Friday, July 28, 2017

Porinki Asari Corn

My friends and I have an inside joke about corn. I'm not exactly certain how this happened, but it is a lot like being a Monty Python fan. The more you say something, the funnier it becomes, but only to you and everyone else thinks you're a dip. So, it's hard for me not to extoll the virtues of anything which is corn flavored in a humorous way that will not be funny to anyone outside of me and the few friends that are in on the gag.

I say all of that to preface that this gets bonus points to begin with for being corn flavored in any way or including corn in the ingredients. I'm sorry if you don't understand, but that's just the way it has to be. It would be against my nature not to believe in the greatness of corn. All hail the all-mighty corn!

With that out of the way, I'll mention the fact that this is made with a flavoring which is very common in Japan, but that I've rarely experienced here. It is what the Japanese often refer to as "corn potage" flavor and would be seen in the U.S. as a corn chowder.

This is made by a company, Koikeya, that I know very well from my time in Japan as they produce some of the most well-distributed salted snack foods. It has several highly recognizable products including "scon", which has nothing to do with what you'd think it might (scones) and is a salted snack food and this product, Polinki. They also sell a brand of chips which is quite uninventively called "Potato Chips." Yes, that's the brand right there.

The name, "asari" or "assari" (not sure how to romanize these things anymore), indicates that it is going to be a plain or clean flavor. This is meant to convey the flavor of sweet corn, pure and simple without a whole lot of complexity. It could also me "light" or "delicate" flavor, but that seems unlikely given that the corn flavoring on this is very present and deliciously sweet and authentic to the flavor of corn (the king of all grains). Also, the ingredients do include various seasonings including citric acid and tomato powder so it does have some depth. This is very savory and tasty in a way that is hard to convey in words.

The snack itself is reminiscent of a triangular Chex cereal piece, but it is pure crispy badness in terms of its contents. As far as I can tell, this isn't even something which contains actual grains and is a totally processed food. The ingredients list is a little confusing in this regard because you'd think the rigid lattice of the snack would contain corn (because it's the king and that's the flavoring of this), but it mainly seems to be composed of modified starches, cornstarch, and vegetable oil. This is not just junk food, it's super junky junkfood.

However, I don't blog about snack foods based on their nutrition profiles. If I wanted to do that, I'd have to wear yoga pants, shop at Whole Foods, and fret about how to prepare my kale this evening. Trust me, nobody wants to see any of those things happen, especially the first one. So, I will evaluate this completely based on how satisfying it is. The corn taste is amazing. The crunch is right on point. This is a great salted snack food and I wish the bag had been a lot bigger.

While I got this as part of the Oyatsucafe Dagashi box, you can find other sellers online. Tokyo Otaku Mode shop sells them, but lists them as currently out of stock. Similarly, a place called Cosme Store also has them listed, but presently out of stock. Amazon has a version of these for sale, but also says they are out of stock. I don't know what is up with that, but these are a popular inclusion in many Japanese subscription boxes. Maybe everyone is buying them up to put in boxes or something. If you'd like to try them, I'd recommend contacting one of the entities who sell them and see when they'll be available again.

Source: Oyatsucafe "Dagashi box" (part of a $15/month subscription box)

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