Tuesday, February 13, 2018

ZenPop Sweets "Red and White" Box (Unboxing)

In the first few years after I returned to the U.S., I took my sister-in-law to the "Daiso Japan" shops in the Bay Area. The Daiso is a hundred yen (dollar) store in Japan and other parts of Asia, but most things are a $1.50 in the U.S. When my sister-in-law remarked on Facebook that it was so cheap and had a lot of interesting items, someone who had lived in Japan for a long time scoffed and remarked that those things where 50% less in Japan. The implication was that that was no deal.

My feeling about this response was, "Are you new?" This person had lived in Japan for longer than me and should have known better. You can't compare prices in one country in which a product is originally distributed to those in a country that they're exported to. We believed we were very lucky if we could get goods from the U.S. at Costco Japan or the Foreign Buyer's Club for a mere 50% mark-up. If it was less than that, it was a rare and enormously special deal. Usually, we were just glad that something from home was available at all.

If you are looking for Japanese snacks, the main thing you want is to get things that you can't get locally, and, yes, there will be a mark-up to pay the people who do this business for their time. This is my second unboxing of a ZenPop box. In my first, I focussed on the service itself and it's value in a very granular way. You can see that overview here. The bottom line is that I think their contents represent one of the best values in subscription boxes that you can get at present and that the mark-up on items to pay for their efforts is likely between 40-50% (I'm not including shipping and packaging costs in that estimate). It's not nearly as cheap as if you lived in Japan and could buy these things for yourself, but, if you need someone to go to the trouble of shopping, assembling, packing, and mailing it to you, you can't really do better.

Click these smaller images to load a bigger one that you can read.

Since I already did a lengthy post about the service, I see no reason to repeat that here and am going to just focus on the contents. The box is called the "kouhaku" (red and white) box because the snacks follow a theme in terms of the colors of the items. This is quite appropriate for this time of year in Japan because it's nearly Valentine's Day and winter and spring are popular times for strawberry-flavored snacks to make their appearance. It'll also straddle the companion holiday for Valentine's Day in Japan ("White Day") which comes in March.

Keep in mind that you don't need me to explain these things. There is a color page with explanations in the box, but I can at least add some context and my own subjective feelings about these products in thumbnail format. I will be reviewing some of these items on their own in future posts.

In the box, we have a good selection of both the red and the white. There is also one small "wild card" item which is really not in alignment with either of these which I'll get to last. I'll start with the longer list which includes the red:

Tyrant Habanero Savory Bacon Flavor - I'm a huge fan of the "Tyrant Habanero" line of products because of their strong heat and savory notes. This one is, oddly, not listed on the Tohato web site at present, but that makes it no less welcome. You can always tell this product line because of the evil hot-pepper-o-lantern on the bag. The five peppers reveal that this is one of the hotter products in their line-up. I've reviewed these items no small number of times in the past.

Ichimi Sembei - I am a sucker for the old-fashioned enormous rice crackers that you can get as souvenirs in Japan. I'll admit that even though this isn't as flashy or as approachable to Western palates as the rest of the box, this is the thing I was happiest to see included. This has togarashi, a spicy capsicum which is often ground and placed on tables in Japanese restaurants which offer dishes that can benefit from their addition. It's similar to the way red pepper flakes show up in Italian restaurants or pizza places in the U.S.

Harvest Choco Sand Strawberry Milk - In the last box that I received from ZenPop, I got the mont blanc flavor of this snack and was disappointed because there was a coconut back-drop that dominated. I'm hoping these will be better, but I'm pessimisstic. The Harvest biscuit line always has a strong coconut flavor and I can only hope that it pairs better with strawberry filling than the fake-tasting mont blanc of the previous offering.

Nissin Crisp Choco Strawberry - I know Nissin mainly for it's savory meal offers including instant noodles. I used to see these snacks, which I regard as sort of a "Choco Flake" pie/pizza, but never bought one due to the larger footprint. I always liked "Choco Flake", which is chocolate-covered cornflakes, so I'm looking forward to trying this.

Bourbon Petit Strawberry Langues de Chat - Langues de Chat are like a Milano cookie on a diet - thing, crispy, delicate cookies with a candy-like choclate filling. Bourbon's version in these long tube-like packages is a baby version of the slimmed down Milano.

Meito Puku Puku Tai Strawberry - This is one of a handful of kid's snacks in the box. "Puku puku" means bubbling or puffy (among other things) and refers to the foamy, whipped center of the cake-cone-style "fish's" filling. The outer shell, a monaka, is generally pretty tasteless and mainly lends texture. I'm expecting this to be more of a textural delight than a flavor one. Chances are the filling will be pretty sweet and the shell quite bland so it should be interesting to try.

Chocolate Veil Strawberry - These are a new product to me in terms of the brand name, and it looks very interesting in terms of the construction. The outside looks like a thing, crispy shell and has a softer, whipped-looking filling. I don't know if this is new or if it's just that I haven't lived in Japan for six years now, but I am looking forward to something different.

Cororo Strawberry Gummy - The picture of these on the package is odd. They look really round and slightly puckered and bring to mind umeboshi. The description in ZenPop's flyer says they are like grapes. This would be something new as I don't recall ever seeing this type of gummy when I lived in Japan before.

White Items:

Alfort Vanilla White candy/cookies - Alfort occupies an interesting space in the Japanese snack world. It looks like a candy on the front with a solid slab of chocolate and a cookie on the back with a full tiny biscuit perfectly embedded in it. In the past, I reviewed the green tea version and really liked them. I've already sampled these and they are like cookies and cream in the overall flavor profile. The white chocolate is much better balanced than most as it is not cloyingly sweet. They are delicious. It's too bad that the Alfort brand isn't available in the U.S. as it's a more elegant sort of candy and is in individual pieces for good portion control.

Blanchul Hokkaido Milk cookies - These look like langue de chat by another name to me. I reviewed a mont blanc (chestnut) version of these previously and loved them.

Baby Star Shio (Salt) and Baby Star Chicken (2 separate packets) - I have to admit that these are the two things I'm the least interested in. Though I have reviewed Baby Star ramen snacks before, and at least liked them a bit, I have to say that I've never felt that I was eatier junkier junk food than when I tried ramen salted snacks. They tend toward being very salty, crunchy, and carby in a way that makes me feel even guiltier than if I were eating corn or potato snacks.

Yogurt-flavored White Caburi-Chew - This one is completely new to me in that I not only have never tried this brand, but I've never seen it. We'll see if I get to keep my fillings. I am happy for a yogurt-flavored item in the mix though. It's a flavor that is less commonly represented in snack boxes.

Sapporo Potato Vegetable - Though I wasn't disappointed to find this included, it's also one of the easiest imports that you can locate in Asian and import markets. Also, my previous experience with a "pebbly" (tsubu tsubu) variety was not encouraging so I'll have to see if this is better.

Nori Okaki & Peanuts - Along with the big, spicy sembei cracker, this was something else I was delighted to have included. It's produced by my favorite rice cracker manufacturer in Japan - and, yes, I know it's weird to have a favorite sembei brand - so I have high expectations.

And, the wild card is: Mikan Mochi. It's included in the "White" section because mochi is usually white, but these are tiny little orange blobs that you poke with a toothpick to pick up and eat. This is also a new item to me (and a kid's snack) so it should be interesting.

I'll be reviewing as much of these items as I can, though I do have a tendency to eat them up faster than I can write reviews.

I have to say that I'm pleased with the overall mix of salty and sweet as well as the textural variations and the "modern" (e.g., chocolates and cookies) and the "traditional" (e.g., sembei). Though I can't say this would be the mix I'd perfectly pick if I was buying for my tastes and mine alone, I think it's a good sampler pack for someone who isn't me (and I'm not narcissistic enough to think everything should revolve around my tastes.

I'll note that I got an e-mail yesterday and ZenPop is offering a discount if you'd like to give their service a try. This is the graphic that was included in the message I received which details the promotion and the code you can use:

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

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.