Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Random Picture #137

Click this picture to load a bigger one. Picture courtesy of BlogD (used with permission).

Americans are always whining about the Christmas creep, and I have literally seen it as Halloween approaches. At the local Walgreens drug store, the Halloween candy is literally framed by large quantities of Christmas candy and decorations that seem to waiting for the moment when they can drop down like red and green ninjas into the space vacated by ghost-, vampire-, pumpkin- and witch-themed bags of treats. It looks like they literally cannot stand the wait.

The picture above, if you can read a bit of Japanese, makes it clear that America isn't the only place that gets ahead of the game on such things. If you look in the lower right hand corner of the window, you can see a poster of a model in a Santa hat holding a bucket of Christmas fried foodstuffs. This picture was taken in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, on October 21 by my brother-in-law. 

Though I personally am not troubled by Christmas creep, I think this one is a more defensible one even among those who find it annoying. KFC has to fulfill a lot of orders for the Japanese traditional dinner experience and the earlier they know what to expect the better. What is more, their ability to fill them in a timely fashion is limited and customers may actually appreciate the chance to get in at the head of the line as early as possible. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Morinaga Coffee Caramels

My brother-in-law is not a coffee drinker. For some, that sounds suspiciously like a form of heresy. For others, that makes complete sense as not everyone goes for what the Tick referred to as "that bitter black urine." He, my brother-in-law, not the Tick (because, oddly, I don't have conversations with fictional characters about coffee... about other matters, perhaps, but that is between me and my psychotropic medication), says that he thinks coffee smells good, but he doesn't like the taste. Of course, Starbucks endeavors to fix that problem for most people by creating blended drinks full of milk and sugar that mask the flavor of the elixir of wakefulness and expand our waistlines. 

When I approach anything coffee-flavored, I think about the appeal from two sides. First, how will "real" coffee drinkers (the kind with hair on their chests and shaking hands) feel about it? Second, how will coffee wusses feel about it? With this caramel, I'm pretty sure hardcore coffee fiends will be left in the dust. It's coffee flavored, no doubt, but it's mellow, sweet, milky, and delectably buttery. One thing I can say about Morinaga's large line of caramels is they never skimp on the fat. That being said, it may distress some to know that the primary ingredient is corn syrup followed by sweetened condensed powdered milk, more powdered milk, and then vegetable oil. It's only late in the list that things like "coffee" and "butter" show up.

However, this isn't about food purity. It's about taste and texture and Morinaga generally does a very good job turning out a smooth and tasty blob of sticky goodness. Sometimes they fail on the flavor front, but this is not one of those times. If you like lattes, frappucinos, or other sweet coffee beverages and aren't going for a pure coffee experience, these should be in your pocket for a sweet fix. If you're the kind of person for whom black is the only acceptable color for your coffee, you'll probably be disappointed in the coffee flavor intensity, but still enjoy the fatty richness and sweetness on the whole. 

I got this candy courtesy of Sakura Box (that means "free") as part of their "monthly candy bag" which I reviewed the Friday before last. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fujiya Halloween Goodies (product info.)

Click to load the full-sized version. All images are from Fujiya's web site.

When it comes to Halloween, Japan churns out all of the adorableness without any of the pesky trick or treat aspects. No one will come to your door and beg for candy. No one will egg your house or toilet paper your bushes, but you can still go out and find some of the most kawaii (cute) Halloween kit in the world. I've been keeping an eye on such things, while the rest of the world has been preoccupied with Burger King's pumpkin and black burgers. I'm probably jaded, but the thrill of, "oh, look, Burger King has piled some new weird crap on a burger," doesn't thrill me like it once did. It's not like every other country doesn't do the same thing, but somehow Japan seems to be a stronger focal point for such attention. A Belgian fast food place made a black burger to tie in with Star Wars, and the world's blogs weren't wetting their pants over it. I guess black food dye is less exciting than squid ink.

Before I get into talking about all of the nifty stuff that Fujiya is selling at present, I'd like to mention that this is a holiday which the Japanese are slowly transforming into one of their own. Instead of kids going door-to-door and pestering their neighbors, something which is really outside of their cultural norms, they are increasingly setting up a holiday in which kids can go to the shopping streets (shotengai) and get goodies from participating merchants. This provides a promotional opportunity as well as ensures that not innocent people are bothered by strangely dressed children in their genkan.

As for the Fujiya offerings, most of it is the same sort of deal that other snack makers are doing. That is, they offer the same basic foodstuffs, but wrapped in a Halloween motif. The difference with Fujiya is that their packaging is going an extra mile in some cases. It's not only a Halloween design on the plastic bag, at least in some cases. Some of it has nifty keepsakes which would make adorable souvenirs of Japan or lasting decorations to add to ones collection of plastic skulls and grave markers.

One of the coolest of such items is a Halloween bandana that encloses "Milky" candies. Fujiya recommends you use it to wrap gifts (like a furoshiki) or even use it as a napkin. The candy really isn't the best. I felt rather indifferent about it as it seemed like any old taffy-style candy, but I'd probably buy a bag of it just to get the cute bandana. This is 500 yen ($6.26), and yes, I realize that sounds expensive for a printed piece of fabric and a bag of taffy.

The Peko pumpkin, which is a little tin sphere which has Peko chan's face on it on one side and a jack-o-lantern on the other, is probably one of the least imaginative options, but I find the styling of the faces uniquely Japanese. The pumpkin face is so cute and joyful that you know that it had to have originated in a country in which people don't find being  happy to be uncool.

There is also a pretty cute mug that you can buy "purin" (pudding/flan) in. When I was living in Japan, the one thing I never had a shortage of was coffee cups. People seem to think that I'm clumsily breaking them right and left or they were utterly lacking in imagination and lazily just kept plying me with mugs. Even Peko Chan kitted out as a cute witch with a lolling tongue wouldn't get me to purchase this, but I have to admit that I'd be tempted as it would be a really nifty souvenir. For 390 yen ($4.88), it's a little pricey for pudding, but the mug is earthenware and probably a shade nicer than 100-yen-shop finds.

Finally, among the items I'm spotlighting, these a pretty nifty tin. Inside of it are milky candies, Country Ma'am cookies, lollipops, and Heart chocolates. I'm not sure how big the pail is, but it'd make an adorable trick-or-treat tin for a small kid, provided that kid was more interested in looking cute than collecting tons of loot. If you happen to be in Japan as a tourist right now, and this is actually a good time to be in Tokyo because the weather would have finally mellowed out from the hideous summer, these things would be much better than your average crap in the airport as souvenirs to take home.

For those who are interested in a cute wallpaper of Peko chan made up in a Halloween motif, you can download one in various sizes here. There are also seasonal calendar wallpapers on this page.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Random Picture #136

Both photos courtesy of BlogD (used with permission). 

It's nice to see that the Japanese merchants are really getting into the spirit of the season. That's the spirit of selling more stuff to people, of course. These are kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) cream bread which were on sale in Ikebukuro. The face is a chocolate cookie mixture, probably similar to the coating on melon pan. The bread is pumpkin flavored and inside is custard cream. I'd be happy to sample these if I were in Tokyo if it weren't for the fact that they look like a family that didn't look like cream bread created close enough to  Fukushima's nuclear plant to create some unfortunate results. These are actually very unusual in that they are rather sloppily made for a Japanese bakery. Usually, they're  more meticulous than this.

The cheesecakes in this picture are much closer to what one would expect from a Japanese bakery. They are "rare cheesecakes" (like New York style, except lighter, as opposed to baked cheesecake) and the stenciling is pretty perfect looking. Despite having pumpkins on them, they aren't pumpkin flavored, though those are mini pumpkin pies down below. I wonder if those pies are Japanese pumpkin (kabocha) or American. Yes, the taste is very different. I wouldn't buy one though as 845 yen ($10.65) is far too expensive for a tiny pie.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Kanro Iyokan Gummy Candy

When I was growing up, there were basically two types of oranges in my life, navels and tangerines. Of course, there were more types of oranges around, but I was a kid and I didn't care. In fact, I didn't even like oranges until I went to Japan and found that their citrus was sweeter and tastier than what I had grown up with. In the winter in Tokyo, there were the working class little gems that we all know and love, mikan. Buying a big bag of those and getting them eaten before they started to dry out was a challenge my husband and I were happy to meet. My students never had any problems. Some people told me they'd sit down and eat 6 or so at one sitting. One middle-aged lady grabbed the spare tire at her mid-riff one day and told me that she had eaten an entire bag of them in one day.

Japanese citrus may begin with mikan, as they are cheap when in season and very accessible, but I discovered it didn't end there. Dekopon was the Cadillac of oranges for me and I hope one day to find the American equivalent here ("Sumo Citrus"). Nijiya supermarket is supposed to stock them, but I haven't found them yet and I'm not sure what their season is since their web site says that their 2012 season is over (whereas dekopon season is winter in Japan). I'm guessing that they will carry a luxury-car-size price when I finally do encounter them, especially since it seems fairly expensive markets stock them.

This candy is flavored like yet another type of Japanese citrus, iyokan. I had a few of these when I was still in Japan. Their main appeal is that they are fairly economical compared to other options. I think I used to get fairly decent sized ones for about 60 yen (76 cents) each at Seiyu supermarket, and found that, while serviceable, they did not fall within the range of fantastic citrus that dekopon did. Iyokan was the Volkswagon Beatle of the citrus world. I got what I paid for. It wasn't as sweet or flavorful, but I didn't pay about 150 yen ($1.89) for each one.

Hearts and stars. Next, it'll be moons and clovers.

Fortunately, what may not wow as fruit has greater potential as candy which can be augmented with sugar for sweetness and intensified by processing it. That is precisely what was done with these tangy, intense, and utterly delicious gummy candies. One bite tastes like a super juicy, sweet, but not too sweet orange. They have an excellent real citrus flavor which I imagine can be attributed to "iyokan concentrate" in the ingredient list as well as the wonderful tangy bite that comes from the coating of citric acid powder on the outside.

I loved these and would absolutely have them again. It helps that I enjoy the Pure line of gummies anyway (well, except the gross apple ginger ale one), which is odd since I don't really like other types of gummy candy. Note that the texture of these is a little tougher than some gummy candies, though it depends a lot on how warm they are. If you want to soften them up, put them in your pocket and sit on them for a little while. I wouldn't recommending microwaving them or anything. They'd probably catch on fire and I'm not going to be responsible for any stupidity induced accidents, so don't come crying to me if you burn your house down while attempting to impatiently warm these up. Getting back to the point though, this is absolutely one of the best of Kanro's Pure gummy flavors that I have ever had. I can't imagine that anyone who likes orange-flavored sweets would be disappointed in this, but, again, don't sue me if you don't like them. It's not like I'm issuing any guarantees here.

I got this candy courtesy of Sakura Box (that means "free") as part of their "monthly candy bag" which I reviewed last Friday. This is part of a new flavor line that Kanro is offering (along with cassis), so those in Japan ought to be able to pick it up for the time being at local shops. I imagine it won't be around as a staple flavor (like lemon or grape) though as it's a seasonal type of flavor. Get it while you can.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sakura Box Mixed Candy Bag (service review)

When I was still living in Japan, no small number of people contacted me about acquiring the snacks that I reviewed for them. Mostly, they wanted me to pick up some item of interest and mail it to them at cost, plus possibly a little something for my trouble. On the surface, this didn't sound like much effort. I was going to be out shopping anyway, after all, and how hard is it to throw something in a mailer or box and send it off in the mail? Well, it's a lot more trouble than you think.

During my first ten years in Japan, my husband and I sold collectible records, posters, and music-related memorabilia by mail order. I have copious experience with what it takes to run a mail order business and it is not simple. The fact that the internet as it currently exists was not around made it more complex as I had to create and mail out catalogs and sales sheets, but it is still troublesome in a variety of ways even with the ease that comes form online listings of ones products.

First of all, shopping for yourself is not the same as shopping for others or with the interests of the customer in mind. Second, finding, purchasing, and putting together packages takes a lot of time. Finally, it is no small feat hassling with the post office portion. All of this was a huge time sink hole for us and customers do not view your time as having any particular value and do not want to pay you for it. No, the customer looks only at two things - perceived value of item and the cost of postage. They don't think about the value of your time, cost of packaging (boxes, tape), or your profit margin.

Running a mail order business of any sort can be a thankless task, especially when poor handling causes damage to goods in transit despite ones best efforts to pack well. Customers used to complain bitterly about my "overcharging" on postage when my husband and I busted our behinds to charge as close to cost as humanly possible. For our business, which was high profit, low volume sales of very rare items, this was worthwhile until eBay created a new paradigm that dramatically lowered profit margins. For something like Japanese snacks, which are a low profit margin, potentially high volume item, well, I wasn't going to touch that with a 10-foot pole. Sakura Box, however, has decided that it's up to the task that I was not.

My focus on this review is on the service Sakura Box offers. I will review the items they sent me throughout several other reviews and note that they were provided courtesy of them. When I say "courtesy", I mean that I did not pay for what I was sent. That means that its up to my readers to determine the value of their service based on what I say here and what they see in pictures. As someone with access, though more limited now than in the past, to Japanese snacks, I cannot evaluate the value of the contents the same as those who may have zero access to such items. Europeans used to pony up handsome sums for the Japanese records my husband and I offered because they couldn't get them anywhere else. Those who lived in cities with well-stocked second-hand shops viewed our prices differently. Boy howdy, did some of my customers complain bitterly about prices while others expressed extreme gratitude for what they could buy. Value is a highly subjective thing.

Note that the postage on this is $5.35. I always note such things since people whined so much about the postage costs I charged them. Shipping from Sakura Box is included in the basic price (essentially, free shipping).

Before I get any further, let me talk a bit about what Sakura Box does. They offer a range of packages that result in the customer receiving a variety of a certain category of items. The item I received (gratis) was the monthly mixed candy bag. Each month, the selection is different, so you should get new surprises each time. They also offer a cookie box, bath salts, and a spa box. If you like something in the samples included in your boxes, there is the possibility of contacting them and getting more of it.

Perfectly packed in pink tissue paper. I envy this level of neatness.

My experience with my order started with my name being entered into the system like any other customer. I received a confirmation e-mail for the order followed by a shipping confirmation message. I liked that they were on the ball with this even though they are a small organization. It reflects a professional attitude. I've purchased from major companies who did not confirm my order or shipping even though they have access to automated software and more resources. Note that Sakura Box is ran by a couple who are looking to provide access to Japanese things to those who can't get them.

Peeling back the paper.

The box was carefully and nicely packed with pink tissue paper and has a small hand-written card in it. Looking at the handwriting on the card made me smile because there is a particular way that Japanese women tend to write. I'm guessing they are taught this way to print when they are in school. It's always very neat and has a particular look to it. Seeing the card took me back to Japan in the best possible way.

Inside the box is, as promised, an assortment of small and medium-size goodies. All of them arrived in perfect condition despite the postal service's best effort to ding one side of their own packing box. It's hard to speak to the mix of candy included in terms of this review because it will change every month. One of the things about buying a surprise box is that, well, every time it is a surprise. I can say that parts of this were more welcome than others in terms of my personal tastes. For instance, I can buy enormous bite-size bags of Hi-Chew at Costco and am not the biggest fan of Hi-Chew anyway, so this would not be something I value. I was, however, delighted to see the Morinaga caramels, Pure gummy candies, and Choco Baby. I am quite interested to try the lemon and ramune pressed powder candies, but am rather so-so on the boxes of fruit gum and hard candies. Since this was my only experience with their assortment, I don't know if there was little chocolate included because of the hot weather or if they tend not to include chocolate because it doesn't travel well.

As a service, I see this as one akin to the "cheese/wine/fruit/cookie" of the month club sort of things. You essentially treat yourself to a surprise package. You don't have to buy every one every month once you purchase one, but Sakura Box will send an e-mail to let you know that a new one is going to be available and you can opt to order one if you please (but they won't automatically send one). As someone who declined to be a personal shopper for those who wanted Japanese snacks, I appreciate the effort that has to go into providing this service and think that those who love all things Japan yet have no access may find this a very useful, and frankly, fun, option.

For me personally, frankly, I would not avail myself of it, though I do love the idea of a surprise package of Japanese goodies. There's something about not making the choices yourself which makes it feel like a gift rather than an order. There are several reasons why I am unlikely to buy a monthly candy box. The primary one is that this is not all "new" to me. I lived in Japan for 23 years and have written this blog for over 3 years and have gone out of my way to try new things. The chances that Sakura Box can provide someone like me with sufficient novelty is quite low. About half of the items are ones I've already had from my experiences in Japan (though only one was reviewed here). Second, I am fortunate that I live in an area with ample access to Japanese markets and live close to Daiso Japan and Nijiya Japanese market. Finally, I have contacts in Japan who could send me whatever I want whenever I wanted. Not everyone is so lucky as me.

I simply am not the proper audience for this service. I'm a very, very unusual audience. My readers, however, who sometimes asked me to shop for them when I lived in Japan, may find it of far greater utility. Certainly the service is excellent. They communicate well, pack well, and I received my box very, very quickly. The only question those who want to use the service have to ask themselves is whether they value the experience enough to pay $22.50 for the given selection, and that's a question for each particular individual to ask and answer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Random Picture #135

This is the first Halloween I've spent in America in over two decades, and I find that I miss the limited displays in Japan. Fortunately, my brother-in-law still lives in Tokyo and graciously provided me with some pictures of the Halloween snacks in Japan. All of these pictures are courtesy of him, and his blog, BlogD

Tirol has been releasing a Halloween box which is always colorful and adorable. I reviewed one awhile back, and the above is their current offering. The same cute little graphics are used on the box, albeit in a different layout. The box I bought had a little pop-up display on the front. This one seems to have some cat-style mask pieces on the back which will transform you from a cute little girl into a cute little girl wearing a few pieces of cardboard on her face.

This display of Meiji chocolate bars (note that Meiji has adopted the t.s. eliot way of spelling proper nouns) amused me because the pumpkin is wearing an Apollo candy on its head as part of the design. I thought that was a cute bit of product advertising that was quite subtle, though I think it would have worked a little better if they had stacked boxes of Apollo in there instead of plain chocolate bars. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Kinjo Imo Yokan

Part of the unwritten "mission" of this blog is to allow people who encounter what appears to be odd Japanese snacks to understand what they're buying. Another part is for me to just have an outlet to prattle on about and try and be creative about something which is, at its core, pretty mundane (talking about food). Sometimes I succeed at one or both of these, and at others, well, I just phone it in because I'm only making like 10 cents a post here from my ads and I can't always bust my brain pan for you people... not that I wouldn't like to, but sometimes life is rather busy and sometimes I'm rather lazy.

Yokan is definitely one of those mysteries to the average tourist or newcomer. The history of this sweet is mentioned on Wikipedia, but essentially it's one of those things the Japanese ripped off from another country (in this case, China), and then gets credit for inventing. This is like "Japanese cheesecake", castella, chitose ame, and "Japanese bread (shoku pan)". I thought this might have been some sort of effort to preserve food, but it's actually a variation on a Chinese treat made from boiled sheep. Yum. Yum. I'm glad that Buddhists decided it would better to thicken things with agar agar and red bean paste and let the poor sheep alone.

I found this, alone with many other yokan options, at Daiso Japan, but this is an extremely popular and easy to find treat in Japan as well as Nijiya Japanese markets in the U.S. It is cheap (only $1.50) and keeps for quite awhile. In the summer, it's nice if  you eat it chilled, but I generally think the flavor is better at room temperature.

This doesn't really smell like sweet potato, but it does have a distinct aroma which is hard to put ones finger on. It smells like something sweet, like sugar that has been cooked for a long time, but without any strong notes of a particular scent. The flavor is like red bean paste mixed with sweet potato that has just reached an intensity before it becomes overbearing and settled at the furthest point before it becomes unpalatable. It's intense, but not in a bad way. Unsurprisingly, because the second and third ingredients respectively are sugar and corn syrup, it's quite sweet, but not cloying. This isn't meant to be wolfed down. The whole 4.8 oz./130 gram bar is supposed to be two and a half servings (a whopping 170 calories per serving), after all.

The real star for me of this is the texture. It is firm, but smooth, and has just a bit of grain from the beans. It's like gelatin, but without the slippery, slickness of it and with more flavor depth and just enough texture to give it heft. I wouldn't be surprised if part of the process of making this was to finely filter it such that very little that hasn't been pureed into smithereens didn't get through.

I loved this, but then I love both bean paste and sweet potato. That being said, this is far from the "beaniest" treat that one can have in Japan and is very accessible to those who hate anko. It's a good gateway experience for those who think the whole idea of sweet bean paste is gag-inducing, at least if they like sweet potato. The texture is like the inside of a jelly bean, and that can't be wrong, can it? I'd definitely buy this again.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Meiji "Hello Panda" Cookies (Chocolate)

In my other blog, I've mentioned that any time I said that I liked some aspect of living in Japan, my students would say "thank you", as if they had just been personally complimented. This always struck me as weird because I never expressed gratitude when someone said they'd gone to McDonald's and had a hot dog for breakfast (which is something you can do in Japan). My students often expressed surprise when I said many Americans were quite fond of Japanese culture. I'm not sure how any of them, considering that most had been to the U.S. at least once, if not more times, could miss the fact that "Hello Kitty" is plastered everywhere. Even Stanford University's clothing store has Kitty-chan shirts emblazoned with their name placed up front and center in their tony shop at the Stanford Shopping Center.

Though I knew many people who are not Japanese are very interested in things that are, I didn't know the level of cultural penetration. When I was here 23 years ago, things like Hi-Chew, Pocky and these Hello Panda cookies were not readily available on store shelves nearly everywhere that white people shop for bargains. I say, "white people", because they generally aren't on sale in ethnic markets, unless, of course, those markets are Japanese. However, I'm not saying people who are not white don't shop at places like Wal-Mart, but most of them are smart enough (or scared enough) to pursue similarly cheap, but more interesting avenues of material acquisition. All of the incredible Hispanic markets in the area I'm currently living in lead me to think that is so.

"Hello Panda" is one of the most common offerings from a Japanese snack maker so it should be readily available to most of my readers. You can buy them online from a variety of outlets including Cost Plus World Market, The Asian Food Grocer, and Amazon. I found this box for $1 (78 yen) at Target, but I could also get them for $1.50 (117 yen) at the Daiso Japan. I wanted to sample these not only because they are so accessible, but also because they so closely resemble, at least superficially, the "Koala's March" cookies (from Lotte) in Japan. In fact, I think the product design and name are a fusion of ripping off "Hello Kitty" and the next available adorable bear character after the koala. Meiji clearly employed some solid marketers who figured out the best way to steal both Lotte's and Sanrio's media thunder by adding a whiff of familiarity to the product, or just had some people who so lacking in creativity they just cobbled this name together over beers at their weekly nomikai.

In Japan, I had tried several varieties of Koala's March, though I didn't review most of them. I tried sweet potato, vanilla, and chocolate and the result was always the same, a very thin bland crispy external shell with tooth-achingly sweet solid cream filling that was like fresh-tasting dried out frosting. I never took to the brand because it was just too sweet for me. I wondered if these cookies were going to ape that flavor as well as the general look of the cookies.

A sniff reveals a general chocolaty aroma. A bite showed me that the shells on these are much thicker than the ones on Koala's March. That means there is also less chocolate filling inside. The flavor profile is very different from the aforementioned cookie with the eucalyptus leaf eaters on them. These taste much more "biscuit/cookie-like" whereas Koala's March are nearly candy. The chocolate flavor is relatively subdued compared to the crispy cookie exterior. The closest flavor approximation is a Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookie, though you can get more of a sense of the chocolate if you have the tongue and teeth dexterity to manage to get the soft chocolate cream filling spread directly on your taste buds. It's a bit of a trick, but rather worth it because of the rich fatty texture of the filling.

I liked these quite a bit. They're not the pinnacle of cookie experiences, but the cookie flavor was nice and they aren't painfully sweet like Koala's March. I regard it as rather ironic that a similar product designed for the U.S. market is actually less sweet than the Japanese equivalent (note: I never saw this sold in Japan by Meiji). Despite the Japanese insistence that they aren't sugar fanatics, there are plenty of foods that are sweeter in Japan than they are here (especially the salted snacks!). Though these aren't as sugary, they are just as fattening as Koala's March. The whole box, 60 grams, is 320 calories and each cookie is about 16 calories. It's a little too easy to pop them in your mouth like popcorn and eat a lot at once. However, if you can keep it together, they're a nice little treat for a quick sweet fix.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Random Picture #134

There's a huge snack shop in the Ameyokocho shopping district in Ueno, Tokyo that is so dizzying in its vastness (both because it has two stores and two floors) that I couldn't drink it all in when I went there. It not only carries a plethora of imports, but also about every sort of Japanese manju (traditional sweet) that one might imagine. The shop is called "Niki no Kashi" and is well worth a visit if you find yourself visiting Tokyo.

On the occasion that my husband and I visited, the big challenge was always to choose from among the huge variety of options at hand such that we could actually consume what we purchased before said foods acquired house guests (of the bacterial or insect variety). Since things are relatively cheap there, it's that much harder to walk away. The banana manju pictured above was a tricky one because my husband likes all things banana and it has a dopey saying on the box. "It finished only using the delicious banana selected carefully. Please enjoy momentary tea time." I guess you wouldn't want your tea time to drag on too terribly long.

We didn't end up buying this because I'm not a huge fan of banana snacks, even if they are crafted with delicious and carefully selected fruit.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sanko Seika Kakimochi Sembei

One of the things which I have not had any sort of access to since coming to America is sembei (rice crackers). Yes, I can find rice crackers in shops that look like sembei, but I've discovered that they don't taste like it or have anywhere near the same texture or flavor depth. What little I've had has been too soft and lacking in snap and lightly dusted with flavoring on the outside. In other words, they are nothing like the richly flavored crackers I tended to experience in Japan. The adjective that comes to mind is "flaccid".

Fortunately for me, Nijiya Japanese markets carry real Japanese sembei. Yay! Unfortunately, they tend to be much more expensive than what I could buy in Tokyo and I cringe at the idea of paying 3x as much (or more) for a bag of rice crackers. Sure, I love them, but I also love Pop Chips and they essentially fill the same empty snack hole in my life. Salty stuff is salty stuff. Well, not quite, but for the price of one modest package of sembei, I can buy an enormous mega-party-size bag of barbecue Pop Chips at Costco. I can snack for a month or so on that, but I was starting to long for my old sembei experience.

Fortunately for me, these appeared to be on sale when I was at Nijiya. Instead of something in the $3-$4 range, these were about $2 (157 yen). This priced them pretty much at the same point as if I were at Inageya supermarket back home. There are 12 individually wrapped crackers, each is about the length of your palm and a little less than half the width. By the way, I used to give exact measurements, but someone wrote that I was too precise, so now I just try to give a visual approximation. That may still be too much information, but each is a single serving so it's important to know what you're getting. One cracker is 45 calories.

When you open the package, these smell like concentrated soy sauce and baked rice. Ah, smells like living in Japan and being given snacks at tea time by an office lady. The taste is a good blend of soy sauce, savory spices (chicken, mirin (sweet sake), sesame, bonito (fish flakes), etc.), and seaweed. On the surface, this isn't necessarily a mix to warm the cockles of my taste buds, but they come together in a savory melange of goodness. You can't really detect anything individually except the soy sauce and seaweed. The remainder forms a backdrop of rich flavor depth. Coupled with the super crispy cracker, this is a sublime experience.

It could be that my absence from such snacks has made my heart grow fonder. Scratch that. This is the sort of thing I'd completely take for granted if I were still living in Japan and experiencing it after so long an absence made it much more enjoyable. This really took me "home" to living in Tokyo again as it had a blend of flavors I'm unlikely to experience from any product that wasn't exclusively designed for the Japanese market. I'd certainly buy it again.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Noodle House Industrial Sesame Cookie Rolls

I love the name of the company that makes these. It seems slightly scary that a food is made by a company which has "industrial" as a part of its name. It reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons in which they go to Japan and the translation they use of various Japanese companies includes "concern" like "Osaka Fish Concern." It makes me wonder if the Chinese equivalent is "industrial".

My experiences with Chinese snacks is rather limited. It's not that I have little interest in them, but rather that, as someone who lived in Japan and operated based on what I could purchase there for many years, I didn't have many opportunities. The Japanese are in an intense rivalry with China and prefer to avoid supporting their businesses, but the food issue is related to perceptions of safety. There were several instances in which Chinese food was reported by the mass media as dangerously contaminated by chemicals, the most widely known of which concerned pot stickers or "gyoza". Businesses in Japan were unlikely to carry Chinese food as consumers didn't trust it based on such suspicions.

These cookies came to me courtesy of a guest who is of Chinese descent. She told me that they were her grandmother's favorites and that she picked them up at a Chinese bakery in San Francisco. The company that makes them makes noodles (surprise, surprise) and dried seafood as well as moon cakes, almond cookies, and other Chinese traditional sweets. Despite my best search efforts, I could not find an online seller of these cookies. However, there are sites which will allow you to inquire about buying them.

The cookies come in a large tin in order to protect their delicate nature. However, despite some plastic inserts for padding, they did tend to break up quite a bit from being transported. I didn't really mind the fact that they broke up a bit as these are very large cookie rolls. I'd guess each is about 5-6 inches long (12.7-15.2 cm). Eating a smaller piece isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The first thing you smell when opening the tin is the scent of coconut. The ingredients list is flour, butter, sugar, egg, sesame, coconut powder, and vanilla. Given that butter is second, it is no surprise that these have a buttery flavor, though the coconut element is the strongest. The sesame is actually eclipsed to a fair extent by the coconut, but it is still quite present. Because they are so fatty, they leave a slightly oily sense on the tongue after you eat one so it is best to have one with tea or a hot drink. They are very crumbly and have a delicate crispy texture which nearly melts in your mouth.

These are thoroughly enjoyable cookies and at 107 calories per large cookie, not too hard on the diet. However, I do think that the oily residue it leaves may be quite off-putting for some people. It didn't bother me, and I would be happy to buy a tin of these for myself some day if guests fail to bring me another one as a hostess gift. ;-)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Random Picture #133

One of the KitKats which I eyeballed but never bought was the "hojicha" KitKat. For those who don't want to dash off to the linked Wikipedia page, hojicha is roasted green tea (that's why it's brown). My main issue with it is that it is a regional KitKat that comes in a big box of minis and I hated to have to buy a large number of them just to sample one. These are designed, incidentally, to be purchased by traveling business people and brought back to the office as a souvenir snack. That's why the boxes contain 12 minis and you can't get them as regular bars or smaller boxes of minis. If I hate the flavors of these, I've wasted a lot of money. I didn't work in an office when I started this blog, and I didn't have anyone on whom to fob off unwanted candy. My husband certainly wouldn't have touched a tea-flavored KitKat with a 10-foot pole!

Beyond my sense that I didn't want to squander my hard-earned yen on a dozen untested KitKats, there was also the fact that my readers either know the taste of hojicha or they don't. While many have tasted conventional green tea, this variation is not so common. There wouldn't be a whole lot of meaning to saying whether it was authentic or not. What is more, there are other reviews out there of this KitKat, though they frankly rather suck in the way I was afraid my review would suck if I'd done one. That is, they say it captures the flavor well and is therefore tasty.

Some of those reviews also suck because they rave about how insanely rare these are because they're regional (Kyoto), but that's not exactly true. Yes, they are not sold on every convenience store shelf in Tokyo, but they are sold at major train stations (e.g., Shinjuku), Narita airport, and at the Odaiba souvenir shop in which my picture was taken, not to mention some snack shops in Ueno's Ameyokocho. The truth is that, if you are in Japan and really want a regional KitKat, you never have to actually go to that region. There is no such thing as a "very rare" KitKat, except those that were issued as limited editions and sucked so badly (I'm looking at you lemon ginger ale KitKat) that they will never ever show up again.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Tirol Summer Assortment

I'm fully cognizant of the fact that it is no longer summer, and that this bag showing sun, seagulls, and palm trees is incongruous with the cool breezes, dying leaves, and chilly air of autumn. Actually, with climate change, I'm not sure that we actually experience fall in that fashion anymore, but for the sake of argument, I will admit that I'm reviewing this seasonal variety pack rather late in the game. To be fair, I bought it recently at Nijiya market in San Jose, CA (it could not be had at the Mountain View branch) and this selection only recently vanished from Tirol's web site. I can't recall what I paid for it, but I think it was somewhere in the $3 (234 yen) range.

This was the sort of thing that I would not buy when I was living in Japan because it includes a very common flavor (nuts crunch), a reissue (mango) with one flavor of interest to me (coconut). Under those circumstances, I would not pop for a bag on non-premium Tirol chocolates. For those who don't know or remember, the Tirol brand is offered in two different sizes. One is a smaller square sold in 9 packs and the other is a larger (about 1 inch/2.54 cm.) size which is sold individually. The premium candies larger size means they are generally more sophisticated in construction with multiple layers of fillings. The non-premium ones, such as these, tend to be simpler as it's hard to layer in much in such a tiny presentation. In general, the variety packs lack the flavor depth and potential of the premium candies. 

The strange thing is though that I thought I'd already sampled two out of three of these chocolates, but reviewing my backlog, I see that I had never tried any of them. I guess that's all for the better then. 

One has to wonder why peanuts wear bow ties around the world. Is this level of formality a genetic inclination?

Nuts Crunch:
I should note that I balk at writing "nuts" crunch instead of "nut crunch". The Japanese generally don't accept or follow the conventions in English in which you do not use a plural when a noun modifies another noun. That's why they say "peanuts butter" instead of "peanut butter". However, the words are written on the package in such a way that I can hardly deny them, so don't come around telling me that I've adapted crappy English as a result of my time in Japan. My English may be crappy, but it's all on my shoddy editing skills, not absorbing Japanese-English. 

Now that we've got that straight, let me say that this is a very tasty peanut and chocolate combination. It is crunchy, but I think the reason it tastes better than some others is that the peanuts were fried prior to having their fragments embedded in milk chocolate. There's a rich roasted quality to the nuts which makes the flavor profile better even with an extremely small portion in the candy. Incidentally, I intentionally photographed this chocolate upside-down so that the uneven distribution is easy to see. I loved this, and if I could buy a big bag of these alone, I certainly would.

This smelled nicely fruity with a slightly perfume-like edge. The outer white chocolate is very, very sweet and quite soft. The jelly inside is also soft and has a zesty edge to it which helps cut through the sweet outer coating to some extent. The flavor is like a really rich mango puree mixed with a bit of powdered sugar. As a small bite, it's really enjoyable, but I think that one small candy would definitely be the limit. Any more than that at once and it's just going to overwhelm one with sweetness.

The coconut scent on this is quite intoxicating and I was encouraged by the fact that it had a dark chocolate coating. I can't think of any reason why dark chocolate should pair better, but it's possible that years of seeing "Mounds" bars made me believe this was the proper presentation. Unlike the aforementioned bar, the coconut filling in this is not too sweet and the bittersweet chocolate cuts through what sweetness there is for two complimentary flavors. That being said, I ate this in two bites and it seemed rather intensely bittersweet by the end of the second bite. I liked this, but I wouldn't go out of my way to eat a lot of them.

I like the Tirol concept of mixing flavors in small portions and the fact that the flavors are often pronounced with balanced sweetness. I don't like the fact that the chocolate is often quite soft and that was the case with these. I prefer chocolate with a greater snap to it. That being said, as small bites of chocolate to satisfy a craving, I don't think one can go wrong with these. The flavors are strong without being overbearing and you really do feel that one chocolate is "enough."