Friday, September 30, 2011

Meiji Fruity Lemon Chocolate

This review represents what is likely to be the last of the "summer" snack offerings that I'll be covering in 2011. Lemon has been the shining star of the setsuden (energy conservation) summer in Japan. Somebody somewhere decided that the sharp sourness of lemon was equated with "ice" and "cool". Perhaps you're supposed to be braced by the desire to pucker up, though I can't say that I personally have ever encountered a lemon sweet that wasn't sufficiently saturated with sugar that I have found myself in the remote vicinity of a pucker.

This is part of Meiji's line of stick chocolates, which were introduced some time in the last year or so. My first encounter with this particular line was with a cinnamon version. At that time, I thought it was a one-off release, but the general line must have been successful as now I'm seeing many flavors including Earl Grey, ginger, and mint. This line is called "my choco box". I guess that it serves people who are possessive about their treats.

There are 6 sticks in the package. Each is about 30 calories for about 5 grams. My guess is the total volume is not dissimilar to a Hershey's Kiss, though the presentation makes the experience different. At normal room temperature (not hot, not cold), the chocolate is on the soft side and has no snap at all. Frankly, I wasn't fond of the texture as I like chocolate to be a bit peppier when I bite into it. This yields like an overcooked noodle.

The box says that this is made with 26% lemon juice and the lemon is quite present, but not nearly as sour as I might like. There's a missing citric acid bite which has either been consumed by the cloying sweetness of white chocolate or too much sugar. My husband, who likes things sweeter than me, liked this fine. He felt the balance of flavor and sweetness was quite good. I found myself wondering if it was all a bit too one-note for me and if I might have liked it better if there had been greater depth to the flavor such as added vanilla, more salt, or another citrus addition.

For me, I think I'd like this better if it was refrigerated first to make the chocolate firmer and the flavor was enjoyable if on the sweet side. I feel it's unfair to give it an indifferent rating even though I personally would not buy a box for myself again. That being said, if my husband bought a box for himself (and he did say he'd buy this again), I'd certainly eat a piece of it. I'm giving this a "happy" rating because I think it's good, even though it's not an ideal sweet for someone with my particular tastes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Random Picture #81

I'm not sure if this is as funny to others than it is to me, but the name of this product makes me think of some lewd interaction between a boss and secretary during lunch time. For those who are less perverse about what it might me to "take a break on the desk", I will say that it's a zero calorie tea (hence the big zero in the lower left corner) which I'm sure would provide a less than impressive break experience as I've had several of these before and most of them taste like weird Kool-Aid and artificial sweetener. Still, the Bergamot Lime looked interesting, but I've had a bad time with bergamot in Japan so I gave it a pass.

Monday, September 26, 2011

QBB Dessert Cheese

My character has changed a lot since coming to Japan. Part of the reason for that is age. When you transition from mid-20's to late 40's, changes are inevitable. You start talking about how people were in your day and whining about how everything was better. People were politer. The planet was cooler. Food was less mutated. People certainly could spell better.

One of the many things that have changed is my perception of food. Back home, I saw something which said "dessert" and I concluded that it was sweet. Japan, on the other hand, has somehow conditioned me to second guess whatever I'm buying. Sure, it says it's for dessert, but that doesn't mean it's going to be sweet. Right? The Japanese food manufacturers are constantly positioning products as one thing and then I discover it's another. Right? Am I right?

No, I'm wrong. When this says "dessert cheese", it means it is very sweet (sugar is the second ingredient, I should have figured it out). I was hoping this was a pungent cheese with nuts that was being offering as an accompaniment to fruit for an elegant dessert pairing which would offer a sophisticated ending to a meal. No, it is not only sweet but pretty disgustingly so. I had the first wedge all by itself and it was essentially sweetened cream cheese with tiny microscopic fragments of nuts embedded in it.

The problem with this wasn't that it was sweet, though it was too sweet, but rather that it didn't have much of a flavor profile. The nuts are supposed to include hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts, but I couldn't really taste any of them distinctly or even as a nutty mass. There was just too little of it. Since this was cream cheese, it was so mild that there was no cheese flavor to speak of and what little there was was overwhelmed by sugar.

The only way that I made this work for me was as a spread on something less sweet. It'd be good on Carr's whole wheat crackers (which are modestly sweet and have a cookie-like texture) and I spread it on some pumpkin muffins that I made. Ultimately though, I ate the rest of this because I didn't want to "waste" what felt like real food. I paid 258 yen ($3.36) for 108 grams (3.8 oz.) and damn it, I was going to choke it down through time. However, there's no way I'd ever buy this again.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Zunda Pretz

I have three words for you: Funky Monkey Babys (sic). No, they are not my new pets, but it'd be awesome if they were. And, no, I don't listen to them, as they are actually a Japanese music group. And finally, they are only tangentially related to this review (but, yes, still related). It's simply an extremely cool name for a rock group. Frankly, I think they should promote "Crunky" in Japan ("The Funky Monkey Babys present Crunky.")

The Funky Monkey Babys were a part of the reason that I received this regional Pretz as a gift. One of my students attended a charity concert for the victims of the Tohoku disaster in Sendai and picked this tidbit up for me. Zunda, as a few folks may recall from a Zunda KitKat review, is mashed soybean and is  used in cuisine in northern Tohoku. When my student gave it to me, I asked her if she had already sampled it, and what she made of it. She made one of those faces which suggested that, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. When she relented and gave an opinion, said it was very salty, and that it was good with beer. Beer makes everything better, it seems. I'm sure it's how men manage to watch interminably boring professional sports. Being a teetotaler, I'll never know for sure, but I'm going to try these Pretz with Coke Zero.

This is a tiny little box of Pretz with zero information printed on the box. I'm guessing it was part of a multi-pack of souvenirs that one could buy and distribute to friends and coworkers after a scenic trip to what I'm sure many believe is a rapidly expanding nuclear wasteland in the general area. Still, it can't be all bad if the Funky Monkey Babys are willing to go there. A little research revealed that this was, indeed, part of a 6-pack for 630 yen ($8.26). Each box is 27 grams (just shy of an ounce). It's on the expensive side for the volume of snacks, but on par for souvenirs.

My expectation was that this was going to be pretty good. My students reluctance to endorse it didn't really daunt me because many Japanese people have more sensitive palates than foreigners do. This is due to the fact that much more food is subtle or bland in Japan rather than flavor blasted. I guessed that what was too salty for her may suit me just fine.

The sticks are half as tall as usual sticks. They are impressively green and smell strongly of edamame. One bite revealed why this is so. They have an strong, but not unpleasant, chlorophyll flavor and are like having a mouthful of edamame. They've definitely done a good job of incorporating the flavor of zunda. The other savory flavors, like chicken extract, build up the flavor profile but don't separate out from the basic soy bean flavor. Despite what my student said, I found these strong and flavorful, but not particularly salty.

I really enjoyed these and would definitely consider having them again if they become available locally. If you really, really love edamame, these should float your boat, but they may not suit all tastes. For me, I found them unique and refreshing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Random Picture #80

The Daiso is a 100-yen shop chain which is scattered all over Japan and even has a few branches in the United States. Each Daiso carries a slightly different selection than any other in my experience. This is based largely on location. The very large shop closest to my home sells no food whatsoever because it is located on the second floor of a supermarket and my guess is an arrangement was made so the low-cost foodstuffs sometimes carried at Daiso wouldn't compete with the pricier items in the market.

I recently discovered a small Daiso in the basement of an office building not too far from one of my workplaces. This one carries a great many snacks, instant food items, and drinks. I bought some instant vanilla coffee there which totally blew in terms of taste (it tastes like cheap vanilla candles smell). I did not purchase, but took a picture to note, this very odd combination of flavors. I'm all onboard with chocolate and fruit flavors in general, but melon cocoa sounds like a pretty disgusting pairing to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bourbon Marron Blanche

The temperatures may still be hitting the high 90's on a daily basis,  but as far as Japan is concerned, autumn has arrived. You can tell this by the fact that fashion victims are already donning their fur-lined Ugg boots and wearing sweaters and jackets designed to keep bones from catching a chill (as opposed to the thin ones worn to protect delicate pale skin from evil tanning rays). I know because the sweets varieties are starting to change. The rows of "ice lemon" are being replaced by sweet potato and chestnut.  Apparently, we need to focus on roasting tubers and nuts despite the fact that every day is a slog through an overheated bog.

All of that whining about the weather aside, with the equinox coming up (Sept. 23), the weather may actually be turning from "cook on high" to "slow simmer" soon. And, of course, I'm very happy to have the fall line of treats on the shelves. I'd probably trade them all for about a month less of sweltering heat, but that's not an offer that has been made to me so I'll settle for trying this marron (chestnut) cake.

I found this at Inageya supermarket for 198 yen ($2.59) for 6 tiny little cakes.  Each is only about 5 cm x 4 cm (about 2" x 1.5") and packs a pretty decent calorie punch for that size at 103 calories per cake. The cakes are a multi-layered affair with a "fluffy" yellow cake base with a "fluffy" chocolate cake on top of it. The chocolate layer has bits of chestnut and another layer of yellow cake with a drizzle of chestnut "chocolate".

The construction is sophisticated and one would hope would add a depth of flavor from the various layers. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work particularly well in this regard. Rather than each component bringing in different flavors on the tongue, it all seems to come together as a melange of mild chestnut flavor (from the coating on top), weak chocolate, and general sweetness. The chestnut pieces are too tiny and scarce to really get much play on the taste buds and enhance the flavor and the yellow cake seems to be pretty much flavorless. There are some interesting textural inter-plays with the soft cake, chestnut pieces, and slightly crispy drizzle on top, but this is undermined by the fact that the cake is clearly prepared for a long shelf life and has that moist but dry feeling that such cakes often have.

This isn't a bad bit of cake at all, but it's just not particularly great either. If I could have bought a small pack with two or three of these, I wouldn't have regretted it, but I'm not sure that 6 of them isn't more than I require given the relatively low quality of the taste experience. I wish the cake were actually "fluffy" or had more flavor, that there was a creamy filling of some sort, that it was a bit less sweet, or the chestnut flavor were just more robust. I'll finish this box, but it's going to take awhile and it's going to be more about a texture craving (for cake) than about being over the moon about the flavor.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tirol W-Goen Chocolate

Every culture produces a candy version of its money. I like to imagine this started with Hanukkah gelt, because that's the oldest religion I know of which includes an ongoing custom that offers up candy money. However, considering that chocolate is a New World crop, and that the ancient peoples who grew it drank it much like we drink coffee, I'm guessing that the true origins of things like chocolate coins will remain unverifiable. Such is the loss to humanity.

I knew when I picked up this bag of Tirol chocolate 5-yen coins that it wasn't going to be full of some unique candy that I'd be struggling to describe the flavor of. I bought this out of a sense of culturally transplanted nostalgia. That being said, I had forgotten how obnoxious relatives liked to tease me with hints that I was getting actual money then give me the chocolate stuff. They were always amused by this gag, but my sister and I were far less impressed. Nonetheless, when old sorts weren't trying to pull one over on my diminutive self, I always loved getting gold foil-covered coins at various holidays (usually Christmas) and I couldn't resist the Japanese take on this childhood favorite. Also, frankly, since most Tirol candy is sold in individual squares, I wanted to sample this unusual offering from that company.

The candy is actually quite a bit bigger than a real five-yen coin.

The packet contains 54 grams (about 2 oz.) of individually wrapped candies. Each packet is 28 calories and has two "coins", one white and one semisweet chocolate version, in it placed back to back.  Both are fairly thin and nicely crisp with a good snap. Well, at least mine were after I kept them in the refrigerator. The white chocolate one is mellow and sweet. It's actually less cloying and offensive than most offerings of the white stuff. The other one is actually quite tasty with a nice bit of bitterness and a strong chocolate flavor.

I liked these quite a lot and would be pleased to keep a bag around for a quick bite of chocolate if they were all the semisweet chocolate variety. As it is, I tolerate the white one amiably, but find it less than fulfilling as a sweet snack. Right now, my chocolate bits of choice are Crunky mini bites (which are 14 calories each), but these are a serviceable substitute for portion-controlled nibbles.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Random Picture #79

Japan doesn't "do" Halloween, though over the years I have been here, it's been heading in that direction.  The displays of Halloween candy are growing larger, though the candy doesn't tend to be especially positioned as Halloween flavors but rather just attractive and colorful packaging of the same old releases. There is an exception to that, and it's the pictured Japanese KitKat above. This is a pumpkin cheesecake variety. Clearly, anything pumpkin would seem to be simpatico with the spirit of the occasion.

I'm torn about trying this. I want to try it, but am reluctant to buy a whole big bag of it just for sampling. There's every chance that this is Japanese pumpkin (kabocha) flavored rather than a more American pumpkin pie experience. This isn't really a problem for me as I adore kabocha, but my husband dislikes it and the prospect of eating a whole bag of mini bars alone (it'll take over a month) is what is holding me back. Still, I may weaken and give in. We'll see.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kitami City White Curry Soup

Sorry that I don't have a picture of the soup dissolved in a cup. It's just a white, semi-translucent fluid. It doesn't resemble any disgusting bodily fluids or anything. Nope.

Kitami City is in Hokkaido and this is a souvenir package of instant consomme soup. You might ask yourself if I have been to Hokkaido lately. The answer would be "no". You might ask yourself if one of my students has gone there and kindly given me this soup. The answer would be "no". You might ask yourself if I pawed through the trash of someone who recently went to Hokkaido and discovered a discarded bit of food. The answer would be "no" as I'm not quite that far gone yet.

Like many special regional souvenirs, this is sold in Tokyo. I was taking a break-time walk at work and walked around the Shinjuku Southern Terrace area (famous for its Christmas lights and Krispy Kreme). It seems that it's a mini-Mecca of places that stock regional souvenirs. One was for Miyazaki prefecture and another for Hokkaido. I went into the latter and perused their stock. I was familiar with a lot of things already from a bit over a decade of office work and being the recipient of obligatory souvenir treats from traveling salesmen. The "corn choco" was always a crowd pleaser. I wasn't going to buy anything because it's all pretty expensive and sold in portions meant to allow your whole office to partake. However, the soup looked like it'd make a good companion to the sandwich I'd brought for lunch and I debated buying the instant gobo (burdock) soup or this white curry. The choice I made is obvious. I do wonder why white curry is in any way representative of Kitami City. It may have something to do with their winter festival because, you know, snow... white...white... curry. Yeah, it's a pretty tenuous link.

The company that makes this, "Greens Kitami", makes several different packets of dehydrated consomme soup. Their own web site link was dead or redirected, but they appeared on an aggregate site and it appears their specialty is onions. Since most soup has onions, this makes sense, though you don't really see any in this powdered mix.

This was an expensive  bit of soup at 315 yen ($4.07) for 10 packets of consomme powder. Each sleeve makes 150 ml. or three-quarters of a cup of soup. That's not much for your money, but at least each serving is only 15 calories. I had to guess how much water to use the first time since I was at work and there were no measuring cups. I believe I made it too strong, but that was still good.

The smell is very good. It is not exactly the same as conventional curry. In fact, it lacks that telltale scent of cumin or generic curry powder. The first ingredient is pork extract followed by a lot of other extracts, which is to be expected from consomme. The flavor is definitely that of curry, but it is less "heavy" and overbearing. It's not very hot, but has enough of a kick to make it interesting. In fact, this has a deep savory edge and is quite delicious. It's definitely a cut above your usual powdered soup mix.

I liked this soup very, very much. In fact, it's safe to say that I'd consume it regularly if it weren't so expensive and available in a rather limited fashion. The bottom line, however, is that this would have to be the food equivalent of cocaine for me to buy such small portions for 32 yen each on a regular basis. However, I would buy it again as a special treat, and can definitely recommend trying it if you come across it in your travels.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Annin Dofu and Blueberry Cheesecake KitKats (Regional)

I vowed a long time ago not to seek out the regional KitKats nor to pay a premium price for them. I'm sure all of my readers will appreciate my faithfulness to this promise which has absolutely nothing to do with them and only deprives them of content they may desire. That being said, if a regional version drops in my lap at a low price, I'm not going to walk away. I may be cheap, but I'm not that cheap... yet.

My husband and I were taking a sweaty summer evening stroll and it was not the good kind of sweaty which involves inappropriate activity in a public space. It was the usual bath in a humid boggy atmosphere kind of sweaty. Anyway, he suggested that we pop into the Village Vanguard to look around at their usual array of imported food and Japanese snack oddities. It's always good to pop into one of their shops and listen to loud music that is supposed to let the patrons know how hip they are and  prime the rest of us for hearing aids in our elder years. They've been selling regional KitKats for awhile, and I guess they finally gave up on moving them so they reduced the price by half. Instead of 840 yen a box, they were 420 yen ($5.47). To this, we said, "sold", as this positions the price such that they cost almost the same as regular KitKats.

White KitKats are white. 

My husband chose the blueberry cheesecake because he'd had it before and liked it. I reviewed it before, and didn't much care for it, but figured I'd give it a try to see if this Kanto-Koushinetsu regional version was different. It turned out that it wasn't. It was exactly the same mixture of extremely subdued blueberry flavor paired with too pungent cheese flavor and overly sweet white chocolate. Each mini bar is 69 calories of disappointment, at least for me. My husband actually enjoys them, so it's all down to your tastes.

It was my adventurous spirit that compelled me to buy the annin dofu variety, which is labeled as a "Yokohama" edition. I've seen it in a lot of shops in Tokyo though, so they aren't doing a very good job of keeping it from wandering into other territories. Annin dofu is an almond jelly dessert which is actually made with apricot seeds. The Wikipedia page says that it is supposed to taste like almonds, but to me annin dofu desserts taste more like a funky fruit cocktail. That is pretty much how this tasted to me, like a very sweet non-standard fruit cocktail. It's a little unusual, but I liked it. I don't know that I'd buy it again if I had to buy a dozen mini bars at once, but I might occasionally pick up a single mini bar or a regular one if I was in the mood for something different. I wasn't over the moon about it, but I liked it fine. It gets a very marginal:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Random Picture #78

You can tell that the end of the summer is at hand when the Japanese sweets change over to autumnal vegetables and fruit. The moment I'm waiting for is for marron (chestnut) to start showing up everywhere. Though they aren't quite at the critical mass stage, sweet potato is making a strong showing already. This basket was on the floor of Seiyu supermarket in preparation for adding them to the shelves. At the top center are three types of sweet potato manju. I would have bought them, but I didn't feel right snapping them out of the basket. It wouldn't feel exactly like "stealing", but it seemed like improper snacking protocol.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Kabaya Salt Charge Tablets

Now that I only do two reviews per week, I feel somewhat obliged to choose more interesting products. I'm guessing this will last a few weeks then I'll go back to reviewing various chocolates and cookies which are not only more pedestrian, but more readily available. While talk of Japanese snacks often focuses on the bizarre, the truth is that not so much of what is on offer is all that least not after my years of already reviewing various snacks.

In light of my current mindset, which is somewhat guilty at reducing the number of reviews, I didn't hesitate to snap up these oddly flavored sweets. It didn't hurt that they were only 69 yen (90 cents) at Okashi no Machioka snack shop. The fact that they are plum (ume) isn't really all that odd, but the fact that they position salt as a favorable aspect is. The Japanese clearly aren't as uptight about salt as Americans, who are told constantly that salt consumption is a one-way ticket to a heart attack.

This is part of a series of "tablets" Kabaya is releasing to meet various needs. Others include Calcium, grape sugar, and amino acids. The Calcium is to help you not grow old looking like a question mark and the grape sugar is to fuel your big brain's function. Amino acids are to help with muscles. All of them are positioned for people engaging in sports, except Calcium which appears to be for old people who do stretching exercises and mothers pushing babies in prams. I guess the salt charge is to help you replenish precious sodium that you've excreted through your pores during your vigorous workout. Since most Japanese folks I know exercise once a month or so, I can't imagine much demand for these except for those people who think a plum-flavored salt lick is a good time.

Though these are called "tablets", they are balls. I think "tablet" in Japan merely means it has some pressed powdery component, which these do. The outside is a hard suckable candy and the inside is pressed citric acid powder, salt and sugar. Besides supplying you with precious salt, they also offer Vitamin C, B2 and amino acids. The whole bag provides 150 calories and there are 14 little balls in the bag, so about 10 calories each.

In terms of the taste, the outside tastes a lot like the Mintia plum mints that I liked so much. It's both sweet and sour in a fairly balanced way. It tastes funky, but good. The inside, which takes several minutes to reach, is white powder which is quite salty, but also tart. It's not bad, but I could have done without the middle and stuck with the outer shell.

These aren't bad, but they are weird. They're the kind of thing you might find enjoyable in exactly the right frame of mind, but you're more likely to take if you really feel you need the "health" benefits of the additives.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cisco's Caramel Dacquoise Cookies

Every time I see a product by "Cisco's", I can't help but think of "Deep Space Nine's" Captain Sisko. The Cap'n (not Crunch) character who had a father with a restaurant called "Cisco's". Somehow, I doubt that this company is populated by Star Trek geeks paying an homage to the Trek universe's only African American (and my personal favorite) captain. This doubt is supported to some extent by the fact that the company was established in 1924. There is always a small chance that Cisco's founders were time traveler's who traveled ahead and watched DS9, but I think that's just a bit of a stretch.

It's interesting to me that Cisco Nissin Japan only has 364 employees. That's a pretty tiny company for their market penetration, especially when it comes to cereal. They're one of the biggest makers of sugar cereals in Japan and have one of the largest line-ups of any maker of said cereals. Sadly, that is less a testimonial to their vast range of products than the meager offerings in Japan of the types of cereals that concerned mothers don't permit their children and college kids subsist upon. Their best-known product, incidentally, is "Choco-Flakes", which are essentially chocolate-coated corn flakes that are eaten as a snack. The Japanese aren't trying to fool anyone when it comes to such things. They don't even try to convince you that such a sugary treat should have milk added to it. No, that stuff is made to be crammed into your face by the handful.

Of course, this review is not about "Choco-Flakes", though I have eaten them on several occasions and really should review them one day. This is about these cookies which are sold with a French pastry name to lend an air of sophistication to them. You can get these at a variety of convenience stores right now, and in some markets and snack shops. The price I paid is lost in the cobwebby memory of my 47-year-old brain, but I think it's somewhere in the vicinity of $2.20 (170 yen) for a packet of 6 cookies. The cookies are 5.5 cm x 4 cm (2.2 in. x 1.6 in.) and light as a feather. Each is 48 calories.

Like the vanilla version of these that I reviewed previously, the cookie is a super light sponge with a very lightly crispy top. The real proof in the pudding though was going to be the filling. Caramel is so easy to mess up with overbearing or overtly fake flavors. I'm pleased to say that the super light and fatty whipped cream center is sweet, but has a good balance of caramel. Frankly, these are addictively delightful. If I were so inclined, I could easily eat the whole bag up at once. It'd be expensive, but given how light the cookies are, it'd probably be worth the 300 calories.

These are lovely morsels that succeed on multiple levels. They have good textural variation, good flavor, and are unique as a treat in the manner in which they straddle being a cake and a cookie. I would certainly buy these again, and hope that Cisco Nissin keeps making this brand in other flavors.