Monday, February 28, 2011

Kasugai Chocolate Marshmallow Hard Candy

There are a lot of ways to add variety to a small pool of mundane elements. One way is to start pairing traditionally savory elements with sweet ones. This is how the notion of chocolate-covered bacon was given birth into a braver, fatter world. Another is to play with textures and to put together two things which wouldn't usually be paired. Kasugai has taken that route with these chocolate hard candies.

Up until now, all of my marshmallow experiences were of the variety which included regular chocolate (like the sort you eat in a candy bar) covering, sugar crystals or some sort of quasi-congealed coating (doesn't that sound yummy?). The main idea was that whatever was paired with the puffy marshmallow was capable of yielding when bit into. This allows you to appreciate the soft marshmallow with a variable texture or flavor without shattering your teeth.

I found this intriguing candy at Seiyu supermarket for about 160 yen ($1.92) for a bag of 15 pieces, each the size of a typical piece of hard candy. Each candy is 18 calories of tooth decay potential. The first ingredient is syrup, followed by sugar, and vegetable oil. The marshmallows are made with gelatin, and they don't have that funky Japanese marshmallow flavor or texture that many foreign folks find off-putting.

The peculiar thing about this candy is that the shell is a typical hard candy that is designed to be sucked on rather than bit into. Inside is a soft vanilla-flavored marshmallow. I guess this is a bit like a variation on a Tootsie Pop, though you can't really lick this to get to the center. Instead, you have to suck on the flavorful coating until it either gets thin enough to bite into. I guess there won't be any strange animated commercials with owls who steal your candy for this product.

The chocolate candy on the outside has a rich cocoa flavor and is quite tasty. Once you get to the marshmallow inside, you are treated to a good dose of vanilla and an interesting mix of crispy candy shards with the pillow of marshmallow. It's a very good flavor combination, but there is something about the way in which the entire experience works which just feels "off". I think the main reason for this is that the marshmallow, unlike the chewy center of a Tootsie Pop, starts to disintegrate and collapse so rapidly. That doesn't make this in any way a bad thing. It's just unusual.

While I enjoyed these, I'm not sure I'd get them again. I love marshmallow, but there isn't enough of it here to give a true experience with it. It's more of a hard candy experience than a gooey marshmallow one. I guess the bottom line is that if I want a chocolate hard candy, I'd have the Senjaku Diet Cocoa candy, and if I want a marshmallow, I'll have the real deal which is four times the size of the little tidbit in this candy. This is not enough of one or the other for a repeat buy, but it certainly is tasty enough to finish the bag.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ginbis Tabekko Animal Biscuits

Attentive readers with an impeccable memory may recall that Ginbis is the maker of "asparagus biscuits", which don't actually contain asparagus. According to their web site, this is the company's "long seller" and it has recently been revamped (likely just the packaging). Of course, this is their long selling "biscuit" and the asparagus biscuits are the long-selling "stick biscuits". This is a little like talking about the best "long hairstyle" and best "semi-long hairstyle".

At any rate, this is part of a small collection of kid's cookies that are on offer. In the U.S., we'd call this "animal crackers", but these are actually rather different in composition. They are thinner, crispier, and much, much more flavorful. Like the asparagus biscuits, they are flavored richly with sesame seeds and are slightly greasy. The  main difference is that they don't have the same level of browning and don't carry a certain "over-baked" flavor. They're also rather salty on the outside, which is an interesting choice for crackers designed specifically for children. That being said, the salt really works on these, as do all of the other flavors.

Yes, there are important words to be learned in English.

Note that these are "educational" snacks. Each cookie has the name of the animal it depicts in English and the back of the box has Japanese and English for each animal. It's actually not a bad idea, but I somehow doubt kids are picking up much English from this considering the fact that the shapes are pretty general and don't clearly depict the animals they represent. There are 46 animals named on the back of the box, and I counted 46 crackers in my box. I didn't check, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of each named animal was represented. That would be one of those attentive to details types of things a Japanese manufacturer would do. 

I got these with my Peacock Fukubukuro, so I didn't pay for them individually. I've seen them at many supermarkets. This is a fairly big box at 63 grams (2.2 oz.), and I'd guess that it costs around 150 yen ($1.83) given the size, though it could cost closer to 200 yen ($2.43). I calculated each is about 8 calories. The whole box is 344 calories and says that 12 is a serving with 80 calories. Their calculations don't really jive but I think it's not worth sweating whether these are roughly 7 or 8 each. 

I really liked these. They were like the version of the asparagus biscuits that I would have liked. These are clearly the same basic formula or dough just pressed, shaped and baked differently and it makes a difference. The flat little crackers have a nicer texture and they aren't too dark. I'd definitely buy these again. They make a great and flavorful tea time snack and you can eat quite a lot of them without overdoing the calories.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sun Lavieen Monkey Banana

If I were a typical American kid, I'd think this was the sort of treat designed to sneak something into me that I wouldn't want to eat. In this case, the food of dubious value would be white beans. They happen to be the first ingredient in the list for these castella-based cakes. For those who don't know, castella is a type of Portuguese sponge cake that is very popular in Japan.

My husband spied these at Peacock supermarket and decided he wanted to give them a go. At only 100 yen ($1.20) for a 70-gram bag (2.5 oz.), I was game to invest. Besides, anything with "monkey" deserves a few brownie points and "banana" is an added bonus. I'm not sure, incidentally, what these do to earn the good name "monkey", however. They don't look like monkeys. They don't taste like monkeys (that I know of). And, unless Japanese monkeys are fed a diet of white beans and castella, they aren't monkey food.

This was more first sampling of a product made by Sun Lavieen. I checked out their web site and they make a variety of cakes designed to sit on shelves for a prolonged period of time without spoilage as well as some chou-based, eclair, and waffle offerings which are in the chilled sections of markets. All in all, they appear to be a youngish (by Japanese standards, established in 1963) mid-size company (290 employees) that fills a certain niche. The thing which most distinguishes them from other companies is that they appear not to have any cartoon mascots.  Their motto is "we propose stylish tea time by delicious confectionery."

The expected issue with these was that they would be dry, and they are. In fact, they're exceedingly dry both because they are castella and preserved. The flavor is of fake banana, reasonable sweetness and the usual cake and margarine mixture. Note that there is no actual banana in the ingredients list.

I'm not sure who would enjoy these, not because they are truly bad, but because they are not very good. Mainly, they are dry and not sufficiently flavorful in nice ways (fake banana doesn't count as "nice"). About the only thing they have going for them is that each ring-finger-sized cake is only about 35 calories and they'll probably last awhile without spoiling or getting any drier even after being opened. I imagine these also would be good as part of a trail food kit that you can toss in a pack and carry around for several days. Aside from that though, I can't imagine pondering having these again, though my husband and I may slowly finish the bag.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Random Picture 51

 Click to see a larger image.

There's a retro candy shop in the Saitama LaLaPort shopping complex that my husband and I visited late last year that carried a huge variety of old-fashioned Japanese candy and some toys. I wanted to go there to see if I could pick up some nifty retro snacks for review. Unfortunately, they were blasting Japanese pop music so ear-splittingly loud that I could not bear to remain in the shop for much time at all. I'm not kidding about how unpleasant it was. My husband left immediately and only took pictures from outside of the shop because it was so unbearable.

The shop had some pretty interesting stuff, but unfortunately I wasn't sufficiently deaf to endure shopping there. I guess they feel that, if you can still hear well enough not to require a hearing aid, then you are too young to remember the contents of this shop and therefore do not need to be in it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hazelnut Chocolate Daifuku

Having one good experience with a Japanese snack will often lead me to become more adventurous with all snacks made in the same general mold. The experience I had with Lotte's Yukimi Daifuku ice cream, tiny balls of creamy vanilla goodness wrapped in soft stretchy mochi (pounded rice cake). If vanilla ice cream was good, hazelnut chocolate had at least the promise of being better.

This product is made by one of the "faceless" little companies that help fill the shelves and cases of 100 yen shops and "konbini" (convenience stores).  The company is Daiichi Syokuhin and makes a lot of low quality ice milk products, including a vanilla bar that I reviewed unfavorably before and a chocolate one that I liked. I've seen a lot of their products and pondered trying them just because they look pretty good, but I always know deep down that the chances that they're going to be worth the added fat cell size is unlikely.

I found this package of two (60 ml.) balls of ice  milk at Lawson 100 for 100 yen ($1.20). I did so fully aware that ice milk was unlikely to live up to ice cream, but I have had some pretty good experiences in Japan with ice milk. I'm sorry to say that this wasn't one of them. The texture was not very fine and you could detect some of the ice crystal structure that comes from too much milk and not enough fat (or not enough blending).

This was less of a problem then the fact that the chocolate flavor was extremely weak and the hazelnut completely undetectable. Mainly, there was a bit of a coconut flavor, some sweetness, and coldness and texture. The mochi covering was nicely sweet and stretchy, but so thin as to lend little more than a flexible wrapper for the ball of ice milk.

Each serving of this is only 87 calories, and certainly this offered the potential for a good portion-controlled bit of ice milk, but it just wasn't that good. It wasn't bad at all, mind you. It really needed either stronger flavors or better texture (or both) to make it a winner. I ate half and my husband ate the other, but neither of us would have it again.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kabaya Chocolat Galette

There are so many refugees from my New Year's fukubukuro to review that I'm not likely to need to buy much of anything to review for at least a month. And there are so many of them that I'm going to be eating them for at least 3 months. These "chocolat galette" cookies were one of the first things that I tore open and partook of because they are chocolate, and, they are cookies. I'm only human, after all.

Despite carrying two of the key elements of a good product, I have to say that I would not have bought these of my own initiative had I seen them in the store. The primary reason is that these sorts of individually wrapped cookies are a real crap shoot in terms of flavor. Many of them taste like crispy bits of nothingness. They don't deliver on flavor so much as on appearance and texture. This is especially true of crispy cookies that come in the "Chips Ahoy" mold. That is, the types that are crisp and have some sort of melted chocolate poured on them or chocolate chips.

I expected a waxy, nearly tasteless chocolate coating and a bland cookie interior, but was pleasantly surprised to find that these have a very nice, pleasantly deep without being too bitter chocolate flavor and they are not too sweet. The cookies also taste fresh and have excellent snap without being too brittle. Each cookie is rather small though, at only 4.5 cm (1.8 in.), but only 49 calories. I'm torn between the guilt I feel at creating so much trash for a tiny morsel of pleasure and how effectively these preserve the cookie goodness and encourage portion control.

Though very tasty, these do contain two types of "bad fats" (margarine and shortening). Looking at the ingredients, I believe the flavor is enhanced by the inclusion of almond powder and at least a bit more cocoa than usual. I'm sure that you can find these in many supermarkets, but I'm afraid that I didn't make an effort to price this bag of just 8 cookies (yes, and small). I'd be surprised though if they cost less than 160 yen ($1.94) or more than 220 yen ($2.67).

On the flavor alone, I'd recommend these. On the other aspects, I'm a little torn. I enjoyed them thoroughly, so I'm giving them a happy rating, but I'd say that considering the packaging, likely price, and small quantity, I wouldn't recommend them to anyone unless they were jonesing pretty hard for a crispy chocolate cookie.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Meiji Tasty Cinnamon Chocolate

I've been away from the U.S. for so long that I can't remember if products are named with adjectives like "tasty", "delicious", or "arousal-inducing." I may be amused that this has the word "tasty" in the product name when it's not really funny at all. When someone has to tell me it tastes good rather than allowing me to assume it is so, it makes me think they doth protest too much... but I can't remember if it's just a Japanese marketing thing or if all manufacturers name their products in this manner. Perhaps my readers who haven't lived abroad for a little over two decades can enlighten me.

I found this box of cinnamon chocolate for 138 yen ($1.67) at a Lawson convenience store while out for an early morning walk with my husband. We were resisting the bakeries full of fresh pastries, Mr. Donut with its, well, donuts, and all of the other morning enticements. The only thing we gave in and bought was this pack of 6 sticks (36 grams total, 35 calories per stick) of cinnamon chocolate.

My husband sampled this first and remarked that he wasn't quite sure what to make of it because cinnamon and chocolate weren't a natural pairing in his experience, but Mexican hot chocolate preparations often put these two flavors together. Additionally, I've got a recipe for Amish brownies which combines cocoa, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. It's not an alien combination, but these two-tone bars offer a far more potent aspect of cinnamon than either of the aforementioned concoctions.

The chocolate is a dark chocolate with a heavy "bottom" flavor that hits you at the back of the tongue. The cinnamon, though infused into white chocolate, isn't incredibly sweet, but is quite potent. In fact, it remands me a lot of Dentyne chewing gum. Together, these do indeed make for a strange pairing. Imagine eating a dark chocolate Hershey's kiss while chewing cinnamon gum (or while brushing your teeth) and you'll have an approximation of what this is like.

I think Meiji dropped the ball on this by making the cinnamon too overbearing. I love cinnamon, and I even prefer super strong cinnamon but it's important that it have a chance to shine through with the proper background flavor, and this Meiji chocolate is all wrong for this purpose. I'm not sure if I'll bother to finish this box, small as it is, and I definitely wouldn't buy it again. However, this isn't bad enough to qualify for an "unhappy" rating, and my husband said he'll eat the rest even if I don't.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Maxim Cafe Menu (Oreo, Mont Blanc)

When I lived back home, I used to buy General Foods International Coffees. I didn't have any moments to 'celebrate', but they made adequate sugar-free instant coffee. At that point in time, I was a coffee wuss and couldn't stomach the real stuff. Those flavored coffees are like training wheels...okay, perhaps more like tricycles that your parents are holding onto the back of while you ride around tentatively. They give you a thimble of coffee, a ton of fake flavor, a lot of powdered milk and gobs of artificial sweetener. I'm guessing one has no more than a smattering of coffee beans worth of actual coffee...okay, perhaps no more than a smattering of coffee-flavored chemicals.

Since "graduating" to "the hard stuff" (aka real coffee), I haven't bought many flavored instant coffees. Part of the reason for that is that I live in Japan, where sugar-free versions of such things don't exist so a small serving of instant coffee brings with it gobs of actual sugar instead of chemicals that are meant to fool you into thinking you're having sugar. Another reason is that such things are expensive for piddly amounts of warm, brown liquid.

I was strolling around Peacock supermarket when the Maxim Oreo cafe latte mix and I couldn't resist. The Mont Blanc was hanging out next to it so I decided to toss it in as well. Each box cost 158 yen ($1.94) for 5 servings of the Oreo flavor and 4 of the Mont Blanc. I don't know why one has more than the other, but I think it's because one is more elegant fake coffee and the other low-brow junk food fake coffee.

I didn't take a picture of the coffee after I made it because it looks like coffee. There was really nothing to see so I justified being slack about the pictures. Imagine any of the billions of images of coffee out there and visualize one. There, you got it.

Both make a small amount of coffee. You add 130 ml. of hot water to the powder in each tube. I tried the Mont Blanc first and it didn't taste like much of anything. If you added a teaspoon of regular brewed coffee to reconstituted powdered milk with just the barest whisper of chestnut, that's what it is. It isn't particularly sweet, which is either a plus or a minus depending on how you like such things. I tried it with a little sweetener to see if making it sweeter would bring out more of the chestnut, but it just made it sweeter which totally drowned out the minimal coffee and whispery chestnut flavor.

The Oreo flavored coffee was a different kettle of fish, which is not to say that it tasted like fish. It did, however, make a strange crackling noise when I added in the powder. I think that if you were trying to create some sort of faux witches brew situation for Halloween with accompanying sound effects, this would do it for you. Though both of these are labeled "latte", the Oreo version was a lot darker and had a stronger coffee flavor as well as what tasted like essence of cookie crumbs mixed into it. That may not sound too bad, but the problem is that bitter chocolate Oreo cookie crumbs without the sweet creamy filling doesn't work so well. If you add bitter (coffee) to bitter (chocolate cookie), you get a strange combination. It's not bad, but it's not good. At least this tastes like something though, which is more than I can say for the Mont Blanc version.

Neither of these coffees lit my fire, and I definitely wouldn't buy them again. At about 65 calories per 3/4 cup serving, I'm not inclined to waste my precious snacking allotment on these. I'm not even sure that I'll finish these two boxes. They don't have to be bad to get stuck at the back of my snack basket and collect dust. They just don't have to be good and these are incredibly so-so.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Random Picture 50

A local shop places various and sundry foods on a rack for sale to passersby. One day, they had this fine display of fish heads for a mere 525 yen ($6.38). It was all I could do to stop myself from thinking (quite ethnocentrically) that someone was trying to sell me their garbage.

Of course, I also thought about the "Fish Heads" song. It would have been utterly awesome if it had been playing at the shop when I walked by, but I'm thinking that the seller didn't have much of a sense of humor about this type of thing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cratz Chicken Arrabiata

I love Cratz, as my past reviews of their products demonstrate. The Chicken Arrabiata variety has been around for ages and I have only neglected to review it because I think that they make for boring review fodder. How much can I milk out of "mmmm, Cratz!" I love these little hard pretzels bits with almonds. To be honest, I didn't even know what chicken arrabiata was when I bought this. I looked it up after the fact and its chicken with various Italian seasonings. The biggest component seems to be tomato, but also garlic, onion, and sometimes mushrooms.

The smell of these is slightly spicy. The flavor is a melange of chicken, tomato, garlic, and black pepper. While these are all good flavors, it's very hard to pin down what is going on with these. They generally taste spicy and savory and minimally salty. These are good enough, but a little too heavy on the chicken and tomato. I think they're a bit short on the salt and heavy on the peppery aspect.

The Cratz line competes against itself rather than other snacks. If I had to choose between this and a bag of nearly any type of potato chip, I'd take these. However, if I had to choose between any other variety of Cratz and this type, I'd take another flavor. A 44-gram bag of these has 228 calories and some of those come from a nice number of almonds. I found these for 100 yen ($1.20) at Lawson 100, but you can get them anywhere. If you can get the cheese variety or bacon pepper Cratz, I'd say get one of those, but that doesn't mean these aren't good as much as the fact that the others are better in my opinion.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fujiya Heart Peanuts

Back when I was working in an office, my boss used to buy packets of 100 yen ($1.20) "peanuts choco". For foreign folks who want to indulge in something which is "safe", chocolate-covered nuts of any sort are the bee's knees. In fact, there are some incredibly good chocolate covered almonds that I was addicted to when I was working. Unsurprisingly, I was fatter when I worked in an office.

I haven't reviewed any chocolate covered nuts because they're hard to mess up. This bag of heart-shaped peanut chocolates from Fujiya is being reviewed because it came with one of my three fukubukuro. I'm betting my readers are getting tired of hearing that. Yeah, well get used to it. I'm not even halfway done with what I got.

There are 15 little medallions in the bag, each individually wrapped and with the words "have a heart" imprinted on them and providing you with 45 calories. Though these look like they're a Valentine's release, they're always available.  For reasons I'm not sure of, Fujiya felt it was important to say that these were manufactured at their Hiratsuka plant. That means nothing to my readers who don't live in Japan, and problem means little to those who do. I only know it as this place which is really far from my apartment that my husband and I once ventured to to look at a second-hand record shop. We were looking for rare records. I don't remember smelling peanuts or chocolate when I was there, but maybe they hermetically sealed the emissions in efficient Japanese fashion.

There really isn't much to say a about these. They smell like peanuts and chocolate. The nuts are very lightly roasted and plentiful, and the milk chocolate is fairly smooth and lacks the bad aftertaste that some Japanese chocolate has. They're good, but they're pricier (more or less 200 yen/$2.40 per bag) than the bags of peanuts choco my boss used to buy. The main difference is that the chocolate on these is smoother and has a finer texture and have bigger peanuts. Also, the packages of peanuts choco are not wrapped individually, but just tossed into a plastic tray so they buffet one another and lack the pristine appearance and gloss of this Fujiya offering. The Fujiya ones also are fortified with Vitamin E so that you can feel good about eating them. At least that's the only reason I can think of to include it.

These are good, but they're not outstanding compared to other similar offerings. If I were in the mood for chocolate-covered peanuts, I'd buy the cheaper hundred-yen shop versions of "peanuts choco". They have less packaging, are cheaper and taste pretty much the same. I'm giving them a happy rating because they taste good, but I wouldn't buy them again for the aforementioned reasons.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nighttime Sweets Strawberry Parfait

Packaging is a way of manipulating people into buying stuff they might not otherwise buy. Without the allure of packaging, people are pretty much going to be basing their purchases on three factors - appearance (if the food is actually visible), type of food, and price. I have to wonder what shopping was like back in the "Little House On the Prairie" days when "inventive packaging" was showing an illustration of a guy with a huge handlebar mustache on a jar of "Uncle Earwax's Super Hardening Mustache Paraffin". I'm guessing people pretty much just bought what they needed back in those days.

The producers of boring food like yogurt rely on us being dumb enough to be fooled by misleading images of the flavor of the slightly sour, thin goo contained therein. Even someone who is fairly "savvy" (which is what we all think we are, which is part of our overall "stupid") can be suckered into seeing a lovely bit of strawberry ice cream with whipped cream, berries, and wafers and think that's what we're going to be tasting. Of course, they can't be really accused of misleading us because it says, "this is an image" under the parfait picture.

I didn't have high expectations of this when I saw it at Seiyu for 100 yen ($1.20), but I had a good experience with the previous entry in the "Nighttime Sweets" line, the apple pie yogurt. I figured that the line deserved my attention even if I'm not a fan of strawberry-flavored foods in general. To be clear, I love the fresh berries, but just dislike how they are incorporated into processed food.

Peeling back the foil, I was greeted with the scent of real pureed strawberries. Color me surprised. I was also shocked at the taste of this because it reminded me of strawberry shortcake. In fact, if you pureed a shortcake that is what it'd taste like. Seriously. Okay, if you took one of those small round yellow sponge cakes that are sold cheaply in local markets, piled on some berries, whipped cream, a little sugar, and then doused it in whole milk and then pureed it, that is what this tastes like.

I was truly blown away by this. The fine folks at Luna made yogurt that tastes very little like yogurt (again, their vanilla yogurt tastes like a tiny pot of heaven). There is definitely some cream flavoring in there and what looks, smells and tastes like real berries. There may also be essence of cake, for all I know. What is for certain is that this is only 69 calories and tastes great. I'll be sorry when this inevitably leaves the market, but I have some hopes now that this line is going to deliver again and again with each new offer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pasco Stick Melon Choco

I read the results of a study recently which said that putting calorie information on menus didn't have any impact on purchasing decisions. I think that's a big, fat lie. Personally, seeing calorie information actually encourages me to buy certain things. I've taken to inspecting the calorie counts on interesting looking breakfast foods, and anything which is a reasonable portion size and under 100 calories is likely to go into my basket.

These "stick melon choco" (chocolate chip "melon" bread) are 99 calories each, and the perfect size to have two for breakfast or one at tea time. There are 5 in the bag and it only cost 99 yen ($1.22) at Seiyu supermarket. I like melon pan when it's good, because the contrast between the crispy cookie exterior shell and soft, fluffy white-bread-like exterior can be sublime. The main problem is that store-bought melon pan usually is soft, but I was lured into buying this because there was something on the front that said I could make them crispy again by putting them in the toaster oven. I'm dumb like that.

It squishes easily when you cut it.

The flavor is heavily influenced by margarine and white flour. Despite the fact that there are a few chocolate chips and what looks like layers of chocolate, that component is very subdued. The sweetness is also on the light side except when you catch some of the granulated sugar sprinkled on the top on your tongue.

Even wrapped in foil for toaster oven heating, the bottom burned slightly around the edges. Without foil, it turned to a black crispy horror. The packaging should have warned me that I shouldn't put it directly in the oven, but instead just said, "use the toaster oven and it'll be crispy"! Thanks for nothing, Pasco! I charbroiled one in the oven to learn this lesson.

The texture varies widely depending on how it is prepared. Straight out of the bag, it's slightly doughy and a lot like standard white bread. Heated in the toaster oven in foil, the bottom gets a little crispy. Warmed in the microwave, it becomes doughier and quite soft. The flavor of the chocolate came out the best when heated in the microwave, but the texture was best when done in foil in the toaster oven.

There were fine, but I was disappointed that the chocolate aspect wasn't stronger. I liked them well enough, but perhaps not enough to have them again. Chances are that I will opt to sample something else rather than re-visit these. It's not that they're bad in any way, but rather that they're not special enough to become anything resembling a "favorite".

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Random Picture 49

Click this picture to load a bigger one which can be read more easily.

Before I started paying attention to food labels, and indeed before most foods in Japan had full nutritional data, I used to think that the relative sweetness or composition of a food related to caloric values. That is, if it wasn't very sweet, didn't have frosting or a fatty filling, I figured that it couldn't carry much of a punch on the calorie front. Back in those naive days, the cake you see pictured above was one of my favorite treats. It's a mildly sweet, moist, vanilla cake which is about the size of your palm.

Fast forward to the present and my rather greatly enhanced knowledge of all things food and more comprehensive food labeling. I discovered that my favorite unassuming steam cake is about 470 calories. That's as much as I consume for entire meals. People think Japanese folks don't get fat because their sweets aren't as sweet, but that really does not relate to how fattening the snacks are. Take that from someone who has been paying close attention for the last several years - your hips are not safe merely because the food isn't as sweet.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pino Sweet Potato Ice Cream

Pino is a bit of an institution in Japan and yet I think this is only the second time that I have purchased it in my 22 years in Japan. The basic version is vanilla ice cream with a chocolate shell, but like a standard ice cream bar back home. Because this is Japan, and the people stay tiny by making it easy to eat tiny portions, the folks behind Pino (that would be confectionery mega-maker, Morinaga) took the basic bar idea and created tiny little bon-bons that you can spear on a plastic toothpick.

While this idea may sound quite simple, Morinaga appears to have applied some careful considerations to the product design. They're the sort of formula touches that you wouldn't consider unless you bought the product, tried to eat it, and had some messy problems. For instance, a chocolate coating which is too hard will shatter when you spear the bon-bon with the plastic spear, so the coating can't get too brittle when frozen. The ice cream also cannot become so hard that you have a lot of problems penetrating it with the pick. Both of these were surprisingly not an issue when I sampled this sweet potato Pino. Though the ice cream gets pretty firm, the shell only fractures around the insertion point and you don't have to fight too hard to stab the heart of it so you can deliver it to your waiting mouth.

The odd thing about this particular Pino is that it is labeled "Dessert". It makes me wonder how the other varieties are conceptualized. Aren't they all "dessert" or do the fine folks at Morinaga think the other versions are meal varieties? At any rate, the coating on this is labeled as "chocolate" but it is actually also sweet-potato-flavored and slightly purple in color. The interior is slightly yellow to help emulate the coloring of a typical Japanese sweet potato.

The flavor is quite sweet and there is a strong element of sweet potato that borders on, but doesn't go over the edge of overbearing. I detected a "baked" flavor which I strongly associate with sweet potato cakes (one of which is pictured on the box cover) and found that to be quite surprising. That must be a tricky element to include. I also thought there might be a hint of cinnamon, but my taste buds may have been deceiving me. The ice cream is fairly average. In fact, I've had creamier ice milk, but that doesn't make this in any way unacceptable as mass-produced ice cream. Since you get 6 (10 ml.) bon-bons per box for a mere 100 yen ($1.20), you can't really expect the ice cream to blow off your socks. It is good, just not fantastic.

I don't buy much ice cream because I am afraid I'll either gobble it all down or leave it to develop a thick layer of freezer burn in an effort to save myself from its caloric load, but I really should sample more Pino as each bon-bon is only 32 calories and portion control is so easy. This was good, but a bit too sweet in general for me. That being said, I'd probably buy it again if it is seasonally re-released in autumn/winter of next year. I just can't see buying it too terribly often.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lotte Toppo Marron Cake Sticks

 Toppo is Lotte's answer to Glico's Pocky. To avoid looking like a complete copycat, they turned them inside out and created a pretzel straw filled with a sweet cream of one flavor or another instead of dipping the pretzel in chocolate. I've been meaning to review something from the Toppo line for awhile, but hadn't gotten around to it. This chestnut cream cake variety which was placed in my fukubukuro from Okashi no Machioka and pushed up the time-line on my getting to these inverted Pocky sticks.

The Toppo boxes are pretty heavy (42 grams/1.5 oz.) and full of substantial sticks so they usually cost between 150-180 yen each ($1.83-$2.19) depending on where you're getting them. This variety has two foil packs with 7 sticks in each. Each stick is 33 calories so eating one pack will set you back 231 calories. If you don't pay attention to the nutrition information (or can't understand it) and eat the whole thing, you can consume a whopping 462 calories.

The heft comes mainly from the not insubstantial amount of flavored cream in the center of the pretzel tube. I think it'd be interesting to try and drink a hot drink through these, but I imagine that the pretzel exterior would degrade before the filling would warm and melt enough to suck it out. If I were a more adventurous sort, I might try microwaving them to make the filling molten then give my mouth third degree burns by sucking it out. I'm not quite that stupid, but I probably will be after a few more years of snack reviewing.

The sticks smell a bit like malt and caramel. Since one of the ingredients is malt powder, this is not surprise. I have considerable experience with various chestnut cream sweets including the real deal (Mont Blanc) and these are nothing like them. They mainly taste a bit like coffee and caramel. I think that the coffee aspect is an attempt to emulate the roasting of chestnuts as a means of copying the flavor. The caramel is probably some sort of alchemy between whey, cream powder, and chocolate. There's also added caramel flavoring.

It's not really important to me that these actually taste like chestnut cream cake, despite the fact that there are pictures of that type of cake on the front and back of the box. The important point is that it taste good. This is a more complicated question. I like the mix of pretzel with sweet fillings, as I've mentioned before when reviewing the awesome Pucca. These I didn't go for so much. Part of the problem is that the pretzel shell doesn't seem to have as much flavor as Pucca because it's not made with more flavorful rye flour (as Pucca is). Also, the flavor profile of the creamy filling is very shallow. It's sweet, but the coffe/caramel/chestnut notes are conveyed mostly through scent and not actual taste.

These are absolutely not bad at all, and I will finish the box. I just like to get more flavor and not simply have texture and sweetness. If I hadn't gotten this with my "lucky bag", I may well have purchased it for sampling anyway, but I would have been disappointed. I'm not through with Toppo as I want to try the original version (which has been favorably reviewed at Pocky Watch), but I wouldn't buy these again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Luna Winter Apple with lemon and ginger yogurt

The Japanese are big into seasonal anything, so I'm guessing there is some special significance to these being "winter apples". I doubt, however, that my taste buds will know the difference. They're not exactly the most refined papillae out there, after all, but I also doubt that a 100 yen ($1.20) carton of yogurt requires a greatly refined palate.

I found this yogurt at Lawson 100 shop, but I'm sure it can be found in supermarkets and other convenience stores. I'm not a huge fan of apple treats, or even relatively healthy things like yogurt, but the inclusion of ginger and lemon made the idea of this more attractive to me. I also liked the fact that it's only 69 calories for 120 grams (4.2 oz.). It also helps that it is made by Luna, maker of many delicious yogurt offerings in Japan.

The yogurt smells like apples, which is no surprise. There is a generous amount of small, nicely firm apple chunks and they are liberally seasoned with lemon and carry a nice hint of ginger as well. I liked the fact that the fruit was substantial enough that you could actually chew the little apple pieces, but not so big that you felt they hadn't cut them up enough. The yogurt is a little runny and also a bit sweeter than I'd like. I think that is because this uses Sucralose artificial sweetener and it can pack a harder punch. However, I'm sure it is what keeps the calories down.

I'm rather torn about this one because I thought it was fine, but I'm not sure that I'd buy it again. The main issues I have with it is that the lemon and ginger is a little too intense in a way which  makes it seem almost "perfumey" and it is a bit too sweet. That being said, as a run-of-the-mill fruit yogurt option, this is certainly fine. However, given a choice between this and the "Apple Pie" Night-time Sweets yogurt, I'd take the latter any day. It has a better sweetness balance, the cinnamon works well in it and has the same number of calories as this ginger and lemon apple yogurt.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Calbee Sapporo Potato Pebbly Vegetable

Back when I was working in an office, I used to pick up these Calbee vegetable snacks on occasion when I wanted a salted snack treat. I didn't buy them because I thought they were so tasty, but rather because they seemed "healthier" than potato chips. If I had a sandwich and I wanted something extra with them, this was my "go to" crunchy snack.

I thought that the calorie count was lower because they didn't seem greasy. It turns out that they aren't seriously better for you in any way when measured by weight, but the volume is higher because they're relatively airy inside. This small bag is 117 calories. You get the illusion of fewer calories since you eat more of them, and that's snot exactly "nothing" when you're in it for the crispiness factor.

I found this small bag (24 grams/.85 oz.) at Seiyu supermarket for 38 yen (45 cents), and decided to revisit my old stand-by. Most of the time, I see much bigger 100 yen bags, but I knew I wasn't going to want to have that much of it around. While I couldn't remember these well enough to review them, I also recalled that they weren't so stellar that I found myself buying them over the years. Besides, now they are made with "pebbly" vegetables bits attached to them and I was "sure" that would represent a vast improvement.

The vegetable component of these is vastly exaggerated unless you only count potatoes. Their flavors are added mainly via a variety of powders including onion, green pepper, pumpkin, and tomato. I'm pretty sure that the little colorful lumps that are stuck on the side of the potato sticks are not real vegetables but some sort of colored potato wads.

These don't smell like much of anything, but that's not really a shock. The "straws" are crunchy and salty, and really don't have a very strong taste. They taste mainly liked processed potato with a slight vegetable aftertaste. If the potato flavor were stronger, these would be better. As it is, they're mainly about the texture and salt, and that's just not enough.

These aren't bad at all, but they fail entirely at being particularly good. Even for something that may be a bit lower in calories than a potato chip, they're too unimpressive to consider buying again.