Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tohato Ame Oni Bloomin' Onion Snack (sour cream)

I read a lot of cooking blogs because I'm always interested in expanding my range of cooking skills. There was a time, for instance, when I was trying to master the art of making a really good steam cake. One of the Chinese recipes said something to the effect of, 'We Chinese traditionally ate fruit after meals for dessert, but, ha, ha, Western cuisine has corrupted us.' Every time I read something about how Western food culture has harmed the "healthy" Asian food culture, I get a little peeved.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. If Asians prefer to eat healthy food, no exposure to bad Western habits is going to force sugar, refined flour, etc. down their gullets. If they embrace unhealthy food, it's because it's what they want to eat, not because we made them consume it. They're no more superhuman than the rest of us when it comes to resisting highly palatable food. I also frankly have my doubts that a culture with dim sum couldn't figure out that adding sugary elements to its basic stuffed buns wouldn't be a good idea for a sweet finish without our bad influence. I credit them with having just that little creativity with their own homegrown cuisine. I think they likely figured that out on their own, but we always get blamed for everyone's bad habits... such is the burden we bear based on our generally pretty terrible eating habits as a country. We get blamed for all food crimes, not only the ones we actually committed.

All of that being said, I think we'll have to take the hit for Bloomin' Onions entering the junky and junk food time stream in Japan. They do have their own fried food culture (with tempura and all), but we're the ones who overdid it with breading and size. I honestly didn't know Outback Steakhouse even existed in Japan until several months ago when my brother-in-law (who still lives in Tokyo) posted pictures of a Bloomin' Onion he'd consumed as part of his birthday. And, yes, I know the old Outback is an American notion of "Aussie" cuisine. They're more about the meat pies and the vegemite than the over-sized steaks and bread served cruelly stabbed with a knife.

I'm guessing, possibly incorrectly, that the Outback may be getting a toehold in Japan since this type of snack would need a reference point for those who purchase it. Otherwise, the (misleading) picture of a fried onion flower on the bag would confuse rather than entice. I can say that it honestly enticed me.

I think they look less like Bloomin' Onions and more like low level sea life, but that's just my impression. 

When I opened the bag and gave it a whiff, I got a very strong sense of sour cream. The little snacks themselves are very light and crispy, but have a "soft" rather than a hard crunch. That means they are airier than a dense crunchy snack food despite also being quite thin. When I bit into it, the sour cream was on the front end followed by a whisper of onion and a finish of corn. The onion component becomes stronger as you eat more and it lingers on the tongue. I'm guessing this is how they justify calling them "Boomin' Onion" snacks because they otherwise don't have anything to do with the Outback Steakhouse calorie bombs they're named for (shape of the little cups not withstanding).

I liked these. I'm not sure how much I liked them. I was glad to have them and enjoyed eating them, but I don't know if I'd buy them again. My husband loved them and I think he would be inclined to buy more if we could easily get our hands on them. I liked the flavor complexity that came through in such a relatively pedestrian snack. I think he just liked the salted, sour cream flavor and light crunch. For both of us, this was a winner.

Source: ZenPop box service

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tohato Harvest Sand Biscuits Mont Blanc flavor

Every year, around Halloween, a bunch of sites will do lists of the best and worst Halloween snacks. The "best" usually are anything covered in or mainly comprised of chocolate and/or peanut butter. The "worst" tend to be anything chalky or in the genre of what the British call "boiled sweets" (hard candy). Basic Harvest Biscuits are the boiled sweet of the cookie world. They're what you're disappointed to see served as a tea time snack 95% of the time because they're just plain, flat, not so sweet discs of crispy cookie.

Mind you, being in a category which isn't blow-your-socks-off amazing isn't a bad thing if you are in the mood for something quite crunchy, but not rich or super sweet. The main sticking point with Harvest Biscuits is that all flavors, without fail, taste like coconut. I do wonder if, to that end, the Harvest people have expanded their line to include things like these sandwich cookies which have the architecture ("cookie architect" absolutely should be a career one can pursue in life) of an Oreo. The big question is whether or not the structure and composition of this cookie edifice is sound.

The texture of the "cookie" on these is super crisp and on the harder side. They either feel thicker and harder than the routine Harvest cookie because they're so tiny (about an inche or so in diameter) or they actually are. On the cookie to cracker spectrum, this leans closer to the "cracker" end than the cookie side. The filling is very firm, or at least it is in somewhat cooler temperatures as it is now in my part of the planet.

The main draw of these is the mont blanc filling. Mont blanc, for those who don't know, is a sweet made with a chestnut paste, whipped cream, and either a meringe or cake base. The filling tastes distinctly artificial, or it simply is so intense that it comes across that way. The combination of the strong, fake-tasting filling with the coconutty little crackery biscuit simply did not work for me. I was enormously disappointed in these because I love mont blanc. In fact, I did something I rarely do which is fail to finish the packet.

Source: ZenPop box service

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Yaokin Strawberry Cream Roll Cake

This is the first item from the ZenPop Sweets box that I previously reviewed. I chose it mainly because I wanted a small dessert and it looked small and like a dessert. That being said, this is a "kid's snack" in Japan and sold for a mere 20 yen (20 cents), so it's unrealistic to expect it to be as refined as larger, adult-marketed shelf stable pastries. And, of course, shelf-stable pastries are a completely different category from actual fresh pastries.

If cakes were to be compared to movies, the real deal would be a comedy like "Grand Budapest Hotel," and this type of product would be something by Adam Sandler which didn't do well at the box office. Note that I've never seen a good Adam Sandler movie, let alone a bad one. However, while I distrust most of what the internet tells me, I have some faith that their disdain for a movie that failed to make money that also featured a guy who irritated the crap out of me every time I saw him on "Saturday Night Live" is appropriately placed. So, don't expect some finely made performance a quirky, beautifully executed manner. This is more pratfalls and dumbassery. All you can hope for is that it'll make you smile anyway.

There was no nutrition information on the packaging, so I can't tell you how many calories it is. It can't be many though because it is small. The packaging is very deceptive in that the actual cake is less than half the width and only a little over half of the length of the package. It's also not exactly what you'd think of as a Swiss cake roll with moist sponge cake and whipped cream frosting. The filling is a somewhat cream-cheese-like frosting and the "cake" is somewhat doughy and quite moist. It's more akin to a slightly damp pancake.

When you open it, the strawberry scent is potent. The flavor is not super sweet, which is actually a bonus. The cake has a nice flavor, but the doughy texture is a little disappointing as it feels like you're noshing on a slightly underbaked item. Still, there is something appealing in it's qualities and the flavor of the cake is decent.

The interesting thing about this is that, if you are expecting Ralph Fiennes instead of Adam Sandler, this will disappoint, but it's actually not a bad shelf-stable snack. It needs to be placed into its own category and I felt it was closer to a low-rent version of a dorayaki (a traditional Japanese snack which looks like two pancakes filled with red bean paste).

I wouldn't buy a case of these, and I wouldn't want to eat one every week. If I still lived in Japan though, I could see me buying one occasionally and keeping it in the my desk when an urge or craving hit. I think the fairest thing to say is that I wouldn't want to see this in every box I got from a snack box service, but I wouldn't mind seeing one show up once a year or so. That actually makes it something I'd want to see more frequently than any Adam Sandler movie.

Source: ZenPop box service

Monday, October 30, 2017

ZenPop Sweets Box (Unboxing)

I have to admit that I've been away longer than anticipated and part of the reason for that was that I bought another Japan box from a particular entity and it was so disappointing that I lost my mojo for talking about Japanese snacks. Yes, I am quite the delicate doily. It could also be that my husband and I both got sick a few times due to the fact that he works with germ factories, er, children.

Another issue for me was that I just couldn't get myself to eat as much Japanese junk food as I used to (oddly). I used to work up some enthusiasm for even terrible kid's snacks, but I just looked at my pile and was full of sad. I still have some of the disappointing items sitting around being neglected and going stale because I was so unhappy that they figured into the aforementioned box of sadness.

Fortunately, after a bit of a break and good fortune, my enthusiasm is refreshed. I was contacted by ZenPop about doing an unboxing and review of their service. They sent me their "sweets box." That means I didn't actually need to pay for this box, but I will say that, had I paid, I would have been pretty pleased and I would absolutely buy their box again in the future because this is the first box I've gotten which has a ton of full-sized snack products that represent what you'd actually buy in a Japanese shop if you were able to stroll around and buy the items on your own.

To the best of my ability to tell, nothing in the box is part of a broken up multi-pack. This is the only box I've received that didn't have mini versions or single servings of tiny snacks that originally came in what would be considered a "family sized" bag. This is no small thing because it means the value of most of the items is about a 100 yen (about a dollar). That being said, a few of the items could cost as little as 50 yen (about 50 cents) and one was likely 10-20 yen.

With 15 items in the box, that means that about 40-50% of the cost of the box ($29.50) is represented in the cost of the items. There is nothing that annoys me more than getting a box that claims "x" number of items and a few of them are a single, individually wrapped pieces of hard candy or a tiny marshmallow that originally came from a bag with 10 pieces in it. It's just depressing when boxes do that. I'm guessing they're figuring the recipients won't know what they're doing, but I know, and I'm going to tell on them.

Now, my readers may not feel that 40-50% being tied up in actual item costs isn't a good deal, but the reason that it is is that shipping, boxing, and labor are reasonable costs to consider. The parcel was sent by SAL and would have cost 1,180 yen ($9.55) just for the postage. The custom box also cost something as well. So, we're looking at another $10 in shipping costs on top of about $13 (my best guess) for the items themselves. That leaves about $7 for the company to pay for the labor of assembling the box, designing a pamphlet, and printing the information. If I ask myself, would I pay someone a fee of $7-$10 to send me a box full of full-sized Japanese goodies to me, the answer is, "yes."

I can say with certainty that I didn't get a special box because I'm a reviewer getting a free sample box because the pamphlet is clearly designed for everyone and includes every item I received. That being said, the pamphlet was printed individually on a color printer so this wasn't a professionally printed item and could be modified on the fly. My guess is they don't do that because of changing inventory. Since my box heavily focused on Halloween items, they may discontinue them at a moment's notice. I liked very much that the box included a lot of seasonal flavors (apple, chestnut, sweet potato), some interesting novelty flavors ("bloomin' onion")

In terms of the selection of items, I was also very pleased by and large, though there were a few "mundane" items which I wish had been replaced with more interesting versions. The Tongari Corn, for example, is really just plain old Bugles corn snack. I'd rather have had one of the garlic butter or other flavors. That being said, the box is pretty cool and I'm guessing they chose this because of the adorable Halloween box with a mask on the back. It's the sort of thing you might want to save as a souvenir of the experience. The only clunker for me was the small bag of mini butter cookies. It's not only one of the few 50 yen (likely) items, but they're just plain old cookies. The other options are all much more interesting though and I'm looking forward to reviewing them. I will note that I have reviewed one of the items before and that was the "Osatsu snack". That means I can also clearly identify it as a 40-yen item based on past experience.

Note that my cost of items estimates certainly could be wrong. All I can say is that this is definitely an impressive array that feels much more like it's worth the $29.50 it costs compared to the other boxes I've written about (and especially the one I didn't write about).

My conclusions about ZenPop are:

Service: Excellent
Value: More than adequate
Experience: Excellent

Worth it? It is the best value I've encountered so far from these types of service and I hope they don't change the types and volume of items that they include. If any of my readers use the ZenPop service, I hope you'll let me know if your experiences mirror mine in terms of getting full-sized items as purchased in stores and not getting items from a parceled out multi-pack.

Note: I am not promoting ZenPop, though they did provide me with a free sample box for review purposes.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Harajuku Mochi Chocolate

Getting old is a weird experience because you find yourself stepping into the experiences that you used to snicker at your parents for having. You get those weird yellow toenails that are hard to cut so there is nothing you can do about how you're now getting "old people feet." You look in the mirror and see your parents' faces more clearly because you're moving into the age range that they were when you were a kid growing up. You find that normal things, like sleeping in a bed for an entire night, will result in pain. Of course, that assumes that you sleep through the night at all as the body actually forgets how to sleep as you get older.

Why am I talking about age in a review of Harajuku Mochi Chocolate? It's because I missed last week's posting because it was my 53rd birthday. I had plans to go to a very nice hotel with a jacuzzi on the Southern Oregon coast, but the fires in that area rained down ashes and filled the area with smoke. I'm not really complaining because people who lived just north of my hotel had to evacuate their homes. I'm not a fan of arguments of relative privation (as I think they are just a way of invalidating the feelings of others), but it's hard to cry too hard over a cancelled vacation when people are fleeing their homes due to a nearby inferno threatening to rob them of everything they have.

Another aspect of aging is that my appetite for any food isn't as high as it once was. It has been taking me far longer to get through my stash of traditional Japanese sweets from Nippon-ya than I would have expected. Despite that, I have to say these sweets have aged very well. They aren't as soft as the first box of these that I reviewed, but they are far from stale. They are just a bit chewy and less pillowy soft after four months in the closet. Frankly, I'm impressed.

In terms of flavor, these are very potently chocolate-y, while not being too sweet or bitter. It's quite an impressive balance between the two as most strong chocolate flavors have the bitterness of a dark chocolate or they are washed out by overly sweet milky flavors.

While these are awesome as a delivery system for chocolate and as a way of enjoying the texture of mochi, they aren't especially unique. I think they are a great choice for someone who is squeamish about exotic flavors who you want to share a mochi sweet with, but I don't think I'd get them again despite how good they are. I enjoyed them greatly, but I'd rather have something more unique and I can get good quality chocolate in cheaper delivery systems than this. However, if you like chocolate and you like mochi, these are a big winner.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 11.6 oz.
Price: $9.99

Friday, August 18, 2017

Yoneya Lemon Daifuku

As I've mentioned before, I am currently living in a rural area. For the most part, I love it here. Though the local politics don't match my values at all, I'm accustomed to living in a culture with values that aren't in accord with mine. In fact, I feel like living in Japan helped prepare me for being a liberal in a conservative zone. I can accept the culture (which is beyond politics, but that's the biggest "hardship") as something which suits the locals, but doesn't suit me personally and just keep my distance.

At any rate, the biggest aspect of small town life that actually does bother me is the food culture, such as it is. There are about 10 restaurants that aren't chains or fast food places, and most of them offer a limited menu with an emphasis on burgers and sandwiches. I don't like to order anything at a restaurant that I can't make myself at least as well, if not better, than a restaurant can. I rely on Yelp to some extent to make some decisions about which places to try, and, though I've lived here for almost two years, I've not hit all of the places yet because I tend to spend my money at ethnic places about an hour north of where I live (in Oregon, in a city which is big enough to have a wider range of options).

What Yelp has made me realize is just how much ones tastes are conditioned by local experience. People raved about a local steak place and it got high star reviews. My husband and I finally went there on his birthday about a year after living here and both found it extremely disappointing. The "salad bar" was a limited range of canned food options. The chicken I ate was some sort of pressed meat with grill marks. The "dessert" was a scoop of cheap ice cream with Hershey's syrup on it. This helped me see all too clearly that people who haven't had a broad range of experiences can't tell the difference between what is at the low end of the culinary scale and what is at the high end.

As someone who reviews snack foods from another country, I realize that that people may judge the food I'm judging less harshly than I do because some of them haven't lived in a place in which better options exist. And, I'm sure there are sometimes things I review which other people have more experience with that other people would find inadequate, but I really enjoyed. This snack really illustrates to me how spoiled I was to have lived in a place in which fresh confections made with mochi were common. I think someone else might have found this more enjoyable than me, but only if he/she had never had a better version.

This is made by a company called Yoneya which specializes in traditional Japanese confections like yokan (a block of sweet bean gel). They seem to offer a lot of summer gift boxes as well as individually wrapped sweets like the one I'm reviewing. One of their less traditional, but quite interesting looking foods is a peanut monaka. It's actually shaped like a peanut, comes in a peanut-shaped box, but is oddly filled with red bean jam (anko) and not peanut-based filling. Oh well, two out of three ain't bad...

The mochi shell on this wasn't hard, but it also wasn't super soft and pliable. It seemed too thick and, though it was easy to bite into, it was weirdly firm in a way most fresh (non-shelf-stable) mochi is not. That said, the lemon filling in this was nothing short of amazing. It was tangy, sweet, and bright. The flavors were so good that I very much wanted the textures to match and I decided to give it a turn in the microwave to see if warming up the mochi would make the texture more stretchy and pliable, but it didn't change anything. It seemed too thick and overworked/dense. It was very unfortunate that the mochi outside didn't match the lemony bean filling inside.

If you want to try this, and I guessing you don't, I'm afraid you're out of luck as the only place you could have gotten one was from Bokksu and they seem to no longer carry them.

Source: Part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pocky Orange Peel

I was watching a video on "shows that should never have been made" and one of the abominations that was featured was a show that I had the faintest recollection of from my youth. That show was "Pink Lady (and Jeff)" and I personally never watched it, but saw it advertised. I've watched a little bit of it on YouTube. This is the sacrifice I make for my readers. I fall on the grenade so you don't have to.

It stuns me that any network attempted to sell Japanese pop stars to the American audience in 1980. If you watch the clips that I linked to, and keep in mind that it is #35 on the list of the 50 worst television shows of all time as chosen by "TV Guide" so consider yourself warned, you'll be treated to some incredibly culturally inappropriate material. If you've taught English, you'll also recognize immediately that the singers in Pink Lady can't actually speak English and learned their lines phonetically.

Though this was a disaster in all respects, it is important for people to have foreign cultures stuck in front of their noses on occasion. Small bits and pieces of information prime people to be more open to that culture in the future. In 1980, sushi was just raw fish to Americans. In the present day and age, it's something they're willing to fork over a lot of money for a bastardized version of in places as pedestrian as their local supermarket. That's some cultural infiltration.

When I returned to the U.S., I was stunned at how ubiquitous Pocky had become. I think the versions I see are from Korea for the most part and not the same as what I had in Japan, but the brand is recognized and consumed as a Japanese product. It started to be sold in Japan in 1966, and a U.S. division of Glico was established in 2003. November 11 is "Pocky" day and this year will be the 4th one that is celebrated in the United States. It took awhile, but it gained some traction. Pink Lady, apparently, was too early for the times.

I've not had as much Pocky as most in my career as a person who consumes food, but I can say that this is unique amount the few handfuls that I've tried. The main point about this is that the little bits of peel are chewy. They are clearly candied bits and they bring a nice, bright, authentic citrus flavor to each bite. The chocolate is milk bordering on semi-sweet. It has enough strength to be present, but not so much as to be bitter. The flavor combination is very well-balanced. I believe part of what helps this is that the organe peel bits appear to be coated in dark chocolate so they carry some of that flavor through as well. If you look at the sticks, you'll see they look more like Oreo cookie parts than orange peel, but orange peel they are indeed.

This snack came with advice to refrigerate it before consuming and I ignored that advice when I ate all but the last packet. So, it was only with my last experience that I had the most optimal one. The lesson here: Do what you are told blindly without question, at least when it comes to Pocky.

When not refrigerated, the coating is a bit too soft and the chewy peels feel as if they are in a slighly greasy chocolate in terms of the textural experience. It's still good, but it is a lot better when the coating is chilled and much firmer. The standard, bland, Pocky pretzel stick seems more orange in color to me on these than what I recall, but my memory could be going. I am getting on in years, after all.

I like the combination of orange and chocolate, but these seemed a tad rich for my tastes as well as having a cumulative sweetness that I found cloying by the 5th and final stick in a packet. I don't regret having these, but I wouldn't go out of my way to have them again. If you're interested, and I would act fast if you are because these are seasonal and likely to vanish at some point, the Asian Food Grocer is currently offering these for $3.58. Yummy Bazaar has them for $3.05 and Economy Candy has them for $2.99. I got mine from Bokksu as part of a premium box, but they are currently sold out. It wouldn't matter anyway since Bokksu was selling them for $4/box and would have pricier than the alternatives anyway.

Source: Part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, August 4, 2017

Aya Usagi White Bean Cakes

One of the big differences between my blogging in Japan about Japanese food as compared to doing so in the U.S. is that it costs me at least 50% more. This sucks, but, as someone accustomed to paying at least 50% more for imported food when I lived in Japan, it's something I'm quite accustomed to.

The other difference is that I feel more like I have to ration my treats because I can't get them as cheaply or easily as I once did. This is one of the reasons that I haven't hoovered up my stack of manju from Nippon-ya like an anteater that has a mental health disorder. I imagine that, for anteaters, having a vacuum cleaner complex is probably similar to having a Napoleon complex among humans. I am all powerful! All ants will be consumed through my magnificence protuberance like Dorothy during a Kansas tornado!

I'm sure nobody comes to my blog to hear me inhabit the reality of anteaters with mental health challenges - well, maybe a few bodies do - so I will get on with talking about bean cakes. I waited until well past the point of reason to eat the last one and savored every little morsel. Unfortunately, though these were quite fresh when I opened the box, holding out on the last one until after the box had been opened for nearly a month meant the last one was a bit stale. This isn't any sort of indictment of the cakes because they held out for a long, long time. However, I do recommend you eat them within three weeks of opening the box. The oxygen absorber can only do so much.

This was, by far, my very favorite of my haul from Nippon-ya. The cakes themselves (when not well-aged)  have a soft, thin, cake covering a good portion of white beans that are generously sweetened, but not cloying. They have a lovely flavor which brings to mind butter, vanilla, and yellow cake, but doesn't really fit any of those descriptions. Sometimes, these types of cakes are a bit bland and mushy, but this definitely has a flavor profile. It's not incredibly deep as it tends to be just that indescribable flavor and sugar, but it's very satisfying.

The beans in these have a slightly fudgey texture to them, especially when they're fresher and moister than my antiquated final cake. I'm guessing this is delivered courtesy of the white adzuki and kidney beans as well as the multiple sugars (as sugar adds moisture)

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 11.6 oz.
Price: I don't recall exactly, but I think it was $12.95.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Porinki Asari Corn

My friends and I have an inside joke about corn. I'm not exactly certain how this happened, but it is a lot like being a Monty Python fan. The more you say something, the funnier it becomes, but only to you and everyone else thinks you're a dip. So, it's hard for me not to extoll the virtues of anything which is corn flavored in a humorous way that will not be funny to anyone outside of me and the few friends that are in on the gag.

I say all of that to preface that this gets bonus points to begin with for being corn flavored in any way or including corn in the ingredients. I'm sorry if you don't understand, but that's just the way it has to be. It would be against my nature not to believe in the greatness of corn. All hail the all-mighty corn!

With that out of the way, I'll mention the fact that this is made with a flavoring which is very common in Japan, but that I've rarely experienced here. It is what the Japanese often refer to as "corn potage" flavor and would be seen in the U.S. as a corn chowder.

This is made by a company, Koikeya, that I know very well from my time in Japan as they produce some of the most well-distributed salted snack foods. It has several highly recognizable products including "scon", which has nothing to do with what you'd think it might (scones) and is a salted snack food and this product, Polinki. They also sell a brand of chips which is quite uninventively called "Potato Chips." Yes, that's the brand right there.

The name, "asari" or "assari" (not sure how to romanize these things anymore), indicates that it is going to be a plain or clean flavor. This is meant to convey the flavor of sweet corn, pure and simple without a whole lot of complexity. It could also me "light" or "delicate" flavor, but that seems unlikely given that the corn flavoring on this is very present and deliciously sweet and authentic to the flavor of corn (the king of all grains). Also, the ingredients do include various seasonings including citric acid and tomato powder so it does have some depth. This is very savory and tasty in a way that is hard to convey in words.

The snack itself is reminiscent of a triangular Chex cereal piece, but it is pure crispy badness in terms of its contents. As far as I can tell, this isn't even something which contains actual grains and is a totally processed food. The ingredients list is a little confusing in this regard because you'd think the rigid lattice of the snack would contain corn (because it's the king and that's the flavoring of this), but it mainly seems to be composed of modified starches, cornstarch, and vegetable oil. This is not just junk food, it's super junky junkfood.

However, I don't blog about snack foods based on their nutrition profiles. If I wanted to do that, I'd have to wear yoga pants, shop at Whole Foods, and fret about how to prepare my kale this evening. Trust me, nobody wants to see any of those things happen, especially the first one. So, I will evaluate this completely based on how satisfying it is. The corn taste is amazing. The crunch is right on point. This is a great salted snack food and I wish the bag had been a lot bigger.

While I got this as part of the Oyatsucafe Dagashi box, you can find other sellers online. Tokyo Otaku Mode shop sells them, but lists them as currently out of stock. Similarly, a place called Cosme Store also has them listed, but presently out of stock. Amazon has a version of these for sale, but also says they are out of stock. I don't know what is up with that, but these are a popular inclusion in many Japanese subscription boxes. Maybe everyone is buying them up to put in boxes or something. If you'd like to try them, I'd recommend contacting one of the entities who sell them and see when they'll be available again.

Source: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Yuzu Zarame Rice Cracker

One of my students used to come for her lessons after working and it was close to dinner time. This sometimes benefitted me because she would bring some treats with her and share them with me as we talked. I would ask her occasionally if she was hungry during the lesson due to the timing and she would say she was on rare occasions, but often said she sated her hunger with a rice cracker (sembei) and some tea before the lesson.

I've sometimes wondered what food holds the same place in American food culture as sembei does in Japan. Nothing really quite functions as the same placeholder, though I guess cookies come closest. The main difference between a cookie as a snack and a rice cracker is likely about 200-300 calories and the sweetness. In modern times, granola bars may come close to being a similar snack, though they are still sweeter, more caloric, and less satisfying in terms of texture.

The main benefit of sembei as a snack is that it carries a lot of satisfaction in a small, crunchy package. Most commercial crackers in Japan are sold in single, individually wrapped plastic packets if they are large like the one I'm reviewing today or in double packs if they are small like the ginger frosted sembei I bought a warehouse load full of (and still am working my way through). The main down side is that they are high glycemic snacks despite their low calorie profile so they will send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride. I'm guessing having tea with them may help people in Japan feel full after a couple of sembei despite the glycemic index, or that they simply have less reaction to processed rice than Westerners who aren't eating a pound of rice a day as part of their regular diet.

This particular cracker is made by a company called Komenosato, which specializes in making a variety of old-fashioned rice crackers. They market through Rakuten who say they'll ship worldwide and these crackers are 100 yen each (about a dollar in the U.S. depending on the exchange rate. It's funny that they'll let you buy 12 for 1200 yen or 1 for 100 yen rather than offering a discount for buying a lot, but this is pretty common in Japan.

In terms of flavors, this has a bit of a vinegary flavor upfront and then you get a nice hit of yuzu following by some sweetness from the large grains of sugar on the surface. It definitely has a "fried" flavor and a bit of oil on the outside. This is what the Japanese call "hard" sembei which is not be to confused with "crispy". This is dense and brittle and crunchy. The flavor just adds up the more you eat it and the yuzu flavor becomes more intense, the vingery and baked rice flavors start to fade, and the sweetness starts to accumulate.

I loved this. If I could get a whole box for a decent price, I'd likely buy several. It's mainly the combination of how crunchy it is with the ever-increasing citrus notes of the yuzu and how the sweetness seems to allow it to bloom as you eat it. The only downside is that, by the end of eating such a big cracker, the sweetness gets to be a bit much.

If you're interested in these, you can try to buy them through Rakuten, though I believe you'll need to go through the Japanese interface as I couldn't find them listed on their English language site. You can also, at least for the time being, buy them for $2/cracker on Bokksu's market page, but I'm guessing that won't continue for too terribly long. They'll sell out and that will be that. Much to my surprise, you can buy these on Amazon for $26 for 12 crackers. That would seem the most expedient way to purchase them, though it is pretty expensive. Still, if they're around in the future, I could see myself splurging on a box. The seller, Rice Village Honpo, carries all of the Komenosato crackers so one can sample all of them.

Source: Part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, July 14, 2017

Surprise Find: McCormick Matcha Green Tea with Ginger Seasoning

I once read a piece written by someone who was attempting to be culturally sensitive which focused on the existence of "matcha lattes" in American culture. After explaining how happy she was with it on the menu, there was much hand-wringing over how the beverage she was enjoying was almost certainly a form of "cultural appropriation" and how the Japanese were likely offended by this mutilation of their sacred drink. I'm guessing that same person would have fainted in horror at this product.

The truth is that the Japanese have done a better job of adulterating their beloved tea than anyone in the West has. I have a box of instant matcha tea latte powder that a friend picked up for me when he was in Japan. It's essentially a version of instant cocoa made with matcha instead of chocolate and has the same cheap, powdered milk flavor of American dehydrated drink powders of a similar ilk. The Japanese I spoke with about Western folks who liked their food, clothes, and other aspects of culture were flattered that the interest existed. They weren't appalled that things were changed to suit Western tastes because they change everything they absorb from other cultures to suit their tastes.

All of the drama over cultural appropriation of things Japanese tends to come from the wrong side. Most Japanese people don't care. I guess they have better things to fret about when they take the trouble to fret. Still, affluent white liberals (and I meet the last 2/3 of that equation, so nothing wrong with most of that) have to keep manufacturing trivialities to prove they're "good" without actually doing anything. Also, they can go around scolding other white people for what they do which is quite a bonus for the sanctimonious urban liberal.

When I ran across this, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It's called "seasoning", but the first ingredient is "organic matcha tea" which should mean it is the largest component. Matcha is followed by "organic evaporated cane syrup, organic long grain rice flour, organic ginger, and citric acid." Most of those seem more in line with making a beverage rather than making a dish. I wanted to evaluate this in several ways, one of which clearly was not an intended use.

The main thing I noticed about this as compared to matcha is that the color is a lot lighter. I have a fair bit of matcha on hand and it's a brilliant green. In this, I'm guessing the color is dulled by the flour and ginger. I tasted this just as it is. Of course, it was very intense, but it was hard not to notice that the dominant flavor was ginger. The matcha was nearly annihilated by the ginger. I have no doubt that there is more matcha in this than ginger, but ginger is a more potent flavor here.

The second way I tasted this was to mix it with almond milk for a hot beverage. While this may seem odd, it's not far off from making "golden milk" (milk mixed with turmeric and sometimes other spices). I wanted to get a diluted, but still purer taste of the seasoning and this seemed a good way. I mixed one teaspoon of spice with about 8-10 oz. of hot almond milk. The main thing I noticed was that, again, the ginger really dominated. The matcha tended to hit mainly as a warmer flavor at the front of my tonuge and the ginger hit hard and hot at the back of my mouth and in my throat. After drinking this (an actually pretty pleasant sensation), I thought that this would be amazing as a drink to have when one has a cold. The heat of the ginger felt like it'd cut through some unpleasant symptoms.

The final way that I wanted to try this was as it is obviously intended, as part of a baked item. The main problem is that it's hard to know how much I should use to flavor any given food. I decided to try it in something I've made many times in several variations including a matcha one, Japanese cotton cheesecake. I figured that making something that I already know so very well would afford a better point of comparison.

I usually use a tablespoon of lemon flavoring or matcha (or chocolate in a bigger amount) and went with a tablespoon of this seasoning. It took on a weird yellowish-green color which was reminiscent of pea-based baby food. It was far less appetizing than the warm brown of a chocolate cake or the sunny yellow of a lemon one, but looks aren't everything. In terms of taste, the cake mirrored my other experiences in that the ginger was a dominant flavor on the front end and the matcha a far more subtle and warmer flavor on the back end. I was disappointed. It wasn't bad, but it just was not especially different from a ginger-only version. I think that the tea tempers the ginger, but it doesn't compete with it, or, if it does, it loses the race.

This is a decent enough spice if what you really want is ginger, but this is supposed to be matcha green tea with ginger, not ginger with green tea. When I have this sort of experience, I'm not sure if they're trying to gauge the tolerance of a somewhat verdant and bitter Japanese drink experience or if they're just being cheap when the balance of flavors is so off. While I don't regret trying this, and I'm betting I consume a lot more of it in the winter when the warm, spicy ginger notes will seem very welcome, but I wouldn't buy it again.

Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: $3.99 (for 9.5 oz.)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Maybelle Lemon Donut

I was both looking forward greatly to this donut (because it's lemon!) and wary about how it was going to be (because, Japanese). I am not a huge eater of donuts, but I did find that packaged donuts in Japan had some very predictable problems. It's not that American shelf-stable donuts are any great bargain either, but they don't suffer from the same distinctive issues as Japanese ones. The only one that I ever really craved and ate multiple times was a "rosette" donut. It resembled an old-fashioned donut and it was more about texture than anything else. On rare occasions, I still crave one, though not as often as I crave a fresh "angel cream" donut from Mister Donut. That was my one, true, and thoroughly complete donut love. All others pale in the face of it and none will ever measure up to it. Sigh.

It probably isn't great to ponder the best experience you ever had before contemplating the new one before you, but here I am. It's like remembering the first time you saw the original "Star Wars" movie just before you saw that abomination with Jar Jar Binks with the hour-long pod racing sequence. You're just setting yourself up for deep, deep disappointment.

This is a classic shelf-stable Japanese donut, and, in this case, "classic" isn't a good thing. The defining characteristics of one of these confections is that the exterior is slightly greasy so that you can't eat it without getting a film on your fingers and the interior is oddly oily, but still so dry that you need to have a beverage along with it so as not to feel your tongue has just wandered vaguely through a small desert.

The best part of these was how they smelled. The fragrance was that of subtle lemon and that familiar smell of "baked goods" that you get when you walk into a bakery. There are some very sparse bits of candied lemon in the donut, but not nearly as many as would be nice. These bits don't yield a whole lot more lemon flavor, but have a nice sugary crunch.

This is made by a company called Maybelle which makes a variety of products that include both waffles and donuts. Their lemon donut is sold in a case which is labeled as 8 x 8 and I'm not sure if that means you get 8 boxes with 8 donuts in each or if that refers to box size. I couldn't locate a price, but this does look like the sort of thing you could pick up at a convenience store for 100-200 yen or get in a large souvenir box  at a department store (like for between 1,000 and 2,000 yen).

I'm glad to have tried this and for it to have been part of a shipment of a box from a Japanese snacks subscription service, but I have no desire to have one again. It's the sort of thing that, in the old days when I was living in Tokyo, I would have grabbed on the run while my husband and I were out on a sojourn visiting a distant area because it was better than anything else at hand when there was a limited selection. Also, it's the sort of thing that the idea of how good it will be will ensure that you forget how it really is.

Source: part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, June 30, 2017

Tohato Caramel Corn (with peanut)

Caramel Corn in Japan has been around for donkey's years. I actually don't know how long a donkey's year is, nor do I know who actually uses that phrase anymore. The last person who regularly used it that I knew was my late former manager in Japan (R.I.P, Darryl, I think of you every day). It turns out that donkeys actually live quite a long time. One of the older ones lived over 60 years. The original phrase either referred to the longevity of the beast, or was a migration of "donkey's ears" referring to how they have long ears. Either way, duration and donkeys have a bizarre relationship which has nothing to do with this product... well, beyond the tenuous connection in age. Tohato, which makes Caramel Corn, has been around for 65 years. So, yeah, that was a strained connection, but I pulled the two ends together.

I looked up Caramel Corn on Tohato's web site to see if this was a new variation since it has a picture of a peanut on the bag and talks about having added peanuts. It seems that the product's packaging has been revamped to reflect the includsion of peanuts. This makes sense because everything is better with peanuts (or corn) and we need to know when they are cohabitating together.

When I opened the bag, I gave it a sniff and smelled both coconut and peanut in addition to a familiar "sweet" smell. It didn't necessarily smell like caramel, but it surely looked like it. The first bite yielded a hint of salt, a very present peanut flavor, quite a bit of sweetness, and a little bit of coconut. The "caramel" part mainly comes from a sugary sweetness rather than from the sort of buttery concoctions that we're more accustomed to when we think of caramel.

I compared the caramel in this to that in Harry & David's classic "Moose Munch" because that allowed me to have an excuse to eat "Moose Munch." The Munch was definitely more buttery and sweeter. It also had a shiny, thicker coating of caramel flavor where's this seems more like a dusting of caramel. Frankly, I like the Japanese corn snack better as I felt the flavor had more complex and depth and that the peanutty notes cut through the sweetness.

Beyond the unique (and delightful) flavor combination, the texture of this is quite unique. It is very light and crispy and, while it doesn't quite melt in your mouth, it comes very close. There appear to be incredibly tiny fragments of peanut mixed in with the tender curls.

I got these in the Oyatsu Cafe's dagashi box, and you can order it from Oyatasu or you can get it from Amazon. Both sell it for the same price, though the size isn't specified on the Oyatsu Cafe's page and it's 3.45 oz. on Amazon.

Tohato has a set of cute wallpapers for Caramel Corn's bag-like mascot. They include seasonal ones that you can rotate based on the weather, though I'm guessing these days you will really only need summer and winter to reflect the reality outside your front door. You can download them here as well as watch some cute little videos if you've got time to kill at work before lunch.

Source: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bokksu Premium (Unboxing and Service Review)

During my earlier years in the U.S., one of my friends kindly purchased me a three-month subscription to "Try the World." I am interested in cooking and even started a blog which I infrequently update about new recipes that I've tried so this was a great fit for my interests. I ended up buying my own subscription for a further year, but abandoned it when the service seemed to degrade somewhat and the selection became a bit repetitive on the theme boxes.

However, I did love the boxes and their presentation. They came in cleanly designed boxes with a card describing all of the contents and were full of beautifully packaged items. The experience was one of culture rather than simply a box full of food and it was the manner in which they were curated rather than gathered that made a difference. I mention this because Bokksu is either made by the same people or follows the same concept to a "t".

When rating Bokksu's service, I believe it's important to rate it as much as an experience as it is to look at the contents. When you get the simple cardboard outer box and open it to find a bright orange custom-made box with a wide white ribbon around it to make pulling it out of the outer box easy and elegant, you get a taste of Japan before you sample any of the food contained inside. It is a lush and gorgeous experience and feels like a classy gift. It is exactly the sort of thing you would experience in Japan in terms of the packaging and the presentation.

As is the case with "Try the World", you get a card telling you what all of the items are. Depending on your background, this can be considered a real aid in understanding what is in the box (if you can't read any Japanese and have limited experience) or it can just be a memento that you hold onto for the future to remind you of what you got in past boxes once the food is long gone. The card is professionally laid out and printed on firm card stock. Everything about Bokksu is a class act including the choice of items.

I will admit that I was going to wait to try another service until I'd completed the Oyatsu service's boxes including reviewing the food I got in them. However, I subscribed to Bokksu's mailings and they mentioned that they were doing a "summer citrus" box with a focus on yuzu. Yuzu is Asian citron, a lemon/grapefruit/orange hybrid sort of thing which is fragrant and less sour than it's Western equivalents. Since I adore yuzu-flavored anything, I couldn't resist getting a box while the yuzu getting was good.

Part of the Bokksu experience is that they curate the choices around a tea pairing. My box came with 3 packets of tea, 2 donuts, 3 "pies" (more on those when they are reviewed), 3 sembei, 2 daifuku, 3 rusks, a box of Pocky and a container of Calbee's salted snack straws. I will be reviewing all of these foods in future posts, but I'll say that the assortment was a solid one except for the Rusks which don't fit the theme at all as they are Earl-Grey-tea-flavored. They were a strange choice, but the rest were great.

For a one month purchase of a Bokksu Premium, this cost $39 and includes three-day shipping from the source. Mailings are made at regular intervals so you don't get it within three days of ordering, but within three days of when boxes are sent out. This means that, if they send chocolates which can melt, you'll get things quickly. This is different from some other subscription services which use much cheaper services like seamail or SAL to save money.

I will note that you can get a pretty decent discount on Bokksu if you buy a year's worth at once. They are only $33 per box if you pay for the whole year and I was sorely tempted as I really loved how this looks and I especially love the type of contents I got. The things I got in Bokksu were commonly distributed in my office as part of summer and winter gifts. Several are items often sold only as parts of gift boxes in department stores and you can't find them in average markets, convenience stores, or snack shops. As food boxes go, Bokksu is sending items that few other Japanese snack and food box services will give you. That is no small thing.

However, Bokksu is providing premium content at a premium price. If I'm to be utterly generous in my assessment of the cost of the included items if I were to buy them in Tokyo, it'd be topping out at $15. I'm likely estimating that pretty high so that means less than half of your cost for a $39 box is being spent on the included food. A whopping $24 would be going toward the labor and costs. As I said, this is a beautiful box with likely pricey packaging and the lovely card which I'm sure is not cheap to print, but even if you allow for $1-$2 for the box and a similar generous allowance for the card plus ribbon, that's about $20 for labor in assembling the box, crafting the card, and arranging the contents (by shopping or other means). It wouldn't take many subscribers for that to be a very cushy per hour rate.

Part of the problem with a premium box is that the bar is raised on content not only in terms of quality, but quantity. Like "Try the World", the amount of food you get in Bokksu is limited by their custom box size. You know you're never going to get more than they can cram in there and, though it's expertly packed to fit in as much as possible, I think I should get a bit more for the cost. If I could get a yearly subscription for an average of $25/box, I'd do it without hesitation. I'm very much on the fence for $33 and I'm absolutely not going to continue for a monthly fee of $39.

I should note that Bokksu also offers a "tasting" box for $19 as a single box purchase (that drops to $16 if you pay for a whole year at once) and I'm going to review that option in the future. It is more oriented toward small snacks and similar to the Oyatsu Dagashi box that I reviewed previously.

The web site for Bokksu is very well done and allows you a high degree of flexibility with your ordering. You can, for example, buy a one-box subscription and choose to skip as many months as you want. You can cancel or restart a subscription and you can change from monthly to other types of subscriptions with ease. I am always impressed when a service will let you cancel with ease from their web site rather than make it byzantine and difficult. To me, this is a sign of integrity. Bokksu goes one further by asking you why you are leaving so you can tell them what is wrong or right witht he service. This also gains them points in my book.

My conclusions about Bokksu are:

Service: Amazing
Value: (borderline) Inadequate (depends on subscription plan)
Experience: Amazing

Worth it? It's not worth it as a single box purchase. It's borderline worth it for an annual subscription rate depending on what sort of snacks you'd like to get and how much you value the elegance and curated experience. I expect that, once I have sampled a broader array of Japanese food boxes, I'll come back to Bokksu and take a good, hard look at the annual fees and contents and contemplate making them my main supplier of food for reviews. If their price per box dropped below $30, that'd be a lock for being "worth it" for me personally.

Note: I am not promoting Bokksu. They did not provide me with any free samples. I paid as anyone else would for my subscription. They don't know I'm a Japanese food blogger or that I would be posting about them. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Maken Gummy (Cola flavor)

This gummy's packaging lets you know very well that it's made for kids, especially those who think they need to put up a peace sign any time a camera is pointed at them. That is something that I always associate with life in Japan and I can say that I haven't seen someone do that since returning to the U.S. No, instead of peace signs, I see duck faces and people sticking their tongues out or pulling idiot faces by treating their mouth like they were trying to form a balloon animal with it. I really miss the peace signs.

Though the candy's fingers appear to be making a peace sign, it's actually scissors from a game of rock, paper, scissors (jan-ken-pon). If you look carefully at the packaging, you'll see that the main figure is a fist and surrounded by the "rock" and "scissors" illustrations. Also, the bottom is a parade of rock, paper, scissors hands. You can see that my intro was totally misplaced, but it did allow me to criticize the way young people in two different cultures take their pictures taken.

This is produced by a company called Sugimotoya. It specializes in the sort of boring candies that your grandmother either keeps in her purse for her own enjoyment or disappoints you with. I'm talking about hard candy, yokan, jelly candies, and gummies. Among their more dubious offerings are tomato and umeboshi (sour pickled plum) gummy candies. They also sell gummies which include vegetables like asparagus, carrots, and onions. I guess they want grandma to feel like she's giving you healthy treats. For a full catalog of the horror, you can go here and download one.

This is the perfectly molded plastic that held the floppy gummy. I'm guessing it was made by pouring the mixture directly into this mold than sealing the back with plastic.

When I peeled open the, frankly impressive, packaging, I was hit with a chemical smell which was not in the least bit appetizing. After laying the gummy down on the plate in order to get a picture of it, I discovered why this was packaged as it was. It adhered like glue to the plate and was hard to peel off to actually eat. That, combined with the scent, made me seriously concerned for what this might do once it hit my stomach, but I have to make sacrifices for this blog.

The gummy tastes very intensely of cheap cola flavor. It was as if someone took a generic store brand cola beverage and boiled it until it was distilled down into a nasty, super intense poor quality cola flavor. If you've ever had a really cheap off-brand cola that has gone flat, you'll have some notion of how this tasted. It was also oddly sweet and had a strange artificial taste due to the use of sorbitol.

This stuck to my lip a bit going in and it was very firm and chewy. Like Japanese marshmallows, it is quite rubbery and chewy. This was actually slightly worse though as it had a consistency closer to that of a gummy worm.

This was frankly a pretty terrible way to consume 46 calories, but I have never met a cola-flavored candy that I thought was decent, let alone good. It looks amazing and is perfectly formed, but your enjoyment ends the second it enters your mouth (provided that you can scrape it off any surface you place it on). This wasn't inedible, but it really wasn't enjoyable. I think I could have done better using this as a sticker on mirror in a public restroom and freaking people out. It certainly would have adhered well and is of a color that may make people wonder where such a curiosity came from.

Source: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)