Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Random Picture #147

Recently, my husband and I ran across an enormous heart-shaped box of chocolates in Safeway Supermarket. It was about as big as his chest and he held it in front of him and I took a picture of it to show our friends back in Japan. The idea was to illustrate this ridiculously huge novelty box with a little over 2 lbs. (a little under a kilogram) of low quality chocolate in it.

The reason that it's such a good shot to show Japanese folks is that novelty containers of any appreciable size are not especially common due to the smaller dwellings. Tirol will make a few novelty boxes, but they are small and generally made to be immediately disposed of when you get a tad bored with them. It's not only about storing the packaging, but it's also about finding the space in the trash to dispose of them. Trash cans in Japan aren't the behemoths that you see in the U.S., and you are obliged to break things down for recycling (and to wash them).

What is shown in this picture are two novelty containers for "jelly" confections. These are essentially shelf-stable gelatin (made with agar agar, a substance derived from seaweed) in fruit or yogurt and fruit flavors. I'm guessing the market these are designed for are parents or others buying gifts for children, but in Japan it's just as likely to be designed for office girls as you don't have to be a child to get your Hello Kitty on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Morinaga Dars Bitter Chocolate

The way in which our tastes develop is something I've expounded upon on multiple occasions. I do this because I get royally fatigued at the notion that the tastes of one nation are somehow more evolved than those of another. Since I spent 23 years in Japan, I had more than my share of dietary comparisons based on the perceived American diet (burgers, shakes, fries, Coke, hot dogs, and pizza) and the perceived Japanese one (sushi, rice, miso soup, fish, vegetables). 

The reality of the former is that it's not as dire and destructive as people think and that of the latter is that it's not nearly the nutritional Superman that people seem to think it is. The truth rests somewhere in the middle, of course, and any individual's diet will vary. I know that I had to say again and again to my students that, NO, I do not like hamburgers or steak, and, NO, I do not eat fast food. I hate fast food. The truth is that I didn't grow up eating fast food since my family was so poor. That was back in the old days when fast food actually cost more than food that was considered healthy.

Since I grew up with so little fast food, I never developed a strong taste for it. And, after all, as I've said far too many times before (and I'm sorry to bore my audience who deserves better), we like what we grew up with and what we become acclimated to. That's probably why some of my lovely readers will sample something I liked and hate it. My tastes got rewired in Japan to some extent.

When it comes to the training of the taste buds, the Japanese are much more acclimated to bitter flavors. I'm guessing this is because their cuisine incorporates more of them and this gets their palates accustomed to them earlier and with greater frequency than the average 'merkan. This is one way to explain the popularity of goya and various dishes prepared with it.

This also explains why Dars would release a "bitter" chocolate variety. I'm sampling it not because I like bitter flavors (as I'm a sissy American), but because it is Dars, the darling of the Japanese chocolate industry in my eyes. Frankly, as I've gotten older, I've also learned to enjoy darker chocolate and stronger flavors more. I'm guessing this is because of neurological diseases or wilting of my once perceptive taste buds or some such age-related decay. It's best to simply accept that you're going with grace and just be glad that you have a higher chance of enjoying food that you wouldn't have found palatable when you were young and full of yourself.

When I first tried this, I wasn't entirely keen, but the second round (delivered in two-square bursts) hit me a lot more favorably. The chocolate isn't intensely bitter, but it definitely has an edge to it and is a bit strong. It's not really proper dark chocolate, but it's closer to it than most consumer-level offerings of such. The main benefit, as is always the case with Dars, is its creamy, fatty nature which will unfold if you are patient enough to hold one of these little squares on your tongue and allow it to slowly melt. If you just gobble it down, well, then you're missing half of the reason to have these instead of some other dark chocolate.

I liked this because it was potent without being unpleasantly intense. There is just enough sweetness for a dark chocolate sissy like me to enjoy it and the texture, as always, was creamy when warmed in the mouth, but had a nice snap when I bit into it. Each square is about 20 calories, and you get 12 servings (Dars = doz, as in dozen). I paid about $2.20 for this at Nijiya Supermarket, and I think it was well worth it. If you're hardcore about dark chocolate, this probably won't do the trick for you and if you are strictly a milk chocolate devotee, this may also fall short. If you're somewhere in the middle, you can come join me on the bitter dark side of Dars. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Want Want Salad Sembei

Don't let the title of this post fool you into thinking I had double desire for these sembei. That's simply the name of the brand. It is actually quite familiar to me with it's logo of an excited young man in what appears to be an old-style professional wrestlers costume. I never saw this brand in Japan, but this particular sembei (that means "rice crackers", to those out there who are uninitiated in this lingo) is the product of an allegiance between a Japanese and a Chinese company.

The Japanese end of this alliance, which I recognize based on one corporate logo shaking hands with the other on the back of the pack, is Iwatsuka Seika. I reviewed quite a few of their sembei when I was living in Japan, and figured that seeing what the deal is with these was worth a dollar (90 yen). That's all I paid for them at Daiso Japan. That makes them cheaper than similar crackers in Japan. Unless they are the worst sembei ever (and even bad sembei tends to be pretty decent), they were almost certainly going to be worth a buck.

Before I get too far, I have to say that I wonder what the deal is with these. Iwatsuka already has its own line of crackers. Why would they produce these in cooperation with a Chinese company? The obvious answer is that making these in China is a lot cheaper than making them in Japan, but they have to keep the name of a Japanese company on them in order to waive away the food safety boogeyman that haunts every Japanese food consumer. That illustration of hands shaking is an assurance that a reputable Japanese company has the backs of the Japanese people. They're probably sending armies of managers to the factories and they're frowning in concentration as they oversea the underpaid foreign labor. Of course, I don't know if this is true, and you absolutely should not take my word for it, except for the boogeyman part. That's absolutely a fact.

Personally, I don't care where these were made or who made them. I only care about how they taste and play out in terms of texture. If they're crispy and light and enjoyably savory, it's not my problem if hundreds of managers from Iwatsuka develop permanent frown lines on their brows and around their mouths.

Incidentally, I have no idea why these are called "salad", but this flavor name is common in Japan. I've heard that it refers to salad oil, but I have no way of knowing if that is correct. It doesn't taste anything like any sort of salad, and the ingredients list does not include typical flavoring agents for any sort of salad I've ever had. It does include MSG, and rosemary extract as well as salt and pepper. There are other generic flavorings listed, and soy sauce is probably in there, but the truth is that these are not powerfully flavored rice crackers.

Not everything has to be powerful to be enjoyable, however. These carry the standard "baked rice" flavor as well as possess an crispy lightness. The flavor is extremely mild and what the Japanese and food snobs call "umami". It is rather generically savory as all of the included flavors merge into a melange which provides a clean and uncomplicated flavor profile. The crackers are wrapped individually as 2-packs and each is about 35 calories.

In the U.S., there are plenty of plain potato chips and someone must love them. I'm guessing that salad sembei is the equivalent of such chips in Japan. I liked these, but I didn't "love" them. They certainly filled the bill for a salty snack and especially did well toward taking me back to the flavors I associate with living in Japan. For the price, and sembei can be very expensive in the U.S., I'd be very happy to pick a bag of these up occasionally again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Random Picture #146

Click to load a larger image.

One of the things which was never in short supply when I lived in Tokyo were caramels. I reviewed quite a few, but, after awhile, well, there was only so much I could tolerate in the way of sweet sticky wads of candy intent on lifting out a few fillings.

The picture above is from a shop that specializes in goods from Hokkaido. It appears that, in addition to producing lots of dairy products, they make a lot of caramels. From left on the top row, there are: soup curry, meat, octopus, ramen, cassis, roast corn, and strawberry flavors. From left on the bottom row are: melon, melon soda, salted butter, corn, butter, sweet potato and potato. Is it any wonder Nestle decided weird candy flavors would suit the Japanese market?

From left: cocoa, milk, red bean, condensed milk, potato, strawberry, corn, butter, melon, kinako (toasted soybean flour). Image from Donan's web site.

This picture was taken just before I left Japan, and Donan, a maker in Hakodate, Hokkaido, of a great many caramels including those pictured here, has hanged its packaging. It's really sad because the new style, while consistent, is not nearly as interesting as the older styles. That being said, I'd totally buy the kinako flavor in its boring box if I were to find it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tokyo Regional Rum Raisin KitKat (and new releases)

Based on when I ran a contest to win a box of these particular KitKats and the timing on reviewing them, you might guess how high my level of enthusiasm is for them. Yes, I've had them around for weeks and only yesterday did I get around to breaking the seal on my box. It's not that I thought it was going to be bad or anything. I just didn't expect it to be particularly "good". I felt that the best I could hope for was that it would be "interesting" and not too disgustingly sweet. The question before me as I unwrapped a mini bar was whether or not Nestle Japan was going to manage to struggle over the very low bar that I was setting for this candy.

These smell vaguely fruity, which is slightly disturbing considering there is no sign of actual raisins in them. The bars are smooth white chocolate over nice, crispy wafers. The first thing that hits you is the very, very sweet white chocolate followed by the rum. The raisin comes through at the end on the initial taste, but builds in intensity as you eat more.

Since I don't drink alcohol, I don't know what rum tastes like. I asked my husband to try this. He took a bite, made a bad face, and said it was "too raisiny" and said essentially that it did not taste like rum to him. Personally, I think that rum raisin in general is one of the less approachable flavors, but that it can have its charms. Depending on the presentation, they can be like the guy everyone wants to talk to at the party, or the one that has people making excuses to escape to the bathroom or looking at their watch and talking about having to go home. This bar is somewhere in between. If this bar were the metaphorical equivalent of a guy at a party, I'd talk to this guy for a little while, but not for too terribly long. 

I got this box by asking my brother-in-law to pick it up at Narita airport on his way to visit family over the holidays. I was shocked to discover that it is being sold currently on Amazon for a pretty penny. You can procure it at less dear a price via J-Box. I caution those who may think this will be the most interesting thing since sliced bread that it mainly has novelty value. I expect to take months to eat twelve of these. It'll have to be one of those things where the spirit moves me for me to have one. It definitely would not satisfy an authentic chocolate craving, nor one for wafers. I don't regret asking my brother-in-law to pick it up, but mainly that's because I was keen to review it. I wouldn't buy it again.

And a few bits of news just for added fun:
Images from this point on are from Nestle Japan's web site.

Incidentally, Nestle Japan is currently marketing something they call a "KitKat chocolate lab". To the best of my ability to tell, Nestle has a deal where you can order a box of KitKats with a custom cover featuring a picture of your choice. You have to buy 10 boxes and each box has 3 mini bars. The price for this is very reasonable at 2310 yen ($25.66). In yen, that sounds a lot less expensive than it does in dollars.

This target for this isn't people who want their kids to appear on a box of candy. It is for people who want personalized favors such as those having weddings or special events. At 231 yen ($2.56) a box for what amounts to about half of what you get in a regular KitKat bar box for half that price, it is not good candy value for money, but it's rather nifty for a major brand to be a part of your personal event. I can't imagine people having the chance to customize a box of Snickers bars, for example. 

Nestle Japan seems to be shifting their marketing now from issuing a ton of weird KitKat flavors (which perhaps are not selling especially well) to packaging. In addition to the custom boxes in the aforementioned paragraphs, they are also releasing a box with a MOS Burger theme (available at the Japanese fast food joint, MOS burger) with a space to write a message, so perhaps these are meant to say, "I was picking up a fast food burger and I thought of you. Here's some consumer-level chocolate to express my feelings."

The red and white packaging.

Exam pack with messages imprinted on milk chocolate bars.

The "snake" packaging.

Picking over the Nestle Japan site, I could not find anything in the way of new flavors. There is a "red and white" bag of minis which has white and milk chocolate bars as well as an "exam pack" which has bars imprinted with encouraging messages for students preparing to take exams. Finally, there is a box with the Chinese year of the snake motif. It was directly targeted toward grandparents for distribution to their grandchildren at the New Year.

I'm wondering if, at least for a little while, the days of a plethora of funky KitKat flavors are over. I saw enough of the weird ones end up in massive bargain bins at snack discount shops like Okashi no Machioka to know that they probably did not sell all that well. Also, when novelty flavors are the norm, it's not surprising that the market loses interest. I know that I certainly lost interest as time went on. In terms of the cost to Nestle Japan, targeting markets based on packaging is probably a better idea. They can still hold the novelty market by focusing on regional flavors (which don't change often, and have appeal as they represent the flavors/foods of a particular area), but make most new releases target lifestyle rather than taste buds. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Variety Friday: The McDonald's 60-second campaign

There are a lot of characteristics which, in general, define the Japanese psyche. One of them is their appreciation and value of aesthetics. Often, it is the case that how something looks plays a major role in whether or not it will be purchased. I even complained about how sweets in Japan often look great, but taste less appealing because of this experience. This focus on aesthetics is why you get a lot of wrapping on some purchases and clerks will glacially slowly and painstakingly place things in bags and boxes for you.

There's also a certain expectation among the Japanese that they will get what they see. All of that plastic food outside of shops tends to be amazingly accurate representations of what you are served. Granted, McDonald's is not a "restaurant" in any true sense of the word, but even fast food in Japan tends to look similar to what is in pictures. Perhaps it's all a bit flatter and grayer, but it's not a sloppy mess. Things have apparently changed.

Another fairly well known attribute is patience. Japanese people line up and wait in long queues without pushing, shoving, or complaining. It's not that they are never in a hurry, but rather that they understand that sometimes there's no choice but to wait and the overwhelming majority do so with good grace and stoicism, if not gentle good humor.

Given these fairly well known and oft-displayed characteristics, I have to ask, "what was McDonald's Japan thinking" when they came up with the 60-second campaign. They even put a timer on the counter to allow customers to track the speed of delivery of their order in order to up the capacity to monitor employees. For those who haven't read about it, as of January 4, the golden arches in Japan promised to make your burger in a minute or less or they'd give you a coupon for a free burger (and everyone gets a free brewed coffee coupon). The internet is abuzz with stories of sloppy results and complaints from customers who would rather have things right than fast. 

Before anyone thinks this is a transference of American-style shoddy service to Japan, I'd like to point out that the Japanese run their own show in this regard. One of the reasons why it has been so successful despite offering Western-style cuisine is that the head honchos tend to do a pretty good job when it comes to tapering menu choices and marketing toward Japanese people. They retool the shakes so they are less sweet but fattier. They offer limited edition seasonal menu items that fit the ebb and flow of tastes in Japan (like sakura shakes in spring). The people in charge are not dumb. They know their market and generally make good choices. So, what is this all about?

Though I cannot know, I have some suspicions and they are based on the growth strategies that McDonald's Japan is emphasizing. One of their goals for the coming year is to create a "gold standard" for drive-through service and to optimize profits by focusing on larger operations. While I cannot know for certain, it's not too great of a leap in logic to believe that faster service is a part of both of these plans. McDonald's has been and plans to continue to strategically close smaller places and focus on larger ones. If you were going into such a big fast food joint and saw a long line, wouldn't you be more inclined to wait during your limited lunch hour if you had confidence that each customer could be served in a minute? You could literally count how long you'd have to wait. The same goes for the drive-through service. 

I think this campaign was about two things, and I'm pretty sure it isn't going to succeed on either front. One was training staff to push themselves to the limit on speed during peak service hours (note that the campaign operates between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, prime lunch hour range for most people). The other possible goal would be to create confidence in consumers that they would get served promptly and well during rush hours even if they were at a location that was somewhat swamped with customers. 

Besides focusing on the drive-through business and eliminating small stores in favor of larger ones, McDonald's plans on acquiring prime real estate in areas with a high commercial promise. It makes sense to assume that they hope to buy a good chunk of land in an area which has a high potential for massive numbers of customers and to erect large shops there. This makes fiscal sense because small places serving under-patronized areas can't be nearly as profitable. However, we all know that the little places tend to give better service, both in terms of quality and speed, because employees aren't harried and swamped. Once again, one can speculate that this campaign could work as a warm up for service at very large new locations. 

It's also possible that this is as stupid and ill-advised as it looks. Perhaps this is just a PR campaign which someone concocted for some quick attention without regard to the Japanese market's concerns or the insane pressure it would put on employees. It's also possible that the management bigwigs at McDonald's Japan are just too clever for the rest of this and they  have an ace up their sleeve that will pull all of this together into a happy ending. I guess time will tell. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Random Picture #145

One of my biggest whining points in Japan was that the delis always sort of, well, both sucked and blew. There were two kinds of delis available, in general. There were supermarket ones which tended to focus mainly on deep-fried and breaded items (pork, chicken, tempura, croquettes) that could encourage plaque to form on your arteries with a mere glance in their direction and items heavily bathed in mayonnaise (potato, corn, and pasta salads). They tended to be the sort of things people used for bento lunches. Rice was made at home, a few ornamental flourishes like a half a strawberry or a random carrot slice were used as garnishes, and one of those fried monstrosities took center stage. These delis served a certain purpose, but they never did a thing for me as an avowed hater of fried food. That's right. I even dislike French fries.

The other sort of deli was the kind that were in department stores. They often featured a much classier and interesting mix of items. The picture above is a display case at one particular section. You can see that there are bits of grilled corn, bacon-wrapped asparagus, yakitori, and, of course, some deep-fried and breaded crap on a stick. The main problem with department store delis was not the quality or even the nutrition, but the prices. One skewer of asparagus with bacon is 178 yen ($1.99) That's pretty pricey for less than one spear with about half a slice of bacon cuddling it. The corn is even more dearly priced at 221 yen ($2.47) for about half an ear of corn on a stick. Of course, the other smaller issue was that this food was cold. That works fine for sandwiches, but if you're looking for food on the run from a deli with no microwave handy (and there was not at department stores), you were out of luck. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tochinomi Daifuku (chestnut and red bean)

People have been telling me about various "Japan Towns" since I returned to the U.S. I'm not sure what I expected when I heard about such areas, but it really was not what I experienced. I guess that I expect "Japan Town" to feel like, well, Japan. That doesn't mean I expect that Japanese people will be milling about, staring at their phones like zombies and gawking at the white girl with piles of red-blonde hair. The truth is that, I am not sure what was missing, but I think that the atmosphere created by the crowds, cramped spaces, the frenetic activity of employees trying to look like they're performing their tasks perfectly, the constant cleaning and tidying, and the conversations in Japanese.

I've been to two "Japan Towns" since coming back home. The first was in San Jose, and I had the misfortune to go there on a Monday when, apparently, it is mainly shut down. This was a big disappointment because one of the reasons I went there was to visit their traditional sweets shop, Shuei-do. I'm not sure, but they appear to have vanished from the Japan Town web site and may have gone out of business. All I know is that the Japan Town in San Jose was so tiny that I haven't been motivated to go back on another day.

The other Japan Town that I went to recently was in San Francisco, and it has more to offer, but is still largely just a shopping arcade plus a few other shops located near the Peace Pagoda. It is definitely more interesting than the San Jose equivalent, but not as much as I'd hoped. I think I simply expect too much. As an oasis of "Japan-ness" in the U.S., it's actually pretty good. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants, several Japanese stores including a bigger, nicer Daiso than the one I frequent, a gaming arcade, and some sweets and grocery stores. However, it's all pretty streamlined. You don't get much of a real ethnic feel from it. There aren't little grubby mom and pop shops for the most part (as I hear you may experience in China Town). Of course, the Japanese aren't exactly known for doing "grubby". 

The best part for me was Benkyodo, a place selling hand-made Japanese sweets, and Nippon-ya. Nippon-ya is where I procured today's snack for review. The latter offers boxed sweets which are pretty much the same as those sold in train stations, the airport, and souvenir shops around Tokyo. It is the sort of thing I thought I'd never encounter after leaving Japan. I was a kid in a Japanese candy store when I say stacks of gift-wrapped boxes of sweets topped by the usual plastic display of samples with cutaways to show you what was inside.

There were so many options and I wanted to buy them all, but I can't really justify doing so when I am the only one who is likely to consume the contents. The prices were in the $9-$10 range for boxes with 16-24 pieces. This is incredibly reasonable and in line with the average prices in Japan. Most of the time, these cost about 1000 yen ($11.21) per box in Japan, often more than that. Someone on Yelp said that they felt these were "expensive", and they may appear to be so by U.S. standards, but I was more than happy to fork over $9.25 for a box of 20 small daifuku.

I agonized about what flavor to buy since there were many that looked appealing, but ultimately went for chestnut since it is one of my seasonal favorite. I figure the fruit flavors are likely to stick around until spring or summer, and this will vanish with the cold weather. The display promised chestnut bits in red bean paste with a hint of caramel. As you can see from the cutaway above, there aren't any chestnut bits to speak of in the one that is shown here. This was the third one I ate, and I haven't found any pieces in any of them. 

The flavor balance is definitely heavy on the mochi and red bean side and there is absolutely a hint of caramel. The chestnut flavor is very subtle, and you actually have to be looking for it. Overall, the flavor profile is not intense, but tends to settle in slowly. These are sweet enough without going overboard. I only wish there was a stronger chestnut component. The ingredients list starts with "sugar", followed by rice, and red bean and only then does it get to chestnut followed by emulsifiers and caramel. You can see what it's not so big with the chestnut. 

The main reason for selecting daifuku in my opinion is the interplay of textures, not so much the strength of the flavors. The soft chewy pillow of mochi contrasts with the smooth paste inside. This is light on the filling, but the mochi is fresh and soft. It's definitely very much on par with relatively shelf stable mochi in Tokyo. When I say "relatively shelf stable", I mean that there's an expiration date in a few months, not next year. This one expires on March 2, 2013. 

I like these, but I can't say that I adore them. I have no regrets about buying them and will enjoy eating them slowly but surely. They absolutely remind me of some of the Japanese sweets I purchased in Japan in that not every one was exactly what I wanted it to be, but they all tended to be decent enough. The main failing in these is not enough filling and not enough chestnut. They're good, but they could have, in my estimation, "should have", been better.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Reber Mozart Marzipan Mozart Bar

I spent last Thanksgiving having dinner with my sister-in-law, her family, and their friends. For dessert, my husband's aunt brought a beautifully crafted and incredibly expensive cake from Dean & Deluca. It's the sort of thing that I could only ever consume under one of two situations. The first one was that I experienced during the holiday. That is, someone who makes a lot more money than me offered it as a gift to a group of people I was dining with. The other would be if there were free samples.

Though the cake itself was just fine, my favorite part of it by far were the marzipan apples that decorated the top. I've had various sorts of marzipan before, and the quality has ranged rather far and wide. Since delighting in those fancy little almond paste apples, I've been on a bit of a quest to find something similar that is more in my price range. The problem for an American is that marzipan is not popular here so you have to turn to European imports. 

The truth is that I'd had Mozart chocolates of various types before in Japan. Every time a student went to Vienna, they would give my husband some sort of Mozart treat as a gift. Often, they had not traveled well, but they were still fairly tasty. However, after eating those marzipan apples, which were not adulterated with chocolate, I was hoping to track down something which was similar rather than "settle" for something covered in chocolate. I know that sounds like heresy. Chocolate is, after all, the food of the chubbiest pizza-faced gods. However, sometimes, you just want to have something in its pure form.

After some research, I learned that one of the reasons marzipan is enrobed in chocolate is that it does not do well once it is exposed to air. It has to be very fresh or it has to be hidden in some other substance to be good. Maybe one of the reasons Americans don't like marzipan is that the pure stuff is usually little faux fruits that tend to be sold in shelf stable packaging. They may look good, but I've heard they aren't much to write home about on the tast and texture front. 

Armed with this information, I passed on the pink marzipan pigs on offer at Pier One Imports and decided to opt for the Mozart marzipan bars. I figured that, despite the fact that they are chocolate covered, it should be better marzipan in the middle. For those who don't know what marzipan is, it is, essentially, almond paste. It's made pretty much with sugar, egg white, and nuts with some various small additions (e.g., flavors like vanilla).

With so much chocolate involved, it's no surprise that the marzipan is not the primary flavor. The first thing that hits your tongue is sweet, milky chocolate. The texture feels quite decadent because it is so creamy, but the cacao level seems rather low. You get very little in the way of the bitterness and intensity of chocolate. I'm not even a dark chocolate fan and this was a bit too milky for me.

The volume of marzipan relative to the amount of milk chocolate is rather low, unfortunately. I should have heeded the illustration on the package in this regard. It's not exactly promising lavish quantities. The marzipan flavor hits after the chocolate and the strongest component is the pistachio. Though this includes almonds and hazelnuts, they tend to blend in rather than stand out as separate flavors. It's good, and has a nice, smooth, moist texture, but as someone who was eating pure marzipan "apples", I had hoped for more strength.

I can't say that this is a bad bar at all. In fact, it is quite enjoyable, but it didn't quite suit my tastes. I was looking for something in the wrong place. What I found was tasty, but not a fount of marzipan goodness. If you are looking for something lighter on that front, this is pretty tasty, but ultimately it was too sweet and didn't offer enough strong chocolate or marzipan flavor for me personally. I in no way mean to diminish the quality and tastiness of this, but I would not buy it again.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Random Picture #144

The name of the pictured beverage sounds like it would be more appropriate for a Viking marital aid than a sports drink, and while I'm not sure that that is not what is contained as a hidden prize within the can, I doubt that it's any more than a low calorie isotonic beverage. The Japanese for this actually says "so-pi-do", so I'm not sure that they even meant to name it for the god of thunder, but I'm seeing it in the manner that most amuses me. (Note that the Japanese for "Thor" is "To-ru".)

Actually, my husband informs me that this may refer to Ian Thorpe, a Australian swimmer whose nickname was "Thorpedo". The strange thing is that this beverage came out during his retirement (he retired, returned, and failed, but will try again). 

This amuses me far less than my own imagined ideas. Therefore, I will pretend not to have gained an awareness of this fact. Willful ignorance is bliss. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Meiji Pucca Strawberry

I was going to start this post off by saying, "as my readers may know, I love Pucca", but the truth is that I doubt anyone remembers what my snack preferences are no matter how long they've been following this blog. For those who don't know (i.e., everyone) I believe it is a miscarriage of snack justice that that other pretzel thing with chocolate, you know, the flavorless anorexic carb stick that people are nuts about, is the one that gets all of the attention. I think that these fish-shaped delights are the superior delivery system for sweet or chocolatey goodness.

The main reason that Pucca is better, besides the fact that the very thin shell has a superior crunch and actual flavor rather than acting like an anemic and flavorless bread stick is that Pucca filling can be softer. It's the genetically superior offspring from the happy union of frosting and chocolate. Such a filling works fine trapped inside the bloated belly of a pretzel fish. It'd be too soft for a packet of sticks jostling together in a plastic pouch.

I figured that this would be the ultimate test of how good Pucca can be. Strawberry is one of those things that so often goes wrong in treats, especially in my eyes. It is usually too sweet, too strong, or simply too fake. If a strawberry Pucca is good, then my faith in their crispy pretzel goodness no matter what flavor they are stuffed with will be pretty close to unshakable.

The shell on these is exactly the same as all others. It's a crispy pretzel exterior with a very light whole grain flour flavor. You have to be making an active to pick up on this with most flavors, but you pretty much lose the thread of it through time with this strawberry version. While the first bite is actually quite well balanced, the sweetness of the filling does start to accumulate as you go from 1st to 5th bite. This isn't a bad thing though. It's just a matter of fact.

The strawberry filling is decadently creamy and quite sweet, but not cloyingly so. It has just a bit of bite at the end and, yes, it does taste artificial, but not in a bad way. It's hard to explain, but there is no chemical flavor involved, but you know that it's not what real strawberries taste like. If you've ever enjoyed a "grape" lollipop or Kool-aid and enjoyed it while being thoroughly aware that it's all fake flavors, you'll know what I'm talking about.

I really enjoyed these, much to my surprise, but they were sweeter than the chocolate version. I would buy these again, but I'll be honest and say that they'd be at the bottom of my Pucca flavor list. That being said, it's a list which has no duds on it, and that's saying something.

Image from the Pucca web site.

Incidentally, there are apparently different shapes of Pucca. Since I never paid attention, I never noticed this. The Pucca site tells you about each one, including little four panel stories to tell you what they like. It's actually kind of creepy to think I need to know about the interests of something I'm going to eat thoughtlessly. ;-)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Pizza Hut's cute bear/dark superhero campaigns

All images are from Pizza Hut Japan's web site.

Pizza Hut Japan is offering something for two very different demographics. The question you have to ask yourself is "cute cartoon bear" or "raspy-voiced superhero?" This question is slightly complicated by the fact that neither looks particularly happy, though I'm guessing one would be marginally less creepy to invite to dinner than the other. The choice of which is the less savory number to share your pizza with really sort of depends on the kind of person you are. I'm sure that such a choice would yield some insight into the soul of the chooser, but that is between you and your mental health professional.

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If you choose from column A, you'll have to buy a bowl of overpriced soup. With the purchase of  corn potage or minestrone soup, you can get yourself a "free" Rilakkuma bowl. The soup is 420 en ($4.91), and the bowl is made of plastic and not particularly exciting. The site says that the bowls are only available while supplies last and, NO, you cannot choose the color you want. Take what they give you and shut up.

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For those who choose column B, you can get what look like Dark Knight (aka Batman) paraphernalia which looks like it has been worn for several years by someone else. The hat is torn around the edges and the shirts look like someone slept in them for the last 6 months and ran them through the washer several times. Note that getting these items (including a blu-ray disc of the movie or a "journal") requires one to collect points, not merely purchase a food item. Clearly, Batman plays a lot harder to get than Rilakkuma, but then again he does have crimes to fight and can't just sit around being your "relax bear" toy.

Finally, Pizza Hut seems to be riding the iberico ham bandwagon which was in full swing while I was in Japan earlier last year. It's supposed to be monumentally popular, which goes to show that some food fads really don't die fast and easy, but linger on well over a year. At the very least, it'll give the three puppets in the Pizza Hut ads work for a few more months. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Random Picture #143

Happy New Year to all of my readers! If you're Japanese, you're probably on your second day of "osechi ryori" (traditional New Year's cuisine) and not quite burned out on the monotony of the traditional cuisine yet. Of course, if you're Japanese, this blog is probably of no interest to you and you're not reading it!

Though I lived in Japan for a long time, I never partook of this custom for a variety of reasons. First of all, I'm not Japanese and have my own customs for the holidays. For the new year, this mainly included going to bed early and wondering what the big fuss was about when the calendar turned over. Second, the types of food included in such meals generally does not appeal to either me or my husband. That being said, many of my Japanese students and acquaintances were none too thrilled about this food either. Many complained about the general "sameness" of it all, especially that a lot of it was too sweet. 

The point of osechi is to allow the lady of the house to kick back for three days instead of having to hustle and feed everyone. Instead of busting her buns cleaning and cooking from Jan. 1-3, she does so up until those dates, so, hurrah for women's "liberation" during the holidays. That means that traditionalists who make their own osechi make a bunch of food designed to be eaten essentially as leftovers. These days, it's not the least bit uncommon for people to just buy osechi from a department store or market. It's a lot of work to put on a full spread, after all. The Wikipedia page linked above details some of the contents if you want a better idea of what I'm talking about.

The item pictured in this post is one of the things from the osechi repertoire that I love. It's "kuri kinton" which is a rough chestnut and sweet potato puree made with lots of sugar and a pinch of sweet sake. It's like candy, really. The tiny serving shown above was available at Nijiya market for $4.99 (428 yen). It is insanely expensive for a portion which can't be more than a half cup total. I'd imagine this would make two miserly servings.

Fortunately for me, one of my students as a goodbye gift gave me some kuri kinton in a can that lasts up to a year which I can eat this year. After that, I'll have to learn to make it myself or do without. The irony is that, while I was in Japan, I never learned to make Japanese food. I never saw the point since it was all around me and prepared by more skillful hands than mine will ever be.

Incidentally, if anyone at Nestle Japan is reading, kuri kinton would make a fantastic KitKat flavor!