Friday, November 29, 2013

Good Day Carrebian Nut Instant Coffee Beverage

Recently, I acquired some samples of General Foods International Coffee including the Suisse Mocha variety (one does this by asking for them - it's no great feat). About 20 years ago, I was an enormous fan of the sugar-free Suisse Mocha. It seems that a sugarless version is no longer being produced, but I did want to try the regular version to see if it held up over the years. It did not.

The flavor of that instant coffee seemed thin and despite my carefully measuring the water, it seemed very diluted. My guess is that the coffee didn't really change, but I did I've since spent years drinking real coffee. It's not like I'm guzzling down espresso or black coffee, but rather I tend to mix half a cup of good, strong-ish coffee with a half a cup of almond milk. Still, my diluted coffee is stronger than Suisse Mocha. It disappointed, but it's not like I was thinking about going back to drinking it regularly anyway. Still, I like to have a solid instant coffee option (as well as a hot cocoa one) because sometimes I'm either too tired to make the real thing and I'm not too infrequently in a place where that is not an option.

After the Suisee Mocha disappointment (which would be a good name for a suspense movie), I was very much looking forward to trying this instant coffee which I received from KS Snacks in Indonesia. As some may recall from the "service" review I wrote of them, they sent me a big box of intriguing goodies and this was one of them. There are four flavors of "Good Day" instant coffee and, luckily, this would have been the one I was most curious to try given that I'm a huge fan of hazelnut.

Preparing the coffee is simple. Add 150 ml. of hot water and stir. It's pretty simple stuff. I usually add a touch of milk to instant coffee on those rare occasions when I have it, but I wanted to try this straight up the first time. It didn't need the added milk.

The ingredients list is quite short and simple. It's instant coffee, sugar, non-dairy creamer, and hazelnut flavor. That should give you some idea of the sweetness level of this. It is intensely sweet, but not in a bad way. In fact, my first sip made me think of "liquid Nutella". Though there is no chocolate in it, the roasted flavor of coffee can sometimes take on chocolate flavors and the pairing with hazelnut as well as the high level of sweetness brought that yummy treat to mind.

I don't want to be misleading. This isn't really liquid Nutella. It just brought the notion to mind. There is an intense hazelnut flavoring at the end of a sip which hits you with a strong dose of flavor. If you've ever bought or tried brewed hazelnut coffee, this is it with a milder coffee flavor, more milkiness and more hazelnut.

I liked this a lot, but it is like liquid candy. It's very sweet and intense and more of a substitute for a treat than a beverage. Still, if you like hazelnut a lot, quite sweet drinks, and coffee at least a bit, you should enjoy this. You can get it here for 14,900 rupiah or $1.28 for five packets.  I wouldn't drink this everyday, but I would drink it as a dessert.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

McDonald's Chicken Egg McMuffin (product information)

Do your remember making lists of desert island objects when you were a kid? That was what you did before you made lists of desert island songs and books as a teenager. In such lists, you'd think about what you'd need to survive and use those ten items to make a nuclear reactor out of a coconut so that you could live in style in exile.

McToast is sad toast. It's what you'd make at home if you were out of bread and had nothing but stale burger buns to work with.

Sometimes it feels like fast food places are working with the same limits. They have a short list of food stuffs and they keep juggling the mix around to create "new" menu items. This breakfast option from McDonald's Japan feels like a dance card shuffled into the wrong place. It is their fried chicken patty added to an Egg McMuffin. I guess that someone at corporate asked, "what do we have that we haven't swapped into the morning menu?" Still, it's less pathetic than the "McToast" option. That's a burger bun flipped around so that the inside is toasted and filled with ham (Canadian bacon) and cheese.

This probably seems less strange in Japan than it would in America. They already have hot dogs on their regular morning menu there and it is a culture which includes fish and rice as part of its traditional breakfast. To me though, fried chicken, even in the form of a patty of pressed meat, is just "wrong" for breakfast. I'm guessing it's pretty good though if you're hungover, as no small number of businessmen are inclined to be.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Random Picture #190

Some time back, I reviewed the liquid version of one of the three candies pictured above. These three flavors are super pickled plum (umeboshi), super soda (ramune - like lemon lime usually) and, rather obviously, super lemon. On the first bag, the caption is, "Ah, suppai," which means "sour". It can also  mean "acidic" but umeboshi are quite sour. 

The interesting thing about these intense candies is that the brand given here is "Nobel". The liquid version, which is clearly the same brand as the graphics are identical, was made by Japan Tobacco. I'm guessing JT licensed the flavor for a beverage because Nobel (or "J-bel" as it sometimes calls itself) has been making candy under that name since 1949. 

One interesting thing about the web page for all of Nobel's hard candies is that they have little descriptions under them and one or the other is highlighted to tell consumers what sort of product it is. The options are "basic", "healthy", "handy", and "fashion & casual". These candies are all listed as "basic". It strikes me as a way of marketing which essentially says, "this is our boring" candy, and a very strange way to promote a product. I'm guessing this is one of those cultural differences that I haven't figured out yet.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

KitKat "Merry Christmas Happy Box" (product announcement)

All images come from Nestle Japan.

Some of my readers may recall that it is common around the end of the year for merchants to sell "lucky" or "happy" bags or boxes. They are usually associated with the New Year and are sold on or after the first. This one, by Nestle Japan, has "Merry Christmas" above it so I'm not sure if they're targeting Christmas or the New Year. My guess is that it's both, but it is mostly for Christmas.

The assortment that you can buy via mail order includes 1102 grams of candy for 2500 yen (about $24). Shipping is "free", but my feeling is that the price of what you're getting essentially more than encompasses the cost of postage. The thing is that the collection isn't really anything special. It includes the commonly available "adult sweetness" KitKats (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, green tea), Nestle Crunch bars, Milo, and Aero plain chocolates. It's a little like receiving a bag or box of Hershey's candy that anyone can buy in a regular supermarket. 

This is not necessarily a bad package, but it's nothing special in terms of contents. Certainly, a recipient would be "happy" to get it, but there's nothing "lucky" about it - unless they put some sort of golden KitKat in every millionth box.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Glico Hiroshima-yaki Pretz

Recently, I went a little crazy buying vegetables. Yes, I'm one of those freaks of nature who actually enjoys them and going overboard set me up for days and days of eating eggplant, spinach, brussel sprouts, lettuce, and tomatoes (not all in one horrible salad) before they went bad. The truth is that there are few vegetables that I don't enjoy in one form or another... except peas.

Why has the pea been placed into veggie exile in my mind? It's not because of the taste necessarily. I'm not a fan of the texture, but I'm mainly thinking of canned peas and not fresh ones. I hate peas because my mother tried to force me to eat them when I was a child. When I think of them, I think of being forced to sit at the kitchen table with a plate of them in front of me. I played a power game with my mother on that day and I won. She and the peas both lost.

So, a lot of our food preferences are about taste, but some are about experience. I should probably give peas another chance, but then they (and my mother if she found out) would "win" and I'm not going to surrender my victory no matter how much time has passed. Okonomiyaki, the Japanese "pizza", "pancake", "omelet" or pile-of-stuff-that-looks-like-barf -(whatever you want to call it ) has a similar negative memory associated with it. If you don't want to read the linked post for the story, I'll say that I hate the connection between idiot school girls and okonomiyaki more than I dislike the taste of the actual dish.

Fortunately, I don't connect Pretze with school girls of any kind so I was willing to try out this "Hiroshima-yaki" with a picture of okonomiyaki on the front variety. Apparently, the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki has a layer of yaki-soba noodles as well as bean sprouts, omelets, eggs, onions, and other typical ingredients. Incidentally, this is a "regional" Pretz. Yes, there are those just like there are regional KitKats.

I suspected when I bought this that it wasn't going to possess a rich flavor depth that included all of the involved ingredients. Pretz is, after all, a pretzel dusted with flavored salt. I don't think they carefully integrate seasoning into the dough before they bake the pretzels, but rather just use different flavoring on their basic pretzel. And, I was right. This has a light dusting of seasoning that gives it a mild okonomi sauce (that's the brown goo that is on top of the pancakes) flavor and not a whole lot else. It's got a little hint of Worchestershire sauce and soy and not nearly enough salt. The pretzel itself has a nice quality which is fresh and light, but nothing really to get too excited about.

If you are scared of something exotic, but want to fool yourself into thinking you're being adventurous with food, this is a great choice. It's a bit expensive for a fairly basic pretzel (I paid about $1.50 for this) and only worth it for the novelty factor. While I thought this was fine, I certainly wouldn't buy it again because it's just not that remarkable.

Friday, November 22, 2013

KS Snacks (Service Review)

Geography has a profound impact on who we are. Many people don't realize it, but the weather not only shapes how you respond to temperature, but also affects personality. There's a reason that my husband is mellow, relaxed and tends not to worry and I'm more up-tight, organized, and fret. If you grow up in California, at least in the areas with fairly temperate weather year-round, you're not facing times of physical hardship and a concurrent economic impact.

One thing I've realized all too well is that geography has played a part in my blogging. Originally, I could do this because I lived in Japan. Now, I can do it because I live in an area with a relative plethora of Asian markets. I realize that not all readers are as geographically fortunate as me. My experiences are shaped by my access to such places. My readers may not be so lucky.

When I'm offered the chance to review a mail order service, I'm pleased to do so because I know that such places may be the only way for some of my readers to get their hands on the types of things I can take access to for granted. In this case, I'm the one in the "temperate" snack purchasing situation and they're the ones in the cold, harsh winters.

KS Snacks, an Indonesian seller of Asian snack foods, contacted me and offered to send me a package to review their food as well as their service. Of course, I happily accepted. If you look at their web site, you'll note that their prices are in Indonesian rupiah and there are some pretty big numbers. That's okay because you can easily convert to your home currency using Google's currency translation (just type "Indonesian rupiah to (your home currency)" in a search box). For reference, $1 U.S. dollar = 11,702 rupiah as of the writing of this post.

The selection includes a good variety of Indonesian treats as well as Japanese ones. For example, there is a KitKat mini variety pack with twelve different mini bars for just a shade under $6. For reference, I can tell you that the retail price of a bag of 14 Japanese KitKat minis in Japan was the equivalent of $6.50 U.S. Also, the Fujiya Matcha "Look" bar is $2.19. Though such bars cost around 100 yen (about a dollar) in Japan, I never pay less than $2.00 for them at Asian markets here and often pay exactly the same price as KS Snacks charges - $2.19.

For Japanese items, the prices at KS Snacks are comparable to what I'm paying here in the U.S. However, if you're curious about Indonesian snacks, then you're in a position to find some interesting food at bargain prices. One of the more intriguing items is a red wine pretzel snack, Pejoy, for $2.13. There are also two Pocky flavors, mango mousse and blueberry yogurt, at the same price.

In terms of communicating with KS Snacks, I have to say that they were polite, professional, and very helpful. There was no problem at all communicating in English though I'm pretty sure it was the second language of my contact at the company. They sent my package by registered mail and have order tracking for both domestic and international parcels. This is an added service that I have never seen from any other seller who I've reviewed.

Now, for the unboxing...

The parcel comes very well wrapped and protected in a sturdy box. This may not seem like a big deal, but I've received two empty parcels since I moved to a new city. The post office here mishandles mail more than any I've ever experienced before. I'm gratified that this was unassailable or I could have received a package full of crumbs or another empty box.

Ah, bubble wrap. You are my good friend and provide hours of amusement to those who are easily amused... not that I would fall into such a category.

A fine assortment which I'll be reviewing in the coming weeks. 

I was sent a good cross-section of items to sample and I'll be posting my first review of an item next week. It will be interesting to compare the Indonesian golden Oreos to American ones since my husband and I recently got some for free and I now have some first-hand experience with them.

With Christmas coming up, it might make for an interesting gift to assemble an exotic snacks package from KS Snacks. It would be easy to put together a nice mix of some of the more expensive Japanese items and the cheaper Indonesian and other Asian items. I know that I was delighted by my package of surprise goodies from them. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Burking King BiKing is back

Burger King conducts an annual campaign which can be very confusing to those who aren't familiar with the ins and outs of Japanese spelling and pronunciation of various letters as well as their unique term for "all you can eat." When an English speaker reads only the English on this ad, it may appear that they're dealing with people who ride bikes or that the king has decided that his door swings both ways.

The reason this is written as "BiKing" is that "Viking" in Japan means "all you can eat" and the sound of "b" and "v" is a problem for most Japanese listeners when it comes to English. From 2:00-11:00 PM, customers can buy a set and for 30 minutes, they can have any component of it (onion rings or fries, drink, burger) refilled. If you're caught trying to take out leftovers (absolutely no take-out on this deal) or sharing with others, you will have to put on a creepy King mask and stand outside the shop with a sandwich board admitting your crime. Okay, that's a big, fat lie. We all know that most Japanese would rather die than die of embarrassment admitting that they tried to weasel free grub out of the King. If you cheat on the deal, you have to pay for each component separately.

This is an interesting campaign (which started on November 15) because it allows people to have all you can eat on potentially high value items like a burger. However, given the 30-minute time limit and the fact that most Japanese people are not capable of hogging down a ton of food at once - barring the competitive eaters out there - this is probably a money maker for Burger King rather than a loser. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Random Picture #189

This is, rather obviously, a display for Calbee Hot & Spicy chips. These are tasty chips, but I wasn't really interested in buying them because I've had them before. They're actually pretty cheap here, but I don't eat so many potato chips and prefer to try something a little more exotic. Since I dismissed these rather rapidly when pondering purchases, I didn't notice something that my husband saw. He said, "did you look at the sign?" It was only then that I noticed that strange English errors don't occur only in Japan, but also in Japanese markets in parts of the country with a lot of Hispanic people. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Glico's Asian Santa Campaign

All images from Glico.

My mother once took a part-time job as a Santa in a mall. She was chubby enough and was willing to seat children on her lap and pretend to be jolly for a month or so. She told me that most kids weren't paying heed because the beard and outfit masked her female features sufficiently, but some did notice mainly because of her hands being too small and tapered to be man-hands. In America, anyone can be Santa.

Asian Santa takes a selfie.

Glico is promoting its line of children's biscuits called "Bisco" using what it refers to as an "Asian Santa". It's interesting not because they're using a Christmas theme to sell cookies to kids, but because of the way they talk about the Santa. In the U.S., we would never specifically refer to Santa as being a particular ethnicity. It would be considered racist. I think that the reason Glico is specifying that this is an Asian Santa is because kids can write to him in Japanese and he can answer in their language. I've had students in the past talk about how, when they were kids, they were worried that Santa only understood English so they didn't write letters to him.

He's not only certified, but he's up on current events!

Besides being capable of dealing with kids in their native language (and selling them Bisco cookies), Glico's Santa is a "certified/licensed" Santa impersonator. It is very important that fake Santas be qualified to do their job. My mother didn't have such qualifications. That may be why she didn't get to go back again the following year. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kameda Seika Happy Turn Maple Sembei

My husband and I brought back select souvenirs from Japan and had to be extra cautious about large items. One of the big things we brought back was a Happy Turn tin. He won it in a crane game (aka UFO Catcher) and I had a good association both with how it was acquired and with the product inside - the "Happy Turn" (sometimes called "Happy Tan" sembei. We keep the tin in the kitchen and I store my snacks in it. It's a nice way of keeping the multiple open bags and food waiting to be reviewed in an appropriate place.

"Happy Turn" is a very popular brand in Japan and most people know it and enjoy it. If you want to understand just how popular, you need only consider that there is a stamp made with its mascot's image. A real postage stamp. Yes. I haven't seen a Dorito's stamp in the U.S. - but then I haven't been looking either.

The brand's signature is a unique combination of sweet and salty with a heavy emphasis on vinegar. When I saw this maple variety at Marukai market for about $2.60 (around 270 yen), I jumped at the chance to sample it. I only had a few second thoughts when it came time to open the bag. Since vinegar is a large part of the Happy Turn experience, I suddenly realized that maple may not be the best choice. After all, few are the times when I've mixed vinegar with maple syrup and poured it on my pancakes or chugged it down as an elixir.

There aren't many flavor variations on Happy Turn, oddly. Besides the regular variety, there is cheese, this maple flavor, and, very strangely, a chocolate-covered version that is being sold as part of a variety pack. I would pick up said pack if I saw it, but mainly because I'd get to try the cheese version. The chocolate sounds pretty out there, but you just never know. Vinegar is nearly a cure-all and can mix with some pretty interesting flavors... but I'll hold off on the Hershey's syrup and rice vinegar, too.

With some apprehension, I gave it a taste, and it did taste weird at first. There is a definite maple flavor followed by vinegary sharpness. After I had it, I thought that was strange, but then I wanted another, and another, and another. It's strange how it was so enticing even when it seemed like such an odd flavor pairing. Somehow, it worked for me with the sweet, salt, and sour flavors mixing in. Of course, the light crispy cracker was adding something very "more-ish" to the textural delights.

I can't say that this is for everyone, but I liked it. It wouldn't be my first choice of Happy Turn, but it very much won't be hard to finish the bag. I can't say I'd kill to get more, but, if it was on sale, I'd certainly pick up some more for future consumption. At only 20 calories per cracker, it's also not the most calorically dense treat and the flavor is strong enough to satisfy after about 5 or so of them. My only issue with them is that, while they are all individually wrapped, they're done with a twist wrapper. Chances are they'll go stale fast if the bag isn't kept tightly closed or they aren't eaten pretty fast. That's a small complaint, and I can say that Happy Turn deserves the "happy" rating.

The "Happy Turn" download page currently features some adorable illustrations of the king and his castle. You can get it here for the time being.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lotte Pepero Nude

I didn't know this when I bought this snack, but apparently November 11 is "Pepero day" in Korea. According to Wikipedia, the original purpose of this day -an opportunisty holiday created by Lotte in order to sell more of their snacks - was for people to become taller and thinner. The irony of exchanging sweets to become thinner was apparently lost on the marketing folks at Lotte. The date was supposed to relate to this tall and thin image as well as the product's appearance ("1111" for November 11 - I bet that loved 11/11/11 when it rolled around).

These days, the holiday is supposed to be similar to Valentine's Day, or at least the Japanese version of it. That is, it's about showing affection for friends and family. There's an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal blog about this holiday and how Glico created a "Pocky day" to counter this rival's invented holiday. Again, there is irony to this as Pepero is a rip-off of Pocky and then Pocky ripped off the Pepero holiday. They're just a couple of happy thieves stealing each others ideas.

Pepero nude is called such because the normal version has the chocolate on the outside like a Pocky. Since I hadn't really seen Pepero much before I picked this box up for 89 cents (about 90 yen) at Ranch 99 Asian Market, I had to learn about the fact that this is not their usual version from my research rather than experience - such is the studious life of a snack blogger.

These remind me in terms of their concept of Koala's March or Pucca. They're essentially an inverted Pocky stick. The good point of this is that you can use a softer filling because the chocolate coating isn't on the outside where it can rub off. The bad part is that that chocolate flavor is not going to reveal itself quite so fully.

The latter is part of the problem with these snack sticks. There's a very nice pretzel shell on the outside which has a pleasing earthy flavor from whole grain flour. The chocolate flavor is very muted even when you get to the center. Part of the reason for this is the overall construction. The other is that it's neither sweet nor salty enough to enhance the cocoa flavor. If there was a little more sweetness on the inside and some grains of salt on the outside, this could be a powerhouse. As it is, there's a touch of bittersweet chocolate flavor, a tiny bit of fatty richness from the soft filling, and a whole lot of pretzel.

Anyone who has read my blog regularly knows that I am not a fan of sugar bombs and this doesn't have to be insanely sweet to satisfy me. I know that tastes vary from country to country so I'm guessing that Koreans like their sweets low on the sweetness - even lower than the Japanese. Since this claims to be "Korea's No. 1 Brand", I'm guessing it is well-suited to their palates. It's just not finely tuned to mine. At 15 calories per stick, it's a pleasing option for the hips, but it's not doing nearly as much for the taste buds as I'd like. I'll slowly finish this package (17 sticks were in mine), but I wouldn't buy the "nude" version again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Haagen Daz Royal Cassis Milk Ice Cream (product announcement)

One of my friends once indicated, in his own unique, colorful, and thoroughly charming way, that he believed that it was a waste of my talent and potential to be writing about snack foods. I could see where he was coming from, though I did remind him that I did have another blog

The purpose of continuing to do this blog is that it encourages me to consider trying new things. In fact, part of its original intent was to push me to try more Japanese food back when my tastes were more conservative. As time has gone by, and I've broadened my experience to encompass quite a lot of what there is to offer, it's taken on a new purpose and that is that tracking Japanese snacks informs me about marketing, culture, and the origin of various foods. I've expanded the blog to try and include one non-Japanese review per week (usually on Fridays) in order to broaden my sampling and knowledge, but there is still plenty on the Japanese front to learn from as this product illustrated to me.

I had heard of "creme de cassis" before going to Japan, but only as a word in reference to alcoholic drinks, but I didn't know what cassis was (it's the French word for blackcurrant). It's not popular as a flavor or fruit in the U.S. - most likely because it isn't a native plant and never was incorporated into the common food culture. This ice cream includes not only cassis, but Marc de Champagne. Of course, I had never heard of that before either, but my research says that it is a colorless champagne made from the seeds and stalks that are a byproduct of making champagne. As you can see, I am pushed to become more broadly educated by virtue of writing about snacks.

Haagen Daz is marketing this as a holiday (Christmas and New Year's) special and it's supposed to wed the tangy acidity of cassis with the creaminess of milk and the warmth of the brandy. It's an extremely elegant combination which I probably would not sample even if I have the opportunity because I'm not a fan of boozy sweets. Still, I find it a reflection of the larger culture in Japan that such sophisticated offerings are created for the consumer market. It's not that we don't have such things in the U.S. - we do - but rather that they tend to be more available as specialty products by smaller artisan or craft makers. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Random Picture #188

When I was a kid, I didn't like Cracker Jacks. There was something off to me about the caramel coating. It always tasted a bit burnt to me. However, I was always happy to get a box of it anyway because of the prize inside. That was a long time ago when the prizes were at least a little less lame than they are now. I remember being annoyed when I got miniature coloring books or stickers and being happy when I got some pointless piece of crap. Somehow, the item being plastic made it seem like I got something more "real".

In the case of Cracker Jacks, you got a little prize and a whole lot of food. In the case of this Glico offering, you get a whole lot of prize and very little candy. This is part of the Star Wars series that I mentioned before. There are 10 straps featuring various popular characters from the movies. You don't have a choice about which one you'll get so you'll need to buy a lot of boxes to get the ones you want. The candy is almost an afterthought (the heart on the front shows it). It's like the bubblegum in baseball cards - included because it seems necessary and not because that's what the buyer really wants. The portion of candy is also incredibly tiny (a half ounce). If I had wanted to buy this, it would have cost me $1.98 (about 200 yen). Since the candy really isn't what's on offer here and I'm not a Star Wars fan, I passed, but I can see how this would be pretty enticing for a collector.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lawson Uchi Cafe Bread campaign (product information)

I subscribe to a web site which shows retro ads for various products as well as one that takes old recipes and tries them out to see if they're decent. In both of these cases, you see a fair number of ads for things which are incorporated into recipes that don't really belong. Old 7-Up ads, for instance, encourage you to pour it in your meatloaf mix or to mix it with milk and give it to your kids.

It makes perfect sense for manufacturers to try and shoehorn their product into your recipes so that you'll use it more often. Lawson has taken a very different approach to trying to sell its bread. Rather than encourage you to buy bread and then incorporate it into your French toast, tsukune mix, or soak it in sake for a Japanized bread pudding, they just give you recipes for food that goes well with bread.

The idea of pairing your food in ads in order to put the idea in people's heads that, hey, 'food A goes well with food B', but I don't think I've ever seen recipes given which don't include the product being promoted. It's an interesting concept and the reason this caught my eye was a recipe for chestnut soup. In fact, at first I thought they were selling the soup in their convenience stores, but, no, it's about the side dish.

If you'd like to make the soup, the recipe is here. It's actually not too dissimilar from a recipe I created while living in Japan though I didn't use cream in mine and I included carrots, sage, and thyme. There are 7 recipes and only two of them show bread as a side. The others are actually for spreads to put on bread, sandwich filling, and, in one case, making a French-toast-style recipe with berries. The basic concept is to pair bread with a variety of other flavors (lemon, egg, chestnut, potato, apple, salmon, and berry) so you can enjoy Lawson's brick of white bread every single day of the week with a far more interesting flavor.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Meiji Earl Grey Meltyblend

One of the things that Japan has a much better market for than America is chocolate that straddles the line between the plebian consumer tastes and the more upscale market. In order to cater to these candy in-betweeners, they sell things like Melty Kiss (the line that this is directly related to). It's somewhat more expensive, comes in smaller portions, and is a little less widely available, but is by no means hard to find or expensive. The result is a little like a truffle, and it's one of those things that should catch on as an import in other countries, but has not.

I have a few opinions about why this sort of thing isn't popular here. The primary one is that these are relatively delicate candies. It says "winter limited" in the corner for a reason. These things would be puddles of goo in the heat and that means they can't be shipped from just anywhere at just any time. The other reason is that, if they are imported, they are generally quite expensive. In Japanese markets, I tend to see the Melty line for about $4.00 per box. For about 2 oz. (15 pieces) of candy, that's on the higher than I'd like to pay side. I only bought this one because it was part of a half price sale at Marukai market.

I'm not generally a fan of the pairing of black tea and chocolate, but this was the most interesting of the three flavors on offer (the other two were strawberry and chocolate). On occasion, I will have a square of chocolate (usually Lindt if I have it around) with a cup of tea, but that's a rather different experience as they are distinctly different flavors.

The Earl Grey flavor and the chocolate are definitely firmly manacled together like a couple of prisoners on a chain gang. They both jump out and seize your tongue immediately. Both are potent, though not necessarily in a bad way. That is not to say that they work together in a good way either. If these two were breaking rocks together, they'd chip away at a few sizable rocks, but I wouldn't count of them to tackle any enormous boulders.

The main appeal of the Melty line is that it's rich, fatty, and, unsurprisingly, melts on the tongue. The reason it is only available in the colder months is that it is designed to melt when you put it in your mouth and is fragile even in somewhat warmer temperatures. All of the decadent textural elements of the line are present in this chocolate, and that's probably what puts it over the line in terms of being something I kinda, sorta liked and probably wouldn't have cared for.

I think this actually has the elements of a high end chocolate that you'd buy in one of those specialty stores like Leonidas or a custom chocolatier. That's all well and dandy, but my tastes are somewhat more pedestrian than such lofty delicacies. I think that, if you like strong flavor mixes that are quite authentic, there is the potential to truly love this. As it was, I liked it enough to be happy to finish the box, but not enough to buy another one in the future.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Variety Friday: Food Waste

Last week, I reviewed a package of rice crackers that I bought at a discount store. As my regular readers may recall, I did not review it favorably. It cost me about 80 cents, and I may or may not finish the package. Chances are that I will do so, albeit slowly. I'll probably find a way to "doctor" the crackers with some other spice (likely some flavored popcorn salt) in order to make them more enjoyable.

Why would I go to all of this trouble for some sub-par rice crackers? The reason is that I grew up poor and was taught that one did not waste food. I grew up poor enough that there were times when I was hungry and fished through the cabinet for food and came up with uncooked spaghetti noodles to eat. I remember chowing down on them (and finding them rather difficult to eat) because whatever was available otherwise was not something at that age that I could figure out what to do with. There may have been other food in the house, but I was too young to cook it.

I do not mean to indicate that my family starved or anything, but there were ebbs and flows to our food supply based on how far back the next paycheck had been received. Of course, this was at a time when food was not nearly as cheaply available nor was there as much shelf stable or ready to eat food around as there is now. Food was not something we just had around in abundant supply or threw away blithely and, at least the latter, is not something I would do now.

Getting back to those rice crackers though, I thought about them again not because 2/3 of the package is still waiting to be eaten, but because of the umpteen number of articles that I read about food waste in America. Reports say that "Americans" waste up to 40% of their food. I've heard about food waste many times, but I never scratched the surface on how this statistic is arrived at. Thinking about my less than tasty rice crackers sheds some light on this, as did a little research.

First, let's think about shops like "Big! Lots" in the U.S. and comparable stores in Japan. I can only speak about these two countries because I've lived for over 20 years in each and don't have similar experiences in other places. In Tokyo, there were very few shops that sold food that wasn't especially popular at reduced rates. The closest I came to them was Okashi no Machioka and Okashi no Marche. Even those shops didn't sell only discounted snacks or food. They also sold newer things. I think this is because Japanese people are a lot less open to buying old food than Americans as they value quality over price.*

In the U.S., I've encountered numerous outlets selling food and other items at a discount. Some are beyond their sell-by dates and others are just simply not great products overall. Those Peakal rice crackers that I reviewed are the sort of thing that no one would buy twice. Their ultimate fate, beyond the discount stores that slash their prices, is to become a part of food waste statistics when even "Big! Lots" can't sell them for less than a dollar to the least discerning of customers (which tells you about how picky I am).

I peeled back the label on the 40% food waste number and found that it is not necessarily dubious in and of itself, but that the idea that "Americans" waste so much food is a suspect conclusion. The statistics are derived not based on individual behavior, but on the amount of food available and the amount of food consumed in the U.S. They look at farming, imports, etc. and then calculate what we need to eat based on the number of people and the average number of calories consumed for that number of people. They calculate waste based on what doesn't need to be eaten. It's all a big guess - an educated one - but a guess nonetheless.

If you look under the surface of this, what you're seeing is not that people are tossing out food willy-nilly, but rather that Americans are being offered more food than they need so it is not being consumed. I'm sure that a piece of that is new food products that don't sell by their expiration date and it gets tossed out. Some of it is also based on the ebb and flow of crop levels based on weather and market conditions. This year, kale may be "hot" so the supply of it is largely consumed, but spinach is not because of an unfortunate incident with food poisoning so a lot of what is grown isn't purchased by major manufacturers like "Green Giant" as they don't want to package a lot of frozen spinach that won't be bought by wary consumers.

The picture is often presented as Americans blithely buying and wasting precious food, but that is not what the actual evidence supports. I read a detailed report on how food waste breaks down and the section on "household" food waste - that is, waste that comes from our actual habits - asserts that the average American wastes 25% of edible food. They only tell you at the very end of a lengthy report on why this happens (poor food planning, impulse buying, over-preparation, ignorance of sell-by and expiration dates, etc.) that their number is based not on actual research but "anecdotal evidence". If it's "anecdotal", it's not actually "evidence".

I do believe that people waste food and I even believe that Americans may waste more food than some other cultures, but if we're going to rely on anecdotes, I'm going to tell you that I waste almost no food at all. The fact that I review snacks and a lot of them are not great means that I should be the sort of person who ends up tossing out a lot of things because they suck, but I try hard not to do that.

One of the ways I avoid throwing away edible food is by finding someone who will eat what I will not. My husband's graduate school is often the recipient of sweets or salted snacks that I don't like. They'll grab anything that you put on the kitchen table at the school and eat it up, especially if it's junk food. I also try to find a way to make a bad snack work by mixing it with something else, warming it up, or cooling it down. Bad Pocky is made better by refrigerating it. Bad mochi is made better by microwaving it. Bad salty snacks can be seasoned or used with dips. Sometimes, I can crumble them up and use them as a coating for other food like chicken or fish.

If I'm going to continue with anecdotes, since that apparently is a valid way of reaching conclusions about American food habits when you publish official papers on such things, I can say that I've been the happy recipient numerous times of food other people didn't want. When a friend of ours moved, we inherited her frozen broccoli and tilapia as well as things like coconut sugar and gluten-free flour. I've also gotten overripe bananas and the food from an overflowing garden from relatives and I've used every bit of it. When our milk approaches its expiration date, I make it into cottage cheese (this is very easy - just boil and add an acid like vinegar or lemon juice - instant and cheap curds). I do not waste food except when it is the most vile concoction or has some serious safety issue.

I should note that I live in a relatively affluent area. The people giving me food are middle class and upper middle class people who are doing it so the food doesn't go to waste because they are mindful about this issue. This isn't the behavior of poor people who grew up as I did, so I think it is important not to conclude that only those who grew up with the occasional empty food cubbard are going to some efforts not to waste food. At least some affluent people think about food waste and avoiding it, tooo.

What I believe is the case is that there are some people who are wasting food, but that the majority of waste is on the supply side and out of the hands of individuals. I think other countries, for various reasons, aren't being sold more than they need. Since America is a consumerist country with a lot of money to throw around, companies want to put things in front of us with the hopes that we'll like them and buy them. Sometimes, they're giving us Sriracha and people go nuts buying it up. Sometimes, they give us Peakal cheese rice crackers and it heads for a landfill. As individuals, I'm not sure we deserve to be tagged as such enormous wasters of food. It may be that "America" sees a lot of food that goes to waste, but that "Americans" aren't necessarily being as excessively wasteful as statistics might indicate.

*Note: I make no value judgment when I assert this. I think there is nothing noble in valuing quality over price nor anything elitist about it either. It is simply an assertion of a reality and I do not see it as better or worse than any other priority.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lotte Gokujo (product information)

All images are from Lotte.

Japan's birthrate has been on the decline for ages and that means that there are fewer young people all of the time to enjoy sweets. There are two groups of people who generally are not drawn to such things - men and older folks of both genders. Since the market of young people isn't going to grow any time soon, the answer is to try and expand into the demographic that generally doesn't want your candy.

The professional looking chap above is meant to tell the modern businessman that, when 5:00 PM rolls around, he should kick back with a little sweet before going on to work his unpaid overtime. Lotte has his rumbling stomach covered with one of the most awkward looking candy and cookie combinations on the market. I didn't make that up. The mention of 5:00 PM, relaxation, and even "healing the heart" is part of the press for this product from Lotte.

The two new flavors are chocolate and strawberry. Ther feature a buche (soft cookie or cake) "sandwich" with a generous amount of "fresh cream" (essentially, ganache) coated in chocolate to contain the potential ooze. It actually looks fine, but essentially pretty boring. These things with soft cake are always a disappointment because the cake parts are either a bit greasy or dry (or an odd combination of both). Hungry business folks can buy that at convenience stores near their offices now. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Random Picture #187

Nestle Japan is mainly recognized for its KitKats, but it has been introducing the Crunch bar to the Japanese market. They didn't sell them as individual bars when I was there, but they sold them as mini bars in large bags. For this reason, I never bought a Nestle crunch bar in Japan as I didn't want to buy an enormous bag of them.

One of the reasons the Crunch brand isn't as well known as KitKats is that Nestle Japan didn't go crazy offering a lot of varieties, though they did offer a green tea variety (which I can still buy here but according to the Nestle Japan web site, it's now "obsolete") and are currently offering a vanilla caramel version.

I used to love Nestle's Crunch bar when I was a kid and it was my second favorite candy bar to see in my trick-or-treat bag (the first was Snickers). Since coming home, I've found that the quality has changed or my tastes have. It's not the thrill it once was.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tirol Holiday Assortments (product information)

Images from Tirol.

I think Tirol has to be one of the most representative companies in terms of displaying the Japanese tendency to value appearance over substance. One of their brand selling points if the collectible wrappers on its candies. They even maintain a gallery on their web site of all of the wrappers dating back to 1979 so people can see what they've offered. I admire their artistry, but I'm not so great a fan of the way in which they put the same old candies inside the wrappers on a regular basis.

For Christmas, they're offering up two collections and neither has anything going for it aside from the wrapping. The first (at the top of this post) is a "whole cake" collection which uses the theme of an entire Christmas cake to repackage strawberry shortcake, hotcake, and cranberry cheesecake flavors. Of those three, only the last one hasn't been on offer before (at least it's one I've never encountered).

The second collection is a cup with milk, coffee nougat, and biscuit ("Bis") varieties. All of these are flavors that have been around for ages. The wrapping is pretty, but the flavors aren't much to get excited about. If I see either of these, there's zero chance I'll buy them because there's just not enough novelty in the packages for me to trouble myself. I am curious about the cranberry cheesecake flavor, but not enough to pop for a whole variety pack.

If you'd like a November calendar for your desktop picture/wallpaper, Tirol is offering one here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Bourbon Kinako Chocolate

Have you ever thought about what you owe to the existence of fire? Oh, I'm not talking about such pedestrian things as keeping your naked ass warm, generating energy for your gadgets so you can be a techno-zombie, or making sure that every burger you eat isn't tartare. I'm talking about something bigger and more important - the contribution it makes to the taste of the food you eat.

Since most of us are naked apes who enslave machines to do our dirty work (and occasionally people, but this isn't a political blog so let's not go there), we don't think very hard about how our food gets to be what it is. Roasting, which involves, you know, fire, is part of what makes some of the best things in life good. I'm not even talking about the type of "roasting" that involves cooking food, I'm speaking of the type which makes the things used in cooking palatable. In particular, coffee, nuts, and chocolate all come into their own through roasting. Soy bean flour is another one of those things which blossoms into something special through the magic of fire.

One of the reasons that I like kinako so much is that the roasting brings out a nutty flavor. It is reminiscent of peanuts, but has its own special qualities. I'm guessing that it tastes like peanuts in large part because the roasting cultivates similar qualities in soy bean and legumes, but I'm no expert on this. All I know is that kinako is good. When I found these for about $2.00 at Niyiya market, I snapped them up.

Bourbon is best known for making tubes of tiny packaged cookies. Some are pretty good and some are quite boring. They do have other products as well, but they aren't as ubiquitous or well-known (except for the Alfort line of cookies with chocolate). I'm certain this particular product is a temporary one which will vanish when the cherry blossoms arrive in spring, if not sooner. Kinako is a winter flavor for reasons unknown to me, but I'm guessing it has to do with the harvesting season for soy beans in the distant past.

These are little nuggets of kinako bliss on multiple levels. First, you are hit with the nutty joys of the toasted soybean flour on the outside with the slightest bit of creamy white chocolatey flavor and texture. Next, you get the airy, crispy wafer shell and finally you are rewarded at the end with a roasted peanut. Each element unfolds both as an individual flavor (the peanut mainly as an aftertaste) and as a melange of flavors. For a tiny little thing, this packs a load of depth both in taste and texture.

Clearly, I loved these. Each package is supposed to be one serving of 190 calories, but I think I can stretch that over two or three portions given that there are 34 little nuggets in the bag (yes, I counted). They're too good to pop in your mouth by the handful and chomp down on rapidly. I recommend savoring each individual bite for it's flavor depth and mixture of textures, preferably with a drink to cleanse the palate between nibbles. If you like kinako, you will love these. If you've never had it, these are a very good introduction to a flavor that is known and loved by many Japanese people and that I wish were common in America.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Peakal Cheese Rice Crackers

They're "all-natural"! I guess that including silicon dioxide and maltodextrin is good then.

When I was living in Japan, many of my American friends would tell me how much they loved sushi. Since I don't love sushi (I think it's okay, but I'm not mad about it), I found their zeal for it a bit curious. It turns out that they weren't eating the sushi that I was eating because much American sushi is a more elaborate affair than Japanese sushi.

When I say, "elaborate", I mean that it's a more flavorful mess. When it's not, people tend to saturate it with soy sauce, wasabi, etc. to make it tastier to their Americanized palates. In no way do I mean this as a criticism, so please don't misunderstand me. I believe we develop tastes based on the food we're raised with and Americans like strong flavors. Japanese like subtle ones. Sushi in the U.S. and how it is eaten tends to reflect this. My point is that the sushi I had experience with and was so-so about was not the same as the sushi Americans were mad about.

As my regular readers (you know who you are, and I love you for following my drivel) know, I became a huge fan of rice crackers (sembei). Most Americans are a bit so-so on them, or simply don't care for them at all. I can understand that, with flavor-blasted chips and crackers, sembei might seem like a rather boring affair, but I have come to understand that that is not the reason. The reason is that the rice crackers that I was eating in Japan are not the rice crackers that people are eating in America.

I buy most of my sembei from Asian markets and all of it, so far, has been produced for the Japanese market. Occasionally, I do want to try something a bit more "mass market". That is, I pick up something which is sold in a generic American grocery store that anyone living anywhere in the U.S. might conceivably have access to. I do this because I want to see if I'll ever find something which has verisimilitude to what is sold in Japan or whether Americans are doomed to that animal that they call "rice cracker" which seems to be the ugly mutant cousin to Japanese sembei.

I found this package of rice crackers at "Big! Lots". I was there bargain hunting for a memory foam mattress topper and the snacks lured me in. You may scoff at my pedestrian shopping habits, but as long as I'm being paid a dime a post for my blog efforts, I'm going to economically more suited to the "Big! Lots" crowd than the Macy's one. This was about 70 cents, so I didn't have to pay much for my disappointment.

They look a little diseased.

When I tried rice crackers for the American market before, I noted that they were always quite a bit lower in calories. It's clear that the fat content on them is lower and that has a profound impact on the texture. In Japan, rice crackers really are more like chips in that they rarely spare the oil, especially when it comes to the "arare" (small, super crunchy, hard nuggets of rice cracker) ones. In the U.S., someone has clearly decided anything sold as a rice cracker has to be health food. Sure, the calories are lower, but the crackers are tough and crunchy in an unpleasant way. Without the oil, they are harder to chew and bite into and lack the crumbly, crunchy nature of "real" sembei.

These failed on the texture front, but they also failed on the flavor front as well. Though labeled as "cheese", there was barely any flavor powder on them. It's as if they sprinkled enough to add a vague orange cast in select spots and stingily hoarded the rest. Actually, there's a very good chance that there really just wasn't enough oil on the surface to hold onto any salt or flavor powder. It could be that this is a little like air-popped popcorn. Nothing sticks to it so it's like eating Styrofoam packing peanuts.

I didn't expect much of this, but I do still hope to find some good mass market rice crackers without resorting to Asian markets. There are two reasons for this. One is that I'd like to find something that can be had at regular stores. Another and much bigger issue is price. Buying Japanese sembei is not for one who is light in the wallet. If I'm lucky, I can find something on sale for around $2, but far more often than not, they cost $4.00-$6.00 a bag. I have had many experiences in which I've seen some sembei that I loved in Japan, but I simply could not justify paying such a price for a snack. This is especially so when the portions are relatively tiny. So, while this was a disappointment, the search will carry on.