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.