Monday, October 31, 2011

Chestnut Pucca

Despite my initial reservations about the show, I found that I learned to love the T.V. series "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer". In Japan, incidentally, Fox used to promote it as "Buffy, the cross lover." Fortunately, they gave that promotional slogan as it made sound like she was doing something impure with a crucifix rather than running around stabbing vampires with bits of sharpened wood. 

A lot of fans of that T.V. series felt that the secondary character of "Willow", played by Alyson Hannigan, was more attractive, more interesting, and generally a more appealing part of the show. She wasn't the name character and more people were familiar with Buffy, but she had a quality that those who were paying attention appreciated. I personally had no favoritism, but this situation, in which a more widely-known character is actually of lesser quality than a secondary character, reminded me of the standing of Pucca in the Japanese snack world.

The "Buffy" of Japanese pretzel snacks is "Pocky", but Pucca is a much better presentation of a similar concept. Pocky dips the stick in flavored coatings, Pucca has a crispy pretzel shell full of flavored cream. In my opinion, Pucca carries a much better, earthy rye flour pretzel flavoring and the concentration of the filling inside provides for a stronger burst of flavor. The shell is very crispy and delicate and provides a better contrast (and crunch) than a Pocky stick. 

The only question about this presentation of Pucca for me was whether it was going to do right by me in terms of the chestnut filling. Mainly, was it going to convey the essence of chestnut and be properly, but not overbearingly, sweet. I'm pleased to say that it hits the nail right on the head in terms of conveying a creamy chestnut flavored enhanced with vanilla. The filling is a lot like the cream in an Oreo, though it's a bit more solid. 

You can find Pucca all over the place, and this version will probably be around until the weather turns warm again. It's usually 100 or so yen per box ($1.21) and each box is 46 grams (1.6 oz.). The entire box has 241 calories. While this isn't my absolute favorite Pucca (that honor stays with the original chocolate version), it is a very tasty variation. If it were just a little salty or a little less sweet, it'd be getting a "very happy" rating. As it is, it's still good, but just avoids being great. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Befco Yuzu and Salt Sembei

Before I started this blog, I was reluctant to sample a lot of Japanese foods. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know what a lot of the traditional flavors were because I just didn't pay that much attention to the food. I've tried a lot of things, and not everything has really floated my boat, but I've come to really be attracted to two flavors in particular. One is kinako, or toasted soybean flour, and the other is yuzu. For those who don't know, it's an Asian citrus fruit with a flavor which is both unique and familiar. It's piquant without being too sour or tart. Every time a new yuzu-based product comes out, I am drawn to it.

In fact, I am so in love with the flavor of yuzu that I was willing to overlook the inclusion of seafood flavors, including shrimp, when deciding to sample this. Shrimp tends to be the equivalent of my own gustatory ipecac, but I had some confidence that it won't be an overblown flavor in these rice crackers. Why? Well, simple logic... There isn't a picture of a shrimp on the bag so, you know, it can't be all that intense. Right? If it was important, they'd definitely show a picture, probably a "chibified" shrimp that looks elated at the idea of being consumed by hungry salt fiends. 

I found them at Okashi no Machioka for 168 yen ($2.09). That gets you 88 grams (3.1 oz.) of crackers. It stocks pretty much every Befco product that comes out, at least for a little while, so it's a good place to find new and interesting flavors. I've made fun of the name "Befco" before because it sounds like the Biffco industries from the second "Back to the Future". The good people at Befco finally explained the naming to me on the back of the bag. It stands for "Beika Frontier Company". I'm not sure what they are on the frontiers of, but there it is... another Japanese company name which is in English and pretty much ignores all logic. 

The crackers smell like a pleasant melange of savory flavors including a meaty scent reminiscent of pork and chicken, yuzu, and seafood. The flavors are multi-layered. The first thing you get is, most unfortunately, oil. These are one of the more heavily fried versions of sembei. The next level is the meaty elements with garlic, shrimp, beef, and crab. Finally, there is an astringent finish of yuzu. The texture is nicely crispy, but still easy to bite into. These are puffy, but not airy. There's just the right amount of salt. Each is 26.5 calories, but they aren't the biggest crackers. They're around half the size of my palm. 

These are good sembei, but for me personally, they didn't make the cut. I'm thoroughly spoiled, however, since I live in Japan and can buy a huge variety of such snacks. It's not that they are modestly enjoyable and don't have an excellent texture, but they are too oily and the yuzu element isn't strong enough for me. I'd still recommend sampling them if you're a sembei fan, but I can't see buying them again.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Picture #85

The Japanese dedication to marketing Halloween-themed items grow just a little every year. Though they have gotten the superficial aspects down, such as applying an appropriately cuted-up All Hallow's Eve motif, they aren't quite with it on the deeper execution. All of the snacks that I've seen with themed packaging are the same products as are usually on offer with just a different bag. These choco pies (a nice enough treat on their own as a plain chocolate covered soft cookie with vanilla cream filling sweet) are the same old same old. I don't know why they don't release special editions for the season, but I'm guessing it's because they'd rather sink their specialties into seasonal variations which have nothing to do with the usurping of American holidays.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Gateau du Mont-Blanc KitKat

Lately, KitKat offerings have been uninspired yawn-fests. With the exception of the  Tohoku special Zunda KitKat, it's been a steady parade of dark chocolate, white chocolate, and strawberry offerings with the occasional re-issue of a seasonal flavor. If Japanese KitKats were a television show, it'd be a sitcom in which each week the story is basically the same but the characters crack the same types of hackneyed jokes or a boring re-run. The show would be amusing enough on occasion that it'd manage to stay on the air, but generally keep viewers out of a sense of familiarity rather than the show's true entertainment value.

When I saw this box of Mont Blanc KitKats in a Natural Lawson convenience store, I felt like I was seeing the most enticing "preview" that I'd seen in a long time. Though this is not the most creative flavor idea for Japan (there are plenty of mont blanc treats here), it is still novel enough to get this lover of chestnut sweets excited. I forked over my 168 yen ($2.20) and prepared for what I hoped would be a novel experience.

A sniff revealed coffee and caramel notes. This is fairly typical for chestnut sweets because the roasting of nuts often causes a similar aroma to that of roasted coffee beans. The  caramel scent, unfortunately, comes from the artificial flavoring that is used. These have an intense sweetness and the finish is definitely of chestnut, but the first hit really is more like fake caramel. The chestnut element is gotten from powder rather than actual chestnuts.

This is an okay, albeit very sweet KitKat. I wish the depth of flavor were better. This might have been achieved by dialing back the super sweet aspects, but this is a candy bar and a white-chocolate-based one at that. Real mont blanc cakes are sweet as well, but not as overpowering as this. They also have a richness that they get from the fatty filling which is utterly absent in this bar. Though I will finish the box, I wouldn't buy this again.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Antonelli Cocoa Cream Italian Croissant

There's a multi-lingual message on the back of this package which says: "The pictures shown are pictures of a fantasy that does not represent the contents of the package itself." You have to respect that they put some truth on the package, even though I missed this message when I first purchased this and expected something a little closer to what was pictured. Absolute truth in advertising would require that this not be called a "croissant", though it is genuinely Italian.

Though these have Japanese writing on them, they are made in Italy. Though I tend to favor reviewing items actually produced in Japan, sometimes it's hard to resist an odd offering from another origin. I found these at Okashi no Marche discount snack shop for a mere 100 yen ($1.30) for a 1.76 oz./50 gram serving. If these are even halfway decent, that's a pretty good price. You can get 100 yen pastries in Japan, but most of them don't have a shelf life of about 7 months. This has an expiration date of May 26, 2012.

The "croissant" portion is really a sort of cake-like bread. It's like a slightly buttery hotdog bun. When I opened the package, I got a whiff of something vaguely familiar and the flavor also had an essence of something I'd had before. I realized that it was the same scent and taste that I'd had with some lemon chocolates a student brought me back from Italy some time ago. I thought that it was a part of the flavoring in those candies, but now I think it might be something else. It's not a bad thing, but it is very distinct.

The bread is soft, but still seems a bit dry. This is common in bread products that are prepared for long-term preservation. It tastes slightly sweet and a little rich. This is likely from the high amount of egg in it. The cocoa cream filling is dotted through it and doesn't have a very strong chocolate flavor. Mainly, it adds a fatty dollop of texture and extra sweetness. There were also lemon and strawberry versions available, and my husband sampled both of them and found them reasonably good, though not amazing.

I try to accept products for what they are rather than what I might hope them to be. These are extended shelf-life (ESL) baked goods and it's unfair to expect them to be like a fine quality fresh-baked pastry. For something which you can put in an earthquake survival kit, toss into a backpack, or just keep in a cabinet or desk drawer for just that time when you just want a bread-based breakfast but don't want to feel pressure to eat it at any given time, this is actually pretty good. The bread has a nice flavor by itself, the filling has a decent texture (though there could be more of it), and it's only about 200 calories for a good-sized bun. It's kind of a good "bad" food. And, yes, I'd buy it again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Random Picture #84

I think something called "Rescue Water" ought to do more for you then merely relieve you of dehydration. It should contain some sort of chemical that either paralyzes attackers when you fling it in their face or puts them to sleep when you offer them a lovely beverage before they rob you ("say, Mr. Bad Guy with a knife, you've looking a little parched, can I offer you a drink before you relieve me of my wallet?"). Unfortunately, this is just a sports drink type of deal created by a company that sells sporting clothes and specializes in something or other related to baseball. There's probably a deeper meaning to the number written on the bottle (171), but I'm just too lazy to find out what it is.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Morinaga Tanita Restaurant Vanilla Purin dessert

The "Tanita Restaurant" brand of 100-calorie desserts has been on the shelves for awhile in Japan and I'd been hoping to get around to sampling one of them for quite some time. The main thing stopping me was the boring nature of the standard offering. It was pretty much flan or plain pudding with caramel sauce. I like flan as much as the next person, but this is a country that is drowning in plastic tubs of thick pudding with various types of burnt caramel sauce on the bottom. It's a real yawner as a taste option. It's on par with the never-ending stream of strawberry KitKats in terms of the lack of excitement it creates in me. Though vanilla pudding with orange sauce is hardly an exotic flavor combination, it is more interesting than what I can buy at nearly any kiosk, convenience store, and market in Japan, so I took the plunge. Since buying this, some more interesting flavors have come around (e.g., Japanese pumpkin), and I may get to one of those later.

The main selling point of the Tanita Restaurant recipes is that they are low calorie and supposedly delicious. This is a collaborative effort between food-making giant Morinaga and a maker of health-related products called Tanita. Tanita provides a cookbook with meal recipes that are under 500 calories and Morinaga gives you a chance to chase that healthy home-made meal with a processed dessert. The web site for this dessert promises that it gives you a 50-80% reduction in calories.

You can buy these desserts pretty much anywhere, but I picked this one up for 100 yen ($1.30) at a Lawson 100 convenience store. It contains 85 grams (about 3 oz.) of thick, custard-style pudding with an orange sauce on the bottom. You can see a lot of little black specs in it which I imagine are real vanilla beans. This is surprising given that this is a pretty cheap dessert, but the flavor bears out the real vanilla flavoring. The sauce has very mild orange flavor. The pudding is quite sweet and has a slight bit of powdered milk flavor. The texture is creamy but quite solid. You can tell that this was thickened with gelatin to give it some heft. Surprisingly though, it does not have any artificial sweeteners in it, though it does contain high fructose corn syrup.

This is a surprisingly tasty little dessert and well-worth the calories and cost. While it is made with a filler (seaweed-based gelatin, agar agar), it is creamy enough to have a nice texture and the vanilla really shines through. If I had to come up with a complaint, I'd say it is that the orange sauce should have a stronger flavor profile, but I wasn't particularly bothered by its subdued nature. If you're calorie conscious and seeking a pretty nice little dessert, I'd definitely recommend giving this a try.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Riska Moist Chocolate Corn Snack

There are a lot of things about actually living in Japan rather than acquiring Japanese snacks through various channels in another country which make the experience unique. One is that I can never help people out when they ask me how to find something outside of Japan. I have many opportunities to feel profoundly useless to people on multiple occasions. Another is that I have tastes which are "normalized" to Japanese food such that they don't strike me as profoundly unique compared to other reviewers. I've noticed that people who infrequently review Japanese snacks tend to rate them more highly than I do. I think this is because they are comparing them to a different standard than me.

This notion comes to mind as I review this snack because I'm sure I'm experiencing it differently than those who haven't sampled most of Riska's line of products. If you've never tried their salty corn snacks, you won't realize that this is simply a chocolate-covered version of their basic corn puff recipe. In fact, it tastes almost exactly like their corn potage snack without the savory powdery coating. These are covered with a very satisfying layer of chocolate which is quite sweet, but still potent. Quite often, these cheap (80 grams for 100 yen/2.8 oz. for $1.30) snacks have very weak chocolate flavor, but these are quite good and flavorful. The initial taste is a burst of milk chocolate sweetness, but it is chased by the corn snack flavor which feels like it just doesn't belong. I'm not sure if I perceive them that way because I so strongly associate this taste with salty snacks or if they really aren't a great pairing. It feels like something like chocolate-covered Doritos, only not nearly as gross.

I'm rather torn about these. They're soft and crunchy at the same time and very satisfying on a textural level. They're sweet and strong, but the flavors don't quite match on my taste buds. Frankly, they strike me as  the sort of "junk food" that I could easily see eating the entire bag of and then being filled with regret that I spent 466 calories (about 12 calories per piece) on something that wasn't completely worth it. Then, I could see doing it again in the future. This is classic "good" bad food (including processed fat) which is easy to gobble down in great quantity, but if you pause and attempt to savor every bite, you'll probably not be nearly as happy with the experience. So, I'm offering this a conditional "happy" rating. If you're looking to pig out, these are great. If you're looking for a high quality experience to linger over, there's nothing to see here, move along.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Random Picture #83

This past Monday was a national holiday in Japan, "Sports Day." To celebrate, the overwhelming majority of adults go shopping or sit at home and watch T.V. Kids sometimes take part in school sports activities. The holiday was created after Tokyo got the 1964 Olympics. It's too bad that Tokyo didn't get another one or we may have seen another national holiday hit the calendar. Of course, since all of the holidays were moved to Mondays (or Fridays, but usually Mondays), and my usual days off are Monday and Tuesday, it doesn't tend to do me any good when there's a national holiday.

My husband and I spent the day walking around Shibuya fighting crowds and taking pictures. This was a sign that we saw outside of a restaurant. The joke tells itself, but I feel it is encouraged by the fact that these are red balls that look like they might explode in your stomach.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lotte Black Ghana

Ages ago, I did a comparison of all of the basic chocolate bars in Japan. The three basic bars from the big confectioner's are Lotte's Ghana, Meiji, and Morinaga. I rated Ghana the highest, though for basic chocolate, I think "Vessel in the Fog" and Dars are the best. Vessel in the Fog, incidentally, has reappeared in shops with the end of summer. It is often hard to get, but worth picking up if you see it. Given my favoring of Ghana's basic chocolate bar, this looked intriguing.

The types of snacks (especially gum) that are sold in this type of packaging are generally more expensive than those sold in paper and foil wrappers or cardboard boxes. I'm not sure if that's because they are supposed to be better value, or if you're paying for the plastic. Either way, they generally do not represent better value than buying such things in other packaging even when you consider the increased volume. For this reason, I tend to avoid these, but I found these on sale at Okashi no Machioka snack shop for a mere 129 yen ($1.67) and decided to give it a go.

Black Ghana is a small (82 gram/2.9 oz.) canister of 38 cube-shaped pellets. The whole lot is 482 calories so one piece is 13 calories. This is reasonable for the portion size. The advertising boasts "extra cacao", so this is supposed to be richer than regular Ghana. That's the selling point that lured me in. What it is is a semi-dark chocolate with a high fat content. It's a little more intense than a milk chocolate, but not as bitter as a true dark chocolate.

I'm not a dark chocolate fan, but this blend was pretty much right where I would enjoy darker chocolate. It comes up just short of being too bitter and could be seen as a version which is approachable for milk chocolate fans. It's still stronger and more intense than regular Ghana, and it still has a familiar Japanese chocolate aftertaste (kind of like how your mouth feels after drinking coffee), but I liked these and I'd buy them again.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Bakauke Cream Cheese Sembei

I didn't realize this, but both of the snacks that I'm reviewing this week are white. I guess that is a reflection of the seasonal change, or perhaps I'm just turning into some freaky snack racist. It's a good thing that my next review isn't the "White Boyfriend Cat's Tongue" cookies or I'd start to feel acutely uncomfortable with my choices.

I haven't reviewed sembei (rice crackers) for awhile because there haven't been much in the way of new flavor combinations. I've actually tried quite a few new things including new kinako and wasabi crackers, but the truth is that I don't know that my readers are served well by hearing about every iteration of these types of flavors. Yes, each is a little different, but not markedly so. This is the first time I've seen cream cheese flavor sembei, so I figured it was a good time to spotlight a long neglected category of Japanese snacks.

I found these at Okashi no Machioka snack shop for about 160 yen ($2.07). The package, which has illustrations of red leaves on it to let you know this is an autumn release, says that this is a product of Niigata. Based on the Wikipedia entry about Niigata, I don't see how cream cheese relates to that area, but rice is their principle agricultural product. I'm guessing it's the cracker that is from that area, not the cream cheese.

The crackers smell a bit cheesy which shouldn't be surprising, but somehow it is. As I've said before, I've lived in Japan long enough to have no confidence in naming. If it says "cream cheese", I know that there is a broad range of tastes outside of cheese that could be on hand. These do, however, have a nice cream cheese flavor. What is better though is that they taste like a cream-cheese based dip which is flavored with other savory elements like vinegar, onion powder, and meat flavoring. It's like the dip is conveniently included in the cracker.

I really enjoyed these, and I am also pleased with the number of calories since each packet of two  crackers is only 35.5 calories. Since the crackers are fairly big, one or two packets is a pretty satisfying serving. My guess is that these will only be around for about 4 months. The Bakauke brand seems to be slowing down a bit in Japan as I see more releases from Befco (the company that makes this line) which are fairly generic-looking crackers rather than the distinctive banana-shaped Bakauke style. I'm not sure why this is, or how it relates to the seasonal nature of this flavor, but there it is. At any rate, I'd say give these a shot if you're a fan of savory flavors and cream cheese. They're very tasty.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Random Picture #82

I've written before about portion sizes in Japan, and how they often package things to make it easier for people to eat less. This does not hold true in all cases. In fact, one of the few food areas in which large sizes is not uncommon is baked goods which are sold in convenience stores or markets. Those packaged bread-based products are often huge. One of these enormous specimens was available at the awesome discount shop Tsurukame and I paused and had my husband get a picture of it using my arm as a point of comparison. This is about 16.5 in./42 cm. of refined carbohydrates mixed with sugar and damaged fats. If you were to gobble it all down at once, you'd be ingesting 1233 calories. Of course, I'm under no illusion that this is meant to be eaten by one person. Chances are, it's a family pack type of thing and this is meant to be divided into as many as 10 servings. Either way, this is one monster "cream bread" pastry for the bargain price of $2.

Monday, October 3, 2011


A lot of people have fond recollections of their mother's home cooking and will reminisce about this or that food which no one made like mom. My mother, who grew up in a generation and location among people who felt that chicken which had any moisture in it whatsoever was a dangerous vehicle for salmonella, is a terrible cook. Every steak was suitable to sole a shoe. Every vegetable cooked to a state of mush, unless it came from a can in which case it was marginally heated and plopped in a wet, soggy blob on the plate.

There is, however, one thing which she made in a manner which I enjoyed and remember with fondness and that was her sugar cookies. Unlike most of the sugar cookies other people make, they are not crispy, super buttery or sweet. They were soft, doughy, lightly sweet, and had a unique texture which was a happy menage a trois of cookie, pie, and cake. They were excellent plain, though she also used them as part of a filled cookie. My favorite was dreadful canned blueberry pie filling, which added some sweetness, but mainly left a mild, moist blue indentation in the middle after I pulled the cookie apart and ate the filling as if I were dealing with an Oreo.

The distinctive aspect of my mother's sugar cookies, besides the texture, was the way in which white flour seemed to meld with the other ingredients to form a wonderful baked good flavor that one wouldn't expect from something so simple. Usually, the flour, fat and sugar are a base for other flavors, not the main attraction, but it worked in her cookies. And, it works in these cookies.

This style of cookie, called a "bo" or "stick" in Japan, is extremely common as a "kurobo" (black stick) version. In fact, you can find the brown sugar version in nearly every store in Japan. My husband really likes them, and they're supposed to be healthy because of the alkaline content. My guess is that these lack the nutritional boost, but I really don't eat cookies as part of a well-balanced diet. I'm really not that delusional.

The outside of the cookies is covered in an very thin, lightly crispy glaze of white sugar. The cookies themselves are dry, but soft, with a nice biscuity texture. The ingredients list is very short and includes flour, eggs and sugar as the main components. They're a very simple cookie made in a way that simply "works", just like my mother's simple sugar cookies.

I found these cookies at Takehachi, a shop which specializes in various Japanese delicacies with an emphasis on seafood. They also sell some dishes. They have a main store, but most of their outlets are in department stores. The main drawback to these cookies is that they are on the slightly expensive side at 315 yen ($4.09) for 10 cookies. The second drawback is the limited availability. Still, I'd certainly buy these again. If you see them, I'd recommend buying them while you have the chance.