Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kirin Salty Lychee Drink (product information)

Kirin is doing some sort of promotion in which they talk about the combination of fruit and salt. I am very aware that salt can do a lot of things for various dishes, including boost the sweetness level of various types of fruit (watermelon in particular) as well as add complexity to chocolate and other types of sweets. However, for me, adding salt to a beverage with a sweet base turns it into something resembling an isotonic drink (like Gatorade). This is not what I sign up for when I buy a (hopefully) refreshing bottle beverage.

The inspiration for this is supposed to come from Thailand where pickled lychee beverages with salt are supposed to be a mother-made tradition. I get that information from Kirin, so I don't know if it is true. At any rate, each bottle apparently has a tiny little mother preparing a drink in a miniature kitchen for you so there must be some truth to it.

Kirin recommends some "recipes" if you buy this elixir. They say you can ice it up and crush a bit of mint into it, make ice cubes out of it and eat them, or mix them with seasonal frozen fruit to make a "punch". To me, no matter how you mix it, this has disaster written all over it, but then I'm not one for salty beverages.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Random Picture #210

There was a time in the 1970s when pyramid power was a big deal. People would construct or buy little pyramid structures to sit in and meditate or masturbate or something or other to bring them more power. That sort of happiness is parodied to some extent in a Seinfeld episode in which a natural "healer" or holistic practitioner treats George for tonsillitis by having him drink some concoction while sitting under a pyramid shape (the pyramid comes in around the 3:16 mark).

Meiji obviously wants to get a piece of that pyramid power and have created a variation on the Meltykiss/Meltyblend that has a different shape. Cubes are fine, but pyramids are that much better. They also appear to be better for Meiji's bottom line as this box of chocolates cost $6. Usually, Meltykiss/Meltyblend are around $4. I'm not sure what the big boost in cost is all about, but I will have to live without the power of pyramid-shaped chocolate at that price. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

McDonald's Happy Set Toys (product information)

I occasionally read advice columns to see what sort of problems people feel they need third-party assistance with. Often, it's something along the lines of someone has been invited to a wedding that includes a shake-down for cash rather than allowing them to just buy a gift and do they have the Agony Auntie's permission to not pony up some dough. Of course, all of them say "there, there, you don't have to capitulate to this emotional blackmail for money."

At any rate, one of the more interesting letters was from a woman who ran a playgroup and had a nanny who was stopping a little boy from playing with the "girl's" toys like dolls, plastic ponies and unicorns, and, er... tampons, or whatever little girls play with these days. I wasn't a girly girl when I grew up so I'm not sure what they tend to pay attention to. At any rate, the playgroup's organizer wanted to tell the nanny to stop being so gender-biases and let the little boy play with whatever he wanted to fondle. When I saw these two starkly different sets of toys, I was thinking this is exactly the sort of thing that would get those two women fighting.

The gender lines for these sets is pretty clear. Boys are supposed to be drawn the Ultraman set on the left and girls to the Aikatsu goods on the right. The colors alone tell the story of what little boys and girls should choose, but the dainty, frilly accessories also indicate clearly that the Aikatsu junk is for the set which will one day be sashaying around an office trying to attract a suitable breadwinner for her family. After all, what is all that plastic jewelry for if not to draw attention to oneself?

The boys, apparently, are supposed to content themselves with superhero torsos on little plastic bases. I think they'd actually have more fun putting on the headbands and singing into the microphone. How can you role play superheros when they don't have a pelvis or legs?

These items became available on April 18 (duh, as you can see by the ad). If you'd like your kids to either embrace or reject gender lines, get out there and buy them some Happy Sets and collect suitable plastic crap.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Calbee Yuzu Koshoo Potato Chips

My sister-in-law is currently in Madrid visiting family. She hasn't been able to upload many pictures because of her crummy internet there, but she was able to share a picture of a "cronut" being sold in a bakery there for one Euro. Cronuts, for those who have been asleep like Rip Van Winkle for the past year or however long it has been since these were invented, were invented in New York by Dominique Ansel and they are so hot and popular that people wait in line for a long time to buy one. They have spread around the world, though not necessarily in their true (labor-intensive) form. My sister-in-law said that she tried the Spanish cronut and it was essentially deep-fried croissant (laminated) dough cut into the shape of a donut and dipped in sugar.

The Japanese are also in on this whole cronut gig, as you can see by the screenshot I've put above this paragraph. The ad acknowledges, incidentally, that these were born in New York. The Mister Donut Croissant Donut is essentially the same thing that my sister-in-law tried only sliced in half with various types of cream sandwiched in the middle and some icing on the top. It is still not a proper cronut, but closer than what was available in that Madrid bakery.

This post is not about cronuts, but rather about chips, but, as is often the case when I start in one place and end in another, I have a point to make. My point is about what sort of food fads spread like wildfire around the world, like the cronut, and what sort somehow never get off the ground. In my opinion, yuzu koshoo is one of those flavors that, if people knew what it was, would take off if it got the same sort of exposure and press and exposure that Srircha sauce, cronuts, churros, and wasabi tend to get. It is one of my favorite spicy flavors from Japan and it is very hard to find in American.

It was with considerable delight that I bought this 58-gram/~ 2 oz.-bag of Calbee yuzu koshoo chips for $1.99 at San Jose's Nijiya market. I was looking forward to the bright citrus notes of the yuzu and the spicy heat of the chili pepper. Calbee makes one of the best basic potato chips in the world. They're thin, light, crispy, and have a fresh taste that I have not encountered with chips in America. The basic chip can't be beat in my opinion. The question was whether or not the flavoring lived up to its potential. The answer is a mixed one.

When I opened the bag, the first thing I smelled was vinegar. I have to say that, in my limited experience with yuzu koshoo snacks, that was not something I tended to find. The first bite yields a little bit of the citrus flavor of the yuzu and a more potent flavor of vinegar. The chili pepper is hardly there at all and the deeper, more savory flavors of the spice don't come out unless you eat more of them.

These chips are good, very good. I'd put them in the top 15% of chips I have ever eaten, but I wouldn't put them up in the top 50% of yuzu koshoo snacks that I've had. I think these are well worth a try, but I wouldn't say they're worth zeroing in on and seeking out with all of your Popeye-level might. If you see them and you like salt and vinegar chips, these are a refreshing change of pace and a damn fine chip (as long as you like thin and light ones and not thick, greasy, kettle-style ones). I liked these, but I wanted to love them.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Variety Friday: Nijiya Japanese Market (San Jose)

I've been resisting the urge to write about local Asian/Japanese markets because I know that most of my readers cannot access the same places that I can. Of course, that was true when I lived in Japan as well, and it didn't stop me from writing about such places there. My mind is a strange and inconsistent place at times.

Nijiya is a small chain of markets that almost exclusively carries Japanese items with the odd American item thrown in to fill a niche. There are ten of them, and all but one are located in California. I am fortunate in that two are relatively close and two others are within a reasonable driving distance. Each is a little different and seems to cater to slightly varying tastes among their consumers.

The prices at Nijiya are more expensive than those in Japan, of course. This is to be expected since imports are always costlier than domestic items. When I lived in Japan, imports from other countries cost more there as well. Generally, the prices I see there are in line with the retail prices (not the common sale prices, which are lower than retail) in Tokyo, plus perhaps 10%-20% in some cases. One example of this is the bags of mini KitKats. They are $6-7 at Nijiya (unless on sale or special), and the retail price in Japan is 500 yen and you can get them on sale for as little as 250 yen if you're lucky (and if they're near the end of their life cycle).

The snack selection is always my main interest at Nijiya, of course, though they do carry a wide variety of other items like personal care goods, cooking items, fresh fruit and vegetables, and canned and jarred items. There is also a frozen section (which includes taiyaki and imagawayaki and Japanese frozen treats like ice pops and ice cream) and some "fresh" items like "roll cake" (Swiss cake roll), steam cake, and cream puffs. The more reasonably priced (close to Japanese prices) items tend to be made by Japanese companies (like Shirakiku) for the U.S. market rather than imported from Japan.

Each of the Nijiya branches is a different size. The one that I visit most often is in Mountain View and they have hand-made cream puffs (chou cream) and often have tiny little samples in plastic cups. They also carry a selection of manju made fresh at a confectioner. They also usually carry a lot of souvenir boxes of cookies, sembei, and Japanese sweets (often appropriate for the season) at prices that are too rich for my blood.

The smallest one that I occasionally visit is in Japan Town in San Jose. Due to their size limits, their selection tends to be more limited. The reason that I've decided to write a bit about Nijiya is that I had an opportunity to speak with the woman in charge of ordering snacks at the San Jose branch and was able to ask her a few questions. The woman's name was Maki, and she was very accommodating with requests. She also didn't freak out when I was taking pictures of the displays. In fact, that was how she started talking to me. She said it was the first time she'd seen someone shopping with a camera and that's when I told her that I had this blog.

Maki speaks Japanese fluently and has a Japanese name, but she looks like a grey-eyed, pale-skinned, light-brown-haired "foreigner". She looks more like she grew up in Germany or Minnesota despite her name. She told me that her grandmother was Japanese and that is how she got the Japanese name. Her appearance has caused her some issues on the job. She said that sometimes Japanese customers will come in and approach one of the Asian-looking employees expecting them to speak Japanese. When these employees, who are of Philippine or Chinese descent, summon her to handle the customer's requests, the customers say, "no, no, no!" They hear with their eyes, not their ears.

I asked Maki some questions about the selection at Nijiya. Obviously, they order what sells the most and I asked her why they didn't carry Tirol Premium chocolates anymore as the last time I got one there as in late 2012. She said they just didn't sell. My guess is that most people did not know what they were as they don't have enough press to be popular and well-known by American consumers. Since they are sometimes interesting flavors, and sell for about 50 cents (such a cheap little morsel), I was disappointed to hear that. She asked if I'd want to buy an entire box, but the truth is that I can't really promise that. I don't know if she can order them just so I can pick up a few, but it'd be nice if she could.

I was interested in what sort of snacks sold the best there and, unsurprisingly, it is green tea KitKats. She said that young kids came in and asked for them. They are good, mind you, but the selection of KitKats is so boring these days, especially considering the only flavors I tend to see are "adult sweetness" versions - usually white, semi-sweet, green tea, and strawberry. Since I am interested in trying the baked KitKats, I asked Maki about those and she said she's trying hard to order them in, but there are hang-ups with bringing in any new product. The main issue she said is that there are sometimes additives or chemicals which are not allowed in the U.S. I found this surprising because American candy seems to have more artificial crap in it than Japanese stuff (especially dyes). However, I'm sure each country has its list of acceptable and unacceptable ingredients.

Finally, I asked Maki what flavors she liked best. She wanted me to clarify if I wanted to know about sweet or savory and I asked for both. Her favorite savory variety is yuzu koshoo and I was delighted because that is one of my biggest loves as well. She pointed out some Calbee chips that were yuzu koshoo which I had missed, though, there was only one bag left. Maki said there were more in the back, but she didn't have room to put them out yet.

As for her favorite sweet snack, she pointed to the Earl Grey MeltyKiss/blend. Though I can't say it's my favorite sweet, I did review it favorably and am generally a big fan of the MeltyKiss/Blend line. It's far superior to the more popular Pocky and KitKat options.

If you're in the area, I'd highly recommend stopping by the Nijiya markets. They've got a great selection of items and, though they are more expensive than you'd get in Tokyo, they're still massively cheaper than a plane ride there. ;-) To follow what is new and interesting, you can connect with them via Facebook. The page for the San Jose branch is here. If you visit, say "hi" to Maki. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Starbucks Banana Chocolate Cream Frappucino (product information)

Bananas are one of the most accessible types of fruit in Japan. They're cheap and you can buy them nearly anywhere including conveninece stores. Of course, they tend to not be very tasty or sweet compared to some of the bananas you can get in other places (at least the Tokyo ones). I'm guessing this Starbucks concoction is going to be quite a bit sweeter and tastier than the standard imported banana (which I believe come from the Philippines). You really can't go wrong with chocolate and cream, though I'm guessing this won't live up to its potential if the banana is fake.

If you find yourself ordering one of these (I wouldn't try this as I love bananas, but not things flavored with banana), let me know what you think. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Random Picture #209

I have a love/hate relationship with Sonton and their peanut spreads. One is a bit of an abomination. The other is a dollop of heaven. The question about these "peanuts cookies" is which end of the spectrum that they represent or if they occupy a unique space between. These are the result of a pairing between Mr. Ito and Sonton. Mr. Ito is a maker of some of the less refined shelf-stable cookie products out there. His name is not encouraging. I do note that an unexpected contributor to this enterprise. It seems that Mr. Peanut's little brother has been used to come and stand in as a mascot. I'm sure that the folks at Planters are more than happy to allow their property to be "borrowed" in such a fashion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Glico Pocky Snoopy Package and Cart (product information)

One of the quaint things about riding the Shinkansen is that people sometimes come by pushing a cart with food. I haven't ridden trains in the U.S., so it's possible that it happens here as well. The whole custom of doing so reminds me of old-style rail travel (especially in Europe/the U.K.) in which people used to eat food served in a similar style.

One thing which is not so old-fashioned is the idea of a Peanuts cart which sells Pocky - some of it in special packaging. It's a cute idea. I'm sure that the Pocky are the same as usual and that they can be purchased via other outlets, but it would be nifty to see one of these while actually on a shinkansen (bullet train).

The Pocky that is contained in the special Peanuts packages is largely the same flavors as standard Pocky issues. There's a "cookie crunch" version (on the right) which I hadn't seen before, but it doesn't sound like a particularly inspiring flavor. If you're a Peanuts fan, these are going to make a pretty cool collectible, though not as cool as the cart (which would be a lot harder to get your hands on).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Careme Delicia Strawberry Fromage Chocolate/Cookie

Stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld once did a bit about how cars were named to bring to mind certain words, but to not actually use them. One of his examples as "The Integra", which was meant to evoke thoughts of "integrity". This candy/cookie combination obviously took a page from the book being referenced by such car makers. It's not "delicious", it's "Delicia".

This is another in a line of sweets designed to bring to mind a much more complex confection. I love these in theory. In practice, I'm often disappointed. I never expect them to actually taste like a real strawberry cheesecake. My only hope is that they have complexity sufficient to distinguish them from something like a plain white chocolate bar flavored with strawberry. If you're going to make such a fussy treat, then at least make sure the consumer's experience is nearly as good as the candy looks.

The candy smells delicately of strawberry. Biting into it yields a textural wonderland with the crispy little cookie providing crunch and contrast to the somewhat soft strawberry white chocolate and the even softer white "cheese" filling. The textural complexity is accompanied by flavor depth including some sense of creamy whipped cream, ever so slightly floral strawberry, and a hint of earthy grain from the cookie. I'm not going to say everyone will pick up on all three of these elements individually, but they are there if you take the time to notice during the tiny sweets brief experience in your mouth to heed its attributes.

This is a pretty impressive little treat that offers layers of complex flavoring and texture though what I can only assume is the work of tiny little fairy folk. Each is about the diameter of a nickel/five-yen coin/your big ass thumbnail but is a cookie platform with freeze-dried strawberry encasing "cheese cream" which in turn has a tiny dollop of stawberry sauce and is topped with a disc of strawberry-flavored white chocolate. It sounds like it'd send you into sugar shock, but the sweetness level is very balanced with the blandness of the cookie and the tartness of the strawberry.

All of this weighs in at only 31 calories per bite. Yes, it's a small portion, but if you compare it to a square of Milka chocolate (22 calories) or a Hershey's Kiss (25 calories), it's got a lot of bang for the calorie cost. In terms of the monetary cost, I paid a little over $2 for this at Marukai market. For 8 pieces, that is somewhat expensive, but my husband and I look at junk food as much as the experience cost as the cash. If you can eat one of these and be happy with it, then it is well worth the higher price. I can say that I'm intrigued to try more of the Delicia sweets after this and would definitely buy this one again.