Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Karu Edamame Snack

My stroll through the ZenPop box is one that I'm hoping will be far less leisurely so, with any luck, I'll be posting one review a day until I wear myself out, get called in for grand jury duty, or put on too much weight from an abundance of appealing Japanese junk food.

When I first saw the box for this snack, I assumed that the snacks inside were just pretzels flavored with edamame (young soybeans). It turns out that I was mislead by the little brown marks on the sticks (from where they've been baked, not fried, as the box tells me) and the shape. These are actually crispy tubes made of potato, edamame seasoning, and a plethora of other things which, if I listed them here, you'd only want to eat them less. And these are delicious so I don't want to reduce the chance that you'll try them.

The texture is crispy and light. The hollow tube design makes you feel like you're eating an expertly rolling potato chip that is perfect in crunchiness. The flavor has a bit of depth as the front end is a little salty and slightly potato-like. The back end is pure edamame with its verdant qualities. It's exceptionally well-executed to bring the target flavor to mind.

The box has 36 grams at 185 calories. I ate half at one sitting as a side to a tuna sandwich, but I could easily see going through the whole box at once with a cold drink on the side. It takes more than a little self-restraint to not do that.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Gelee Pure Peach Gummys and Meiji Gummy Candy

When I received both of these in ZenPop's Peach Festa box, I figured it was only reasonable to pit them against one another. I constructed a tiny battle arena and placed each in one corner of the ersatz ring. One of them had a shelled pistachio for a coach and the other a crusty old corn nut. Both touch old snacks did their best to prepare them for the battle to come. When the bell rang, I ate them both.

In terms of appearance, the Pure are definitely the more attractive-looking candy, and not just because the shape whispers that it will love you back if you choose to love it. The frosty white exterior reminds one of sugar, though it actually is part of the sour and sweet combination that this candy offers.

The Meiji Gummy is much more pedestrian in appearance and more straightforward in its flavor profile. It has a pure, sweet peach flavor that tastes fresh and natural. Eating one of these is like eating a very flavorful peach in terms of taste. In fact, both gummies get the peach flavor amazing "right." I just happen to prefer the flavor depth of the Pure's sour combination along with the sweet.

The texture of both candies is slightly tough and quite chewy, though they soften as they are warmed by your mouth. Neither has an edge when it comes to texture. Because they seem to be made with less sugar than some gummy-style candies, I found that they don't tend to stick in your teeth quite so badly.

Also, and this means a lot more in Japan than it does in the U.S., they both contain collagen. In my copious experience talking to Japanese women about skin (as they were always remarking on my "creamy white skin"), I know that they're a little bonkers for anything which they can supplement to improve their skin quality. Collagen is supposed to improve elasticity so you can have skin that snaps back like a rubber band if you eat enough of these gummies. (Note: I made that up. Neither company makes such a promise.)

The packaging is a little different in that Kanro's Pure gives you nutrition information for each candy (11.4 calories and 135.4 mg of collagen) and Meiji gives you information on the entire bag (155 calories and 2200 mg of collagen). Though they are tasty, I think Meiji is more than a little optimistic if they think you're going to chew your way through an entire bag.

The winner is: Pure. This is largely due to the added flavor depth from the citric acid powder on the outside, but they also just feel like a nicer candy in terms of the whole experience. That isn't to say that the Meiji gummy isn't tasty. It really is, but I'd buy Pure if I had to choose.

Meiji gummy rating:

Pure gummy rating:

Monday, April 16, 2018

ZenPop "Peach Festa Pack" box unboxing

I didn't expect to be doing two Zenpop "unboxing" posts in a row. In fact, I expected to review the items in the previous box. I have a good excuse. No, really, I do. If you don't think what I have to say is a sufficient reason, then you haven't had my misfortune. My excuse is, in three little words, "grand jury duty."

If you've never been selected for this honor, then let me say that I was fortunate that my term is shorter than some, and it's still longer than regular jury duty by far. I'm on the hook for random service for three months and each day that I do it is like an exhausting day on the job with no down time because there's no taking a break to look at your cell phone (not that I have one of those, I don't) or browse the web.

I hope to do better reviewing the items in this box, but I can barely cook my own dinner when I'm on duty, let alone ponder writing things. Still, my fingers are crossed and I'm going to push harder to squeeze in some reviews because I was pretty damn excited about this box when I saw what was inside.

As I've said before, I consider ZenPop to be one of the best value snack boxes out there for Japanese goodies. They packed this one super full and even managed to include two drink options which was suprising and welcome. Of course, the way to my heart was swiftly found with the inclusion of kinako wafers. I literally cuddled them to my chest when I found the package.

Click this image to load a larger one.

In terms of the contents, it's detailed in the included packaging, but I'll briefly talk about them in groups by type here:

Kids snacks (dagashi):

Anpanman choco: While this looks like a lollipop, it's really chocolate on a stick featuring the familiar face of Anpanman. In the U.S., we would call him "Bread Head," and he'd be a candidate for a villain in the old Tick animated series.

Long Marshmallow: I've already got my speculation about how this is going to taste. Japanese marshmallows are quite different from American ones both in texture and in taste. They tend to be more "gummy" and chewy rather than soft and pillowy.

Dorayaki Choco: This is a shelf-stable, kid's sized version of the venerable Japanese snack which is like two pancakes with filling. Usually, these are filled with red beans, but these have chocolate which I'm betting will make them a bit sweeter.

Choco Stick: I reviewed several things called "Choco Stick" before and this one comes closest to this one. However, it doesn't look like it's actually a corn snack dipped in chocolate, but rather a corn snack made from the ground up with chocolate.

Peach gum: The description of this recommends putting all three pieces in your mouth at once and trying to blow a big bubble. I'm saying right now that that is what I'm going to do, but not because I do what I'm told. I'm going to do it because gum is too tiny these days and you need at least two pieces to satisfy my big mouth and there's no point in leaving that one little bit an orphan.


Konjac Jelly Peach: Technically, this isn't a drink, but a liquid jelly that you suck out through a spout in the top. I'm guessing this is what Japanese astronauts eat in spring.

Peach Drink: This is technically a "dagashi" (kid's snack) and I do recall seeing this type of thing sold in Japan, especially in summer, but I never tried one during all of my years there.

Salty Snacks:

Poteko Cherry Blossom salt flavor: Poteko are super crunchy potato rings and I reviewed the regular (salt) flavor before. I have no idea how you flavor salt with cherry blossom, but I guess I'll find out.

Curry Arare Sembei: These are an old-fashioned type of rice crackers that are easy to find in most stores in Japan. While this is also mentioned as dagashi, I think this is also within the range of otsumami, or snacks to be eaten with alcoholic drinks. I'm guessing this will be more about the crunch than the flavor. If these are dagashi, they won't have as strong flavors as adult-oriented rice crackers.

Edamame Sticks: This is a bona fide otsumami snack which looks like it's a version of the same pretzels that are used on things like Pocky.

Otsumami Mix (mixed rice crackers): After the kinako wafers, this was the item I was happiest to see, but I'm a sucker for sembei.

Natural Calbee Sea Salt Chips: Though these have a relatively common flavor, they're supposed to be thicker than usual chips. That would make them similar to some Kettle brand chips. I'm guessing that they will be one of the less unique and underwhelming experiences in the box. Japanese chips usually have a fresh flavor compared to Western ones, but they aren't likely to be so different.


Petit Kinako Wafers: I've reviewed this product before and loved it to pieces. The Bourbon brand of petit snacks is often carried at Japanese markets and import stores in the U.S., but these have never been there when I've patronized one. So, they're one of those flavors that someone seems to have decided aren't going to sell in America, much to my chagrine. And, yes, I tried these already (again) and they are nearly the same as I remember except that they are less messy. Unfortunately, the exterior isn't coated in kinako powder so it takes longer for the flavor profile of the toasted soy bean to hit your tongue. Still, they're very tasty.

Gelee Pure Peach gummies: I've had a lot of Pure gummies and they are really hit or miss. The best ones are amazing. The worst ones are gross and hard to finish. We'll see how these are.

Peach Gummy Candy: This is Meiji's version of gummies (the previous ones are made by Kanro). I have less experience with these. I hope to review these two snacks mano a mano.

I think this is a pretty respectable assortment with something to offer everyone and a good focus on the seasonal flavor of peach. I can't promise to review them all, but I do promise to get to some of them despite jury duty. :-p Thanks for your patience!

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