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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reko Pizzelle (Vanilla, Anise, and Lemon)

The idea that a food is better in another country than its country of origin is not an alien one, though I do believe it's something which would be hotly debated. The idea that "Authentic" cuisine using the ingredients of the country in which the dish was developed is superior to any adaptations in other countries tends to be debated. In fact, at the moment, I'm hard-pressed to come up with any food in America that people (other than Americans) think is better here than in its home country. This could reflect the limits of my imagination, of course. Readers may feel free to share their thoughts.

Reko, the company in Cananda that makes today's focus of a review, asserts that their pizzelle are so good that they export them to the Abruzzo region of Italy. That's the area in which pizzelle were reportedly formulated. They boldly say Italians think their pizzelle are better than native offerings.

I can't speak for Italians, but I can speak for me. The truth is that I have consumed very few pizzelle in my life. For those who are even more unfamiliar with them than me, they are a thin, crispy, waffle-like cookie. They are less deeply browned and crispy than a waffle cone used for ice cream, but do have the same flavors in their mix.

These cookies were available at Cost Plus World Imports. The main reason I ended up buying them was that there was a basket of samples of the dulce de leche flavor on hand. I don't even like dulce de leche, but I liked the sample so I picked up the three other flavors that sounded even more appealing to me. I figured if the one I didn't like was good, the ones I liked would be even better.

I paid $3.50 per box of 30 cookies. There are three packs of 10 in each box (which greatly reduces the risk of them going stale) and the nutrition information says that a serving is five cookies. For me, I tend to try to keep it to three or four, tops, but I can see how easy it would be to get carried away given that they are crisp, light, and only 23 calories each. You can put away quite a few for the calorie price of less than two and a half Oreo cookies.

All of these cookies have the same basic mix and prominent flavor profile. They have a slightly carmelized flavor which says that flour, fat, and sugar have come together in a toasty orgy to create a more appealing offspring. All of the flavors are relatively subtle and come through as a secondary flavor after the overall "waffle/cookie" taste. Of the three flavors, lemon is my least favorite for not other reason than it seems to add a little too much of a citric sourness and not quite enough of a floral sense. That is not to say I dislike it. I do, but vanilla is my favorite with anise being in the middle of the pack.

The shining star of these cookies is the texture and subtlety. They are the perfect light accompaniment to tea or coffee as a light treat. The web site and packaging show them with fruit toppings, cream fillings, and chocolate between them like a waffle sandwich, but I love them plain. I think that appreciating them as a simple treat while attending to the delicate flavors is a treat and I'll definitely have them again.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mini Stop One-Handed Okonomiyaki (product information)

For those who don't know what okonomiyaki is, it's what is often referred to as a "savory pancake", though I've often seen it as more akin to a floury omelette. This is a very poor translation as it tends to be a much messier and complicated mess than a pancake. The idea that a convenience store can craft a version that you can eat with one hand is not so much revolutionary or evolutionary as de-evolutionary. I can't see this as anything but a step backward in food craft, and the description of this specimen only supports my sense of this.

The image above this paragraph is from a box of Osaka okinomiyaki sembei that I reviewed in the past. That is what okonomiyaki usually looks like and you can see that it's a complex affair which in no way resembles the slab of substances above with an egg on top.

The Mini Stop version touts its fluffy texture as well as the fact that there are wieners mixed into the dough. Wieners. I'm no expert in okonomiyaki, and I know that there are tons of regional versions, but I've never heard anyone talk about wieners in their Japanese pancake. They also mention that cabbage, bonito, and sausage (all flavored with soy sauce) are a part of their handheld abmonination.

Honestly, the whole thing as a food item doesn't sound that bad. In fact, it does seem that it has potential to be a unique savory option which would be good for a quick morning meal as long as you didn't care about your cholesterol levels. As handheld okonomiyaki, well, it's kind of like selling pizza rolls as if they were actually pizza.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Random Picture #208

What is pictured above is called "educational confectionary" according to its  maker, Kracie. I call it "playing with food", but I'll run with Kracie's description. On the left is a donut decorating kit and on the right is a candy bento one. This leads me to believe that Kracie is thinking Japan's children need to be educated in the ways of food service. I guess if your dream is working at Mister Donut, then the donut one would help set you up nicely.

This is one of those rare items which is actually available at Amazon. You can get the bento one here for an exhorbitant price and the donut one here for an even higher price. If you buy one, let me know if you learned anything. ;-)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

McDonald's Japan's "Big" (and even bigger) Breakfasts (product information)

It's interesting to see McDonald's Japan offering a "Big Breakfast" (available until 10:30 a.m. where available) because my impression of the sorts of "traditional" Japanese breakfast that I keep reading about on the internet but rarely heard anyone eat is that they are actually pretty "big". If you haven't read about it, we Western folks are told that Japanese people eat rice, fish, and miso soup for breakfat. To us, that's dinner, but there was a time when that was the common deal in Japan. Most of my students told me that ate "bread" (i.e., toast or a bun of some sort) with tea or coffee and sometimes some sort of cup-a-soup (like corn potage).

So, the idea that the breakfast on offer at McDonald's are "big" compared to what we're told Japanese eat is a strange one. It's only big compared to what my former students and I tended to eat because I'm with them in this regard - coffee and some sort of baked item is the norm.

Getting to the point though, I think it's interesting to note what passes for "big" in Japanese marketing. There are actually two versions. The one I'd term "big" is scrambled egg product, a sausage patty, an English muffin with available packets of jam, and a hash brown. To a great extent, this appears to be a deconstructed Egg McMuffin plus a hash brown. The "bigger" version (marketed as "deluxe" in Japan) also includes a couple of pancakes.

The deluxe will provide you with 934 calories of power to start your day being shoved on crowded trains, hiking to the office, and pushing papers around and nodding and saying "hai" ("yes") to everything the boss suggests. This is quite a wallop considering that Denny's grand slam (original) is a punier 770 calories for 3 eggs with cheese, two bits of bacon or sausage, and your choice of hash browns, bread, or grits. 

The big one is a more meager 628 calories. I guess that's the daintier version - perhaps more appropriate for the office lady crowd. My breakfast tends to be between 200-300 calories total, so I have to say that McDonald's does appear to be delivering on bigness, at least in terms of caloric load.