Tuesday, December 31, 2013

KFC and Hello Kitty lunch box set (product information)

Image from KFC Japan.

For New Year's KFC is offering a special stacking lunch box which features an adorable image of a cartoon of the Colonel hugging Hello Kitty. If your idea of lunch time giggles is a cross-species relationship, this is definitely going to be a deal you'll want to partake of. The set includes the food items pictured above (3 fries, 3 pieces of chicken and 3 tenders) for 2,200 yen (about $21 US). It may seem like poor value for a couple of plastic boxes and enough for 3 tiny servings, but those Sanrio licenses don't come cheap.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Mr. Ito Marron (Chestnut) Tart Cookies

A few days after Christmas, I wanted to make the rounds of the three major Japanese markets in my area (Marukai, Nijiya, and Mitsuwa) to see if any of them had their New Year's preparation on. I was very disappointed to see that they had very little in the way of traditional New Year's decorations and the only food options were extremely expensive "o-sechi ryori" deals in which you'd have to pre-order your repast for the holidays. The only exception was over-priced balls of shelf stable kagami mochi and a woman selling roasted chestnuts outside of Mitsuwa several yards from a man roasting those chestnuts.

As my husband and I walked near Mitsuwa, he said he smelled something which he strongly associated with living in Tokyo. It was a burning smell that we both recalled being similar to that which came around tea shops that roasted their own leaves. In this case, we were smelling the roasting of the chestnuts. It resembled burnt coffee.

I've written before that roasting is a bit of a unifying flavor force. One of the reasons that kinako (toasted soy flour) tastes a bit like peanut butter is that both the soybeans and peanuts are roasted. I've learned that things made with chestnut often take on an almost coffee-like flavor because of their roasting as well. When I gave one of these cookies a pre-tasting sniff, the first thing I thought of was coffee with strong caramel notes.

My nose did not lie to me. These have both coffee- and caramel-like notes to them, though there is also some chestnut flavor. The outer tart is crumbly and like a butter cookie. It provides some of the flavor, though in fairly muted margarine and flour flavors. It's not especially sweet, though not really bland. It brings more of a textural contrast and a balancing of the sweeter, softer, and just short of gooey filling. In fact, the filling's sweetness and texture are pretty perfectly complemented by the cookie base. The only thing I could say is "wrong" with it is that it would be nice if the ratios were slightly different. There could be a little less cookie.

That's in no way an indictment. I liked this quite a bit. This cost about $3.00 at Marukai market and I felt it was slightly expensive for 8 small cookies (each is about the diameter of an Oreo). My husband actually had to talk me into spluring on them and I'm glad he did. Though I probably wouldn't dash out and stockpile them, I was happy to buy them and look forward to eating the rest. They aren't exactly a chestnut lover's dream, but they're fine cookies nonetheless and a good shake-up to the holiday parade of gingerbread, pumpkin, and sugar cookies that I experience at this time of year.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pocky New Year's cards download

Image from Glico.

The folks are Pocky are a little late in the game in promoting this, but I thought I'd put it out there for anyone who is doing 11th hour New Year's cards and would like to use them. Next year will be the year of the horse on the Chinese calendar and Pocky has some pretty nice designs on offer (both of horses and some beautiful traditional Japanese designs -scroll down to the bottom of the page to find those). You can download them here. Of course, even if you don't send New Year's cards, you may want to use these if you're a fan of horses!

To retrieve a card, click the one you like then right-click and choose to save the image from your browser.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Zentis Marzipan Potatoes

There's a very early episode of the Simpsons in which Bart annoys his friend Milhouse so much that he vacates the bus seat they are sharing and runs to the back of the bus to sit with the "weird" German exchange student, Uder. After Milhouse plants himself, Uder offers him some of his strange German candy including "Marzipan Joy Joys (mit Iodine)". Part of the subtle joke here is that those Germans have themselves some weird and unappetizing candy. Hah, hah!

For those who don't know, marzipan is almond paste created from ground almonds and sugar. I like to think of it as the European equivalent of peanut butter treats. I also like to think of it as food of the Gods. The main difference between peanut-butter-based and almond-based candy, besides the obvious differences in flavor is that the fat is a little lower in almonds so the results are less oily and they are slightly more nutritious, but I'm not going to lie. It's not about how "good" for you marzipan is, but something in the texture and taste which I personally love.

I've reviewed a few types of marzipan in the past and spoken of my quest for the "perfect" marzipan. That is, one that is moist, tasty, and not overburdened with too much in the way of pesky chocolate. Well, my friends, I have found my holy grail of marzipan. That does not mean that this is the best marzipan on the planet, but this has a presentation that I prefer. The marzipan balls are dusted with a fine coating of cocoa powder and their flavor profile is otherwise unsullied by chocolate. In fact, you can't really taste the cocoa at all.

Before I get any further, I should say that this is not the finest of the fine. It's 50% almond paste and 50% sugar. Better grade marzipan contains more almond paste and less sugar. That's okay because the sweetness level on this is high, but not insanely high. It's not cloying, and, in my opinion, is at the right level to enhance the richness of the almond paste flavor without being overbearing. These are tiny morsels of joy. Each ball is about the size of my index finger's nail (about double the size of a pea) and about 35 calories. It is a lovely small indulgence.

I found these at Cost Plus World imports for $9.99, though I got it on sale for $6.66. Zentis's web site asserts that these are a winter special, so I'm guessing they can't be purchased year round. Frankly, I picked these up as a holiday treat for myself, but I would love to have them available year round. The only down side to them is that it is a large quantity and, because they are not sealed in a chocolate coating, they start to dry out. This is particularly an issue if you eat them conservatively (I eat one a day, occasionally two) and don't move them from the large flimsy plastic container that they come in to incrementally smaller ones as the quantity drops. As more air forms around them, they dry out more.

Even dry, these are still lovely to have, though they are obviously best when fresh and still moist. I love these to pieces. They are pretty much all I wanted since I started sampling various sorts of marzipan. That doesn't mean that I won't try other types. Perish the thought! It simply means that this is the new standard by which all others will be judged.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Baskin Robbins Strawberry Balsamic Vinegar Ice Cream (product information)

Strawberry Berrishima - Image courtesy of Baskin Robbins

I've read several food blogs for many years and I'm familiar with all of the foodie fads like adding balsamic vinegar to everything from salad dressing to fruit to your dog's organic doggie biscuits which you lovely crafted with your own two hands and baked into little heart and bone shapes. Foodies love them some balsamic vinegar.

Personally, I hate it. I have tried it and the things it is mixed with several times and there is a wine/vinegar combination flavor that just does not work for me. Frankly, it reminds me of blood. I can't say why it tastes like blood, and yes, from being a very young child and licking blood off of a wound before I knew better, I do remember what it tasted like. Yes, I know that sounds gross, but I wasn't the only child who did that. At any rate, I hate balsamic vinegar, though I actually really like other types of vinegar.

Baskin Robbins is playing to the types of people who were so disgusting as to lick the droplets of blood off of their scrapes and cuts when they were in first grade. If you think mascerating your strawberries with balsamic vinegar is the bee's knees, then this combo of mascarpone cheese ice cream with rippons of strawberry and said vinegar is for you. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Random Picture #194

Merry Christmas to my readers. I hope you're all enjoying your holiday.

If you were in Japan, you could be leaving Santa a little treat. He wouldn't eat it, of course, but he'd feed it to his reindeer - at least that's what the illustration on the bag seems to be telling us. These are "choco daifuku" or chocolate-filled rice cake. These shelf-stable versions of daifuku tend to be a little disappointing, especially if they are designed for kids. The rice cake can sometimes be a bit touch or stale, so, despite the adorable holiday-themed packaging, I didn't opt to buy such a large amount for reviewing. I had other plans for my holiday nosh, as you'll see by Friday's review. ;-)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fast Food Christmas deals 2013 (product information)

Image courtesy of Domino's Pizza, Japan.

When you think Christmas dinner, you think of chain pizza places, right? Well, you would if you were in Japan - at least you would as a second thought after you found out that your local KFC no longer had any open slots for Christmas dinner meal reservations. They're the second line of defense in a country which doesn't give anyone the day off for holiday meal preparation. You'd look to fast food, too, if you had to try and pull a "special" meal together after a long day on the job. Domino's is offering the tasty-looking specimen above. It looks big and juicy, doesn't it? Well, if you view it in context, it's not so much a half "chicken" as a "half pigeon".

To understand just how tiny this is, you have to bear in mind that a "large" pizza in Japan is no bigger than and sometimes slightly smaller than a "medium" in the U.S. That is, it was about 12" (25 cm.) in diameter. You can get a Christmas dinner set including this half Cornish game hen with a salad, Coke, and a tiny cake for 4,900 ($47) or 5,900 yen ($57).

Pizza Hut is not to be left our. If you reserve the day before you want the order received, and between Dec. 21 and Dec. 25, and you spend at least 3,000 yen ($29) on your pizza, potatoes, and whatever else is in your fast food meal, you can get the above cake as a "present". The cake is 12 cm. (4.8 in.), so you've getting an itty bitty little thing, but at least it's free!

I checked out the last, and most popular, of the triumvarate of pizza chains in Japan. That would be Pizza-la, and, apparently, they want nothing to do with this Christmas nonsense and don't appear to be making any special offers. I guess they do well enough with their regular Japan-style offerings as well as things like their New Zealand pizza (cheddar cheese, cheddar sauce, chicken, mayonnaise, thick-cut bacon, onion, tomato, and parsley).

Of course, the "grandaddy" Christmas deal in Japan is KFC. They are offering their standard Christmas deal for 3,980 yen/$38 (pictured above) and it includes a medium-size commemorative plate. Note that this plate design, is very similar to the 2010 design on the one my husband and I got during our one and only KFC holiday celebration. It's a little different (people around a tree instead of around a merry-go-round), but similar enough that I confused them on first glance.

Happy Christmas Eve to my readers. This is actually my favorite day as the moment of anticipation is always better than the moment of any sort of reveal. I hope you all have a good one!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Meiji Black Chocolate Bar

Back in 2009, when returning to America was more of a vague plan than a reality, I decided that I'd do comparison reviews of all of the plain milk chocolate bars produced by major Japanese food conglomerates. This mean Meiji, Lotte, and Morinaga. Lotte's Ghana won and Meiji came in last.

None of them were "bad", but mostly Meiji's had more of the bitter coffee-like aftertaste that is so commonly experienced with Japanese chocolate. I will note that most chocolate in Japan has this note because it has a somewhat bittersweet or semisweet quality. This would be fine if it didn't taste like Meiji's offering was bittersweet chocolate with a bigger dousing of sugar to tamp down the bitterness. It's as if someone hasn't figured out how to mellow out those notes without oversweetening.

I checked out Meiji's page for its current chocolate line up after sampling this "Black" chocolate bar. I noted that the wrapping designs have gone all san serif and lost all of their old-fashioned charm. I figured that "Black" meant it would be dark chocolate. After tasting it, however, it seems more like a description of the color of the wrapper. It tasted very much like the milk chocolate version that I tasted before.

There's plenty of sweetness. Perhaps the bitterness scale was about a 6 and the regular bar a 4 on a scale of 1-10, but it would almost certainly gravely disappoint ardent fans of dark chocolate. The site claims that it has a "sharp sense of cacao" and is "full-bodied". It doesn't have much in the way of sharpness, but it is a little deeper in it flavor profile, but it is just a bit too sweet to really feel well-rounded.

If you look at my picture, the bar (black is shown on top) doesn't even look all that much darker than its milk chocolate brother. The basic recipes seem to be so close as to not really make one distinguishable from the other. The calorie values are also nearly identical with the dark one coming in at 22 calories per square and milk being 24.

The main drawback to me of any plain Japanese chocolate, and some other types is that it's always soft and lacking in snap. Usually, you can taste and enjoy chocolate better at room temperature, but this softness always makes me want to put it in the refrigerator and have it cold. Placing a cool square in my mouth and allowing it to slowly melt is the best way to enjoy these, but I think I'm much more sensitive to chocolate having a "snap" and firmness than most people.

This is a good chocolate bar, but it's not great. I'd sooner have a Ritter Sport dark chocolate bar if I was looking to go to the dark side as I think they tend to be deeper in their chocolate flavor and hit the stronger bitter notes without the added sweetness. I certainly don't regret having this, especially since I only paid 99 cents for it as all Meiji bars were on sale at Nijiya market for that price. It was a good opportunity to try something pretty basic and common in Japan without paying the high import costs as I paid the same for it here as I did there.

If you want to buy this, well, the usual suspects (online sellers) don't tend to carry it because it is pretty basic. The truth is that you'd have to be a candy expert to want to spend the extra dough on these as those who do carry it (largely on eBay) are charging $4-5 for something which is usually sold for 100 yen (about a buck) in Japan.

If you sorta-kinda like dark chocolate but generally find it too intense, this is your baby and if you can pick it up for a lowish price, I'd say it's worth a try. I like it, but I wouldn't necessarily seek it out again, particularly when I have so many other options which I like even more.

For those who are interested in some Japanese papercraft, there is a page dedicated to downloads on Meiji's "candy land" site. It includes boxes, "flags" to put on your cupcakes (print and attach to a toothpick), coloring pages for kids, and a paper tree. The page is here for the time being (I expect the contents will change after Christmas).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Indofood CBP Chiki Snack Balls

Have you ever thought about the shapes of the food you eat? I thought of it while pondering these round salted snacks. I've noticed that there are fewer balls than sticks. This makes sense considering that "sticks" can be made merely by cutting up a larger mass. Balls have to be formed through some other process like using a mold. In fact, I have no idea how salted snack foods that are round are created, but my fevered imagination makes me think it must involve tiny little snack food fairies with sodium chloride dandruff who roll each morsel by hand and salt them with shakes of their disgusting heads. This is, I'm sure, part of what lead to the demise of the much loved Planter's Cheese balls.

The advantage of balls over puffs is not only that the sphere is a perfect shape in nature and organically appealing to us mammals whereas sticks and doodles remind us of tree branches, but also that they provide more light and airy inner snack for an appealing texture.

These are produced by an affiliated company of Frito Lay in Indonesia. Their web site says that they have chicken, cheese, and chocolate versions and they are produced under the strictest of quality control situations. If that is so, and I'm sure it is, I'm not sure why they smelled like diseased feet smothered in chemicals meant to cure them when I opened the bag. The smell didn't leap out and offend me, but I purposely try to get a sense of a food from the scent before I take a taste. Smelling these made me not want to taste them, but, this is my slave-wage-pay job, after all.

I asked my husband to take a whiff of them as well and he found the smell as vile as I did. As I prepared to place a puff in my mouth, he said that I was very brave. With all of that build-up, one might expect that I just ate something incredibly vile, but the truth is that these were okay. They weren't great, but they were not the least bit offensive.

The balls themselves are exceptionally light and airy. The corn and rice base makes them taste a little like Cap'n Crunch without the sugar or hardness. They are also akin to "Kix" cereal without the crispy texture. The flavor other than the basic cereal one is very, very subdued. I expected to be blasted with some intense chemical powder, but the flavor is incredibly mild. It's has a whisper of salt and chicken boullion flavor.

Clearly, these are designed for kids and I think that has a lot to do with how mild they are. Children have much more sensitive palates than adults and can't tolerate super strong flavors, at least not on the savory end of the scale. I think they can eat sugar straight out of the bag with little difficulty, but they hate vegetables (like onions) for a reason - at least sometimes.

These are okay, but far too bland for me. I got them courtesy of KS Snacks so I can hardly complain about what I paid for them. They are interesting as a one-off experience, but I wouldn't try them again and, if I saw their other snacks at a store, I'd be inclined to give them a miss because they're not that impressive.

I will give my benefactor a bit of a plug here though because they've changed their web site and are offering more snacks, a discount code for 10% off your order (KS 1), and are now listing prices in U.S. currency rather than Indonesia. There are more Japanese items on the front page (being sold in volume) as well as some interesting items like "red tea" and peach Pocky.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nestle Kobe Pudding Regional KitKat (product announcement)

In November, Nestle increased its line of regional KitKats by just a hair by adding in a "Kobe Pudding" variety. I honestly did not know that Kobe was famous for it's pudding - which is more often referred to as "purin" in Japan and really looks and tastes like flan. My best research reveals that the sauce on Kobe's version is supposed to be flavored with some citrus and the basic pudding is less sweet. I'm betting that this KitKat will be plenty sweet, however, as my experience with white chocolate ones is that they are over the top in their sweetness.

The strongest link between Kobe and pudding is probably the same as its link to wagyu (beef). The cows are supposed to produce superior milk as well as superior meat. However, this is my pure speculation and I'm betting that, no matter how the milk in Kobe might be, it's not going to really be reflected in a KitKat. Nonetheless, I'd be curious if any of my readers have sampled this and what they think of it. Please share in comments if you've had a taste of this.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Random Picture #193

One thing which I was much slower to learn about compared to when I lived in Japan was what "year" it would be next year. I found out that it was going to be the year of the horse by seeing these tiny mounds of mochi with plastic horses on top of them at a local Japanese market. Had I still been in Japan, I'm guessing I would have seen these thing at least a month ago.

These mochi balls are shelf-stable and designed for decoration more than consumption. I bought one of these a few years before I left Japan because it had an adorable little plastic tiger on top of it. I had it for about a month and then decided to pop it open and sample the mochi. I didn't expect it to be like freshly-made mochi. What I expected was something akin to the dried stuff that you buy in bags in supermarkets. It was far "worse" than that shelf-stable mochi. It was so tough, even with heat and moisture added in, that I felt it was inedible. 

While I may have gotten a bad batch, my guess is that these are "mochi" only in name and that these are really meant only as decoration. I'm guessing Japanese people already know this and wouldn't even attempt to eat them when the holiday is over - much as we might view fruitcake. ;-)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cheetos Cream Stew (product information)

One thing I have learned is that it takes a special set of taste buds to appreciate certain flavor combinations. While people in general have embraced sweet and salty mixes, including things like salty caramel and chocolate, it's a lot harder to take sugar with flavors like onion, garlic, and meat flavorings. Frito-lay Japan obviously thinks that the Japanese have a genetic advantage in this regard as this release talks about the "sweetness of corn and cream" mixed with the flavor of stew. Of course, the last time they mixed sweet and salty in Cheetos was when they created the abysmal Pepsi Cheetos.

These were released on Dec. 2 and will be available for six months. If I run across a bag, I'm unlikely to try them because I am not an enormous fan of more conventional Cheetos and I'm not sure I could give these a fair shake. That being said, if upon closer inspection this appears to be a powder-seasoned salted snack and not the vile chocolate-coating-style seasoning that I experienced in the "cheese fondue" version, I may be tempted to try for the novelty of the experience.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bourbon Marron Blanchul

I've been reading a book about the nature of good and evil, and, no, I'm not going to talk about how food is "good" or "bad" based on its nutritional content because we all know that isn't going to have a happy ending on this blog. The book talks about a large number of studies conducted on babies in order to determine if we are born with our sense of morality or if we learn it. The jury will be forever out, but early results indicate we are not born as tabula rasa (blank slates), but come with some basic sensibilities or inclinations.

The reason I mention this book is that the studies are discussed in terms of how valid what they are measuring is based on how the study is designed. For example, to see if babies like "good" or "bad" things, an animation using colored shapes (red square, blue triangle, yellow circle) was used in which on shape either helped or hindered another while it traveled up a hill. The writer labors to let the reader know that the colors and shapes were varied in order to be certain that the babies didn't like a certain color or shape, but rather liked the shape that pushed the other up a hill and disliked the one that blocked it.

How you look at something matters as much, if not more, than what something actually is. Truth is not nearly as objective as people believe it is because there is always a perspective that may be as valid as what you see as an absolute fact. The people who designed the original experiments probably just thought shapes were enough to take away any bias on the part of babies while allowing for discriminating features, but then others came along and said they saw the baby's preferences differently. The experiments had to be refined to eliminate all possible interpretations other than the one which said babies like helping things more than harming things.

The interesting thing about studies like this and analyses is that how something is conceptualized is highly variable. In Japan, I often had this difficulty with students who tried to translate concepts from their language to ours. Some of my students called sembei a "cracker" and some called it a "cookie". Since sembei are both sweet and savory, hard and dense, and light and airy, it is difficult to say any particular translation is correct. The Japanese conceptualize sembei as these crispy things made of rice and don't need to break them down into sub-categories. However, Western folks don't tend to see "crackers" as something sweet and I wonder if it is impossible for someone to be given a frosted sembei and think it was some bizarre Japanese "cookie" rather than a "cracker".

The reason this thought came to mind was that I was looking for today's item on Bourbon's web site so that I could get more information about it. It turned out that locating it was quite a byzantine task. Is it a cookie? Is it chocolate? Is it candy? Each is a thin, delicately crispy plank with a large amount of chestnut chocolate filling between. The box calls it a "blanchul", which sounds French, but I couldn't find anything that explained what that might be. In fact, searches just turned up more varieties of "blanchul" that are sold by Bourbon.

At any rate, I don't know how Bourbon sees these, but I checked "biscuits", "chocolate", "small box biscuits", "chocolate snack", and "snacks" (long shot as this is usually a catch-all for salty things) and I could not locate the damn things. What is it that Bourbon sees these as? Well, it turns out that they see them as a limited edition release that came out at the end of August that no longer warrants addition on their web site... so much for perspectives on the truth and other lofty thoughts that don't belong in a snack blog anyway.

Getting to the business at hand, which does belong on a snack blog, these are excellent cookies. They are sweet, crispy, and have a taste which is reminiscent of caramel and coffee. The "coffee" aspect comes from the roasting of the chestnuts. The caramel probably has to do with warmed sugar and butter aspects. It doens't taste strongly of chestnut, but tastes quite good nonetheless. The box says that 10% is chestnut, which really isn't an enormous amount, but it all works nonetheless.

I loved these and felt that they were a perfect fusion of cookie and candy. They may be on the sweet side for some, but, to me, that just encourages portion control. Each cookie is only 22 calories and packs enough of a punch that you aren't going to want to gobble a bunch down at once. I don't know how much longer these will be on the market, though chestnut is an autumn/winter flavor so I'd wager they have another month or two. I found them at Nijiya for $2.19 (about 225 yen). In Japan, they're 130 yen ($1.34). They were well worth what I paid for them and I'd buy them again.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Astor Skinny Roll (Peanut Butter)

I wonder if naming your product "skinny" improves sales because it leads consumers to believe that you will lose weight by eating it. In the case of these snacks, which are only 19 calories per roll, there's not much chance that you'll get skinny unless you exercise the most judicious of portion control.

Note the one-eyed mascot on the cover. His physique is not only quite rounded, but he also seems to have gained a Miley-Cyrus-like tongue control issue. I guess it must be some sort of issue that musicians suffer from. Too much music or singing must cause some sort of tongue muscle flabbiness tha results in unpleasant lolling on occasion.

This snack comes from Indonesia and is made by a company called Astor and distributed by Mayora Inc. In addition to these snacks, they also distribute the ever present Kopiko coffee candies. They also have some very spiffy-looking wafer snakcs called "Zuperr Keju" and "Beng-Beng". With such awesome names, how can they go wrong?

When I received these "Skinny Roll" snacks as part of a package of goodies from KS Snacks, I expected something similar to "Pepero". That's the Korean pretzel roll snack that is like an inside out Pocky stick which left me less than impressed. It turns out that I was very wrong about what I was getting and in the best possible way.

For starters, the sticks are not pretzels. They are wafer rolls similar to Pirouhette cookies. They are delicate and crispy. Though they don't add much to the flavor except for the mildest of sugar-cookie-style flavor, the filling happily does all of the heavy lifting in that regard. Though it looks a lot like a hollow tube, it's actually lined with a sweet, peanut-cream-like filling that carries just the right level of sweetness without being cloying and enough peanut power to leave you happy without being heavy or overbearing.

This is, by far, one of the best "finds" I've had since returning to America. It's damn tasty with an excellent texture. KS Snacks is offering them on their web site and I strongly recommend that anyone who is a peanut fan give them a try.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tirol Message and Game Chocolates (product information)

All images are from Tirol.

The press on the box of Tirol candy pictured above mentions that it's two weeks until Christmas so you can play this game and enjoy your candy at the same time. While it's not specifically stated, I wonder if the idea is that you can have some holiday fun by playing this game during holiday parties. In Japan, silly little games, like bingo, are not uncommon during the party season at this time of year.

The box itself becomes your game board and you are supposed to use the candy wrappers as part of the pieces (you can see them showing a little car-like illustration with a candy wrapper placed around it). The candy itself isn't really much of an issue. It contains a lot of the standard Tirol flavor types and varieties that are included in most mixes ("Bis", "Milk", etc.).

Besides making a box that can be used as a game, Tirol is going down the path of KitKats and releasing "message" chocolate. Trying to write much of anything on their small packages would seem to be not too dissimilar from trying to create your own candy hearts on Valentine's day. Still, you have to give them credit for trying, or at least for trying to rip off a concept that a more successful candy maker has been using.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Random Picture #192

My husband and I both thought this illustration looked a bit... peculiar. The man pictured on the canister is supposed to be enjoying a bit of roasted seaweed, but the way its in his mouth makes it look like he's trying to tear apart a particularly tough bit of beef jerky rather than savoring some seasoned seaweed paper. The look oin his eyes is one of concentration or surprise - perhaps a little of both.

While it could be that this is an original piece of art, after considering it for a bit, I wondered if this wasn't an old illustration that was edited to add in the nori and the hand. Perhaps he was originally a bit player in a tentacle porn print. I guess I'll never know.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mister Donut Pon de Umaimon (product information)

I wanted to make the title of this post, "Mister Donut Goes Insane", but I think that might conjure images of a large animated donut rampaging through Tokyo and dusting buildings with liberal amounts of powder sugar while spewing custard and defecating anko on unsuspecting citizens.

Donuts in Japan have not exactly been limited to sweet offerings in the past, so it should come as no surprise that Mister Donut has expanded their repertoire to include butter potato, zunda (mashed green soy beans) mochi (rice cake), monjayaki (with cabbage and corn), okonomiyaki, and plain old mochi. Along with severa less bizarre (for Japan) offerings inlcuding mango, muscat, and red bean and butter, Mister Donut is pulling out a lot of stops.

I always thought that hamburgers made with Krispy Kreme donut buns were pretty disgusting, but I have to say that pork, cabbage, and savory sauces may just have that concept beat in a contest for least appetizing use of a donut.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sanko Seika Snow Inn Chestnut Cream Sembei

It's the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, it's when all of the chestnut sweets start showing up on shelves in Japan... or Japanese markets in my local area. I was thrilled when I saw these chestnut and milk sembei at Niyija market for $2.99. Though I sometimes have issues with the combination of the baked rice flavor of sembei coupled with sweet frosting-style flavorings, this was really too enticing to pass up, even at a somewhat premium price.

The picture on the ront of the bag shows a mont blanc confection as well as a few chestnuts. One has to consider that these are merely there to create visions of such things in your head rather than tell you what the sembei actually tastes like. The truth ended up being that this actually was much closer to mont blanc than chestnuts. No one was more surprised by this than me. As an enormous fan of mont blanc, you'd think it would trhill me. Not quite...

The issue with this was that there was the hint of chestnut, the sweetness, and a hint of what seemed like alcohol. Sometimes, there is brandy in the chestnut paste used in making mont blanc, and I think that flavor was conveyed in the frosting on these rice crackers. This is not a particularly bad thing, but that flavor was stronger than the others (aside from the basic rice cracker flavor itself).

I liked these, though not as much as I'd hoped. I think that they do convey the flavor of chestnut cream, but I'd like the flavor to be somewhat more potent. I'm more than happy to have this bag as a salty sweet, but, if it shows up again next year, I wouldn't buy another bag. It's good as a novelty, but not something that I'd seek again and again - at least not for the standard price.

It's interesting to note that the Sanko Seika "Snow Inn" line is turning into the rice cracker equivalent of weird KitKtas. Besides lemon and mango sembei, they've released this chestnut cream variety as well as a strawberry cream one. Though American fans of Japanese snacks are unlikely to get as excited by sembei as by chocolate-covered wafers, I am intrigued by their flavor diversity and will continue to sample new products as long as they keep making them.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Taro Net Seaweed Snack

The snack I'm reviewing today comes courtesy of KS Snacks who kindly sent me a box of goodies from Indonesia. If you'd like to know more about their service, you can check out their web site or my review of their service from a few weeks ago. 

Let's talk about seaweed. I spent many years of my time in Japan turning my nose up at anything that included seaweed. In fact, when I first arrived and had onigiri (rice balls) from the local 7-11 as lunch or a snack, I never used the included seaweed paper to cover it because the whole idea of eating that stuff with my smattering of tuna salad hidden in an enormous amount of rice just grossed me out.

My idea of "seaweed" was based on seeing a pile of kelp on a beach. It was wriggly, smelly, and not a little scary looking. I felt like it's scraggly tentacles were going to wrap around my ankles and drag me through the sand into the bowels of a cruel netherworld. Surely the reason that such plants found themselves suicidally stranded on the beach was that they dreamed of escape. They broke through to our world only to find that they were the horrors to our kind.

OK, not everyone thinks of seaweed as a horror. In fact, some people think of it as "lunch", but I was not one of them. It took many years for me to find it less than repulsive. I started to leave the wakame in my soup or not pick the seaweed flakes off of my rice. I wanted to give it a chance. Though it always tasted like roasted grass to me, I got used to it. I can't say that I ever learned to love it, but I definitely stopped hating it. You can only imagine how that left me poised to experience this snack.

I was very surprised that I didn't hate these immediately. They actually don't smell seriously strongly of seaweed nor taste overpoweringly of it either. They mainly smell like the grain component that they are made up of. I can't read the ingredients list, but I think they are processed potato. I've had this style of very light salted snack before and that's what they are usually made of. The base is light, crispy and salty and the seaweed is only a hint. As seaweed snacks go, this is very palatable, even for someone who is as seaweed averse as me.

That being said, there was a problem with this which I've experienced with similar snacks. That is, there is an odd chemical aftertaste which either comes from the processing of the potato or absorption of the materials used to make the bag. It seems a bit like "plastic" to me, but that could just be my particular perception of things.

The maker of this, TPS Foods, has a web site which is in a state of incompleteness. They have "lorem ipsum dolor" messages all over the front page and their product link is dead. That being said, they picture a bag of this same snack which seems to be called "Cowboy Steak". That name alone would make me want to buy a bag of that flavor. Note that you can get any of the flavors of this snack from KS Snacks for $1.29 (and their prices are now represented on their site in dollars so you don't have to do a currency conversion). While I'd certainly like to try other flavors to see if they do not have the aftertaste I associated with these, I don't believe I'd try this one again.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Haagen Dazs Opera Cake Ice Cream (product information)

Quite a few years back, I read a few blogs written by women who took part in something called the "Daring Baker's Challenge". I don't know if it still goes on because a web search yields about a billion hits, but I'm pretty sure that it is still going on. I don't know who runs it or who decides what the most recent "dare" is, but someone has to be in charge of setting up difficult tasks for people to accomplish.

One of the earliest challenges for these "daring" sorts was opera cake. I didn't know what it was, but I could see that it was immensely complex with multiple layers of cake, ganache, chocolate, coffee, and almond. It was enough to make me decide that I didn't want to take any dares in my kitchen.

This ice cream doesn't exactly come up to the challenge either. It incorporates all of the flavors of opera cake, but it has little of the complexity. It's largely a butter cream ice cream with a thin layer of almond dough ice cream topped with a layer of chocolate sauce and a few sprinkles of gold leaf on top. The flavors are pretty interesting even if it doesn't have the sophistication of the layers of cake. I was just hoping that there would be actual bits of cake in the ice cream, but that isn't a common variation in Japan. They're not quite that decadent. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Random Picture #191

One of the possibly dubious benefits of having lived in a particular Asian country for quite some time is that, while I can't read other Asian languages, I can tell what they are. For instance, I can tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese even though they use the same characters. Though the concept of an "office lady" was one that I was introduced to while living in Japan, this package of "cookie rolls" let me know that the idea is not confined to that country. These are Chinese (made in Taiwan) and I'm guessing they are trying to say that office ladies love these things.

In Japan, office ladies were well-known for their love of sweets and kept an ample supply in their desks or the break room for a quick nosh. This sort of thing tells me that they likely are not alone in their habits.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Coke Santa's Christmas Ornaments (promotion information)

I've mentioned on my other blog that there was a time in Japan when I was laid up with terrible back pain. The remedy according to the doctor I saw was to stay in bed and get up as infrequently as possible for up to three months. He insisted that I was risking a permanent crippling if I did otherwise.

After two months of this and not getting any better, I took matters into my own hands and started walking little by little every day. One of the things that I did was walk to the local Inageya market and buy 1.5-liter bottles of Diet Coke. The time when I concluded that "enough was enough" was near Christmas and there was a promotion going on in which they gave away adorable little ornaments with the famous Coca-Cola polar bears on them with the purchase of such sizes.

I could only carry two bottles at a time because of my back, but walking there everyday and trying to slowly acquire every single type of ornament provided with early motivation to keep conducting my personally prescribed "physical therapy". My back got better, and I had a full collection of the nifty ornaments.

Unfotunately, I didn't bring them back with me when I left Japan, but Coke is putting out a new set for those who'd like to start their own collection. These aren't nearly as cute as the ones I got (they were all polar bear themed), but they're still worth collecting. They're one of the more useful little freebies that you can get with a snack or drink. I'd also encourage people to give Coke some business because I have to give the company at least a little credit for pulling me through a very difficult time. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Look Hawaiian Chocolate

When I was a very young child, I had a puzzle which was a map of the United States. Each piece was a state and the point was to teach children the names of the states and their capitals. Since it would be very boring design to just have each state with words on it, they also put a picture or a few pictures of representative images for each place on the puzzle piece.

For some states, this was easy since they had very clear industries or famous places. California had Hollywood. Michigan had cars. Florida had oranges. Idaho had potatoes. My home state, Pennsylvania, had the Liberty Bell and coal. Some of the states were represented by rather silly things and those are the states that nobody remembers the position of on the map. Of course, Hawaii was easy. It had pineapples, coconuts, and hula girls. In fact, it also has a good deal more these days as we can also connect it with coffee, and macadamia nuts. In fact, I think more people know Hawaii as a stereotype than as an actual place to live (except the marvelous Marvo at The Impulsive Buy since he actually does live there).

I imagine that this offering from Fujiya for their Look line is based on favored stereotypical flavors. The box has all of the images that my old puzzle map used to have, including the hula dancer. Maybe one of their designers had that very same toy as a child.

Of course, there must be pineapple and there's also Kona coffee and macadamia, but the final flavor is pure Japan. That flavor is "blue Hawaii". My first experience with the "blue Hawaii" flavor was when considering a kakigori (shaved ice) treat for the first time. The syrup flavors included that non-descript flavor. We though that it might be blueberry at first, but it turned out to be some weird flavor that we could not figure out. Of all of the options in this box of Look chocolates, that one would absolutely be the biggest surprise as I had no idea what it was going to be.

pineapple: This was very subtle at first and I mainly tasted the bittersweet chocolate. The pineapple hit somewhere in the middle as an acidic burst and then faded away. I don't think chocolate and pineapple are a particularly good pairing in general and this did nothing to change my feeling about that.

macadamia: I had some expectations that this might work pretty well because, you know, nuts and chocolate, but it tasted strangely artificial and funky. It was if it had been contaminated by some bizarre artificial flavoring.There was only a modest nutty flavor mixed with the strange chemical taste.

Kona coffee: I figured this might be pretty good, but it also had a little of that odd flavor coupled with coconut. It had a rich, coffee finishing taste and was the best of the bunch. That is not to say it was fantastic, but it was complex and tasted closest to what one might expect.

blue Hawaii: This is where that strange chemical flavor came from. I wonder if the other flavors were "contaminated" in some fashion by the bubble gum-like flavor of this filling as that same essence is what I detected in the macadamia and Kona coffee to some extent. The pineapple is the furthest physically in the box from the blue Hawaii so it may not have been absorbing the scent/flavor as much. As much as I may feel that pineapple and chocolate are not a natural partnering, bubble gum and chocolate are about as mismatched as it gets.

None of these was terrible. I didn't exactly want to spit them back out, but that is more of a testimonial to how weak the fillings were and how serviceable the semi-sweet chocolate was. I can eat these, but I wouldn't say they'd be my first choice or even my second or third. If I was desperate for chocolate and this was all I had, I'd turn to it, but it's really not great. Maybe I got a bad box, or mine was older and sitting on the shelf caused flavors to coalesce into a mutant entity, but I wouldn't buy this again.