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.