugar saturating it at every level. There is a strong flavor of oil and an aftertaste of pure brown sugar. There is also a modest burnt sugar flavor going on.

Though not horrible, there was something about these which hit me as very, very wrong. My guess is it was the oiliness of them and the very sugary nature coupled with the corn snack style texture which I think results from them being a bit like a very dried out doughnut. They had a strong taste of having been fried in oil that had been used a lot and being saturated with oil. The texture was both soft and hard at the same time. I guess that is because they are deep fried, but sugary.

I don't believe that anyone who tries these will hate them, but I'm not sure that they'll love them either. There is a real sense of disharmony to karinto for me in which the elements are all fine or inoffensive, but they come together in a package which doesn't seem right. I also feel like they are really, really poor on the calorie cost to food pleasure ratios, and I almost certainly won't finish the bag and definitely won't buy them again.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Suguru Big Katsu

In the late 19th century in Japan, a host of dishes that could be designated as "bachelor food" were created during the Meiji restoration. They took Western cuisine and modified it to suit Japanese tastes. To this day, some Japanese people think this type of food is what Western folks eat all of the time, and most of it is not very healthy so they assume this is why we're fatter and have heart disease. In Japan, it's called "yoshoku". Tonkatsu, or a breaded, deep-fired pork cutlet, is a part of this type of cuisine. You can also get chicken in a similarly prepared cutlet, and sometimes bacon. It's all very tasty, and horrible for the arteries.

This "Big Katsu" snack is emulating the coating on the outside of the various cutlet (katsu) preparations. Though it's called "big", it's actually a flat strip about 15 cm. x 5 cm. (6 in. x 2 in.) in size. You can find this in the kid's snacks sections of many markets and some convenience stores. It only costs 30 yen (36 cents), so you can imagine that it's not going to be a premium quality snack. The entire slab has 75 calories and a whopping 289 mg. of sodium.

If you've ever bought a filet-o-fish at McDonald's, you know what this snack smells like. It carries a fishy, oft-used oil smell. I'd like to say, something like "biting into this...", but it's very hard to bite off a piece. It's very tough and slightly reminiscent of beef jerky on the texture front. The flavor reminds me a lot of cheap crab cakes that my mother used to buy. These "crab cakes" were mostly seasoned breading with very little actual crab. The main difference between those cakes and this snack is that this is leathery and they were soft. Both those crab cakes and this snack have a spicy, slightly hot tangy aftertaste. The package mentions "special sauce", which I imagine is supposed to emulate tonkatsu sauce. The ingredients list includes oyster sauce, various meat extracts, and curry seasoning which likely contribute to this aspect of the flavor.

I'm actually surprised to hear myself say this, but this doesn't taste bad at all. It feels like the junkiest of junk foods, and the first ingredient is bread crumbs, but it has a nice spicy flavor and some of the better aspects of the coating on fried food. The main problem with this is that it is so tough that it isn't enjoyable to eat, and it really does taste like coating on a Filet-O-Fish sandwich with tonkatsu sauce.

Though not horrible at all, I didn't eat the rest of it and I wouldn't buy it again. One thing that didn't help is that it gave me a stomachache, but also, I'm not a fan of fast food. It really just isn't my type of food. If you want something weird to take home and get people to sample as part of the "weird" food culture in Japan, this wouldn't be a bad choice. It's not likely to see people tossing their cookies on your shoes, but it's "accessible" in terms of the flavors. It is pretty junky, both in flavor and in nutrition. It's hard to believe this is marketed toward kids here, but then again not all snacks back home that are directed at children are healthy either.

Note that there are many of these types of snacks made by various manufacturers. A Japanese person reviewed them and took pictures of them here. Even if you can't read the Japanese, you can get an idea of how many similar snacks like these are out there by looking at the pictures.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ginbis Asparagus Biscuits

If you want to dive deep into the heart of weird snacks in Japan, I recommend you raid the kid's section. That's what I did to find most of what I'm offering during my weeks of weird. Most of those snacks are not only a little strange, but they're also very cheap. This packet of 6 long, thin cookies (about the width of a pencil and about 2/3 the length of one) was only 28 yen (33 cents) at a convenience store. 

The manufacturer is Ginbis, and I've never reviewed anything made by them before, but I've seen some of their snacks on sale. Mostly, they make cookies, but they also offer a few salted snacks. Their web site says that this is their longest seller and has been on offer for 40 years and mentions that these small packages offer great portion control.

These smell like crackers in a rather generic way. They are not made of or with asparagus, but are merely meant to resemble it. They're made with some not so great fats including palm oil and "shortening". Other than that, they're made with your usual selection of cookie material - flour, sugar, yeast, etc. You can see that they are studded with sesame seeds. Though they don't look it, the outside of the crackers becomes very  oily when you touch them with your warm fingers. It's a very odd situation. The main good point of them is that they are super crispy. The texture is quite appealing. Other than that, the only thing to recommend them is the fact that they are fortified with Calcium, but only 31 mg.

The taste is like a not so sweet, very strongly baked animal cracker. The main flavor is black sesame with a generic biscuit/cookie flavor. These are actually pretty decent tasting, but nothing to get excited about. The black sesame flavor could be stronger, and they have a little bit of an overcooked flavor.

I finished the packet and enjoyed it, but this isn't the sort of thing which strongly appeals to me. If you like sesame and animal crackers, you might want to give them a try. Otherwise, I'd not bother.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Random Picture 29

One of the local supermarkets in my area (Peacock) allows a revolving door of merchants to set up camp outside of their store to sell various items or foods. Sometimes housewares are on offer, at others, cakes or traditional foods like tofu. This past week, a man has been selling a huge variety of snacks for children. Most of them are small, individual-sized snacks, but there are some bigger items as well. This squid snack, which is designed to look like a 100,000,000 yen bill, is about 2 feet by 1 foot in size (61 cm by 30.5 cm). It's very flat, like a sheet of seafood paper, and it cost 480 yen ($5.70), but I wasn't going to spend that much for something for my weeks of weird considering that I'm not likely to enjoy it.

This is the sort of thing I have never seen in regular shops because it's just too big and bulky for a store to relegate shelf space to it, but I'd probably like it if I were a kid, and if I liked squid.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Yaokin Yaki Imo Youkan

Only after typing the name of this blog post did I realize what a tongue twister it might be. Perhaps it would be an enjoyable exercise to attempt to say it five times fast. Perhaps, not.

Youkan is a traditional Japanese sweet which is usually made of jellied beans and sugar. It's sold in brown, green, or yellowish bricks in a variety of shops. I have had red-bean-based youkan before (which looks brownish), though I have never purchased it myself. Salesmen at my former office used to buy it occasionally and give it to the office staff who remained in the office as a treat from whatever city they traveled to for business. Note that this sort of procuring of regional treats for the office-bound coworkers is a very common thing in Japan.

I remember feeling that youkan was okay, but too sweet and lacking in strong flavor. Sure, it tasted like beans, but red beans don't necessarily carry a strong taste by themselves, and less so in youkan form. I think the fact that youkan is made with agar (a seaweed derivative used for gelatin-style foods) dilutes the overall concentration of whatever the main flavoring element is. If you look at the youkan samples on the Wikipedia page, some of them are translucent rather than opaque, which shows that the beans or whatever are thinned and therefore not as intense in taste. To me, youkan tasted a bit like intensely flavored sweetened water drained off of beans you'd cooked.

Since I can't imagine buying youkan in a large quantity (which is how it's generally sold, though not always) for myself, I jumped at the chance to sample this single-serving (26 grams/.9 oz.) sweet potato version when I found it at Seiyu department store. I can't remember the price, but this was in the kid's sweets section and couldn't have been more than 50 yen (55 cents).This is made by Yaokin, a company whose kid's snacks I have reviewed on several previous occasions.

It annoys me that there is no nutrition information on the package or in the company's catalog (which I downloaded specifically in the hopes of getting such information) since I like to keep tabs on the calories of snacks I eat. I found a web site which offers basic nutritional information on Japanese foods which asserts that youkan in general has 89 calories per 30 grams, which would make this snack weigh in at 77 calories (if their stats are correct). The site also asserts that youkan is rich in fiber.

This youkan actually tasted like, well, sweet potato. It's a bit sweeter because it's made with sugar, but it also has an intensity or aftertaste to it which is either a result of the processing of the youkan, or the way in which the sweet potato itself is handled. It's not a bad taste necessarily, but it takes some getting used to and may not appeal to everyone. It tastes like concentrated Japanese sweet potato skin, though only as an aftertaste, so it's not too overwhelming but I could easily see how some might actively find it unpleasant.

The texture is one of the main reasons to choose to consume youkan. It's smooth, easy to bite into, and a bit like very firm, finely grainy gelatin. I think that it's supposed to be appealing in summer if you chill it, though I ate this at room temperature. It's good, but may be an acquired taste.

I was rather torn about this as a treat. I enjoyed the flavor and texture, and felt the sweetness balance was just right. The main problem I have is that the second ingredient (after sweet potato) is sugar and the aftertaste issue. That being said, if I were in the proper mood, I could definitely seeing buying this again. I can't say that it has inspired me to sample all sorts of youkan, but this sweet potato version is worth a revisit.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Natori Fish Almond Mix

There are a lot of disgusting looking dried up seafood snacks in Japan which I have always sworn I would not touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole... then I started doing this blog and got the bright idea of doing reviews of the weirder things which I have shied away from. I figured that I could stretch my palate a little and push the boundaries of what I'll eat, at least a little.

While perusing all of the odder looking bits, I considered the leathery bits of octopus and the stringy bits of eel. Knowing I don't like those types of seafood at all convinced me that trying them would be a pointless exercise in handing out "very unhappy" ratings. I decided that I would try the omnipresent dried fish snacks because, though I'm not a fan of fish, I don't hate it. At the very least, it might be "so-so", and this version with almonds might go down a bit more easily because they're my favorite nut.

You can find dried fish snacks nearly everywhere in Japan. They are particularly popular as otsumami or snacks marketed to be consumed with beverages (and alcoholic ones in particular). I got this at Lawson 100 shop for 100 yen ($1.17). It's a 24 gram (.85 oz.) bag and the entire thing has 126 calories and 9.3 grams of protein. These are pretty healthy, and I was once told by a student that this was the only snack she was allowed to eat as a child because she had bad teeth and her mother didn't want her eating anything with sugar. 

I was all fine on an intellectual level to try these for review, and then I poured them onto a tissue to take a picture before eating. Seeing the little heads that had broken free, and the bits of internal organs through their dried out transparent bodies started to really turn my stomach. It's not eating fish that is the problem so much as eating every little bit of the fish. I had some serious second thoughts about my choice. At least the squid cheese strings don't look like squid, and the dried out octopus bits are chopped up and don't have eyes and veins. I was really regretting this choice.

I didn't even want to touch them, but I rounded up a few fish and a few almonds, closed my eyes, and put them in my mouth. Unsurprisingly, it tasted super fishy with only the slightest hint of almond. They aren't very salty, but there was a hint of sweetness. This is no surprise since the third ingredient is actually sugar (the first is almonds, and the second, sardines or "iwashi"/いわし). There are also sesame seeds studding the little dried up corpses, but the fish taste is so overpowering that the seeds and nuts flavors are largely drowned out.

This wasn't horrible, but it wasn't great. If I were starving to death and had to eat these, it wouldn't be the end of the world, but I can't see enjoying it casually as a snack or craving it. It is intensely fishy, and there is something peculiar about sugar and fish as a combination. I'll admit that I took one bite and threw the rest away, but that's mostly because looking at them made me queasy. I could have forced down the rest, but I saw no reason to do so.

If you'd like to share your experiences with weird foods and enter a contest for a chance to win a silly prize, please read this post and make a comment.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Posting Frequency Changes

Starting today, posting on this blog (and its companion blog, 1000 Things About Japan) will be made on weekdays (Monday through Friday) only. The random pictures will be moved to Wednesdays rather than Saturdays. I'm reducing posting frequency because there are other priorities that I have to deal with in my life, and can't continue to be a one-woman-content-generating machine at the current level. I enjoy blogging immensely, but I really need to put more time into study (both language and GRE prep) as well as other activities.

I'm sorry if this is disappointing news to all of my kind readers. I really appreciate all of the support I'm given.

Thanks to everyone for reading!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Variety Friday: A question, a contest, and 2 weeks of "weird"

Next week, I'm kicking off "two weeks of weird", though it may be more accurate to call it "two weeks of the curious". Part of the problem with having lived in Japan so long is that I don't have the same perspective that I once did about "strange snacks". I still know what is disgusting looking to me (dried squid and octopus come to mind), but there are likely other less odd things which seem strange to people who have never spent time in Japan.

I have selected foods which I think might be odd snacks in presentation or composition (or both) to those who grew up in Western cultures, but I really can't write for or with the experiences of other people in mind. My notion of "weird" is highly subjective and some (or many) readers might be rolling their eyes and saying that my notion of strangeness is far too mundane and that they are yawning their way through the reviews. To that end, dear readers, I'm going to give you a chance to tell me what you think is a strange food and offer you a chance to win a silly little prize for your efforts.

The question I ask my readers, and please leave your answer as a comment on this particular post (one post per customer, please), is this:

What is the weirdest food you have ever eaten and/or seen?

Please feel free to offer more than a simple answer (though a simple one is fine) like saying why you think it is strange, what you thought of the food if you sampled it, and if you only saw it, would you eat it if you could. If you can find a picture of what you have eaten or seen, please link to it.

Anyone who leaves a comment answering this question is eligible to win an Oyasu Ramen pack with toy prize inside as reviewed yesterday. This prize was chosen mainly because it won't be damaged, melted, or destroyed during shipping in the lingering oppressive heat of this current Japanese summer as well as because it is cute and kind of neat. Sending any sort of candy at this time of year is pretty much asking for trouble, trust me. Any reader is eligible to win, though please note that I have had problems sending things to Africa and South America before. I can promise I'll send the package to any winner, but can't promise that it'll get there if you are in a place with an unreliable mail system.

The winner will be selected by a random number generator based on order of comments as listed on this post. Any comments answering this question which are left on posts other than this one will not be eligible for the prize, though any answers you give will be appreciated for their interest value.

I'm going to run the contest for two weeks, so you'll have to tolerate reminders that it exists for the duration of the run. The response to this contest will let me know if it is worthwhile to run more contests in the future, so, if you're shy, and would like to see more contests, please try and come out of the lurkdom and leave a comment. Thanks, and I look forward to your answers.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Oyatsu Chicken Ramen (mini packs)

Being a consumer is a complicated experience. People are constantly attempting to manipulate you into buying things you probably don't want or need, or possibly even enjoy. The really skillful ones will convince you that you want something. The gifted ones will get you to buy something even when you are fully aware that you are being completely manipulated and really don't want something.

I don't really like ramen (or any kind of noodles), and I don't care for cutesy junk which litters my apartment, so how is it that I ended up buying this package of mini bags of ramen with a cute little mascot-related toy? Well, they suckered me in for two reasons. First of all, the packaging is just too cool given that it is chicken ramen and the design resembles Japanese egg cartons. It is excellent design. The second is that I run this blog, and this looked like a nifty little thing to talk about because it has more depth to it than your average chocolate bar. So, here I am, with a 100-yen pack of ramen and a toy that I will be sending off to my sister so that she can give it to some child as a prize when her library holds a reading contest. Speaking of contests, toys, and prizes, stay tuned for tomorrow's post...

To make the toy work, you remove the chick from the egg (it's held in with a magnet), run it backwards across a flat surface, (carefully) put the chick back in and it'll go rushing forward (if it doesn't fall over backward because you were careless when you put the chick back in). The chick has a magnet which releases a lever when you replace it.

I actually have eaten ramen a few times in the past, but not this brand or type. When I first came to Japan, I would occasionally buy it for lunch at work because it was cheap, fast, and easy to prepare. I realize that it is nutritionally a zero, and that it is pretty much just salt and bad carbohydrates. That's probably why it's the food of choice for many college kids, but I'm 46 years old. I'm not sure this is what my body is meant to tolerate. Fortunately, the packages are very small so I didn't have to eat too much at once.

The instructions tell you to use 150 ml. of hot water, which is about 3/4 of a cup. My plan from the start was to sample this a bit by itself, then to add some cooked chicken breast and onions to the soup to add protein. I also had a raw tomato and salad on the side. I'm not sure if that helps with the fact that this has 560 mg. of sodium, but it makes me feel a bit less guilty about having it at all.

As far as taste goes, this is actually relatively mild on the saltiness. It tastes weakly of fried chicken and is a little oily. The noodles are your standard cheap ramen fare. They're limp and tasteless, and don't seem to absorb much of the flavor. The strange thing is that I sampled a broken piece of the noodles before adding the water, and they are very flavorful in their dry form.

This wasn't bad at all, but it wasn't exciting either. I'm very happy with the portion size, and if you're a fan of ramen and don't want to knock back a huge bowl of it, this would fit the bill. It's supposed to be the "cup-a-soup" size of ramen. You can't expect much, as this is instant ramen. I wouldn't buy it again, but I'll eat the second packet.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ogura (red bean) Pretz

Awhile back, I reviewed the gyoza (potsticker) Pretz and said I would also be reviewing this red bean variety. Shortly after that review, I put the second box of Pretz into a basket on top of my refrigerator (in which snacks wait for sampling) and forgot about it. Fortunately, these are still on sale so this review hasn't lapsed into irrelevance.

You can find these in most snack shops and convenience stores, but I got this at a discount snack shop in Koenji called  Okashi no Marche. They cost 99 yen ($1.14). Each box has two 27.5 gram (about 1 oz.) foil packets of pretzels and there are 135 calories. This is pretty average for this portion of pretzels. The ingredients list is as expected (flour, margarine, etc.), excepted that it includes adzuki powder.

Yes, this is the same picture from my other review. The pretzels look exactly the same. Only the powder flavoring is different.

It's rather a shame that I waited so long because these are really good. I've never had a sweet pretzel that really wowed me that wasn't coated in some form of chocolate, but this came about as close as a pretzel can to doing so. The red bean flavor isn't as "beany" as these things can be. It's more of an essential essence with the beaniness removed. They're lightly sweetened, but not so faintly that you can't detect the sweetness.

I would recommend these for red bean sweet novices. They introduce you to the flavor without any of the elements which tend to put people off of them. I really liked them, but those who really, really love adzuki and its textural elements may find it too limited an emulation of the red bean experience. I'll definitely buy them again though.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Meiji "Smart" Cheese

I'm going to have to confess something. I have never considered how intelligent my cheese is, nor have I ever considered that my cheese purchasing decisions reflected on my intelligence. I'm not sure what makes this cheese either have a high I.Q. or show that the buyer is smarter than the average mouse.

It turns out that this processed cheese is "smart" because it has been specially formulated for the Japanese market. It is enhanced with various ingredients to make it more savory ("umami") and texturally more satisfying for Japanese palates. Eating this is supposed to bring to mind traditional Japanese flavors like miso, bonito, and seaweed as well as have a taste which is akin to fermented foods in Japanese cuisine. It's also formulated to be soft and reminiscent of eating rice in terms of texture.

I found this cheese at Peacock supermarket in my neighborhood. It was on sale for 198 yen ($2.35) for a 120-gram (4.23 oz.) box. There are twelve 10 gram (.35 oz.) squares and each is 36 calories. This makes them pretty much similar to average cheese in terms of calories. The box states that this is made with 60% "natural cheese", but the types are not specified, though an "emulsifier" is mentioned as the other ingredient.

The taste of this cheese is definitely deeper and more savory. It has a much sharper edge and is more pungent than regular processed cheese in Japan. The flavor brings to mind matured cheddar and Parmesan in its intensity. It is definitely a very savory, tasty bit of processed cheese. The texture is quite soft, but still firm. It's easy to unwrap with a tab on the little foil packet.

Though I love real cheese and wouldn't want to replace it with any sort of processed cheese, this is incredibly flavorful and an excellent snack to keep on hand for a more nutritious boost. Each serving has 67 mg. of Calcium and 2.2 grams of protein with which to recommend itself. The only "down" side is that the retail price is 340 yen ($4.03), and I don't think that it would be worth it at that price. If you like strong, salty cheese and favor things like matured cheddar, I definitely recommend buying this and keeping it in the refrigerator at home or at work as a quick snack.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sequoia Chocolate Milk Bar

Some products come across as the "poor man's" version of a better-known brand name item. Drinks like RC Cola or Shasta cola come to mind as Coca-Cola wannabes. The Sequoia chocolate wafer bar comes across as the poor man's KitKat, though I don't know if it actually came before everyone's favorite chocolate-covered wafer. The company that makes Sequoia, Furuta, has been in business since 1952, but Furuta doesn't have a full product history on its site so I can't give them credit for being first if credit is indeed due.

You can buy Sequoia bars in 3-packs for 99 yen ($1.16) or as single bars for about 40 yen (47 cents). The multi-packs are available only in certain types of stores. A single Sequoia is about the size of 2.5 fingers of a KitKat, so they cost quite a bit less.

Since I last tried a Sequoia chocolate bar, they seem to have changed. I remember them being coated in thing chocolate which had little flavor and was rather thin. I recall the wafers being very brittle and overly flaky. To be fair, this was 18-19 years ago so they may have changed a long time ago and I just took a long time to revisit one.

The bar now is covered in relatively thick, solid chocolate. It is covered in typical Japanese milk chocolate (marginally bittersweet) which includes cocoa butter. When you look at a cross section, it seems to have a layer of a different sort of chocolate above the top wafer, but I couldn't taste any difference in texture or taste. This is unlike the caramel Sequoia which had a rather softer bit of caramel above the top wafer which yielded easily when bitten into.

The bar smells faintly of cocoa and has a fairly strong, but somehow flat flavor. Some chocolate has a nutty, milky, or fruity flavor, but this doesn't. It's like a strong cup of hot chocolate made with cheap cocoa powder. It's quite sweet, though rich and slightly bittersweet and that helps offset the sugary nature. The wafers are crispy, but you lose the sense of them in the firm chocolate. I think that the KitKat formula works better to reveal the nature of the wafers because it's softer and yields as you bite into it.

In my opinion, this bar could do with less chocolate coating and more wafer and with a softer chocolate coating, but it's fine overall. The portion control is pretty good. One bar is 131 calories and it feels substantial enough that you won't want another. I think this is a resistible bar which wouldn't be bad to keep in your desk or kitchen for times when you really, really want something sweet. I'd buy it again, but only if I were trying to make it easier on myself not to indulge and intentionally bought a less than optimal bar. So, I can only provisionally offer a "happy sumo" (would buy again) rating.