Friday, March 29, 2013

Nestle Adult Sweetness Matcha KitKat campaign and Gran Wafer

As I've mentioned before, Nestle Japan has changed its marketing. The days of a revolving door or weird flavors seem to be over. Indeed, they are now focusing a lot of attention on expanding their market toward less sweet and relatively approachable flavors. The core product line is split between regular milk chocolate KitKats in various types of packaing, regional KitKats, and the adult sweetness line. 

The adult sweetness line is offered in white, semisweet, and green tea flavors. They're all good, but, surprisingly, I like the green tea one best. I say that because I'm not a huge green tea fan. However, the texture and mixture of bitter and sweet flavors make it a pretty extraordinary mixture of the elements. 

Nestle Japan is pretty savvy in how they're shifting the product line and marketing. The birth rate in Japan was 1.3 for 2012. That means the number of kids out there looking to try new candy is going down while the number of adults is much higher. They're going where the money is, and catering to conservative tastes (less sweet, more common and known flavors). 

They've done their marketing and 70% of women between the ages of 20-30 are pleased with the matcha adult sweetness KitKat. Their PR talks about how the changes in Japanese society are creating a situation in which women are expected to work late just as men are and they want to position their candy as a way of relieving stress. To that end, they've made a few commercials showing a very thin Japanese business woman being given candy to help her get through the trials and tribulations of her day. 

Blogger won't let me embed a video from YouTube Japan, but I'll link to each one here. The one for a green tea KitKat shows the hapless heroine apologizing in English as foreign guests exit. Everything is just fine though after her coworker hands her a box with a green tea KitKat and she munches on it. The second one, for the bittersweet version, shows her exiting a meaning after apparently having done some sort of poor job and being consoled by the same coworker with candy again. Yes, professional failure can always be fixed with candy. 

Though this is a pretty stupid set of commercials, which makes it little different from most commercials, the focus is a good one. Many Japanese women have sweets while they're working at the office. They don't eat copious amounts of them, but every female coworker I ever had in Japan kept snacks in her desk. Nestle figures that it might as well be a KitKat. 

Beyond catering to the needs of hapless female business people, they're encouraging housewives to enjoy a "gran wafer" with their coffee while their tots nap. The gran wafer (which appears to have lost a "d" somewhere along the way) is a KitKat with chocolate wafers with chocolate between them and no chocolate coating. It is, essentially, a sugar wafer. They're sold 9 to a box as minis, so, you can "have a break", but not a very big one. I guess moms with sewing machines need to sugar-up a bit less than office workers. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Random Picture #155

A cute mascot is a terrible thing to waste. Bourbon can't display their colorful bears enough on their long sleeves of tiny cookies, so they are selling canisters full of 6 different types of their "petit" products. The types include "cocoa" cookies, digestive, butter, a Ritz-style cracker, and cheese and sesame or black pepper crackers (the angle of the tin makes it impossible to read the description, but that's what it looks like). I didn't buy one of these (though it is sort of cute), but I wouldn't be shocked if the tin is fully of individually wrapped cookies with each in its own sealed plastic packet. One thing about Japan is that they know the only way to encourage people to buy larger portions is to make sure the contents don't go stale over a longish period of time.

When I was in Tokyo, I occasionally saw such types of tins (though this one is newish and I never saw it) in the recyclable trash bin. They're popular for all types of cookies because they prevent crushing. I wondered if anyone ever saved them for storing other items. I know that my company got several of these a year, and we never saved them because the president of the company didn't like the "dirty" look of using such things for storage of office items. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Nestle Ujimatcha Latte KitKat

Back when I did my Regional KitKats post, I mentioned that there was no need to despair over not being able to get these supposedly limited options because many of them have been released or will be released as regular flavors. Ujimatcha is a type of green tea grown in the Uji area and is known for being intense and sweet because the amino acids are kept intact when it is prepared. I don't know if this is true, or exactly what it means, but it's supposed to be vibrantly green and more finely milled than more pedestrian types of green tea. Uji is an area in Kyoto, and this is sold as a regional flavor KitKat.

The package you're seeing pictured here is a consumer level bag of minis sold pretty much anywhere that sells them. So, you see, no matter where you live, you can get this supposedly regional flavor. So there! Okay, this isn't exactly the same as the regional one since this has a semi-sweet chocolate base paired with the white chocolate ujimatcha top and is a "latte" flavor and the regional one is all green tea.

I found this as Nijiya Japanese market for $2.19 (206 yen). It's a pack of 7 single finger mini bars that look like a fat version of half a mini bar. For the quantity, it's slightly pricey, but not ridiculous. The strange thing about this KitKat was that I couldn't locate it on Nestle Japan's web site. That doesn't mean it's not there, but it is strange that it is not featured prominently somewhere. I do check the site regularly, and the expiration date on the bag is September 2013, so it can't be so old that it is outdated. This is the sort of thing that you think about when you're me.

As for the bar itself, it is actually quite different from the regular green tea KitKat. This has a creamy flavor which balances out both the semisweet base and bitter green tea very nicely. I generally don't care for green tea mixed with fairly present chocolate flavors, but it all came together really well in this tiny little bar. It has depth of flavor, but it doesn't come across as lacking in flavor harmony. It's neither too sweet nor lacking in sweetness. I was surprised at how nice it is.

I think this is absolutely one of the nicer consumer-level chocolates you can buy and well worth a sampling if none of the component flavors are something you're averse to. I could see this particular flavor profile with a better quality chocolate being produced by a more prestigious chocolatier. That being said, I still like the adult sweetness green tea bar better, but not by a huge margin.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Variety Friday: Japanese Easter

Images from Fujiya's web site except where noted

I think many Japanese people have an inkling about the roots of Christmas. Though they don't really think much about it, I believe many know it's related to Christian beliefs and may even have been taught in high school that it relates to celebrating the birth of Jesus. Some of my students told me that they were given the basic details some time back when they were kids, but I doubt anyone ever gave them the inside scoop on Easter.

"Colorful Egg Tart". It's not an egg tart, but a tart with a couple of confectionary eggs. 

The concept of Easter is based on a bit more mysticism than Christmas. It's all well and good to talk about babies being born. It's another to speak of the brutality of being crucified and being resurrected. It's not exactly the stuff of the "happy fun life" that you see in Japan. They've got their own mysticism and beliefs already. They don't need more.

A bunny cake with strawberry ears, obviously.

That being said, they can always use more commercial opportunities. Christmas has been folded in so nicely that they have their own traditions for it. Halloween has been gaining a foothold over the past couple of decades and they are closing in on having their own ways of celebrating it. I'm guessing that it ultimately will end up as a situation where children get treats from participating businesses. That's what was happening in my neighborhood when I left Japan. 

Peko "sweet egg" with some pretty pedestrian treats (hard candy, lollipops, chocolate). 

Easter is a whole, fresh, wide world of opportunity, and it's quite a doozy. The pastel colors, the happy Easter bunny, cute chicks, and sweets of all sorts. There's not much to dislike about Easter, except for that pesky serious stuff that actually underlies the whole deal, but that can be swept under the rug. It's not like much of the West isn't doing that as well.

Mont blanc, which is cake with a cream filling and chestnut cream on top.

As someone who has been paying attention to food and food marketing in Japan for quite awhile, and who has seen a lot of change over the 23 years I spent in Japan, it's interesting to take note of which companies are latching onto the potential of Easter and which ones are ignoring it. Chocolate makers like Meiji and Morinaga don't appear to be doing much at all to capitalize on the holiday. Confectioners and those who sell freshly made sweets are embracing it. 

Easter Variety Box, ice cream on the half "shell"

Besides Fujiya, Baskin Robbins Japan has been selling special Easter ice cream products for the last several years. In 2012, they were selling plastic eggs full of ice cream. In addition to bringing those back, they're also selling the "sundaes" pictured below and a fruit drink which has little to do with Easter, but is a seasonal offering nonetheless. 

Image from Baskin Robbins Japan

I wonder if Easter may not have caught on in Japan because it coincides with spring celebrations. It's not like the Japanese don't have plenty of good times on their own with the changing of the season with cherry blossom viewing and all. They even have their own flavors and foods associated with the season. Frankly, some part of me is a little sad to see the crassness of the holiday make its way into Japan. I'm in no way a cultural purist, but I do know that, despite all of the designer bags and conspicuous consumption there, it's not nearly as consumerist as it could potentially be when it comes to holidays. These sort of imported holidays seem like heading down a path toward a much higher level of such types of celebrations, and I don't really see that as a good thing. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Burger King Japan's 500% Onion Burger (bonus post)

This is a quick post mainly to mention one of Burger King Japan's goofier options. As you can see above (and by my headline), they're selling a burger with 500% more onion. As a great fan of onions (my husband and I go through an enormous bag about once a month), this doesn't sound too bad, but it seems like an odd selling point to offer a teriyaki burger with 5 slices of onion. You can go back to work with 500% more obnoxious breath than usual.

A campaign for the burger was started on March 8 and the usual price is 880 yen ($9.18), but you can get your onion on for a mere 680 yen ($7.09) while the campaign is rolling. The other prices are for "set" meals (the burger with fries and a drink). Obviously, onions don't come cheap in Japan.

This is actually one of those things which is funkier than it seems. Would a burger ever be marketed here in the U.S. with 500% more onion (or any other vegetable)? I think not. ;-)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Random Picture #154

For my husband, there were two great problems living in Japan. No, it was not the language or the cultural differences. There were but trivial issues in the face of the things that truly bothered him, the horribly hot and humid summers and the donuts. My husband grew up in an area in which there were numerous places at which fresh donuts were hand-made by people who knew how to craft a fatty sugar bomb. When he went home to visit family, he always went to a local business that made the best crumb donuts in the area and stocked up. They only sold 1-2 per day and he'd get up early and buy them and immediately freeze them. When it was time to pack up and return to Japan, he'd remove his frigid stash and carry it back to Tokyo where we'd refreeze them and he'd enjoy them over a long period of time. Such was his love of a really good donut.

The above are ""new style honey stick donuts". They were the kind of dried out morsel which tasted like over-used stale oil and the most modest of sweetness that my husband hated. Though I do not possess his Homer-Simpsons-like love of donuts nor do I like super sweet things, even I often found these things to be a huge disappointment. While I still miss the angel cream donuts at Mister Donut, even I have to admit that the donuts in America are pretty awesome compared to those in Japan.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dydo Yuzu Lemon Cider

Readers may have noticed that I haven't reviewed many Japanese beverages since returning to the U.S. This isn't because I haven't had access. It's because they are incredibly expensive as imports at Japanese markets. The average price hovers between $2.50 and $3.00 for soft drinks, and that's a pretty penny for liquid refreshment. A drink has to be pretty compelling for me to fork over that sort of scratch.

This drink won a rare spot on my review blog because it contains yuzu, that blessed citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a lemon and a grapefruit. It has enough bitterness and sourness to be interesting, but tends to be coupled with other flavors or be subtle enough to be palatable. In fact, the last night I spent in Japan, I had my one and only sip of an alcoholic beverage at Akiyoshi yakitori restaurant because it was made with yuzu. I have to say that it was delicious (but I still only tasted it), and part of the reason I wanted to try this was my memory of how good that extremely mild mixed drink was. I think it was like what the Japanese call "chuhai", which is usually rather like a wine cooler in potency though not in composition.

This is a zero calorie beverage, which means it is made with artificial sweeteners. In this case, it's maltitol (first ingredient) and sucralose (last ingredient). I'm not especially sensitive to such sweeteners, but I'm sure those who are would be pretty put off by their presence in this. Dydo also makes another version of this, which I believe contains sugar and I know is sold hot. I used to see the hot version in convenience stores in Tokyo in winter. I thought I might try it, but never got around to it. This is a bit of a consolation prize for what I missed.

Obviously, I didn't expect this to taste like a mixed drink. I expected it to taste like yuzu and lemon. Unfortunately, it didn't taste like much of anything. While it does have an extremely subtle pleasant lemon taste with a whisper of yuzu that is so insubstantial that it could be considered the flavor equivalent of gossamer, it just isn't strong enough to be compelling. I realize that Japanese food and drinks tend to be subtle, but this is more insubstantial than usual. Think of lemonade that has been watered down to half of its potency and carbonated and you're in the ballpark.

If Dydo meant for this to be a mixer, it failed on that front as far as I'm concerned as well. If you mixed this with anything, the flavor would be pretty much lost. While utterly inoffensive, and refreshing in its own way, this is not the sort of thing I'd be likely to buy even for it's Japanese price of around 100-150 yen ($1.05-$1.57) a bottle, let alone for the $2.79 I paid for it at Hankook Korean market.

This is the second Dydo beverage that I've reviewed, and the first one fared a lot better in my estimation. I wouldn't say this is bad at all. It's just not impressively good. It could be that I'm just setting the bar much higher given the price tag, but I really think there's nothing to see here. Move along.

Friday, March 15, 2013

McDonald's campaign and products (product info.)

All images from McDonald's Japan.

One of the things which I find awesome about living in the U.S. is that you can get a lot of stuff for free. I'm not only talking about free samples, though those are actually extremely easy to come by, but full on free products. Starbucks gave away free "refresher" and blonde roast drinks in the "tall" size. One of the big supermarket chains here has given us a ton of freebies because we have their club card (eggs, soda, coffee, etc.). Since the card gives you discounts anyway, they are already in a position to sell our information. Giving us free food as a part of the deal is a bonus.

One of the things I find frustrating in America is that there are many campaigns which give you free stuff, but only if you buy something else. In many cases, it is a large thing like a pizza or a dozen donuts. I don't need a dozen donuts, let alone two dozen donuts. The whole "buy one, get one free" business has been around since I was a child and seems to be a staple of American marketing.

This particular method of encouraging consumption was one that I rarely ran across in Japan. The Japanese, in general, are not lured by the notion of getting more for their money. They are more interested in getting better quality or novelty for their money. In fact, one of the reasons I was told that Costco held little appeal for my acquaintances was that the sizes were too large. Even if they were getting twice as much for the same price as a smaller size elsewhere, they just didn't want the extra stuff around. Value for them generally did not come from getting "more".

It is for this reason that I was surprised to discover that McDonald's is offering a "buy one, get one free" deal on their fries and nuggets. It's not that people don't like the food, as McDonald's is one of the most popular options for lunch in Japan due to its hyper-palatable food (fat and salt, you can't lose) and low prices. It's more the case that an individual wouldn't be able to scarf down that much food in many cases, though there may be some businessmen who would be game to try. I'm guessing that this is the sort of thing that two people would arrange to share rather than one person would take advantage of. 

The curiosity for me in this is wondering why such a marketing campaign is being pursued at this time. While I'm sure these happen on occasion, I never saw one while I was living in Japan. Then again, I very rarely ate fast food. 

Beyond this, there's an Idaho burger on offer. This is the only weird food option at present, and it isn't even all that strange. You can see it's a burger with a hash brown patty and a glob of sauce with whole grain mustard and bacon. Woohoo?

And, just for fun, I thought I'd share the latest crop of toys that a kid (or a child-like adult) can get with a "happy meal". Currently, toys featuring the Japanese kids' cartoon character "Doraemon" are on offer. From left, there is an "air pistol" toy, a magic door which I believe has a scrolling scene in it, light on a cuff bracelet (I think), a propeller head, a small bag, and a sticker dispenser. I should keep track of these toys to see what sorts of things are offered throughout the year. I should, but I'm probably not going to. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Random Picture #153

There were many times when I saw some funky English in Japan and had a laugh at the expense of whoever came up with the words. I figured that, in most cases, they didn't know what they were saying. Now that I'm "on the other side", I see things which remind make show me humor on the other side. That is, there are words that, in Japanese, have a meaning which renders seeing them on products in English is funny.

I realize most of my readers are English speakers, so my bemusement will not easily be shared by them. To aid you in understanding why this is a bizarre name for a Japanese company (Lotte) to give a product, I recommend you go to Wikipedia's link that explains what kancho is in Japan. If you don't want to mosey on over there, the short version is it's a "game" (or "prank") in which the goal is to violate someone's rectum to the maximum extent possible with your hands. It is played by immature young people of various ages, but, fortunately, mainly by kids. 

The above pictured biscuit was in the Korean market, Han Kook. Though it's written on in English, I'm guessing the name has rather different connotations in other Asian languages than it does in Japanese. My guess is that it is for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, or China. The only thing I'm sure of is that it isn't for Japan. No one is going to want to buy cookies that remind them of having their private spaces rather greatly uncomfortably invaded. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ginbis Tabekko Animal Biscuits Coconut

When I was growing up and it came time to wrap a gift, I got out the paper, scissors, and wrapping paper and did a very basic wrapping job. One of the cool things about living in another culture is that the possibilities of carrying out even a small activity like wrapping a gift are expanded. Not only did I learn that there were all sorts of paper-saving nifty ways in which to wrap gifts that the Japanese employed and Americans hadn't thought of, but I learned that you didn't even have to use paper. 

Traditional Japanese wrapping cloths, furoshiki, can be used to wrap a gift in such a way as to make the wrapping itself a part of the gift. What is more, it can be reused by the receiver to wrap a future gift if he or she so desires. While it is possible to reuse wrapping paper if you're careful about how you unwrap, it's got nothing on a piece of nicely designed material.

Behold, my bunny folded-furoshiki. 

The awesome thing about furoshiki isn't necessarily the fact that it is ecologically sound and unique, but that you can wrap things in a wide variety of ways. This makes wrapping oddly shaped things easier and more interesting. Recently, I decided to use a furoshiki to wrap a gift. This was mainly because I didn't have a proper box, but also because it seemed like a more stylish option to boot. Among the choices was one in which you could tie it up like a rabbit. Though I'm not particularly good with tying knots, I did manage to pull off a rabbit-like wrapping. Trust me when I say that it's not as easy as it looks, but it's also not as difficult as doing origami.

Why am I talking about furoshiki in a review of Ginbis biscuits? Well, I was thinking about how I could have chosen a wide variety of folding techniques, but the one that appealed to me most was one that resembled an animal. I was also thinking about an episode of Archer in which he's carrying around leftovers in a foil-shaped swan. And just yesterday, I read a review of taiyaki on Serious Eats in which they were saying it was better than imagawayaki because it was shaped liked fish. Things are better when we shape them like animals. 

Perhaps it is a form of playing god (behold, I have forged an animal with cookie dough and my mighty, mighty hands) or simply the sense that we've created a low form of art, but humans have been trying to make animals out of food-stuffs and material-stuffs for many moons. In the middle ages, they used to grind up the meat of one animal and shape it into another animal ("farcing"). 

Ginbis biscuits are the equivalent of animal crackers in the U.S. and, frankly, part of the appeal of such things is that they are shaped like animals. If the makers of Cheez-its had been clever enough to shape their crackers like elephants or bats, they could have taken over the world (since Cheez-its are superior to Goldfish crackers). Their shortsightedness cost them the opportunity to experience world domination. 

Getting back to the matter at hand, I've reviewed the butter version of these cookies before and found them quite enjoyable. Like their butter counterparts, they are thin and a cross between a cracker and a cookie. There is a light sprinkling of sugar on the top and the flavor is very well-balanced with a strong but not overbearing coconut flavor and a light sweetness which is present enough to say "cookie" but not cloying. Because they are so thin, they are pleasantly crispy and make a great companion for tea. The entire 1.8 oz/50 gram box has 260 calories, so don't let the light nature of them fool you into thinking they're low calorie. Portion control is definitely recommended and will take a bit of willpower considering that the impulse to just toss them into your mouth one after another will be high.

The cool thing about these cookies beyond their pleasant taste and texture is the cultural aspects of them. The names of various animals are written on them in English and the back of the box has the English with Japanese translations. I find it fascinating that someone decided that it was useful to teach Japanese kids what a "macaw" is (confession, I'm not sure of what a macaw is). Each animal listed on the box is represented inside as a blobby cracker shape, and some of them are abbreviated in utterly unhelpful ways. For example, there is a listing for "M-Duck" (which is, I'm sure what is written on the cracker). If you read the Japanese, you see that this stands for "Mandarin Duck". Okay, do kids need to know what a mandarin duck is in two languages?

The funny thing is that I actually learned something by reading the back of the box. One of the animals listed is "peafowl", which apparently is the proper way to refer to peacocks and peahens as a type of bird. So, beyond enjoying these light, crispy cookies, you can educate yourself about names of animals that you may not have known about. I bought these at Daiso Japan for $1 (about 100 yen), but they can be picked up at many Asian markets for a similar price or purchased online at places like the Asian grocer

Friday, March 8, 2013

Pon Mania (product information)

Image from the Mister Donut Japan site. The commercials feature a chubby man in drag. He might be a sumo wrestler, but I'm too far removed from the sport after so many years to be sure. 

There were many food-related words that I heard in Japan, but I never gave a second thought to what they meant in English. It's like "sushi". We can see what it is, and don't have to necessarily translate it. It merely is a Japaense word for a food that requires no English. Another one of those words was "pon". Until I started to write this post, I never gave a second thought to what "pon" meant. I just knew that certain foods of certain shapes either were called "pon" or contained the word "pon". Unfortunately, because I decided to write about this topic, I had to go off and look into this pressing issue.

What is more unfortunate is the fact that there are several possible translations of "pon". It can be the sound that is made when something is hit, such as a ball hitting a tennis racket. It can refer to a mahjongg term or the old video game "pong" by Atari. It can also refer to Pom juice, since "m" and "n" can sound the same in Japanese (hey, don't take me to task for this if you don't like it - I got this from the Japanese Wikipedia page - go bitch at them). It can refer to a type of punch or cereal. It also, apparently, means "small" in the language of the Ainu, the aboriginal people of Japan.

From top left (clockwise): "Nama" (fresh) ring, golden chocolate, nama chocolate, chocolate crunch

So, after all of this research, what did I learn about the meaning of "pon"? Well, I didn't learn anything conclusive, but logic tells me it refers to small round shaped food or food made up of small round shapes. For 10 years, Mister Donut has been making a "pon de ring", which is a rather chewy ring made up of little round blobs (due to being made with rice flour or mochiko). As part of their anniversary celebration, they're releasing a "nama" (fresh) line and a line of mini "pon". The minis look like regular donuts, but are made with the same chewy batter.

I did experience "pon" in other food avenues as well. MOS Burger at one point offered a "cheese pon", which was a super chewy ball of dough with, unsurprisingly, cheese inside. In that vein, Pizza Hut Japan is offering two types of "pon" with rather different flavor profiles. You can see by the little dough blobs flying around the happy fellow's head that they are either stuffed with orange and white stuff or brown stuff. That's cheese filled or chocolate filled. And the common denominator continues to be the chewy texture of these dough blobs. 

So, though the Japanese Wikipedia never told me so, experience and current offerings would seem to indicate that "pon" is chewy baked blobs made with rice flour. That means that the "winning" definition on Wikipedia is the one that refers to the Portuguese "pont de queijo", or cheese bread. This is a riff on another European bread product, much as many Japanese baked goods are.

If you're interested in celebrating the anniversary of the pon donuts at Mister Donut with a background screen, there are some pretty funky ones currently on offer. I can't directly link, but if you go here, and then click on the button that I've circled in red above, you'll be given two choices of picture designs. I recommend you click the golden lion designs on the right, but if you get off on transvestite sumo wrestlers, feel free to click the image on the left. Once you click the general style, some other options will pop up that you can choose from, but you should be able to work it out based on graphics and screen resolution size choices. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Random Picture #152

Some people look at a hot dog bun and think about what types of meat it might accommodate. Those people lack the expansive imagination of Japanese culinary types. No, they look at such buns and do not limit the scope of their thoughts to such things as meat. They can heap spaghetti or ramen in there for a multi-carb fest, or, they can pipe it full of whipped cream and jam and turn it into a dessert dog. 

One of the things which struck a uniquely Japanese discord with me was the tendency to take regular bread products and put dessert fillings into them. You could find white bread sandwiches in convenience stores, for instance, that came filled with strawberries and whipped cream. These buns are filled with yuzu jam and whipped cream. For those who don't know the delights of yuzu, it's Japanese citron which tastes like a cross between an orange and a grapefruit with perhaps a bit of lemon. Yuzu remains one of the flavors of Japan that I miss, but even a yuzu lover like me would not be compelled to buy a hot dog bun full of this jam with cream. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

H & H Trading Milk Stick Wafers

I saw these "milk stick wafers" on offer many times at local 100 yen shops like Lawson 100 as well as the hybrid market/100 yen shop "My Basket". I generally had bigger fish to fry and turned up my nose like some snack food snob at this pedestrian offering. Actually, the truth wasn't that I was too good for cheap wafers, but rather that I'd been burned far too often when it came to wafers in Japan. Sure, they could deliver a nice crunch, and often they were calcium fortified, but generally there wasn't much going on in the flavor department.

While I hate to be one of "those" Americans who whines about Japanese sweets in comparison to what I could get back home, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to turn to that sort of loathsome behavior in the case of what we commonly call "sugar wafers" here. In Japan, they rarely put enough cream or sugar between them, or the wafers were too thick and tough. There was one type which was bland, but I liked it anyway and that is the vanilla whole grain ones pictured above. Before I realized that Japanese sweets that were "healthy" and not especially sweet were still packing enough carbohydrate calories to increase my pants size, I used to buy these all of the time and polish off a package in no more than four sittings (sometimes in as few as two). These had a nice earthy whole grain taste that I enjoyed, but they were not what one would call a "sugar wafer", despite appearances to the contrary.

The cookies that I picked up an Hankook Korean market may not look like a traditional sugar wafer, but that is what they taste like. They are just a little unusual in their construction. The outside is standard crispy wafer material and the inside is sweet filling. There are two differences, however, between this and other types of wafers. One is that the thicker construction of this tube style wafer makes it less crispy and ever so marginally tougher. I'm guessing this is intentional to stop them from being brittle enough to shatter at the drop of a case of them being loaded onto a truck. They are surprisingly resilient to clumsy treatment.

OK, there are actually 3 differences... they also have a goofy slogan written on them in English. The Japanese above it just says "milk stick wafers" so this is not a translation.

The other difference is that they have "milk" flavor filling. As I've said before, "milk" is actually a flavor in Japan. It either tastes like powdered milk that has been sweetened (that's when it's really bad) or like condensed milk (that's when it's not so bad). These resemble the latter. Every time I buy one of these, I yearn for some flavor depth of some sort. Would it kill them to add some vanilla? Seriously.

All that being said, these are perfectly serviceable sugar wafers. The main good point is the excellent portion control. When I have a proper bag of sugar wafers, I want to eat a lot of them, but two fingers (53 calories) are in one foil packet so you are discouraged from eating more than one serving. They are sweet enough without being too sweet, and the wafer design makes them far less crumbly than the plank-style ones (which tend to flake off everywhere).

All of that being said, and even given that they only cost $1.29 (119 yen), I wouldn't buy these again. For 99 cents, I can pick up a package of European sugar wafers at a discount store that will have more volume, less wasteful packaging and a better flavor (like hazelnut). It's not that these are bad. It's more that they aren't especially good.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Sina Orange Ginger Chews

Despite their attempts to undo my dental work, I was very pleased with the Sina Ginger Chews that I reviewed last December. They were cheap, had a good strong ginger flavor, and were easy to find at several Asian markets. When I saw this orange variety at a tiny little Asian market on Castro Street in Mountain View, I jumped at the chance. Well, I didn't literally "jump" because the shopkeeper was already eyeballing me as I went around looking for Japanese stuff, but I did give her my dollar and happily exit the store with the 2-oz (56 g.) box in hand. 

Saying "damn the fillings" and risking death by choking by sampling one of these in the car without water to wash it down, I disengaged one from its foil prison and put it in my mouth. These things are so sticky that I think even Teflon packaging wouldn't stop the chews from adhering to them. The orange ones were not different than the ginger ones in terms of their potential to lodge in a cranny of your teeth and suck out the amalgam or stick to the back of your esophagus, and they also look like a severed cats tongue on a plate when removed from their attractive individual wrappers.

The orange hits at the beginning in a flavor that, sadly, reminds me of stale juice. The ginger comes up the rear and overtakes the citrus fruit until it totally overwhelms and produces a pleasant gingery heat throughout your mouth. Ahhhh, that's better. I still love that ginger kick, but I'm not sure that the orange is bringing much of value to the mix. It may add a little sweetness, or a little citrus balance, but it just didn't add to the overall appeal of the candy for me. 

One of my favorite indulgent drinks is to take orange juice and mix it with ginger ale. I was hoping for the favorable aspects of that combination to come through in this, but it just didn't do much for me. This is absolutely not bad and I'd surely buy another box if it was this or nothing. However, I'd prefer the unadulterated original ginger chew to the orange one. If the orange isn't doing much, then I see no point in bothering to have it there.