Monday, January 30, 2012

Luna Midnight Sweets Mont Blanc

No, I didn't wait 3 months to try this. This is an older picture of the product.

Would you like to know what invention would make a person the wealthiest person in the world? Create a food that tastes like something almost universally loved and create an extremely low calorie or no calorie version. The person who could manage this would solve the biggest of first world problems, how to eat and eat and eat what you love without getting fat.

While no one has created this magical product, food companies keep trying to pander to this desire. This yogurt is one such product as it shows a richly piled chestnut paste sweet on the front as an empty promise of sweet, rich, fatty dessert for a handful of calories (and 100 yen/$1.30). I, at least, am dumb enough to keep hoping that some day I'll be able to enjoy things without paying the price is thigh expansion.

Anything which carries the "mont blanc" moniker has a very high bar to leap over in my opinion. I adore chestnut anything and this particular dessert is something I'm always tempted by when I pass by a patisserie. When I leave Japan, it is something I will absolutely miss. I can only hope that, during the 23 years I've been away, someone back home will have produced their version of this treat for the American market. No, I'm not holding my breath.

Peeling back to the foil reveals an encouraging sight. There are little bits of chestnut mixed into the yogurt. The flavor is definitely that of sweet yogurt, but there's also a good amount of chestnut flavor mixed in. It's not exactly like tucking into a pile of chestnut cream piped on top of a pastry, but it's still pretty satisfying. The yogurt is thin and I think the experience of eating it would be more impressive if it were thicker. Of course, the appeal of this line of sweets is that it's low calorie (65 calories for 110 grams, or a little over half a cup) so any thickness would likely be accomplished by adding artificial thickeners.

I enjoyed this, and I'm glad that it's spending a fair amount of time on the shelves of my local convenience stores. If you're a chestnut fan and aren't put off by very sweet yogurt (or artificial sweeteners), I'd definitely recommend this as a "dessert yogurt". You could do much, much worse, both nutritionally and in terms of the quality.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lotte Fresh Chocolate Yukimi Daifuku Ice Cream

Remember on Monday when I said winter is the time for chocolate? That applies to ice cream, too, though I'm guessing that this is not due to a lack of refrigeration in the supply trucks as I speculated about other types of chocolate snacks in the previous post. Maybe chocolate is a winter food because it tends to make you fat if you eat a lot of it and being fatter when it's cold provides much needed insulation and padding on the posterior for those who park themselves under the kotatsu for warmth.

The fact that all of the chocolate comes out to play in winter coupled with the fact that it's about a million degrees and there is sauna-like humidity in summer make me feel that, if you're going to come to Tokyo, winter is definitely the time. Sure, if you're a big sissy about a little chill in the air, you might find it less than optimal, but the chocolate, which all appears to be marketed as "limited edition" is worth wearing a scarf and bringing a big coat along.

Yukimi daifuku is a dollop of ice cream (or sometimes, ice milk) wrapped in a thin mochi (pounded rice cake) shell. The mochi is stretchy and fairly flavorless and provides a nice textural contrast to the soft, creamy ice cream. These are usually sold for about 100 yen ($1.24) for two small (47 ml.) balls of mochi-wrapped ice cream. The outside is dusted with flour or starch to keep them from sticking to the packaging, but it has no effect on the eating experience. Each is 92 calories and I split this with my husband. They are best when you allow them to sit for several minutes to allow the ice cream to soften a bit. That reveals more of the creamy nature and for a better texture.

The chocolate flavor comes mostly from the dollop of bittersweet syrup at the top/bottom of the little ball of ice cream. The mochi is brown, but doesn't seem to have any more flavor than standard mochi (which is to say, very little). The flavor is very good with a deepness to the chocolate that you don't always find in cheap consumer-grade ice cream. The unique part, of course, is the outer wrapper which adds a lovely textural quality. Lotte has a technique for keeping the mochi soft while still being frozen which makes this very similar to eating fresh daifuku.

This is my second encounter with Lotte's daifuku ice cream and it did not disappoint. My previous experience was with the vanilla variety which left a very favorable impression on me. This one similarly did so and I am keen to try all flavors on offer through time. If you have an Asian grocery that stocks these or live in Japan, don't hesitate to try these. They are delicious, unique, and provide excellent portion control.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Random Picture #97

There is an unintentional theme to this week and it is winter and chocolate. One of the most awesome ones is Meltykiss. Since these are so, well, melty, they only come out when the temperature gets cool enough for naked snuggling under the covers to induce desirable warmth instead of sticky sweatiness. This bin shows three flavors - chocolate, strawberry, and green tea. Several of my students have told me this is their favorite chocolate. I've had only the chocolate ones, but I'd wager that all of these are the bee's knees of truffle-like chocolate delight.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Winter Kuchidoke Pocky

For an interview on Japanese snacks that I did quite some time ago, I was asked about seasonal variations in Japan. At that time, I had a bit less of a handle on it than I do now, but there are certain very predictable offerings based on the time of year. In spring, the cherry flavors come out to play as a way of saying, "cherry blossoms are coming, so please enjoy them with this fake-flavored confectionary." In autumn, sweet potato and chestnut offer their warm and toasty joys. In summer, we usually get lemon parading as something "cool" though I generally fail to see why "sour" equals "cool". In a similar vein, I don't know why winter is the season for chocolate aside from the fact that it's the best time of year for manufacturers to ship it without fear of melting. If so, there is something very disheartening about the notion that flavor offerings are tied the ability to properly air condition vehicles and shops.

Fortunately, regardless of the time of year, many of the chocolate offerings in winter are rich and deep. In the past, there has been a kuchidoke KitKat that was quite the tasty offering. For those who don't go back and read the explanation on that old post, "kuchidoke" means "melt in your mouth". I'm not sure how you're supposed to achieve that with a Pocky stick, unless you suck on it like a lollipop instead of bite off the bland pretzel stick pieces and chew them up, but I can say that these are somewhat more heavily coated sticks than the basic Pocky. They are reminiscent of "Dessert Pocky", but not quite that overloaded with sweet swaddling.

There are four packets of 6 sticks in a box. I'm not sure what the retail price is because my husband won these for me in a UFO Catcher machine, but I'd guess they're around 160 yen ($2.07) based on the average price of a non-basic box of Pocky. Each packet has 125 calories so it's a pretty economical snack option if you limit yourself.

I'm not a giant fan of Pocky in general, as I've mentioned before. As a matter of fact, this review mainly exists as a testimonial to my husband's spirt of competition when it comes to gaming machines and his good eye-hand coordination. It's not that I dislike them, but just there are other things that are generally more attractive to me (like Pucca, which is like an inverted Pocky). That doesn't mean that they aren't tasty snacks, but just that tastes vary and if you're faced with a row of corn chips, potato chips, tortilla chips and rice crackers, one of them is going to be your first option even though each one of them has its appeal. 

All of that being said, these are some damn fine Pocky. The flavor hit is two-fold with a mild chocolate flavor up front and a fudgey, deep chocolate bottom that hits you at the end of a bite. If I didn't know what "kuchidoke" actually meant, I'd believe it meant, delicious, intense, non-dark chocolate as that does appear to be how it is presented. The box shows you that the outside of each stick is coated with cocoa powder, but I don't believe that is where these get their flavor punch from. I think it's from coffee powder being put in the mix to boost the intensity.

If I were a Pocky fan, these would definitely get a "very happy" rating and I'd be stocking up on extra boxes to enjoy some when they disappear as a seasonal release. Since I'm not a Pocky nut, these will get a "happy" rating. When my husband won these, he got three boxes taped together and I have no regrets about having so many to eat, but I'm not sure that these will make it into my steady rotation. That's simply because they're Pocky, not because they aren't excellent Pocky.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Morinaga Yuzu-cha

There is a tendency among those who are not native to a culture to take assertions from media as if the natives are taking them at face value. This tea, for instance, is marketed as something which is meant to help conserve energy in these days of nuclear-disaster-induced cutbacks (setsuden). Of course, it seems that winter isn't really a big time of year for setsuden as most trains, shops, and homes are heated to within a few degrees of the temperature on the surface of the sun, but the concept of saving power lingers in the hearts and minds of PR folks all over Japan.

When I read Morinaga's PR site about this product and the other variations that are on offer (cocoa and ginger tea), I thought, "boy, the Japanese sure are gullible if they think they'll heat less water using this type of instant tea as compared to making it themselves." I'm  making the common assumption that the Japanese aren't rolling their eyes at the ludicrous notion that they will heat less water to dissolve a brick of pre-made yuzu stuff than if they simply stir yuzu marmalade into the same amount of hot water. So often, this is the root of a lot of erroneous cultural beliefs. If the media says it, the Japanese must believe it 100%, right? After all, we believe it when commercials tell us that Pop-Tarts and Sugar-frosted flakes are "a good part of a nutritious breakfast". 

As an enormous fan of yuzu, a flavorful citrus fruit which is a cross between a grapefruit, a lemon, and an orange in taste, it may surprise my readers to learn that I had no idea that it was used to make tea.  I've been seeing enormous jars of yuzu marmalade on sale at local grocers and thinking that it looked like a tasty option for my morning repast, but the volume was such that I'd have to eat it everyday for a couple of months to get through it. It was only after buying this rather expensive (198 yen/$2.58) bag of a mere 4 half-cup servings of tea and doing some research that I learned that people are plopping spoons of it into mugs of hot water.

This caught my eye at a local supermarket, Inageya, as I was heading for the register. Most instant tea and coffee in Japan is chock-full of sugar and high calorie, but this weighs in at a modest 29 calories per serving. I don't often feel truly excited about trying a new snack these days, but I was quite enthused about this. It did not disappoint.

As the instructions say, I removed a brick from its foil package and added 100 ml. (1/2 cup) of hot water. The brick fizzed up in a way that would make an Alka-Seltzer fanatic happy and settled in to make an intense yellow tea with bits of peel floating around in it. The smell is of heavenly citrus, unsurprisingly, and though this is called "tea", it has no leaves of the common tea plant (Camellia sinensis) in it. It is mainly yuzu and sugar in its purest form, but as this instant variety it has artificial sweeteners, potato starch and other unsavory chemicals to create the tidy little fizzing brick.

The taste of this is very intense and sweet. It packs a wallop in terms of both zest and a bracing sugariness. I can see how this would be the perfect pick-me-up after a walk in the brisk winter air and it would probably really help wake you up if you're tired. It's  not something that I could see relaxing and casually sipping at, but rather a slow drink that you take sips of and savor. Personally, I thought it was incredible, but I can see where others may find it too strong or too sweet. 

My guess is that it'd be vastly more economical and possibly even tastier to make the tea from a jar of marmalade rather than these instant packets. One of these days (very soon), I'll buy a jar and try the real deal for comparison. However, if you've never had yuzu tea and just want to try it, this is a good way to sample a small amount rather than invest in a big jar of marmalade (and I've only seen relatively big ones). Also, if you want something to keep in a back-pack or a desk drawer, this would be the bee's knees. I can definitely see buying this again, though I frankly wish it were a bit cheaper.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shameless (Non-Self) Promotion

Most people are familiar with the Rashomon effect either by that particular term or as the old statement about there being three sides to every story, yours, mine, and the truth. In Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon movie, he attempted to illustrate this concept in his own inimitable way. Personally, I think some "truths" are too big to be known or understood by any one person and that such truths are like infinity. That is, you can approach, but never reach them.

Knowing any entire country's culture would be one of those vast truths that can never be known through the filter of any one individual. Even researchers who do their level best to distill facts are not presenting "the truth", but rather "a truth". In order to scientifically discover truth, you have to alter it, minimize mitigating factors, and certainly ignore huge swaths of potential candidates who can provide alternative but equally valid data in order to keep the sample size down. The truth is bigger than any one measure of it.

If you want to understand Japan, it's not enough to live here. It's not enough to see it with your own eyes and process experiences with your single mind. If you want to move closer to the truth, you have to look at it through the eyes of as many others as possible. Some eyes are more discerning than others and some hearts and souls more perceptive. What is better is that some word masters are more articulate and entertaining about how they share their experiences. To that end, I have been following the Loco in Yokohama blog for quite some time.

You can learn more about buying a copy of Baye McNeil's first book here.

Loco, who is Baye McNeil in real life, is unique among Japan bloggers for a variety of reasons. First of all, he is African American in an arena that seems to be dominated by white boys and mommy bloggers (not that there's anything wrong with either of those types of bloggers as they have a relevant truth to share as well!). That means that his experiences are going to be different based on the fact that his physical presence elicits different responses from the natives than many other bloggers are receiving. Second, he comes from a pretty hard background which makes his perspective rather unique. The context through which he views life here is just as honest and real as that of folks like me who grew up in rural farming communities or as those who grew up in urban areas or grew up affluent. Finally, and most importantly, he's a writer

When I say he's "a writer", I don't mean that he simply strings together words and sentences to provide information. I mean he holds your attention and entertains you. He elicits emotions and displays his own passion. People who can wield words with skill and energy are rare. Fortunately for us, Baye has used his skills as a word craftsmen to produce his first book, and I am encouraging my readers to read it. You can read it because you are interested in Japan. You can read it because you want another perspective on the truth about this country. Or, you can read it because you enjoy great writing. That'll be my reason. 

Random Picture #96

Clover, a patisserie/cake shop offers dragon-themed fukubukuro. This is the year of the dragon, in case the obvious wasn't hitting you on the head hard enough. That is not my hand or coat, incidentally. 

This picture is slightly late in coming along, but I figure that as long as it is January, I can sneak in some New Year's shots. My husband and I went to Tokyu department store in Shibuya, an extremely popular shopping district in Tokyo, to check out the holiday sales. While New Year's holiday sales aren't quite as crazy as Black Friday in the U.S., they are pretty busy and can be intense. There are sometimes feeding frenzies on bags of choice products. This year, for reasons unknown, we saw a gaggle of men swarming fukubukuro ("lucky bag"/grab bag) that contained underpants. 

Our main purpose was to scope out fukubukuro, which often offer goods exceeding the value of the price of the bag. We saw tons of clothing grab bags and then hit the basement for the food ones. About 95% of them showed you the contents of the bag and most represented adequate value provided that you wanted every single item in the bag, but we didn't find anything appealing this year. I did like how attractive many of the packaging designs were, and was particularly fond of the way dragons were worked into so many things (like this cake).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pumpkin Cheesecake KitKat

Quite some time ago, I got an e-mail from a reader who wasn't keen on my coverage of extremely strange Japanese snacks who said that he wasn't really interested in that sort of weirdness, but rather in things like the unusual Pepsi and KitKat flavors. I can understand that as many people may prefer to hear about novelty a few standard deviations from the norm rather than gag-fodder that they'd never eat. Unfortunately, if I focused only on those types of variants on popular and accessible snacks, I'd be making only 6 posts a year. 

One of the problems with not living here is that you get a distorted view of how often odd variations on popular food products come out, because other non-Japanese snack blogs only talk about such things. The truth is that that KitKat parade is populated mainly by strawberry, green tea, and various types of chocolate (fudge, semisweet, bittersweet, dark) than by edamame, ginger ale, and other extreme odd flavors. The triumvirate of the aforementioned flavors, especially strawberry, are the boring band members marching along and the really interesting stuff is like Santa Claus at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. You watch a bunch of people blowing into brass instruments and beating drums with a yawn and all you really care about is the fat guy in the red suit.

Fake mom and daughter are going to "fight" (with fists, apparently) to make sure fake daughter passes a test so she can get into a good school. 

At any rate, it has been a long, dry season on the Japanese KitKat front. At present, Nestle Japan is gearing up their PR campaign to sell to parents and kids for the studying season. The offerings they are focusing upon are adult sweetness KitKats (mild, dark chocolate), green tea matcha, and the umpteenth variant on strawberry (strawberry tart). They're also offering bags of white and plain KitKat minis in different packaging. Yes, I'm tired of watching the majorettes shaking their batons, too.

This pumpkin cheesecake KitKat was released some time ago, but I resisted buying it because I didn't want to buy a big bag of minis knowing I may not care for them. Don Quixote, the store, not the hapless avenger who attacked windmills, persuaded me to try a bag when they offered it for a mere 138 yen ($1.80) for a bag of 9 mini bars. Each mini bar is about the size of 1.5 regular KitKat fingers and has 68 calories. These were designed for Halloween, but were still available in abundance and at full price in shops in my area throughout the new year. In fact, most of them had larger bags for about $6.50 and that was a big reason why I didn't opt to try them until now. Each bar is individually packaged and there's a white space on the back that one can write a message on. I'm not sure what that message would be; perhaps you could say, "here is one bar from a bag of 9 that I could not consume on my own." 

Getting to the bars themselves, one of the reasons I was not necessarily keen on these is that "cheesecake" translated into actual flavor in the Japanese KitKat world usually means "tastes like sour powdered milk" and "pumpkin" (kabocha) is usually "strong vegetable flavor that feels rather out of place with all of that sugar'. My past experience left me anything but encouraged. 

The scent when you take a whiff of the bar is familiar yet hard to pin down. I think it may merely be that my olfactory senses are tuned to the scent of such kabocha-based treats after so much experience with them. They smell good, but unusual at the same time. The flavor is a balance between Japanese pumpkin and a custard flavor. I'm pleased to say that none of the yogurt/sour milk flavors in other "cheesecake" KitKats is present in this. One of the ingredients is "natural cheese", but the pungent elements are either masked or so subdued as not to register. This is quite sweet, but not in a cloying way, at least not if you stick to eating only one mini. My guess is that it might accumulate and become overbearing if you eat more than one at a sitting. 

With a surprising well-rounded combination of tastes, this was quite pleasing, albeit still rather sweet. Like most KitKats, the chocolate coating is slightly on the softer side with fresh, crispy wafers inside. The textural balance of a real KitKat is almost always superior to any knock-offs. It's the one thing Nestle always scores on. My feeling about these is that they are a pleasant digression, but definitely not part of a steady sweets rotation. I would buy them again, but likely only once a year. Chances are that they'll be back, however, because Nestle often rotates the same flavors in seasonally. Though this is no flavor "Santa Claus", it's definitely a bit more interesting than a mere member of the marching band.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Marumiya Pandaful Italian Pizza Topping

Many moons ago when I was in my early years in Japan and working at Nova, I used to go out for yakitori a lot with coworkers. We bonded over our collective ignorance and struggled together with the language. Somehow, everyone managed to cobble together an order. I learned that "dai jockey" was what people said when they wanted a big glass of beer. I also learned that bars never sold diet sodas and often only reluctantly gave you a glass of water with your sticks of grilled chicken.

After a particularly enjoyable meal at our favorite yakitori restaurant, one of my coworkers expressed gratitude at having been invited. He said that he had planned to go home and just have cheese toast and what we'd experienced was an order of magnitude better. Cheese toast is what tired people resort to when they don't have the energy to manage the sophistication of a grilled cheese sandwich. It's also rather popular with foreigners who have been in Japan for a short time because it can be made in a toaster oven and often that is the only equipment we are given besides a single gas burner and contains two ingredients which are "safe" to eat and easy to identify when you can't read Japanese.

Since I like to cook, I've never been much for cheese toast. That being said, I'm not a immune to its simple allure. It is two great tastes that taste great together, but it is quite simple. This topping is designed to dress up your cheese toast with the taste of pizza seasonings. It adds a few grams of protein and 220 mg. of sodium as well. The main ingredient is a soy derivative followed by dried corn, onion, and pepper. It also includes chicken extract, bacon, tomato, cheese, and most oddly, apple. There are also a fair number of additives, but let's not even pretend this is something one eats for health. You don't have cheese toast if you're eating right.

Incidentally, the name of this product is a cute play on words. The funny thing is that none of those words are Japanese. In Japan, they adopted the Portuguese word for bread, "pan". They also adopted bread from Portugal as well as castella cake and kompeito hard candies. Most of Japan's baking culture was borrowed from Europe. At any rate, this is a bread topping so "pan" is half of the word play. The rest is "wonderful" from English. They then use a panda as their mascot as a further way of playing with the words. It's all quite cute, but makes for verbose explaining. 

I found this at Lawson 100 for 100 yen ($1.25). There were some other flavors on offer, but the entire display sold out pretty quickly and I forgot what the others were. The company that makes this, Marumiya, offers up a great many "sprinkle toppings" for traditional food such as rice. They also sell prepared food in foil packets and dehydrated food products. This seems like a little foray into a side product that fits in with their overall product line. I guess making stuff to sprinkle on bread is the next logical step to making stuff to scatter on your rice. 

One packet is 30 grams and that offers up three servings at 43 calories per serving. I used a half slice of Roman Meal bread. This is fairly enormous bread, as much bread in Japan is the size of Texas Toast, so half is a decent serving size. I spread it with a little margarine before sprinkling the topping onto it to help it stick a bit better. I was afraid the little crumbly bits would just fall off, especially where cheese did not melt over the topping. 

The packet mentions that the cheese does not come with the topping. I had just picked up a block of mozzarella cheese that could probably feed a family of four for a month at Costco so this was a good time to try out some pizza-flavored cheese toast. After browning it a bit, I bit into it. The flavor of the sprinkles is slightly zesty and pizza-like. It contains rosemary, among other spices. The flavor is okay, not great, but not bad. The thing that doesn't work is the texture mix of the crumbly bits, which are slightly soft, yet firm, with the bread. I kept feeling like that flavor should go along with an actual pizza crust rather than a slice of bread. I also felt that it'd be better to simply spread some pizza sauce on bread and put the cheese on it rather than use the sprinkles.

This isn't bad at all. It isn't great, but you're not going to be spitting it out or anything. The main benefit of this over making pizza toast the old-fashioned way with sauce is that the packet of sprinkles will last without refrigeration for ages. As long as you close the zipper top of the packet, you can just use it when you're bored with your cheese toast. If you buy pizza sauce and you live alone or infrequently have pizza toast, it'll almost certainly go bad in your fridge. I can't really recommend this unless you're lazy, single, and want some easy and effortless variation on your cheese toast. Personally, I can't see buying it again because it's inoffensive, but not impressive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Random Picture #95

This seems to be the year that the 7 lucky gods are hitting center stage in Japanese marketing ploys. While walking home from a local shrine on New Year's Eve, I saw a poster featuring them. Each individual god is not unusual to see, especially Ebisu, who has his own beer in addition to being placed in front of various establishments. Unless you are on a pilgrimage to the groups of shrines that are all over Japan and house them, you don't tend to see them displayed all together. One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of bean cakes that showed their faces and I found a different variety of said cakes on sale at our local green grocer. These are filled with coarsely mashed sweet red beans. Last year, Ryoma Sakamoto's visage was plastered all over snacks. This year looks like it'll be the 7 lucky gods turn. I guess that all that matters is that the images are royalty free and no one has to pay the descendants any royalties. On that front, a septet of mythical people is a much better deal. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Echigoseika Funwari Meijin (Kinako Sembei)

There are few things in Japan which I consider to be a type of food crack for me. In fact, I think that even using "crack" to talk about the addictive quality of certain things is monumentally over-used by people. I don't think I've ever needed to use that term before. There is a first time for everything.

Echigoseika makes several varieties of "fluffy" (funwari) sembei. In fact, I'm not sure if I can accurately call it sembei, but I do because that is the section that it is sold in in snack shops and markets and glutinous rice is one of the main ingredients. Well, it's the third one after sugar and vegetable oil. The fact that the first two ingredients are part of the bad food trifecta (the third is salt) should indicate how healthy these must be. That is to say, not very much. The other two flavors are white chocolate and cheese. The thing all of these have in common is that they are light, delicate, and they melt in your mouth when you eat them. They are like nothing I have ever had before in the U.S., but I can say that they have a strong enough texture for minimal crunch and a melting quality that makes them collapse in a pile of flavor on the tongue.

As one might guess from the introduction, I loved, no, no, ADORED these. The kinako (roasted soybean powder) gives them a roasted nut flavor which is similar to peanut butter. They have a great blend of salty and sweet layered on top of the nutty flavor. This comes together in a burst of incredible flavor which is potent, but not overbearing. I'm grateful that a bag comes with 6 individual (14 gram/.5 oz.) packets in order to encourage portion control because it would be easy to open a bag and just eat the whole thing. While each packet is only 72 calories, eating all 6 of them at once would pretty much constitute the better part of a meal's calories. 

These are awesome. If you see them, buy them and gain some weight enjoying them. Unless you really hate salty sweets or are super, duper sensitive to soy powder flavor (though this really does taste peanut-buttery), I can't imagine these would  not be a hit. Like the white chocolate sembei, I can't believe these would not make an excellent souvenir if you're in Japan. Even fussy Western palates should find these quite tasty. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lotte Custard Cake and Choco Pie

The unusual source of these snacks. This is after my husband toppled two of them into the prize bin.

One of the great things about my husband starting to play claw games for the fun and challenge is that it encourages me to sample snacks for reasons other than they happen to be on store shelves. Last week, we were out for a late night stroll and stopped by the local game center. They had a display of Lotte cakes in one of the machines and he put in a few 100-yen coins and managed to topple two boxes of cakes into the prize bin. Yay! Double review fun!

When he started playing the game, I was mainly interested in the custard cake because I've had the Choco Pies plenty before. In fact, I'm sure they contributed to weight gain in my early years in Japan. The truth is that I hadn't had this version of a Choco Pie (there are so many versions of "choco pie" in Japan) for a very, very long time. It's the most visible and probably the most popular, and it's not really a pie at all except in the same fashion as a "moon pie" is a pie.

Both of these are about 6.5 cm. (2.5 in.) in diameter and about 2 cm. (.8 in.) tall. They're smallish cakes, but enough to satisfy as a snack. The custard cakes are slightly lighter, weight in at 27 grams (about 1 oz.) and only 122 calories. Choco Pies are 32 grams and 163 calories. The feel much heftier with their denser cream filling and generous layer of chocolate coating. The extra calories come from a higher fat content as shortening is the second ingredient for the Choco Pie (third for the Custard Cake, which boasts more sugar).

I sampled the Custard Cake first and the first bite carried a lot of the feel and taste of a cake preserved for long-term storage. If you've had a Twinkie or other packaged cake, you know that there is a particular flavor that sometimes comes along with such things. It's not offensive, but it's not natural and troubles some people. It doesn't really bother me, but those who are sensitive to such things may find these unpalatable for that reason alone.

The cake itself is, like many shelf stable Japanese cables, a bit dense and a little oily. The flavor is lightly sweet with vanilla, orange, and whipped cream flavors. The finish is very similar to that golden sponge cake which is the symbol for all that is nutritionally wrong in the world of packaged foods... the Twinkie, though it is not nearly as sugary and has a lot less filling than it's American cousin. The box touts the "fluffiness" of the filling, but a lot of it seems to be absorbed into the moist little cake. And keep in mind that this is "moist" from fat, not freshness. It's a very distinct difference. That being said, I liked this, but I'm judging it by a very particular standard. If you compare this to a real cake or even a fresh packaged pastry (like a Lawson Swiss cake roll), it falls short. If you compare it to something which you can put in the cupboard or your desk drawer and forget about for weeks or even months and indulge in in moments when you want a bite of cake, this is actually quite good.

The Choco Pie is similarly being held to the same standard and also comes out on top. The cake is denser and the filling thick enough to provide fatty pleasantness on the tongue. There are distinct layers of taste for each component of the pie. The chocolate of the coating, the vanilla of the creamy filling and the floury cakey portion. This places it above and beyond the knock-off choco pie that I reviewed awhile back. While that had a pleasant graham cracker thing, it didn't have as much strong flavor as this nor as good a depth of flavor. This is absolutely a superior product compared to that one, but these tend to cost a bit more as well. Though I got these two boxes for 200 yen ($2.60) due to my husband's gaming skills, the retail price is generally between 250-300 yen ($3.25-$3.90) per box according to Rakuten and Amazon Japan (which sell them in 5 box lots). I've seen them in shops for 270 yen or so. The cheapie knock-off version is a mere 100 yen ($1.30), but I'd say these are worth the increased price.

If you're a fan of packaged long shelf-life cakes to toss into a lunch box, put in your backpack for a hike, or keep around for the occasional sugar-high, I think these are very good options. If you're fussy about your cakes and would rather have nothing if you can't have fresh, high quality cake, then these aren't likely to light your fire. For those who were fans of Hostess snack cakes back home, this is probably the closest you're going to come to a similar product in Japan. I liked these, and if the mood struck me, I'd have them again. For what they are (junk food), they're pretty good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Random Picture #94

Peacock "lucky bags". They're stapled shut, but the notion of there being a surprise was rather undermined by the neighboring display. 

Last year, my husband and I went a little crazy and bought three "lucky bags" (fukubukuro). For the two or three people who haven't heard me prattle about these before, they are grab bags that are sold around the new year which include a variety of items that (supposedly) have a value that exceeds the total cost of the bag. It took us over 6 months to get through most of the stuff we bought, and that was with me giving away some of it to one of my students. This year, we decided to exercise great caution in such purchases so that we wouldn't be faced with months and months of food to eat up (or throw out). 

Fortunately for us, one of our previous suppliers of fukubukuro, Peacock supermarket, obliged us by revealing the contents of their lucky bags before purchase. This year was rather a contrast to last year in which there were some actual food items in the bag like coffee, tea, soy sauce, seaweed and egg drop soup because it mainly contains snacks. I wasn't able to dig through the entire bag, but it was heavy on the salted snacks and sweets including cookies, (European imported!) sugar wafers, castella cake, at least two kinds of sembei, salted shrimp snacks, (imported) potato sticks, and karinto (crispy, lightly sweet, fried brown sugar snacks that are very popular in Japan). The cost of the bag, 2000 yen/$26, is not incredibly high, but I'm not sure that the contents represent a great deal of value for the money, particularly if every single items is not of interest. Still, I think it is a nice assortment, but we passed on it. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tirol Premium Ichigo Daifuku Chocolate

Ichigo (strawberry) daifuku is one of the most popular Japanese traditional sweets. When my husband and I were doing one of our day trips to a random unimportant train station, we ran across a shop that was lovingly hand-crafting them behind a window in Nishi-Ogikubo. Daifuku is a bit of pounded rice cake (like very soft taffy in texture, but bland in taste) which is filled with sweetened mashed beans in most cases, but sometimes contains other things (like mashed chestnut). The classic strawberry daifuku has a thin layer of mochi filled with beans and a whole fresh strawberry pressed into the center of it.

I think the bit of fresh fruit is quite appealing to many Japanese folks, but I'll be honest and say that I like everything but the strawberry. There's a real jarring experience when you eat a daifuku and run into a squishy, juicy strawberry in the middle (fresh, but often not quite fresh enough). I love real strawberries and I love daifuku, but just not the two together. However, I was curious to see how Tirol would represent this treat in their candy.

This smells like fake strawberry and the first bite tasted like disappointment. It had that soft, white chocolate thing going for it, but fortunately it was not too incredibly sweet. The main problem is that the strawberry was muted to the point of being a background flavor for all but the last of 4 tiny bites (at which point the accumulated flavor kicked in) and the kick of the tartness of a real strawberry. The second and third bites revealed some of the daifuku aspects. There was definitely a bit of a mochi thing going on which came to the forefront by the end. Frankly, it was reminiscent of balls of hot mochi floating in soup rather than the cold mochi used in daifuku. While I wasn't entirely happy with the soft white chocolate, I did like the textural contrast of the gummi center and the "mochi" portion. It made this slightly chewy.

Real ichigo daifuku doesn't taste anything like this. That is, in part, because the real deal includes a generous amount of red beans and the aforementioned real strawberry. There was nothing beany about this. It was fake strawberry and some sweetness mixed with a bit of mochi flavoring. It had adequate depth of flavor and texture variation, but it was all a little too little too late because it took so long to build up on the tongue that it was finished by the time the flavors poked their  heads through.

I'm torn about recommending this because I didn't think it was all that great. On the other hand, it was "interesting" and these candies are only 20 yen for a smallish square (and only 60 calories). If you see one, the "costs" of sampling it for the experience alone are very low and it's worth it just to try. However, if you want to have something you're likely to be bowled over by, I'd say give it a pass. It's not bad at all. It's simply just not that good.