Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mos Burger Choux Pot Shakes

Image from Mos Burger.

The "Choux Pot Shake" sounds like it would be a great name for a dance. Perhaps some wordplay could even be used such that one stuck a foot in a flower pot and attempted to shake it off a la "shoe pot shake". Okay, maybe not so much, but it'd be very entertaining for bystanders to watch a bunch of people on the disco floor pantomime trying to dislodge a stuck pot from their foot.

This type of choux is the French kind rather than the type that you shod your feet with and such desserts have been popular in Japan for a very long time. You can buy simple ones with either whipped cream, custard or a mixture of both in most convenience stores and markets. For something with such an upscale feel, it is decidedly common and available as a mass market item. I used to buy a tray with 9-12 tiny little one-bite ones at Lawson 100 (for 100 yen/$1.03, of course) on occasion so I could nosh on one without having to cram one of the giant ones into my cakehole.

Since they are so common, it's no surprise that a fast food place like Mos Burger would get in on the gig. For 380 yen ($3.90), you get a mug lined with choux pastry with custard and either a vanilla, coffee or strawberry shake.  It's on the expensive side, but you do get to keep the coffee cup (and don't we all need more coffee cups) as well as have the sense that you're a cut above the ignorant rabble with their plain old shakes in paper cups, sucking at their dessert through a straw like a plebeian.

If you'd like to set your computer up like a plebeian, Mos Burger has wallpapers for you here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Meiji Lucky Stick Cappucino

I've read that the name "Pocky" came as a result of the sound that is made with the stick is snapped. I'm guessing that Meiji named this "Lucky" because it was close in sound to "Pocky" (sharing the basic "vowel+cky" sound), but wasn't going to get them sued by Glico. In Japan, I don't recall seeing "Lucky" sticks, though this is clearly identified as being a Meiji product and therefore released by a Japanese company. The box says these are made in Indonesia for Meiji Japan and are to be marketed to Canada and Singapore. I'm not sure how they end up in America, but I found them at Daiso Japan for $1.50 (147 yen). They are incredibly international for such a simple thing as is evidenced by their multi-country origins and the presence of 3 languages (French, Japanese, and English) on the box.

I don't recall seeing a product by Meiji called "Lucky Stick" in Japan. Their Pocky rip-off over there (as far as I personally noticed) is "Fran". Fran tends to have more sophisticated offerings than this simple cappucino "cream" on a stick version. The types available at present include macadamia cheese and macadamia chocolate. The cheese one would scare me and I'd never buy it, and the chocolate one would be too boring to sample. Also, I was never intrigued by a product that seemed to be named for a particularly bossy aunt. No, I didn't have an Aunt Fran, but it just sounds like the type of aunt who'd leave a big lipstick smudge on your cheek when she kissed you hello, talked too loud, and probably drank bad coffee and smoked cigarettes.

Getting to the matter at hand, which are the "lucky" sticks and not Aunt Fran's cancer sticks... If you take a moment to smell these, they smell like instant latte powder. I know this because I was given a free box of Nescafe latte instant coffee at Safeway and it was 140 calories of disappointment. These sticks are very reminiscent of that very coffee, though they do have some advantages. They are sweet, but not overly so (unlike that instant latte powder) and they have an excellent crunch factor. The coffee part of this is extremely subdued and comes across more as an aftertaste of coffee than true coffee bitterness. The milkier elements, which taste like fairly decent non-dairy creamer come through more strongly, so these might be a nice alternative if you are a coffee wuss. The biscuit stick itself is very bland, but if you eat the small part which is not coated, it has a floury taste which reminds you of very bland, dry cookies. I actually rather like that flavor, but it comes across poorly to most people.

These are not bad at all, but I can't personally get past the fact that it is so reminiscent of non-dairy creamer and instant coffee. I ate the whole box over time (probably a few sticks here and there over 5 days), which means that I spread the 220 calories over about 5 days. It also means that I wasn't so drawn to these that I scarfed them down or had to stop myself from eating them. While I'm not the world's biggest fan of these coated stick snacks to begin with, this definitely rates lower than even standard Pocky and absolutely pales in comparison to things like "Winter Pocky". I wouldn't buy them again, and, unless you're a fan of powdered coffee-like beverages, I wouldn't recommend them.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Glico Shall We Biscuits, now with tea included

All images from Glico Japan.

Recently, I was contacted by a woman at the BBC and answered some of her questions about Japanese food/snacks. One of the things I said to her when she asked about odd flavors of ice cream (think "chicken", not "sweet potato") was that things are not nearly as weird as people think. Just like all countries, there are regions in which oddities exist, but they are highly localized disturbances in the food continuum. I'm sure some place in Japan sells especially bizarre ice cream flavors, just as Gilroy in California has garlic ice cream on offer because they are the garlic capital of the state (country?), but it's not a mass market thing.

butter cookies

People who write about food in foreign countries tend not to concern themselves with the mass market stuff so much because it's actually pretty mundane. If 999 people are eating chocolate cookies, a journalist or blogger will choose to focus on the 1 who is eating the cookie with shrimp testicles in it (note: I do not know if shrimp have testicles, but if they do, I'm sure someone eats them as a delicacy). Well, 998 people would be eating "Shall We" biscuits by Glico and the 999th would be me generally not eating them.

chocolate chip macademia

I think I may have bought one box of these once while I was living in Tokyo. It's not that there is anything wrong with them particularly. They are actually pretty tasty consumer-grade shortbread cookies. It's more the case that they are a bit like a package of "Chips Ahoy". They'll get you there, but not necessarily in high style. I consider such cookies perfectly fine, but nothing to get excited about.

green tea (matcha) cookies

For me, part of the problem with these little blocks of cookie was that they always reminded me of the types of cookies that you bought in a roll and sliced off bits and baked to make them. The fact that they clearly were cut from enormous slabs of dough and mass produced without even trying to fool me into thinking grandma lovingly hand crafted them in her kitchen wasn't helping matters. They actually resemble micro versions of Calorie Mate.

That being said, there was something inviting about the name of the product. "Shall we?" is a question you ask as you sit down for tea with friends and prepare to gossip about people you supposedly like. It's the civilized start to verbally savaging your enemies and figuring out how to destroy their lives in the most passive aggressive manner possible. In furtherance of this illusion, Glico has teamed up with tea maker Karel Capek and is now including one bag of their custom tea blend in each box of cookies. Each tea is carefully selected to match the flavor of the cookie type it is included with. Butter cookies come with milk caramel tea. Something called "everyday tea" (which is mixture of teas from the Ceylon and Dimbula regions) comes with the green tea cookies and, strawberry (called "Girl's Tea") accompany the chocolate chip macadamia.

Karel Capek is a boutique brand and this is an interesting joint campaign which is meant to elevate the "Shall We" brand and raise recognition of a smaller tea maker. The target consumer is women aged 30-50 and the release corresponds with Mother's Day. I guess women in said age group presumably have nothing better to do with their afternoons that sit around and eat boxes of cookies and share a single tea bag with their friends. Actually, the cunning nature of including just one bag is that anyone who wants to share their 11 cookies (or a mere 9 if you choose chocolate macadamia) with others will need to go buy more tea if they want to have them with the special tea included in the package. This was released on April 23 and will be available as long as the limited supplies last (which Glico believes will be until mid-May). Each retails for 294 yen ($2.96).

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Coca-Cola Swarovski Crystal Bag

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Japanese people were flocking to designer bags like a goose to a fat juicy moth. There was a time when people had money to splash about for Louis Vuitton bags or purchasing a trivial bit of real estate like Rockefeller Center. It seems that someone at Coca-cola Japan would like us to forget about the 20+ year economic decline and promote like it's 1989. 

The bag pictured above is the same size and shape as a can of Coke and opens with a clasp that works like a pop-top. It's covered in swanky Swarovski crystals. There's a limit to a mere 2,500 of them worldwide, but you can have one for 289,800 yen ($2,957.90) because who doesn't think it's worth nearly three grand to carry around a supremely tacky coke can bag? 

On the more practical side, it has a serial number so you are actually looking at something that could be considered a collectible with potential future value. That being said, if the initial price is so insanely high, there's a low chance that the value will increase much over time. 

As an aside, I ran across a couple of Swarovski shops in Tokyo. They were both pretty tacky looking from the outside with a bunch of what looked like mirrored stalactites hanging from the front of the shop. It was as if the designers were caught in a time warp that froze them in the 80's style. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Random Picture #159

Most, if not all, of the mochi I had in Japan was made domestically. The Japanese are pretty fussy about their rice and don't trust foreign-grown rice and mochi doesn't tend to age well. Most of what I saw in terms of mochi was white unless it was mixed with some other food like pumpkin or sweet potato. Occasionally, there would be pink ones that were colored with beet juice in order to make them match some seasonal or holiday colors (white and pink or red are festive colors in Japan).

One thing I don't recollect ever seeing were mochi as vividly colored as the ones pictured above. Most of the tones I saw were closer to pastels and these are more akin to jewel tones. Though these have Japanese writing on them, they were made in another Asian country (likely China or Taiwan, but I don't remember). My guess is that this sort of color can only come with the use of artificial coloring and that is frowned upon in Japan.

Though these are actually very pretty and reasonably priced, one of the lasting impacts of life in Japan for me has been a suspicion of anything which clearly shows unnatural coloring. I'd rather buy a muddy-looking or grey blob of mochi that looked real than something lovely such as these.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tirol Pastries at Family Mart

Chocolate bread with "milk" and chocolate filling.  All images from Family Mart's web site.

There are a lot of experiences that I can have in America which mirror those I had in Japan, but one thing I can't have are convenience store (konbini) exclusives. I doubt that such short-lived offerings will ever make the trip to these shores. I can't say that is an enormous disappointment, but I would have tried one of these Tirol shelf-stable pastries that are being sold at Family Mart convenience stores.

Bread with kinako (toasted soy flour) cream and kinako chocolate cream.

Tirol seems to be stepping up the marriage of their chocolate-based concepts to others. For those who don't click on the link, Tirol is know for making little blocks of chocolate with various types of fillings. Their product line tends to be limited to chocolates and generally does not extend to pastries. This is a little like a Snickers or Milky Way pastry, only, you know, with a lot less sugar and a lot more bread.

White chocolate bread with cookie, "milk whipped cream" and cream filling. 

If you look at the illustrations (you can load a larger image if you click and open it in a new tab or window), you can't help but see that the filling sits at the bottom of the hollow spot in the center and doesn't really fill the space. These are clearly the typical "konbini" pastry which are mostly a large bit of bland bread or cake with a proportionally small amount of filling. This fulfills the tastes of Japanese consumers, who prefer their food bland and not terribly sweet. It was the sort of thing that I got used to, but never did much for me. That being said, I would buy the kinako one if I were still living in Tokyo, because I'm that big a sucker for anything kinako and I'd love to compare it to the Tirol kinako candy that I love so much. 

If you've given this a try, please comment and let me know how it lived up (or down) to expectations. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Look Amaou Strawberry Cream Parfait Chocolate

One of the things which has become clear to me since returning to the U.S. is that the market here for snack foods is dramatically different than that in Japan. One of these days, I want to write a comprehensive post about it, but the American market appears to favor enormous slabs of rich cake covered in frosting and the Japanese one prefers delicate little pieces with bits of fruit and whipped cream. A lot of people will attach some sort of character judgement to this tidbit of information, but I know that people like what they are given because they are given it, not because of some inherent personality issue.

What I mean by that is that the Japanese favor their twee little cakes with their light, fatty enhancements and fruit because that's what they've grown up with. I happen to like those, too, but that is because I have a long-standing love affair with whipped cream. Those of you with filthy minds, and I salute you, can use your febrile imaginations to make that fact far more interesting than the actual reality.

At any rate, one thing that informs the types of sweets that are produced in Japan is the backbone of their flavor preferences. This "Look" offering attempts to imitate a strawberry parfait with vanilla whipped cream. To get this effect, they offer a "vanilla whipped cream" base made with "fresh cream" (whipping cream) with strawberry sauce on top and covered in chocolate.

If you pause and pay attention while you eat these types of chocolates, you can discover whether or not they have succeeded in something that consumer level chocolates frequently do poorly and that is, offer flavor depth. When this type of attempt at sophistication succeeds, you'll get hit with a variety of flavors impacting different parts of your taste buds. You'll get the round, woody sense of vanilla, the tartness of the berry, and the slightly bitter chocolate with sugar to balance it all out and fatty richness to add heft to the experience. That's a lot to expect of one tiny little bit of chocolate, and it's not quite up to the task.

That is in no way saying that this is a failure. It actually is a very good chocolate with the chocolate dominating and the strawberry coming up behind it and mixing in a nice tart, berry flavor. The main way in which it doesn't come across is in the vanilla notes. There is a creaminess to the texture, but the amount of vanilla cream is too small to bring in much of a flavor punch. This is probably better than the alternative, and that would be too much fake vanilla flavor.

This is a very good consumer-level chocolate and if you like chocolate with berry, I'd definitely say give this a try. I don't even like strawberry chocolate and I liked this. It's available in the U.S. at Nijiya, as well as other Japanese markets.

Incidentally, the name of this confused me because I had never heard of "amaou" before and my efforts to find a translation online were not very fruitful. I turned to Facebook and asked my Japanese friends. Surprisingly, only one of them knew what it meant and that was because she is a chef and is familiar with this idea when it comes to food. She said that "a" was for "akai" or "red", "ma" was for "marui" or "round", "o" is for "ookii" or "big" and "u" was for "umai" or "tasty" (though in English, "umai" often means "savory", it has a more flexible meaning in Japanese). So, this is supposed to be made with big, round, red, tasty berries. I'm sure it was. ;-)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bourbon Petit Karinto Sembei

Awhile back, in a salt-craving induced buying frenzy, I picked up several sleeves of salty snack bits from Bourbon. This karinto sembei (rice crackers) completed my "petit" series trio of purchases from that time as the more accessible flavors fulfilled my craving and this one got left behind. They lay dormant in my aging snack pile for several months, so you can see how long it took me to get around to these things. I either need to eat faster, buy smaller packages, or review even less. Frankly, this is the "petit" series so I'm not sure it gets any smaller than this and I'd rather not cram more food into my snack hole just to get it used up.

Karinto is a brown sugar treat in Japan that resembles what you pick up after you take your dachshund for "walkies". I've only tried it once, karinto that is, not what comes out of ones wiener dog's digestive system. The type I tried was a cheap variety so I can't say I've given the real thing a fair shake. This sembei uses brown sugar from Okinawa, a place in southern Japan which is famous for a variety of foods including brown sugar. Of course, it seems that any place with an appreciable amount of agriculture is famous for a wide variety of edible substances, so it's hard to get too worked up by Okinawan brown sugar when they're also famous for things like sweet potato and goya.

These are marketed as "sweet" sembei, but they aren't really very sweet. They are as close to neutral as you can get before crossing the line to sweethood. They have a nice brown sugar flavor, but there's also a strange slightly herbal aftertaste which is vaguely familiar to me. I'm not sure that this is really any sort of spice, but it may be the effect of baking brown sugar to a hard crunch or highly cooked honey (which is also an ingredient).

The crackers are very crispy and you can taste both the honey and the brown sugar with every bite. The honey tends to hit in the front of your tongue at the start, followed by the mild brown sugar, and then the odd aftertaste. If it weren't for that, these would be a home run as a "buy again". I love brown sugar sembei and am pleased with the small size of the package.

I'm not sure whether to recommend these or not. I may be especially sensitive to that funky taste, or it may be something others would detect. I sort of like these. I love the crispy, somewhat hard texture and the honey and brown sugar flavors coupled with very light sweetness as well as the size (38 grams/1.34 oz.) for a low price even in the U.S. where they tend to sell for about a dollar (100 yen). If the main composition of this is appealing to you and you can get them cheap, I'd say give them a try.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Starbucks Japan Wants to Fatten You Up

Images from Starbucks Japan.

Starbucks Japan would like you to get your tiramisu on in liquid form, because you get your calorie bombs far too slowly if you have to pause long enough to masticate them. Yesterday, Starbucks Japan started selling a very decadent looking coffee with little chunks of what appear to be bits of cake floating on top of a frappucino base. This is the sort of thing I wouldn't buy, but I'd probably go to the local Starbucks in Asagaya and buy a coffee and hope they'd give me a sample of this while I occupied their precious space and took advantage of their Wi-fi.

They also rolling out three types of cake based on various sugary coffee beverages. Each variety if chock full of sugary "chunks" and sauces:

  • Caramel macchiato - cookie crumbles, caramel chocolate, white chocolate chunks and bitter caramel sauce
  • Caffe mocha - white chocolate drizzle, black cocoa cookie crumble, ganache cream and chocolate chunks
  • Latte - white chocolate topping and white chocolate "powder", white chocolate chunks, milk cream (like condensed milk in taste) and a cookie base
The slices of cake look great, but they all seem a bit overloaded with sweet things. That being said, I'd bet dollars to donuts that these are not insanely sweet, but they are fatty. I very rarely bought cake or sweets at Starbucks in Japan because there was always a plethora of fantastic bakeries around me. I'd buy a pastry at one of them and take it into Starbucks and the employees never seemed to care. Though these look pretty tempting, the baked goods sold at Starbucks were never appealing because they were sealed in plastic just like convenience store pastries and could never live up to the fresh stuff I could get nearby. I don't think these would change my habits, but the mixture of ingredients would be tempting. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Random Picture #158

One of the fads among people who cook, and I realize that sounds weird because it used to be the case that everyone cooked, is making your own marshmallows. While I am definitely a fan of cooking, and rarely eat out and even more rarely buy prepared food, I have never thought that marshmallows are something worth making by oneself. I'm sure that the homemade marshmallow is a superior product, but they're pretty sweet and I eat them so slowly that they'd be stale long before I could scarf them down. I bought a small bag of marshmallows about 6 months ago and half of it is still languishing in my cabinet.

I mention making ones own marshmallows because I wonder why Japanese marshmallows (of which three varieties are pictured above) always seemed weird in texture and slightly off in taste to me relative to American ones. That is not to say Japanese ones are bad, but rather they weren't what I expected based on how I grew up. They seemed firmer and to have an almost perfumey aftertaste. I'm guessing that it has a lot to do with the type of gelatin that is used. Japanese ones likely use agar agar, which is derived from seaweed, and American ones (unless they are vegan) are likely made with animal bone. 

At any rate, though I was not a fan of Japanese marshmallows, I did love the little daifuku-like concoctions like those above. In the U.S., we tend to coat the outside of marshmallows. In Japan, they tend to put something on the inside of them. These are usually small, tender pillows filled with beans jam, fruit-based jam, chocolate, or custard. The ones above from left to right have apple jam, custard pudding, and chocolate. I've reviewed some very awesome bean-jam-filled ones, and would strongly recommend those to anyone who runs across them. However, I'd still say avoid the plain ones, especially if your goal is toasting them. They just don't work well for that purpose.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pizza-La Takumi Japanese Quarter (product information)

I love it when a pizza lives up to foreign expectations of what Japanese pizza is going to be and this release from Pizza-La has stepped up to the plate. At a glance, it doesn't look terribly exotic except for the shellfish with shells (mmmm, crunchy) and the slender strips of nori (seaweed paper). However, it is not quite as tame as it looks.

The point of this pizza is to allow consumers to get 4 pizzas in one. To that end, we have these 4 types:

1. Scallop Butter with soy sauce. 
Shrimp, scallops and clams are cooked in butter and soy sauce.

2. Mentaiko mochi
Mochi (pounded rice cake), potato and mentaiko (marinated pollock roe)... and you thought those were blobs of fresh mozzarella, didn't you?

3. Negibee
The web site mainly mentions the green onion (negi), but clearly this has bacon, mushroom and nori as well.

4. Teriyaki chicken
The selling point is that the chicken is well-marinated in teriyaki and very moist. 

Of course, because this is Japanese pizza, it also has to include corn and mayonnaise. If anyone has tried this specimen, leave a comment and let me know what you think. (And, no, I wouldn't touch this pizza with a ten-foot pole!)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Haitai Sweet Redbean Bar

There's a scene in the second Indiana Jones movie in which he and the blond woman who kept screaming all of the time and the little boy they were running around with for some reason in which they are all served monkey brains. The brains are evocatively served in the heads they were once functioning within. The point of the entire dinner scene is to watch the hapless heroine, who was so annoying that I saw the movie once or twice and never watched it again, and the little boy, who was annoying but not nearly as much as the ditzy woman who later married Stephen Spielberg, freak out over the weird food. Their hosts nosh happily on these delicacies, but they are abhorrent to their guests.

One thing about food is that one man's feasting fungi is another man's toe fungi. The Japanese would eat live prawns, partially filleted but still living fish, poisonous blowfish, and offal. Some of these are delicacies and some are just plain people food (that'd be the offal). What one culture considers good eats, another finds disgusting. I've learned, for instance, that there are parts of the world that think mixing chocolate and peanut butter is a vile idea and that there are even more that find root beer truly disgusting (the Japanese certainly hate it, I know because I gave it to some to see how they'd react).

Even the most disgusting things can, over time, become quite palatable and even enjoyable with time, experience, and just generally allowing yourself to get used to the fact that it's something people find pretty tasty. In my early years in Japan, the idea of buying a brick of sweetened bean jelly for a snack would have seemed pretty gross. It's not monkey-brains-level gross, but I didn't even like beans in their more common savory presentations in America. I surely didn't think I'd like them mixed with sugar. Perish the thought!

Well, many Americans still recoil at the idea of sweet red bean paste (anko), but we're starting to see an awful lot of recipes for things like black bean brownies and cake as well as blondies made with white beans or chickpeas. There are entire blogs by fresh-faced, skinny, young white girls that are filled with sweets subbing in beans for flour to add moisture and density without the evils of flour. We're not through the sweet bean looking glass yet, but we're well on our way, kids.

Getting to the matter at hand, I had a moment that I thought I would never have at a grubby little Korean market located near Little Russia in San Francisco. Note, there is very little "Russia" in little Russia in that city and it was pretty disappointing. At any rate, I nearly "squeed" my pants when I saw this bar on sale and was even happier that it was only 50 cents for a 1.9 oz/55 gram bar. The reason it is so cheap is that it is a "product of Korea" that is marketed in both Japan and its native country. If I've learned anything from frequenting Asian markets in California, it's that anything made in Japan costs at least double what is made for Japan in other Asian countries. This is why more and more snack products aren't actually being made in Japan.

The company that makes this is Korean, but it used to be owned in part by big name brew maker Asahi. Two years ago, Asahi sold it's 20% stake in the company because it decided it would rather hitch its wagon to Lotte (who wouldn't? Lotte makes Ghana, after all!). Howver, Haitai makes a product called "choco homerun ball", so I find it hard to believe Asahi walked away from a product so named. Just think of all of the risky jokes they could have made! Though I linked to the English site, the Korean site is much better if you don't count the fact that I can't read any of it. Note that this bar isn't prominently mentioned on the site, but I guess that they have to focus on their more major products like the "Oh, Yes!" cakes and the aforementioned balls.

This bar is what the Japanese call "yokan" or jellied bean paste. It's very soft and I have to squeeze it up through its foil tube like super thick toothpaste to eat it. It is actually less "jelly" than "paste" and has a nice soft texture which feels like super smooth fudge without any of the pesky things like fat or chocolate. It is quite sweet, but not cloying, and does have that familiar undercurrent of red bean flavoring.

I'm not going to try and persuade anyone who sees this as monkey brains that they're going to love it. The truth is that you have to sometimes make a special effort to love some things that are outside of your general native cultural palate and many people aren't really interested in bothering (for which I can't blame them, really). I learned to love this after many years and really enjoyed this bar. I'd absolutely buy it again, especially considering how cheap it is. If you like anko, this is a treat. If not, this is not going to win you over.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Lee's Jaffa Bar

When I was growing up, my family was occasionally given a (usually 12 oz.) "Whitman's Sampler" as a Christmas gift. I realize now that these are the bottom feeders of the boxed mix chocolates out there, but poor folks like us found this to be a special treat. Of course, we only found parts of it to be good. That would be the candies with nuts or caramel. No one wanted the stuff with fruit fondant filling in it. More often than not, those pieces would have a bite taken out of them and then the remains would be left in the bottom of the box as testimonials to the disappointment of sweet, fruity poison hiding inside of perfectly serviceable chocolate. My dad found this habit particularly irritating and would yell at us when he'd open the box and find these rock bottom remains.

Things have changed since my impoverished youth. For one thing, I haven't touched a Whitman's Sampler in over 30 years so I don't know if they are better or worse than they once were. For all I know, they may even come with a little description of what's in the box so that children who want to avoid the fruit cream ones can do so without pissing off their fathers. 

My Whitman's Sampler experience comes to mind because this bar is like one enormous orange cream chocolate. Another change that has occurred since I grew up collecting old soda bottles for deposit so we could buy milk at the end of the month is that I like fruit fondant fillings now. Instead of approaching this as something to be reviled, I saw it with interest when I saw it for 30% off at an overpriced Palo Alto (California) market called "Miki's Farm Fresh Market" that was going out of business. My guess was that their high prices weren't what did them in so much as their horrible parking and the difficulty one had accessing the shop.

At any rate, I've reviewed a lot of food, most of it from Japan, but some of it from other places and this is my first option from Scotland. People like to say that America has super sweet candy, but, if this is any example of what the Scots are ingesting, they've got us beat. This is very, very sweet stuff with a nice vibrant hit of orange. The chocolate coating is little more than a brown wrapper for the almost fudge-like center. It's thick, cleaves, nicely without falling apart, and can be quite satisfying in very small portions. Oddly, the entire bar 2.1 oz./60 g. has only 230 calories. For something that seems like it's packing a bigger sugar wallop than your average Hershey bar, it weighs in on a similar level when it comes to calories.

I liked this a lot, but I ate it over a 5-day period in very small bites. I think that you would find it oppressive if you ate too much of it at once, and it isn't really the highest quality confection on the market. There's a reason it brought back my sad nostalgia for Whitman's Samplers, and that's because it has a similar quality going on with it. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, but it certainly could be depending on your tastes. I'd buy it again, but I'm not necessarily recommending that others try it unless you like your candy super sweet, nicely fruity, and low rent.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Blog Changes (and the death of Google Reader)

Here kitty, kitty...

When I left Japan, I wasn't sure what would become of this blog in particular. For one thing, I didn't know what my access to Japanese snacks would be like. I knew I might be able to find a few things here and there, and had hoped to make some connections to sellers who might shower me with freebies to promote their services (ahem, that did not happen), but my crystal ball as to the future was very foggy.

Now that I've been in Northern California for about 8 months, I know that this is a pretty good place to be to review Japanese (and other Asian) snacks. While they're not exactly sold in every market, there are plenty of markets that sell a variety of food items. That being said, it's not quite the same as actually being in Japan from certain viewpoints.

The main area of difference for me isn't access because there were always many more things than I could possibly sample and review in Tokyo. Having a wealth of options didn't mean more posts because there was only so much time I had to devote to blogging. In fact, even with my more limited (but still very wide) access, there is more stuff available than I could possibly review so I'm not exactly hurting for things to try.

The point which has changed the most has been my ability to size up the snack market in Japan. While I used to be able to stroll through markets or convenience stores and see the new releases and inventory at a glance, I have had to work rather harder at that since returning. It has taken me awhile to get up to speed in this regard, but I've got my finger a bit more on the pulse at this point in time and it's actually a lot of fun tracking new releases through the means I currently have available. It's changed how I blog in a way which makes the experience fresher for me and creates new challenges.

Because of this new way of dealing with following what's out there, there is every chance that more "bonus" posts will be showing up more often. It's not out of the question that I'll be posting something every weekday at times. There will always be the three scheduled posts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but those of you who are using bookmarks may want to also pop buy on Tuesdays and Thursdays from now to see if there are extra posts. I do anticipate more of that sort of thing in the future.

The frequency of posts leads me to the topic of Google Reader's imminent demise. If you are tracking my blog's updates via RSS using said interface, I hope you will migrate my feed to another reader or bookmark the page. My concern, as I'm sure is the concern of many bloggers, is that the death of Reader will mean a great loss of regular readers. Clearly, having more readers encourages me to continue the blogs and to build the content more, so I kindly ask that you find a new way to keep me in the rotation if you're a user of Google Reader (as I am) as this blog isn't going away any time soon and I'm quite diligent about posting at least 3 times a week on the days previously mentioned. Hopefully, you'll find that you'll be getting even more for your money in the future. ;-)

As always, my thanks for continuing to read this blog.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Random Picture #157

I used to think that the displays of soy milk flavors in Tokyo were a bit ridiculous. Do consumers really need the level of choice that tends to be displayed? In this picture, which by no means represents every possible option, we have chocolate, red bean soup (oshiruko), coffee, ginger, banana, sweet potato, green tea, black tea, chestnut, and various types of plain old soy milk. It seems, however, that the selection of soy milk seems to pale in comparison to the types of coffee creamer sold here in America (chocolate, vanilla, caramel, hazelnut, plain milk, mocha, amaretto, coconut, cinnamon, creme brulee, peppermint, pecan, pumpkin, etc.). I'm all for variety, but sometimes it seems that there's more to choose from than even the most fickle consumer should require.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Condensed Milk Strawberry KitKat (product announcement)

Image from Nestle Japan

Yesterday, Nestle Japan released a "new" big bar flavor, condensed milk strawberry KitKat.  It was placed on convenience store shelves yesterday, and takes its rightful place among the dozens of strawberry KitKat bar releases which inspire this blogger to yawn in ingratitude. I wouldn't buy this if I saw it, because I'm already sure that it tastes like overly sweet powdered milk with some fairly decent, but unimpressive strawberry flavor. If I'm proven wrong, feel free to say so in comments. I can take it.

I should mention that condensed milk and strawberries are a very popular combo in Japan. When the berries come in season, bins or baskets of toothpaste-tube style condensed milk are usually not far from the tony (read: expensive) homes of the juicy red beauties. The packaging is designed to let you squeeze some disgusting goo on the precious fruit as you eat it. In the U.S., condensed milk is sold in cans because we don't tend to think of it as something we slather on unsuspecting fruit, but rather as something we roll into sugar-laden, hyper-fatty baked goods.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pure Love Gummy

If you asked someone what "love" tastes like, the answers you're going to get will vary wildly based on the age, gender, and maturity level of the object of your question. Personally, even thinking about what a feeling tastes like sounds like about as warped a case of synesthesia as one could encounter, but I'm willing to play along a little.

This gummy candy was released as part of a promotional campaign in which one could win a date on a white horse with a "prince". By "prince", they mean some smiling dork in a weird costume and by "white horse", they mean a carriage being pulled by one. The winner of the contest could have an awkward encounter and some inane small talk about apple pies with the actor who pretended to be an object of romantic desire. 

Why are apple pies coming into the mix? Well, it appears that "love" tastes like apple. When I bought this package of gummy candy at Nijiya market (for $2.19/206 yen), I didn't know what they were going to taste like and the clerk we asked said she didn't know either. If I had thought for a second, or used some other part of my brain, I would have looked at the ingredients list which helpfully lists "apple juice" among the many chemicals and sugars used to create these vaguely heart-shaped blobs.

When I opened the packet, still oblivious to the composition of the contents, I thought they smelled like super strong pear, but the flavor was much more clearly apple. In fact, it's not just apple, but double strength applesauce flavor with a citric acid bite on the end. Though I like apples in general, these are a bit too strong for me. I also like Pure gummy candy quite a lot, but this one absolutely comes in as the least enjoyable one I've ever had. 

I'm sorry, Kanro, but love definitely doesn't taste like apple to me. In fact, I'd much rather it tasted like orange. If there is any balance in the universe, come next setsubun, there will be a "hate" candy to represent the yang to the love candy's ying. I'm voting that hate taste like the darkest of dark cherry that they can get their hands on, but I'm guessing they'd go for something like durian

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pocky Midi (product information)

All images from Glico's web site.

On March 19, Glico released a new version of Pocky called "Midi". It is a shorter, stubbier version of the bread stick with sweet candy-ish coating that people inexplicably go crazy for. They seem to resemble a club or bat with their growth-inhibited appearance. The reason they're so fat is that there is whipped chocolate in the center which is then coated with a more normal Pocky chocolate coating. The "midi" probably stands for "middle".

There are two flavors of Midi, both rather boring. That is to say strawberry and chocolate. Glico, like Nestle Japan, seems to be doing fewer esoteric flavors for its signature products. One of the weirdest options that is not a strange flavor is "Pocky Bran". I guess it's the Japanese equivalent of a Fiber One brownie.

Other than the bran Pocky, the flavor offerings are pretty normal. The full listing is: regular chocolate, thin Pocky (50 sticks per box), matcha (green tea) cream, "pebbly" (tsubu tsubu) strawberry, almond crush (chocolate with almond pieces for texture), cookie crush/crunch (chocolate with cookie pieces for texture), (milk) cocoa, strawberry (smooth), and Panda Pocky (cookies & cream). All of these are pretty pedestrian flavors that have been around for quite awhile. Note that there are other flavors out there, but they are not being promoted in the Japanese market. Some of the more exotic flavors are in other Asian countries and may or may not show up in Japan. I can say that the flavors I've listed are the only ones on the web site, but I've seen coconut Pocky, "milk", and other flavors in Asian markets around me.

It may look like he's holding up a pregnancy tester, but that's supposed to be a Pocky stick. 

Currently, Glico is marketing Pocky with the slogan "Let's Share! Pocky!" I'm guessing there were tons of people who were hoarding it and refusing to let anyone have any, or something. On a brighter side, there are a whole host of nifty downloads. There's some panda papercraft that you can download and fold. An application for iPad, iPod, etc. A New Year's card, which I'm mentioning rather late, but there are no years attached to most of the designs so you can  be really early for next year or rather late for this one. And, of course a whole bunch of wallpapers.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Random Picture #156

Note the cool sample on the right which shows plastic versions so they don't get all gross and rotted while on display. 

One of the first images of Japanese food that was burned into my memory was of a bean cake that looked like a chick. There is a famous manju that used to be advertised on television quite frequently so I have the entire thing along with the inane music that accompanied it burned into my brain. I'm sure it's filed in the same spot as the "Meow Mix" commercials in which cats sing a tune by uttering nothing more than "meow". And don't blame me if you watch the linked commercial and want to drink until you kill all of the involved neurons.

The version shown in this picture, P-chan, is not the one in the commercial I used to see. This is a cheaper variety sold at a discount snack shop in Omotesando, though it looks pretty much exactly the same as every other chick-shaped bean cake. They have white bean in them instead of red. I think most foreign folks find the white ones more palatable than the red. Incidentally, I like to think of these as the Japanese version of "Peeps". ;-)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

KitKat World Assort Rebooted (product info. bonus post)

Before I left Japan, there was a KitKat "World Assort(ment)" that failed to inspire me. It was essentially a bag of chocolate KitKats in their various incarnations from around the world. While it's true that the various KitKats from Australia, America, the U.K. and Japan taste somewhat different (and, frankly, the European ones are best in my utterly subjective opinion), it was a pretty uninspired choice for a "world assort".

Apparently, someone got with the program and this rebooted version offers 6 hazelnut mini bars and 7 orange ones (the reason for such an imbalance escapes me). Both of these, in my experience, are from the U.K. versions. I've seen them for sale at Cost Plus Imports for a slightly high cost. If I were in Japan, I'd be all over these because hazelnut in particular is an underrepresented flavor among confections in Japan, and you can never lose with orange and chocolate. As flavors that might interest those who are interested in Japanese sweets, these aren't going to float many boats. For those who are interested in testing the way the wind is blowing in the world of Japanese KitKat, this is somewhat interesting news. 

If you're in Japan, word is that these were released yesterday and they should be showing up on local shelves soon if they aren't already there. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Kinh-Do Tiramisu Cream Cake

When I thought about coming home to the U.S., there were things I thought I'd never eat again and the Japanese-style custard/cream cakes were one of those things. It's not only that they weren't the most appealing of Japanese snacks (they're not), but rather that I expected not to have access to them. Surprisingly, they are quite easy to come by in Northern California. Even more surprisingly, they're often not particularly expensive. And far less surprisingly (3 surprises in one paragraph!), they're no better than I remembered.

Given my low expectations, one might wonder why I even bother to review such things. There are many reasons... nostalgia, hope springing eternal, the unusual flavor possibilities, stupidity... those are just a few of those reasons. Also, it is my "job" to do these posts for less than the wages paid to waiters and waitresses (which is to say, something around $2.30 an hour) and I have to review something. Beyond that, on the package, it says in English, "a first-class cook seasoned these dishes with advanced techniques and highest-class materials." That's some promise! How can I resist finding out just how advanced and high class they are?

Though these are covered with Japanese writing and look for all the world like they were made in Japan (no other language is on the package), they're actually made in Vietnam. Kinh Do Group mainly makes food, but has a few other businesses on the side. They sell a fruit candy which has a pretty cool name called "Crundy". It's not quite as awesome as Crunky (which sounds like a synthesis of "crunchy" and "funky"), but it's still pretty good. This sounds like the shotgun wedding between "cruddy" and "candy". If I ever find any "Crundy", I'm absolutely going to review it. 

I found these on sale at Han Kook Korean market for the bargain price of $2.49 for a packet with 10 individually wrapped cakes about the size and appearance of a small hockey puck. They're about 3/4 of the size of my dainty lady palms. Each cake is 87 calories in Japanese, and apparently 90 calories in English (there are slightly different details in the nutrition information based on which you read). Based on the ingredients, most of those calories are coming from the "tiramisu cream" and the fat included in it. The major ingredient of it is "margarine", so there's some trans-fat goodness in there as well as palm oil and a host of chemicals. Yum, yum.

The cake is rather dry, but ever so slightly oily. It has a strange flavor I associate with shelf-stable cakes in Japan, but don't really connect with similar offerings in the U.S. There is a nice, modest coffee flavor to the cake and that's the dominating feature. The cream filling adds moisture and textural contrast, but doesn't have a very strong flavor. It's like a dollop of softish butter in the center of a dry muffin-like cake, which makes sense considering it's most margarine in there.

As you can see by the cutaway above, the cream is not exactly dominating the cake and the first one I ate actually had about half the cream you see in this one. I think it wasn't that it wasn't properly filled, but rather that some of it was absorbed into the cake through time. These were probably on the cheap side because they were closer to their expiration date than most customers might be comfortable with. One interesting aside about such dates in the U.S. for Asian products. In Japan, no one will touch such products and they aren't even sold in most shops. In the U.S., I regularly see expired or nearly expired products on sale. There's a whole section of Daiso Japan which always carries items past their sell-by dates. Instead of the usual $1.50 each, they're a dollar.

Getting back to this cake, however... This isn't a bad bit of shelf-stable cake at all. It's just not especially good either. If the filling were creamier and had more of a flavor profile, it might even be worth a semi-happy sumo rating despite the dry coffee-flavored cake. I'll finish the package very slowly over time, but it'll be the sort of thing that I eat when I have a craving for cake and there's nothing else in the house or when I have a feeling of wanting to eat some "bad" junk food. That means it'll probably take awhile to finish off 10 cakes.