Monday, September 1, 2014

Finishing Here

Since stopping my regular posting, I've been coming to terms with the changes in my life and I think I've reached the end of my need to talk about Japan. I knew the time would come eventually when I'd move from being in transition to being "finished". I'm not quite complete, but I think the time has come to let go of my strong attachment to thinking about Japan and my life there. That's my way of saying that the time of comparisons is finished and maybe I don't have as much to say as I used to or just don't care to say it anymore.

I'm going to essentially go away for awhile. I am sure that there is something else I'll be writing about in the future, but I think I'm going to say goodbye to these blogs for awhile, maybe forever. I haven't decided yet. I just know that my impulse to continue has vanished.

I want to sincerely thank my readers for following me as they have. I will say that, if I start a new blog or write in another forum (or when my book is complete), I will likely come back and let readers of these blogs know about it. If you're only here because I talk about Japan, then you may not want to come back once in awhile to see if things have changed. If you're here because you like the way I write, then I'd say pop back once a month or so to see if anything has changed.

Thank you for all your kind support and reading my work. I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Leibniz Pick Up Choco & Caramel

Today's item comes to you (and me) courtesy of Candy German, who included it in a sample box that they sent me (that's my way of saying I got this from them for free).

Recently, I made a British comfort food called a "jam roly poly". I chose this because I encouraged my husband to buy some low sugar jam in a moment of early cognitive failure. You see, I'd forgotten that he likes everything much sweeter than me and I felt that, if I liked the jam, he might, too. While searching for recipes that use up jam, I came across the roly poly recipe which not only uses up jam of substandard sweetness, but it also is fairly simple and uses ingredients that most people who aren't eating out of processed food packages and take out containers would have on hand.

The jam roly poly ended up being a roll of dough which is a cross between a shortbread cookie and pie crust with jam slathered on it. It's not a sophisticated offering, but it has a certain quality to it. British folks tend to eat it with warm custard, but I don't live in a culture which sells Bird's Custard Powder on most shelves so I'd have to go to much greater lengths to produce custard. I figured I'd just put whipped cream on it if all else failed. Incidentally, Bird's Custard Powder doesn't really make custard as it contains no eggs. It's pretty much a type of instant pudding mix stuff. It was invented by a man whose wife was allergic to eggs. When I found this out, I was disappointed in the British for not proving to me that they had invented a way for me to magically whip up a lovely and relatively authentic custard with a powder. I expect more of them than I do from Americans, like the ability to create rich and tasty authentic custard by adding liquid.

I'm not really big into cookies or pie, and I was using strawberry jam which I'm also not keen on. I expected that my husband would like it better than I, but the result was like a giant Pop-tart (at least when it's warm and fresh). The textural element of the crust was an utter delight as it hit the sweet spot between crispy exterior and tender interior in a way I would not have expected. So, while I wasn't crazy about any of the component parts, that texture just lured me in and I ate more than I'd planned. This was a good thing because it turned out that the whole thing failed the sweet test for my husband again and he didn't really want any.

I've mentioned before that I'm a food texture junky and today's item, like the jam roly poly, wins me as much on texture as taste. When I develop a craving, it's often based on wanting the texture of a food rather than the taste. That leads me to this Pick-up cookie. I'm not a fan of caramel, and this doesn't have oodles of chocolate flavor, but the combination of the texture of the crispy biscuit outside, the thick, cool, and somewhat snappy chocolate interior and the sticky caramel comes together for an experience in textures with some depth. Don't get me wrong about the taste. The cookies are sweet, nearly enough for the likes of my husband, but the chocolate filling (which is ample) is milk chocolate so it's smoother and less pronounced than dark or bittersweet options. The caramel is a subtle undertone unless you're eating one of the edge bits that has caramel ooze saturated its corners. That's actually a pretty nice bit because it changes the flavor balance and the buttery caramel notes come through more strongly.

The box that Candy German sent me had a packet of five of these taped together. My guess is that these are usually sold in a bunch rather than individually. I've not seen these sold anywhere locally, so my best advice is to look into Candy German's site and service or shoot them an e-mail or Facbook message if you're interested in them. Overall, I have to say that the German snacks that they send are interesting and worth the investment in a box. These cookies are just one of the delights you can get your hands on with their help.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tyrant Habanero Black Curry (product information)

History has seen its fair share of tyrants - Caligula, Stalin, Pol Pot, and, of course, everybody's low-hanging fruit in the game of "name that maniac", Hitler. A lesser-known tyrant is, of course, Tyrant Habanero. It doesn't commit genocide, but rather attempts to slaughter your taste buds with insanely hot, salty snack treats. Of course, what it does to your mouth is nothing to compared to what it's going to do to the end of your digestive tract on the other way out. Oh, the humanity!

Tohato continues to expand it's line of mouth-burning snack treats with a black curry version of it's salty pressed food-stuff. The chips are shaped as you see them on the illustration. They're supposed to resemble naan bread, but that wasn't the first thing that came to my mind. Black curry is usually dyed with squid ink or some other coloring to make it that color. Word is that Sri Lanka has an actual black curry with unique spices, but I'm betting more on the squid-assisted variety in this snack than the more exotic option. If I can locate this at a Japanese market, I'll certainly give it a try. If any of my readers have sampled it already, I'd be curious to hear your impressions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Glico Cafe Au Lait Collon

My brain works super fast. In fact, it makes lightning leaps over stepping stones that often see me starting in one place and ending up in a completely different one such that I can greatly confuse my husband with my leaps from one topic to another. This cafe au lait collon set off just such a sequence of thoughts. I will ask you to bear with me as I insanely hopscotch from point to point.

First, there is the obvious wordplay joke about "Collon" and "colon" that makes all of us foreign folks snicker like the juveniles that we are inside every time we see "Collon" for sale in a Japanese store. That made me think about coffee being used in colonics and how silly that seemed. Then it made me think about food stuffs being used for colonics which brought on a recollection of something that I read in the book Awakenings. That book, for those who don't know it, was made into a movie of the same name starring Robin Williams. 

In the book, there is mention of one of the comatose patients, a very overweight woman whose head had gone completely bald during her prolonged state of unconsciousness making certain demands upon her awakening. She wanted a quart of chocolate ice cream and an olive oil enema. I remember wondering why on earth anyone would want any sort of enema, let alone one with olive oil. 

At any rate, every time I think of the book or movie Awakenings, I remember one of my first experiences in Japan with movie titles that were different there than they were with America. I went to Japan in spring of 1989 and taught at Nova for two years. The movie was released in 1990 and I remember talking about the movie with student's in the conversation lounge ("Voice") that Nova offered. It was impossible for the students to understand the title as I said it, but I learned that the reason was not an issue with the vocabulary, but the fact that the Japanese title was "Leonard no Asa" or "Leonard's Morning".

So, you can see that this product brought about a lot of links in a chain which set me off on the idea of coffee enemas and ended in Japan. You can see where my husband's confusion is based after that sort of jumping about. Add the fact that this all happens in about three seconds (seriously), and you can see that I'm off like a shot and headed in a strange and unknown direction. I guess I'm lucky that he hasn't had me institutionalized yet (which brings me right back to Awakenings as that is set in an institution).

Getting to the matter at hand - which is neither institutions nor colonic irrigation - I found these at an Asian market for $1.19 for an itty bitty box. I'm pretty sure that they had broken up and were selling a pack that was not meant for individual sale, but I wasn't interested in six or eight of these so I wasn't going to turn them in to whatever retail authority is responsible for prosecuting such infractions.

For those who don't know Collon, it's a delicate crispy shell which is layered and flaky filled with a sweet, dense, cream-like filling that is reminiscent of that which is sandwiched between sugar wafers. The textural contrast is a delight, but they are often far too sweet. This one carries an extremely mild coffee flavor as well as little coffee particles in the cream (those are the black spots that you see in the picture). It's tasty and the filling is nice and fatty, but it's just a little too sweet. There is no calorie information on my box, but Collon generally packs a wallop for each small morsel. It's the sort of thing which you have to exercise restraint with, so getting one small box isn't a bad idea.

I like this quite a lot. I think the coffee added some depth to the flavor and off-set the sometimes one-note sense of the sweet filling. I don't think these are better than the basic Collon, but they certainly are just as good and just tad more interesting.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

KitKat "Starter Kit" (promotional information)

Nestle Japan started a KitKat cafe some time ago at which you can get your chocolate and wafer fix. They're looking to expand the menu with a little help from their friends. It would actually be more accurate to say they're hoping to do it with help from their customers who run restaurants or cafes. The whole baked KitKat business is one that they're investing more in as time goes by and they want to see recipes featured on menus and are willing to reward people with a starter kit if they fulfill certain criteria. Among those are providing links to their establishment's web site and posting the recipe on Facebook for Nestle to inspect. They'll send qualifying businesses a KitKat toaster oven and some KitKats to work with (as shown in the picture above).

This is a very interesting promotional choice. My guess is that this is to spread the possibilities one can explore with the idea of baked candy... well, besides setting your kitchen on fire or charring sugar until it sets your smoke alarm off. ;-)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A-sha Prince Katsu Snack Noodles

A long time ago, in an island nation not too terribly far away by galactic standards, I sampled a ramen snack. That snack tasted a lot like regular ramen, only without all of the messy watery part and the need to actually cook. One of the things which I actually am not a fan of is noodles in watery broth and I only had a noodle dish in a restaurant in Japan once, and that wasn't even Japanese, it was Vietnamese. I got a pho-based set there because it came with a ton of other stuff and was super cheap. While I'm sure it was good pho, I wasn't terribly drawn in. So, despite my general apathy toward ramen, I was curious to try this snack.

Previously, I reviewed A-sha's delicious spicy vegetarian noodles which were sent to me gratis from A-sha. After I posted the review, I discovered that I had been sent the wrong product. What they really wanted me to review was today's item as it is, after all, a snack product rather than a "food" product. This was all the better for me, of course, as it meant more free stuff for me. This snack is currently on sale for $3.49 on A-sha's site and it is a freaking enormous bag of individual packets of ramen snack. There are twenty packets per bag and each has 70 calories worth of carbohydrate and sodium.

The small size is nice because this is the sort of thing you don't want too much of at once. It's salty, but not over-bearing, and mainly carries the flavor of chicken with a back note of subtle garlic. The flavor depth is made up mainly of those three notes, but that's two notes more than a lot of salted snacks give you, particularly ramen-based ones.

Since I'm not an enormous fan of ramen, it's hard for me to settle on a rating for these. If I loved ramen, I think I'd be all over this to get a fix without the mess or time involved. Since I'm not, I feel like it's a pleasant enough experience, but not one that I'd actively seek out again. So, I think someone other than me would be really happy with these. They'd go especially well as a little salty bite with a drink. However, me being me, I don't think I'd get them again, but I am happy for having had a chance to try them.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Kanro Penguin Candy (product information)

Kanro is selling a hard candy which is supposed to appeal to people who are starting to droop that they can pep up a bit by having their candy. Apparently, one is supposed to identify with the image of the penguin as illustrated. Usually, companies choose to show an aspirational image - what you want to look like - rather than what you already look like. This seems like it would have been a better choice than this somewhat sleep, unhappy, and indifferent penguin.

The candy is available at 7-11 and, while Kanro doesn't provide flavor information, you can see four colors on the front of the package that will give you a bit of a clue, though I'd wager on green being melon or apple rather than lime. Personally, I think having this in my desk drawer would tend to make me feel sleepy and depressed rather than make me think this was the place for a sugary pick-me-up. To each their own though. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Burger King Garlic Meat Beast and Garlic Quatro Cheese (product information)

Click this image to load a bigger one.

Sometimes, I'd see a funky shirt in Japan and I'd think the person who wrote the Engrish on it just had to know that it was on the pervy side. Can someone name anything "meat beast" and not know what it sounds like? I don't like burgers and I don't eat fast food, but I'd have my husband buy this burger and try it (as he likes both garlic and meat) for no other reason than its name. I guess that makes this pretty good marketing whether they are aware of the connotations the English carries or not.

The beast has a chicken patty in addition to the beef and the quattro cheese has beef, a hash brown patty and four types of cheese - colby jack, two kinds of cheese sauce, and cheddar. All in all, they sound pretty decadent. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sanko Seika Yuzu Koshoo Sembei

There's an episode of the Simpsons in which Ralph Wiggum says, "Sleep, that's where I'm a Viking!" In this spirit, Sanko Seika would like you to consider yourself a samurai at sembei (rice crackers). Both of these notions inflame my inner cynic. We seem to be gravitating toward a world that both rewards people for trying (but not necessarily succeeding) at difficult tasks and allows them to have a lofty sense of achievement for succeeding at extremely easy and mundane tasks like eating and sleeping.

If one could be a samurai at eating sembei and if samurai could be women (they can't), then I might actually qualify, though probably not by eating these crackers. For those who don't know or remember, yuzu is Japanese citron. It is tangy like lemon and sometimes slightly bitter like grapefruit. The flavor is fuller-bodied and less mouth-puckeringly sour than lemon and mixes very well with savory, chili flavors (though it works in sweets as well). These crackers are the Japanese equivalent of "lemon pepper", but they don't exactly taste the same as that flavor combo.

Yuzu koshoo is my favorite savory flavor combination for salty snacks. It's unique but approachable for Western palates. For this reason, I was very excited to see this in Marukai supermarket, especially for the very reasonable price of $2.20. That being said, this contains four individual serving packets (around 70 calories each, so not a lot in each one). It's a decent value for an import, but nothing like the volume most Americans are used to getting for their buck when they approach snack treats.

These are what the Japanese often translate as "hard" sembei. They are thin and brittle instead of puffy and airy. I prefer the puffy style, but these are okay as well. I always find the hard sembei to be a bit tough as rice doesn't seem to fry up in the same manner as potatoes. The shellac-like outer coating can also be a bit sticky or tacky to the touch, though these did not have that quality.

The first bite yielded the nice, zesty flavor of yuzu followed by a strong hit of the cooked rice flavor that I've come to know in all forms of sembei. I waited for the peppery chili flavors to hit, and then I waited some more. I thought that there may need to be a build-up of heat and flavor to find the "koshoo" part, but it never came along. The yuzu flavor was nice and quite present, but the pepper was missing in action.

This is the kind of food that I find it difficult to rate. While these are perfectly serviceable and even reasonably tasty, they are far from the best of this type of sembei I've had. The lack of a "bite" from the pepper in a product that is sold as having that flavor is disappointing. While I was perfectly happy to finish the bag and didn't regret buying these, I don't see myself having them again.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Random Picture #219

I used to get irritated when I was in Japan and the Japanese perception of American food and culture was limited to hamburgers, steak, fries, and bread. It was as if they couldn't accept that Americans ate a broader range of foods than those available on the McDonald's menu.

Now, I get to turn my irritation toward Americans who think that Japanese food is focused on daily consumption of green tea, sushi, and, apparently, Pocky. In Japanese markets, which tend to cater mainly to Japanese folks, but also want to attract other people interested in all things Japanese as well, I've found that there is an over-abundance of certain types o things and green tea is definitely one of them. The display above was at Marukai market (last week) and shows a heavy concentration of snacks made with green tea. I realize that this is seasonal (and I showed a picture of a strawberry snacks display before), but I've also found that other flavors are rather slim pickings.

It's nice to know that stereotypical and simplified notions of other cultures are one of the things which most cultures will always share. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

CandyGerman and Koala Milch Cookies

Several Asian snack concerns that offer monthly or bi-monthly boxes or snack surprise packages have contacted me and I've reviewed those services. Recently, I was contacted by a similar service coming out of Germany. Since I've expanded the scope of this blog to include the occasional focus on other countries and their junk food, I was delighted when they offered to send me a (free) sample box so that I could get an idea of their service as well as enjoy what I was sure would be German snack treat delights.

If your notions of German treats comes from The Simpsons, in which we've seen (German exchange student) Uder eating "marzipan Joy Joy (mit Iodine)", then you've got the wrong idea. Think chocolate, gummy, caramel, and sugary delights. There was no marzipan in the box (though I would have been delighted if there had been), and, most fortunately, nothing which was fortified with Iodine... that being said, I did get a goiter in Japan so maybe I could use some Iodine in my snacks.

The assortment I was sent was not only broad, but large. CandyGerman, like many such services, chooses a variety of items and sends the box to customers. You don't choose what you get, but it is a good system if you like surprises. I don't generally have access to a lot of German candy, but some of these items or ones similar to them can be purchased at places like CostPlus World Imports. It would cost me about the same as a subscription fee to CandyGerman to buy this many European snacks locally, and I wouldn't be able to get every type of food that they sent in the box (not by a long shot). So, I pronounce this a pretty good deal based on my current shopping options. Of course, any person's shopping mileage may vary. If you've got a cheap German market down the street chock full of goodies - and, if you do, I envy you - then this may not seem like such a sweet package.

I received this package soon after they said it would ship and in very good condition. As you can see by the peanuts, it's packed well. None of the fragile items that were inside (cookies) were damaged in any way. Considering that it also included wafer-based "Happy Hippo" confections and they arrived in beautiful condition, I think that their packing passes any reasonable test.

If you think I was sent a "special" package with more or better items, then you can check on what they normally send by looking at/following their Facebook page. They're relatively new, but have posted some pictures and it looks like every box is as generous as the one that I received. I should note that the people who corresponded with me were polite, friendly, and prompt. I'm confident that if you have questions or problems that they'll work with you to make you happy. Their contact information with an e-mail address is on their site.

My conclusion is that the service is not "cheap", but it's not "expensive" for what you get either. You can have a box for around the price of a couple of decent chain delivery pizzas. However, I guess whether or not that comparison makes sense to you depends on what you believe is "decent" and what part of the world/country you live in. If "Little Caesar's" $5-8 pies are what you're finding fills your belly with fun-to-eat carbs, fat, and meat-like substances, then this may seem steep to you.

Over time, I will be reviewing individual items from the box, but I wanted to start with a curious one that overlaps with a Japanese snack since that is the name of my game most of the time. I was stunned to see a box of Koala cookies which is clearly the German variation on Koala's March (as they are sold as in Japan). I've tried several takes on this cookie (Hello Panda, Pucca, and a few different flavors of Koala's March) and I can say that, hand's down, this is the one that I've liked the best. I don't speak German, but I concluded based on the taste that "milch" is "milk". Also, I'm not a total dumb ass and realized that the two words sound similar long before I opened the package.

The basic look and feel of the cookie is pretty similar to all of the copies and the original, but there is a "cookie" flavor that these have which is much more prominent. The Japanese variation has a rather bland outer shell with super sweet filling. The shell on this German variation carries a sugar-cookie-style flavor and has a sweet milky white chocolate center. I don't like Koala's March enough to buy it most of the time, but I liked these a fair bit. However, be warned that they are quite sweet. Given that they are marketed toward the child market, this is no shock.

The company that makes these is not Lotte, but Kuchenmeister. My guess is that there is some agreement between the Korean/Japanese maker and the German one to allow for the packaging and product design, but the cookies have been modified to suit German tastes. There are two flavors - milk and chocolate - and it seems that they put a toy featuring a version of their mascot inside the boxes. Mine has a vampire motif, but the current one pictured on the web site has an ancient Olympic one featuring the mascot variations in togas. If Kinder Eggs have taught us anything, it's that Europeans aren't nearly as hysterical about toys with food marketed at children as Americans are. I tend to see this as a good thing, but I didn't bother to procreate so my opinion on this matter doesn't carry a lot of weight.

The cookies definitely get a happy rating. If I weren't such a sugar wuss, they might even get a "very happy", but they're a little too sweet for my aging palate. Nonetheless, they are tasty little cookies.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Subway Japan Subman

Image from Subway Japan.

Anthropomorphic mascots are pretty common all over the world. Mr. Peanut was one of the earliest in my recollection. I'm guessing he wasn't created in a time when graphic design and marketing were as sophisticated as they are now. These days, companies have the chance to do surveys and focus groups to test the impact of an image on the market before they unleash it upon the unsuspecting population. For that reason, Subway Japan's mascot surprises me.

I have to say that I am more than a little disturbed at the idea of a bun with abs and pecs. I'm not sure what that's creepier than one with appendages and a face, but it just seems weird that muscles are being carved into bread. Even if one thinks that muscular baked goods are no weirder than those that can smile, the commercial featuring their mascot visiting the sandwich shop he represents reveals that most appalling of behaviors - cannibalism.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

McDonald's Squid and Tomato Italian Risotto Balls (product information)

Image from McDonald's Japan

I have never wanted to put quotes around something as much as the word "Italian" in the title of this post. I'm sure that there is nothing Italian about wrapping risotto infused with either tomato or squid around cheese and deep frying it. This abomination is part of McDonald's way of celebrating one of the world's most popular sports. There is no greater way to tip your hat to feats of athleticism than to eat fried balls of cheese and risotto. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mizuho Arare Handmade Sembei (Wasabi)

Have you ever purchased a blueberry waffle, blueberry muffin mix, or any commercially produced product which is blueberry flavored? If you've done so, there's a very high chance that the product you've consumed contains no blueberries whatsoever. Most "blueberry" is candies that are flavored to taste like the real thing, but actually have little to do with it. That's because real blueberries are expensive, not particularly sweet, and troublesome to handle in their fresh state (as they will mold or go bad rapidly).

Most people don't realize when they're being sold something as something it's not. Even when they learn the truth, if they're satisfied with the taste, they generally don't care. I think the same might be said for the often faked flavor of wasabi. I've read that most wasabi in the United States is colored horseradish. I have no idea if it is fundamentally different in taste, but I'm guessing it may be different in terms of the overall flavor depth and the experience of eating wasabi.

I've said before that wasabi is different from other spicy flavors (that's spicy in terms of being "hot") in that it burns the back of your nasal passages. Intense wasabi will punch you, literally, in the back of your nose. These rice crackers can be a full freaking assault to your entire nasal system. I found that the intensity varies, but if you get a particularly potent one, it will flood your nasal passages from back to front in a flash of painful intensity and hit the back of your throat for good measure. By random chance, if you get one of the less intense ones, it'll just offer a strong, but relatively closer to average hit toward the back.

The nuggets offer a bit more than just the pain that can accompany wasabi. They smell vaguely of soy sauce and have a nice savory undertone that lingers on the middle of your tongue quite awhile after you've recovered from the wasabi attack. The saltiness and overall savory nature is undercut by the presence of sugar. If you've ever made soup and added a little sugar to it (the Japanese often do), you'll note that it'll mellow out any too sharp flavors. Incidentally, sugar is the third ingredient in these after glutinous rice and soy sauce (and before "wasabi powder"). If you're watching your sugar intake, these may not be the best choice.

The texture of these is hard and crunchy. "Arare" sembei is denser, less airy and spongey, and crispier than what is often called "soft" or "fluffy" sembei. I think these are designed to be enjoyed mainly with drinks, particularly alcohol, but anyone who likes wasabi can dive in without potential inebriation to off-set the nasal beating.

I only paid $1.50 for these at Daiso Japan, and I'm torn about whether I'd get them again. I like them quite a lot in terms of the taste and they are made with real wasabi. However, when I hit a powerful piece, it truly is a bombastic experience in my nasal cavities. It reminds me a bit of snorting soda through my nose and not in any way pleasant. I'm not sure if the price I may pay in pain is worth the experience, but I'd probably go for another round of these in the future after I had forgotten that some nuggets are more pain than pleasure.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Changes to My Blogs

I've been blogging regularly and steadily on both of my blogs since each one's inception. Both were created to serve several purposes from the outset. One was to bookmark experiences regarding life in Japan so that I could remember them as well as share my perspective on things both trivial and important with others. Another was to set myself a task such that I would develop my writing skills in different directions by focusing on a particular niche (Japanese snacks) or a particular style (short form for 1000 Things About Japan). Still another was in hopes of generating some income for my writing work. Despite my spotty proof-reading, I do put a lot of time and energy into my blogs.

I have realized two of my three goals. For various reasons, I make nearly nothing from my blogs despite having a pretty decent readership that has continued to grow at a slow pace. This is disappointing, but not the primary reason for the changes that are to come.

For some time, I've been writing a book. It's well over 100 pages now, but I keep having problems finishing it. The primary reason for this is that I tell myself each week that I'll do my eight blog posts (five for Japanese Snack Reviews and three for 1000 Things About Japan) and then I'll work on my book. All of my energy and time is taken by the blogs such that there is not enough left for the book and I have decided that has to change.

I've always been the sort of person who believes in structure and discipline. One of the reasons that my posting is regular is that I think that you have to set a goal and stick with it in order to make sure you achieve it. On 1000 Things About Japan, I met that goal awhile back when I hit 500 "Won't Miss" and 500 "Will Miss" posts, but I kept going and added in other content. On this blog, my goal was the number and type of posts and I've steadily stuck with each of my goals for a long time. It is time for my goals to change to getting the books I want to write finished instead of writing a certain number of blog posts each week for each blog.

In terms of what this means, I'll say first what it does not mean. It does not mean these blogs are ending or dying. I will continue to post, but I will be posting like most other bloggers do from now on. That is, these blogs will be second or third in my writing priorities rather than occupy first place as they have for so long. I will blog essentially when I feel like it rather than according to a self-imposed rigorous schedule.

For my kind and faithful readers, this means you'll have to track changes in some way rather than know when something new will be here. I recommend using an RSS reader (like Feedly) as it will automatically notify you of new content when it arrives, but you could simply pop in occasionally to see if anything has been posted. My best guess is that you'll see at least one post per week, but I can't say now as I haven't yet embarked on this new path.

As a postscript, I have to also say that this sort of change was inevitable since I knew at some point that I'd have to start leaving my connection to Japan behind and focus on making new and different ones. That connection will always be there as I spent so much of my adult life there, but it will fade. I love to write, so I will continue to do so, but it will likely branch into other areas rather than be monopolized by all things Japan. I hope you'll stick with me and read when I have something to say. I appreciate all of the kindness and support I've been shown over the years and look forward to continuing to offer something to those who enjoy my writing, albeit on a less frequent basis.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Haitai Choco Flavor Homerun Ball

I'm not a person with a plethora of bad habits. In fact, I'd say that I have far fewer of them than the average person. I don't procrastinate. I don't smoke or drink alcohol. I maintain good sleep hygiene habits. I don't watch much T.V. nor engage in any activity to excess. I do appear to have one habit which I might want to consider breaking. That habit is making decisions about food based on how amusing I find the names of the products to be.

I picked this snack up at a Korean market because the idea that it was named after baseball struck me as funny. Now that I have tried them, nothing about them is the least bit entertaining. I'm not even sure now why I found the name amusing, but I guess it's because it seemed weird for a Korean snack to be named after something related to baseball.

Incidentally, if you look at the picture, you will note that their is a graphic of a gold emblem in the upper right which says "premium". Now that I think of it, that is the most hilarious part of this. The product contained inside is about as far removed from being "premium" as I believe a treat can get.

The picture on the outside shows you what looks a little like a chou ball filled with chocolate cream. The little balls of dough contained therein are reminiscent of a choux pastry. They are airy and actually taste similar to those French delights. The point at which they diverge is the texture. If you bought a choux and left it sit in a closet for 6 weeks or until it reached a desiccated state more akin to Styofoam packing peanuts then injected it with a bit of chocolate, you'd have these. In fact, the major failing of these, and it is an incredibly enormous one, is that the balls are so dry and the texture is spongey and lacking in all delicacy.

It could be that there is some truth is advertising involved in this product. I've never chewed on a homerun ball and these might actually have verisimilitude with a baseball if you tried to eat one. I can't imagine it could be a whole lot worse than one of these.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pizza La Avocado Series (product information)

Image from Pizza La's web site.

I really like avocado, but I'm not one of those people who is trying to figure out new ways to incorporate it into my diet. I've seen recipes for chocolate pudding, cake, and, of course, the ever popular egg baked in half an avocado. It's not that I'm a purist, but I just think some flavors aren't meant to be combined with avocado. I wouldn't put chocolate syrup on one. I wouldn't sprinkle it with sugar. That's why I wouldn't put it in pudding or cake, though I'm sure that it "works" on some level and many people enjoy those things.

I have never thought about putting avocado on pizza, but the truth is that I think it's a flavor that would likely work. The creamy texture would also bring something to the table. The only part that I have doubts about is whether or not it'd be okay hot and wouldn't turn to mush if cooked. I think Pizza La has actually hit upon an interesting idea, though I'm not sure if the full execution is one I'd embrace. The pizza on the left is avocado and cream cheese. The one on the right is crab and avocado. I never really cared much for Pizza La's pizza (the tomato sauce had a funny taste in my opinion), but I find these toppings interesting and may have been persuaded to try them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Random Picture #218

It's becoming clear that cranberry is now a thing in Japan. I've been seeing more items containing cranberries including some chocolate-covered ones. I've done a bit of research and this sort of spread of cranberries isn't truly new to Japan, but it's definitely seeing a surge right now which I either didn't experience or notice during my 23 years in Japan. Since I love cranberries, and found them in short supply while I was in Tokyo, I hope I would have noticed if suddenly cookies and candies featuring them started popping up all over the place at the same time. However, I'm not so arrogant about my perceptual skills as to say it didn't fly right by me.

These "all cranberry" cookies are the latest in the long line of fruits that Tohato has dried out and sandwiched between two biscuits in their rip-off of Garibaldi biscuits. I've not been entirely impressed by the "all fruit" line in the past so I gave it a miss. I may be persuaded otherwise in the future, but I have more than enough snack review fodder lying around and don't need to toss another pack on the pile. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tirol Cafe de Brasil Chocolates (product information)

The whole World Cup thing is a bandwagon that I am not jumping on. That being said, it's one which people around me seem to be hauling themselves onto. People who have shown no interest whatsoever in soccer are suddenly watching it. I was sitting outside a cafe in Palo Alto several days ago and a bar across the street was emanating yells about goals and I assume missed goals. I may not be interested in it, but I can't avoid it.

Even in Tirol's news, I can't avoid seeing soccer-related things. They're offering a coffee chocolate in a special soccer-themed box (which you can dump all of the chocolates out of and use two candies to play a game with, or so they make it seem with the above photo). The candy uses authentic Brazilian coffee beans (roasted). You can buy these for 32 yen (about 30 cents) at Circle K/Sunkus for the time being, though I don't know how you're supposed to get one of the boxes without buying up a ton of the candies (or if you can have the box at all).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fujiya Country Ma'am Double Chocolate Crispy Cookies

There was often a confusion in Japan about the difference between "ma'am" and "mom". In terms of how they get translated from English to Japanese, the sounds are very likely indistinguishable. That's my way of saying that I don't know if this brand name is meant to bring to mind an old-fashioned mother in an apron making fresh baked cookies for her brood or if it's meant to elicit a gentile woman who lives in the country and serves her guests, for who she is the quintessential hostess, an array of fine sweets at tea time. Of course, it doesn't matter, but part of what I think about is branding and who it is meant to appeal to. The names of successful products are important and savvy companies know it.

The Country Ma'am line has expanded since its early days of being the soft cookie that you put in the microwave for a fresh-baked experience. Part of that expansion is the "crispy" line. Part of it at present is also a summer offering of cookies that are supposed to be put in the freezer. Whatever your temperature wishes, Country Ma'am appears to have you covered - hot, cold, or room temperature. The crispy line is for those who don't want to fuss with major appliances. I tried one in the microwave and it didn't do anything for it and I'm pretty sure that freezing wouldn't do much for it either.

I picked this up for $1.50 at Daiso Japan. Each bag contains 6 cookies at 46 calories per tiny cookie. One of the things that tends to put me off of the Country Ma'am line is that they are so fatty and rich for such a small morsel. In terms of the calories, they are the Oreo of the Japanese cookie world. I tend to prefer to spend my calories on a meringue cookie or a rice cracker (sembei) instead of two small bites of cookie. This consideration may not matter to most people, but it matters to me.

The point of the crispy cookies is rather obviously to offer a cookie which is crunchy. These do deliver on that front. They are tiny little crispy cookies (a little bigger than a quarter or 100-yen coin) with a deeply rich chocolate flavor. In fact, the flavor is reminiscent of a brownie. They are very similar to something that I recently tried here in the U.S. called "brownie brittle." The main difference is that the brittle is super crispy and these are between a regular cookie and that brittle in texture.

The call on this is hard to make. These are good little cookies with a nice texture, but given the small size, I'd rather blow 50 calories on a slab of brownie brittle (which will give me far more time with the texture and flavor for the same calorie footprint). However, not everyone can get brownie brittle and the comparison isn't quite fair. If I was in Japan and I wanted to have a shelf-stable bite with a nice chocolate punch, I'd buy these. Here in the U.S., with other options, I can't see choosing this again. So, I'm rating this as "indifferent", but that's only because I have other choices which are cheaper, more flavorful, and a better calorie to enjoyment ratio. If I were still in Japan, these would probably get a "happy" rating.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A-sha Hakka Flat Noodle-Vegetarian Spicy

One of the things people mentioned to me again and again when I said I was heading back to the U.S. after 23 years in Japan was that I was very likely looking forward to the food, and I was. After getting back, however, I found that the food was not as I expected. It's not particularly bad, but it's also not as good as I recall. Because of this, I've found my eating habits have seriously changed compared to my pre-Japan diet. For that matter, they've changed compared to what I tended to eat in Japan.

The biggest change for me has been that I seem to have lost my taste for meat almost entirely. It's not like I was carving up a cow or tucking into pork on a regular basis in Japan. I mainly ate chicken-based dishes because I don't care for beef at all and, while I'm okay with pork, I don't crave it and it's expensive. The truth is that most days I'm eating homemade vegetarian food because it's what I feel like eating. It helps that I've discovered the processed joys of soy chorizo and the less processed joys of smoked paprika. Vegetarian paella is now my favorite food with black bean stew being a close second. Yes, I know, it's so boring, but I do have to offset the snacks I eat somehow.

I've never been an enormous noodle eater, but since I've been expanding my repertoire, I was happy to sample these "snack noodles" when a representative at Taiwanese company called A-sha contacted me and said, "Hey, do you want some free food for review?" Yes, yes, I do.

I wasn't sure what I was in for when I got the box with two types of noodles because the packages have little in the way of English information. Mind you, they have nutrition information in English, but no description of the noodles or soup. It's no matter really as their web site came to the rescue. I was delighted when I found out that the type I'm reviewing today is spicy ("not for the faint of heart") and vegetarian. This greatly increased my enthusiasm. However, I don't want to mislead anyone. I'm not a vegetarian. I've just lost my desire for meat (maybe it's because I'm getting older). Don't think I've gone and gotten all ethical or anything!

Since I can't read Chinese at all (I assume it's Chinese writing though these are made in Taiwan), I had to guess at the instructions based on the pictures, but this is not a complex process. I've made noodles before and the illustration of a pot with heat lines coming off of it clued me in on the fact that you probably are supposed to boil them like every other noodle on the planet. I am one sharp cookie, after all.

Note that these are "dried", not fried. Most of the ramen that you could buy in similar packages in Tokyo was fried and not particularly healthy. The stats on these nutritionally are actually pretty decent. One packet is 290 calories and has 10.7 grams of protein (22% of RDA according to the package). The total fat is only 1.8 grams (3% of RDA). Of course, with any packaged noodles, the place where you get socked nutritionally is the sodium and these have 1338 grams or 56% of the RDA.

Okay, so I know I'm closer to being on Reddit's terrible food porn site than on Tastespotting, but I'm sure you'll live with it. I'm a writer, not a food pornographer.

I'm not prone to eating large amounts of anything at once, so I planned to only eat half of the package at a time and I paired it with a boiled egg and green onions. That has no impact on how I feel about the taste of them, but it does balance them a bit better as a meal. People who are younger than me and don't have a body that is approaching it's million mile check-up can just gobble down the whole thing without my old person's (I turn 50 this year) concerns.

I believe the instructions are telling you that you can boil the noodles for varying lengths of time depending on how soft you like them (1-5 minutes). I'm a person of pedestrian tastes so I boiled them for 5 minutes. Foodies who believe everything should be al dente would turn their noses up at my food preparation. That being said, the noodles were not flabby or overdone even after the longest boiling time. They held their structure and were pleasantly chewy. The sauce smelled really good with the aroma of chili and sesame oil.

The sauce is where most of the flavor is going to come from, obviously, and this was hot and spicy with some nice depth. My concern was that it would be overly salty, but it was not. It was very balanced and had a complexity which merged into a unified flavor that had heft when it sat on the front or middle of the tongue. It also had heat and burned my lips and the front of my mouth, but it wasn't more than I could bear. Keep in mind that I can bear a fair bit of spice, but I'm not looking to challenge the Scoville scale or anything - I'm not downing raw habaneros or anything. However, these are Asian chili flavors, so like Mexican chili, there will be a build up over time. I was happy for the bland boiled egg addition and to have a soda on the side to give my mouth a rest. I also chased it down with some gelatin dessert to cool my mouth further so this is definitely not for chili wusses.

I really liked this. In fact, I liked it far more than I would have expected. The texture and quality of the noodles was far nicer than I experience with regular pasta and I'd buy the sauce in a bottle and put it on other things if I could get it outside of the little packets. As it is, I'm truly delighted to have had this and would definitely buy it again. It also seems to be healthier than most packaged meal options and not particularly expensive. A-sha is offering a box of 5 packages for $6.99, which makes it more expensive than college-student ramen, but cheaper than a lot of prepared foods. I'd take this with a boiled egg as a meal over any frozen dinner option both economically and taste-wise.

If you'd like to follow A-sha online, you can do so via the following outlets:
Twitter: @ashadrynoodle
Instagram: #ashadrynoodle

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pizza Hut and Morinaga Milk Caramel Pizza (product announcement)

The Japanese have to show that they can take anything America does and do it better. They've finally turned their attention toward the excess which is "dessert pizza". Given the enormous task involved in taking something as sacred as putting sugary delights on pizza dough, Pizza Hut decided to combine its research forces with that at Morinaga, a company known well for it's caramel delights.

As you can see by the ad, the pizza costs 800 yen (about $8) and is topped with "colorful marshmallows", almonds, and caramel sauce. It is 25 cm. (about 10 in.) in size. This monstrosity became available on June 10 and will be making new cavities for a limited time. You can have it delivered to you, but only if you buy at least 1400 yen worth of food at the same time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Random Picture #217

Excuse my flash, and you can click on this image to see a bigger one.

Many a man would like society to put up something called a "beer signal". It would have lights telling you "drink", "don't drink", and "prepare to drink." This peculiarly named place has a "Spanish Belgian" concept behind it. They serve tapas, but they offer Belgian food and beer. So, the only Spanish part is that they do small portions to be enjoyed with imported booze. I'm not sure how that is different from Japanese otsumami (which is snacks served with alcohol), but mine is not to question. Mine is to make fun of their sign's English...

The oddest part of this sign is not the name of the place (though it is peculiar), but the first grouping of food - the "fling pan lunch". I'm sure that this relates to some sort of cooking style in Belgium, but a casual search didn't yield anything that makes sense to me and I'm not interested enough to go too deeply. Besides, the truth can't be nearly as amusing as thinking that pans are actually being flung around the kitchen in some sort of violent avant garde cooking process, so I'll stay with remaining ignorant. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Glico Kaneeza and Ebeeza Crackers (product information)

Images are from Glico.

Some names of products and places sound like they should be the names of something else. This is something which Dave Barry pioneered when he wrote so often about something or other "being a good name for a rock band." However, my husband and I take this more than a step beyond Mr. Barry's convention. We hear a new name and say it would be a good name for, well, whatever category it sounds like it fits in.

The names of these new crackers from Glico, which are named in accord with the "Cheeza" line, bring a certain type of naming to mind... at least to me. When I heard these names, the thing I thought of is that these would make great names for a couple of alien planets in Star Trek. That would be "The Next Generation", not the original series - I'm sure you were thinking the same thing.

Kaneeza (which also reminds one of a contorted sneeze) are crab crackers. Ebeeza (which really sounds like a city in Egypt) are shrimp crackers. If I run across these, I won't touch the shrimp version as I'm a shrimp hater of long-standing and I wouldn't want to endanger my status. I may give the crab version a shot because I used to like crab cakes and I'm guessing these crackers have about as much real crab in them as the average crab cake. That is to say, not very much - Glico says they're 3% crab whereas the Ebeeza ones are 30% shrimp.

These are what are called otsumami in Japan, or snacks to be consumed with alcoholic beverages. I'm guessing that the amount of real crustacean in their cracker will not be among the highest of priorities.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tohato Pai Cro Butter Sugar

I've been seeing Pai Cro at Japanese markets for some time, but I was unwilling to fork over the cash they were charging to give them a try. Much to my surprise, I found this bag at Daiso Japan for a mere $1.50. In fact, it seems that Daiso is upping its food game as of late. They've added in more name brand snacks and diversified their line of chocolates to include more varieties. Of course, I haven't been super impressed by their chocolate so far, but hope springs eternal and the price is right (almost all of the products at Daiso are $1.50).

I snapped up the Pai Cro as well as Country Ma'am cookies (another new item) last time that I was at Daiso. I also got a shoehorn, because they have these super long ones that allow lazy people to more easily put their shoes on without bending down much, but this isn't a review of cheap items blog. That being said, at one point, I considered starting a new blog dedicated to 100-yen-shop finds. When I left Japan, the idea died. It could be revived now that I'm living close to a Daiso. The main impediment is my limited need for plastic junk. It's hard to keep buying stuff you don't need just to be sure that you have something to write about. Also, I'm writing eight posts a week already. What do you people think I am, a machine? ;-)

When we made our way to the cashier, an extremely enthusiastic and gregarious young woman, she told us that everyone in the shop was super excited when the Pai Cro was re-stocked as everyone loves it. This increased my interest in what this was going to taste like. However, my tastes don't necessarily match those of peppy women in their early 20's. After all, they like their men muscular with all of their chest hair waxed off and I like my men on the hairy and meaty side. I can't necessarily conclude that our tastes in other areas will overlap when they don't in this crucial area.

There were two flavors of Pai Cro - butter sugar and apple something or other (custard? caramel?). Since I don't remember the apple one, you may guess correctly that I opted for "butter sugar". Also, the title of this post is a tip-off about which variety is getting reviewed. Attentive readers may have noted that already. Inattentive ones have just looked at the pictures in the post and skipped to the rating anyway and aren't even reading all of this blathering.

Getting to the Pai Cro, as soon as you open the bag, you smell margarine and bread crumbs. Though there is some butter in this, it's pretty far down on the ingredients list. There is a lot of oil though - three vegetable oils (palm, coconut, and rice), butter, and "butter oil". I'm pretty sure the crispness of these comes from their being fried like a potato chip. These are pretty caloric as the nutrition information for 2.47 oz./70 grams says one bag is 2.3 servings at 151 calories per serving.

These are super crispy and light. They have a real sense of being like a sweet buttered crouton, but they're finer than that in texture and much less tough to chew. They shatter apart rather appealingly, but there is definitely a strong flavor of "bread" to them. The bread flavor is not good quality bread, but rather like the crust on common white bread that has been toasted. It really does not bring a croissant to mind, at least not to my taste buds.

This is a very "junky" snack which has both qualities of being appealing (crispy, sweet, buttery), but also tastes "cheap" (tasting like cheap bread and margarine/oil). This is a blog about junk food, however, so it is to be expected that such things would come up from time to time. This is tasty junk, but I think those who are used to eating a lot of processed food (and I'm not, despite my blogging about Japanese snacks) will find this more appealing than I did. I will slowly finish the bag, and I'm interested enough to try another flavor, but I wouldn't buy this one again.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Kuchidoke Happy Turn Rice Crackers

I've been told that "Happy Turn" is a brand that many folks in Japan find familiar and comforting. The happy sembei (rice cracker) on the cover gives them the same sort of warm and fuzzy feeling that an American might get from Tony the Tiger. I'm sure he doesn't yell as loudly or often about how "grrrrrreat" things are, but I think one can do without the bellicose nature of some mascots.

Besides the familiar anthropomorphic rice cracker, I noted the color scheme of the bag. It is most elegant in its largely white design. I'm not sure what inspired it, but this is not a winter release since it is still listed on Kameda Seika's web site as an available product. I expected this to be white chocolate because of that, though there was no indication of that on the bag. That's probably because I've had white chocolate sembei before, and loved it. It was likely wishful thinking. Perhaps these are appropriate for weddings? At any rate, it caught my eye and then it grabbed my wallet.

"Kuchidoke" means "melt in your mouth" so, I was expecting something that was more in line with the kinako or cheese "mochi" sembei that I've had in the past. Those balls of spun fat and rice literally melted in your mouth. When I opened the bag and saw the same old planks of sembei that I have always seen from Happy Turn, I was disappointed, but I remained hopeful that there was going to be some magical quality to these which differentiated them from regular Happy Turn.

As it turned out, there was no magic at all. Don't misunderstand me. These are good sembei, albeit quite vinegary ones. It didn't seem particularly "melt in your mouth" compared to regular Happy Turn. Okay, maybe it was a little bit softer and less crisp, but it was nothing like the "fluffy" sembei I'd had before which literally melted like shelf-stable ice cream in my mouth. These were fresh, somewhat crispy, and rather super-charged in their flavor (like the Happy Turn 200% version, but perhaps not quite as dusty).

This is a very savory rice cracker and a well-made one at that, but it really doesn't deliver much in the way of textural variation. If you like strong, vinegary flavors, then this is going to be a pleasure, but don't expect them to melt away in your mouth or to be a very different experience from conventional Happy Turn sembei.