Friday, May 19, 2017

Surprise Find: Nasoya Shirataki Fettucine Pasta

Last week, I talked about things in Japanese food culture that taste like nothing. Coincidentally, I found the quintessential food that tastes like nothing - shirataki noodles made from konnyaku. The Japanese version of these are usually translucent and look like deep sea creatures spindly body parts or particularly disturbing worms. I had them a few times in stews when I lived in Japan and I found them creepy and disgusting both in texture and appearance. However, these noodles are what many Americans have often pined for; they are a food with almost zero calories.

Of course, most people who want to eat as much as they want without the pain of gaining weight are thinking about zero-calorie pizza or chocolate, not flavor-free noodles sold in a stinky briny solution that you have to drain and rinse off. This particular brand by Nasoya isn't the only variety out there, but I believe they are all sold in the refrigerated section of stores in bags of fluid. If you read the reviews for the product (and others like it) on Amazon, there are lots of complaints about the indescribably bad odor that comes off of them when you release them from their watery prison.

If you go to the Amazon link, you'll also see that they sell for about $56 for a case of 12. That's $4.66 per bag for something which includes just two servings of noodles. It's a very steep price for something which is a component of a meal and not a meal unto itself. The reason that this is a "surprise find" for me is not only my (as mentioned in previous posts) rural isolation and limited grocery store options, but the price I paid for these. I found these at the local Grocery Outlet for 37 cents a bag.

Unlike the ginger rice crackers that I got for 50 cents, I did not lose my head and buy 24 of these. One reason was that there were only five bags in stock. Another was that I'd never tried these before and their expiration date was within four days of my purchase. Still, I bought three bags because, how bad could they be? The answer to that question is, "It depends on how you prepare them." My first two runs with the first bag were between so-so and not-so-good. My final one, in which I took my recently expired noodles from the last two bags and just tossed it all into one big dish, worked much, much better.

I should note that these are more troublesome than conventional pasta in some ways. First, you do have to drain them and rinse them well and the fluid inside carries a bouquet that will wilt any nearby foliage. I recommend just holding your nose and doing a fast dump and rinse. It doesn't last long. It's like getting a shot at the doctor. A short amount of unpleasantness then it's all over.

After you rinse and drain them, you need to boil them for 1-2 minutes. I actually tasted a noodle right out of the rinse (not right out of the bag, I'm not crazy or masochistic) and it seemed perfectly cooked and fine. I think the instructions to boil them is make sure you get all of the brine off and to get them hot so they dry out better. After the quick boil, you dry fry them in a pan to get them a bit drier. I used olive oil the second time for this and just cooking spray the first time. The purpose with this isn't to toast or cook the noodles, but to get them drier and less translucent. This is supposed to improve the texture so they're more like conventional pasta.

With my first two attempts, I took the pasta and just mixed other things in with it. The first was a butternut squash soup and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This was okay, but not great. I felt the noodles texture a bit too keenly and they were super stretchy and a bit chewy compared to traditional pasta. The second time, I mixed in cheeses (cream chesse, Parmesan, mozzarella) and that was the worst. I also learned that these fettucine noodles seem to be designed for someone who prefers to spend more of the meal time twirling a fork than eating as they are miles long. In fact, if the scene in "Lady and the Tramp" were to be redone with these noodles, it'd take them about a year to eat up the noodle enough to meet in the middle. I vowed to cut them apart next time I ate them (and I took kitchen scissors to them as planned - I recommend this step).

These noodles really need a sauce to give them flavor. For my final preparation, I went all out and sauteed onions, garlic, bell pepper, mushrooms, and (hydrated and flavored) TVP in olive oil then added a jarred creamy tomato and roasted garlic sauce. I added the dry-fried noodles to this and it was indistinguishable from regular pasta.

The main benefits of this besides the super low calories and low carb count is that they are loaded with fiber. The main downside is that they aren't as versatile as regular pasta as they need something else to take on the flavor of. You couldn't just toss these in olive oil and Parmesan cheese to create a side dish. The biggest demerit though is that they are usually quite expensive. Nearly every vendor you can mail order these from sells them for $2.50 a bag (often much more) and you need to buy large amounts at once.

In terms of how I feel about these, I think that it's hard to get too excited about noodles in general, but I'd buy them again in a heartbeat provided that I could get a bargain on them (a dollar or less per bag). This would not be for any reason other than the fact that these are supremely healthy. While I wouldn't expect to get them for 37 cents a bag again, I'd probably pay as much as $2 each if I were in the serious mood for pasta, which I will admit is not very often for me as I'm not much of a noodle person. If you're on a special diet (low-carb, Keto, whatever) though, these can be quite a Godsend to vary your mundane eating options. I imagine the extra effort and the unpleasant odors associated with the noodles would be something that one could develop a tolerance for after a few weeks of eating mostly meat, cheese, non-starchy vegetables, and avocados.

Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 37 cents/bag

Friday, May 12, 2017

Harajuku Mochi Chocolat Sakura

Natto is often considered to be the most unique and strange food experience when it comes to introducing Japanese cuisine to foreigners. It's stinky, sticky, and reminds you of mucous. While as a singular food, natto may indeed be one of the strangest things you can eat in Japan, there is a class of food that I discovered is a bit bigger and more broadly used than what I regard as its nearest Western cousin. That is a group of foods that, after processing, are fairly flavorless. 

My first experience with this came when I mentioned to a student that the chanko nabe (a sort of sumo wrestler's stew) that I'd had on my tour of a sumo stable had these weird little grey blocks with black specks in them that found distasteful in appearance. The student practically gushed about how wonderful konnyaku was and how much she loved it. She said it tasted so good and was really healthy. I told her I didn't eaten these little somewhat gelatinous blocks because the reminded me of frog's eggs and asked what they tasted like. She paused and said, "They don't taste like anything."

Such was my experience in Japan with certain foods. People would tell me something was fantastic, but it didn't taste like much of anything. That included jiggly blocks of pale tofu, konnyaku, and mochi. While we have bland foods in the U.S. (potatoes, rice), we don't have foods that are processed and end up flavorless with the exception of gelatin... at least not that I can think of. And, even if we do have such foods, we lack the same level of enthusiasm that I saw for them in Japan. 

Most of these foods are about their texture as well as the flavors that they can absorb from other ingredients. It took me awhile to come around to enjoying such foods, but it helps that I'm a texture junky. Mochi in particular is very much about how it stretches and the sort of chewy, softness it offers. Fresh mochi is amazing. Stale stuff is inedible. When you order shelf-stable sweets like this Harajuku Mochi Chocolate, there is always a risk that it'll be tough as you don't know how long it has been sitting around or how well it is packed. I'm pleased to say that this much have industrial strength oxygen absorber packets and is sealed well. 

The mochi comes in a square box with a little plastic two-pronged fork so you can stab the hands of people who try to eat your delicious, delicious mochi without piercing the skin and risking a lawsuit. Though there are ample numbers of pieces, they are quite small. Each is a little bigger than a quarter and fairly thin as mochi goes. The "chocolate" is a soft, creamy white substance that runs thinly through the center. When you eat it, it imparts sweetness, but there is too little to get a good sense of flavor or creaminess. 

Each bit of mochi is a soft little pillow that is somewhat chewy, but easy to bite into. Even after I'd opened the package and consumed the mochi over several weeks, they remained fresh to the last morsel. The first hit on your tongue is sweetness, perhaps from the coating which could be cornstarch mixed with powdered sugar. It could also just be that the filling is spread evenly enough and is sweet enough to leave a lasting impression.

The second bite is more floral and yields more cherry notes. On the back-end of a tasting, it can even leave a whisper of herb-like and slightly medicinal flavor, but not in a negative way. As mochi goes, this is fairly flavorful, sweet without being cloying. Of course, mochi often lacks a very strong flavor so saying it is "flavorful" isn't meant to convey that it's a flavor-blasted experience, but just that it is present.

In terms of how I liked this, I liked them very well and was happy to have tried them. That being said, I mainly chose these because it is spring and sakura is a seasonal flavor that won't be around in several months. I likely would not buy them again as I regard this more as a curiosity purchase than a standard snack that I'd like to have again. If you enjoy sakura's cherry and floral notes, then you likely will enjoy this more than me (and I did enjoy them). If not, you may want to try a flavor more akin to your tastes like chocolate or green tea.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 10.2 oz.
Price: $9.95

Friday, May 5, 2017

Suprise Find: Ginger Frosted Sembei

As I mentioned in my "I'm back" post, I now live in a very remote area. What is more, I also live in a small town (less than 10,000 people). There are very few local markets and I can charitably say that local tastes match local political views; they are very conservative. That means that the restaurants around me focus mostly on burgers, bad steak, pizza, pasta with heavy sauces, Americanized Mexican, and sandwiches. The most exotic place is a Thai restaurant and there is one American Chinese place which offers very pedestrian options.

I'm not mentioning this to criticize the local food scene because I know that one's taste in food is one of those things that is shaped by experience. People like what they like because it is what they grew up with and it's not like the people who live in rural areas made a conscious decision to have limited food options. If anything, we can blame their parents and grandparents. I certainly can say my parents have terrible taste in food and any restaurant scene that their patronage cultivated would be populated by places with leathery, over-cooked meat, canned vegetables, noodles, and potatoes. It would be even more grim than the reality I currently live in.

The reason that I mention the limits here is that any Japanese food I find at local markets outside of Pocky and some more common cooking ingredients (soy sauce, rice vinegar, etc.) are a suprise find. When I locate one of these finds, I'm stunned because I can't imagine the locals buying them. That leads me to today's shocking find of frosted ginger sembei.

I found these at Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. I've been told it's the west coast equivalent of Aldi's, but I can't verify that as I've never been in an Aldi's. The thing they are supposed to have in common is food at low prices because it was over-produced, unpopular, or is getting on in years. I'm guessing this sembei showed up because it was unpopular, but it's hard to know for sure.

The first shocker was that it was in a local market at all. The second was that it was being sold for 50 cents a bag. In the Bay Area, I had to pay $4-$6 per bag for this same brand of sembei. In Japan, this would cost the equivalent of $1.50-$2.00 for a bag. It was insanely cheap by any estimate. I bought 25 bags. I am not exaggerating. My pantry has stacks and stacks of these.

The difficulty in marketing these to the American market is explained somewhat by the description panel on the lower right panel of the bag. In particular, the fact that the manufacturer feels it is necessary to say, "no topping needed" is revealing. Americans see rice crackers as a savory item that needs a topping like a Quaker rice cake. Buyers have no idea what these are until after they've purchased them. In fact, when I bought them, the cashier looked perplexed at what they were. I'm guessing just me, and possibly the Japanese members of the taiko club a great many miles South of me, are the only customers and potential customers who know what these are.

What these are is a very, very tasty snack with a surface that makes you think of the moon with luscious sugary craters. They'd better be great if I'm going to drown myself in stacks of crispiness. They are light and somewhat sweet with enough ginger to whisper kindly at your tongue, but not to overwhelm. They snap without being too brittle and actually do melt in your mouth if you leave them in there long enough. It's easy to eat far too many at one sitting, but given that each large cracker is only 25 calories, it's hard to get fat on them. I've actually be fairly responsible with these and limit myself to one packet (two crackers) per day. I will likely have my stash for months at that rate, but they come with an enormous oxygen absorber packet so I'm betting they won't go stale. If they start to, I'll just have to watch a good movie and start consuming them by the bag-full so as not to waste my luxurious investment of $12.50.

I should note that I had confidence in these and how good they'd be because the company that mades them, Kameda, is one that I recognized from my time in Japan. In fact, I have reviewed no small number of their sembei in the past including one sweet variety made of chocolate. They rarely let me down and I was pleasantly surprised to see something from that company at a local market. While this clearly is packaged for the American market (since everything is in English), the rice crackers (sembei) themselves are precisely the same as what you'd get if you shopped in Tokyo. And, yes, I'd absolutely buy them again, even at a higher price.


Where I bought it: Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
Price: 50 cents/bag

Friday, April 28, 2017

Hina no Sudachi (white bean cakes)

I think my faithful readers will find that little has changed since I last blogged. I'm still using a crummy little digital camera and struggling to get shots that are bright enough and in focus. I still write posts that are too long. I still try to be funny and fail a lot of the time, and I still making typing errors that make me look like I don't understand basic grammar and spelling and fail to proofread.

Getting back into this blog will be nostalgic for all of  us. And, I don't mean the good kind of nostalgia like opening Christmas gifts when you were a kid and it all seemed so magical and wondrous because you hadn't yet learned that the fat guy who left gifts, ate your cookies, and drank your milk was your dad (or mom). I mean the kind of nostalgia that comes from a bad Thanksgiving meal full of relatives with political views you don't share and who feel its their responsibility to convert you to either their religion or their atheism. Somehow though, you feel like you need to keep coming back anyway.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the first item I'll be reviewing is Hina no Sudachi. This is a "steamed bun with bean jam using egg yolk," according to the package. If the ingredients list is any indication of quantity, and in the U.S., the first ingredient is supposed to make up the largest amount, egg yolks are the top ingredient followed by white beans. Oddly, I didn't find the interior of the cake to be as yellow as I'd expect nor as yellow as the store displays show (that's a Facebook link and won't work unless you have an account - a Yelp one of lesser quality is here). That is okay because I'm less interested in the color than the taste.

I will note that my husband and I both have a great fondness for this particular type of sweet. That is, we love the white bean ones with the cake-like shells and continue to reminisce about the ones we bought regularly in Japan like Kamome no Tamgo and Koganei Imo. In fact, these are the only types of Japanese sweets my husband actually likes. He may tolerate others to a limited extent, but he is happy to eat these because the bean filling is finer and not especially "beany" compared to red bean (adzuki) types.

This cake didn't have a high bar to vault over though as neither of us expected it to surpass our favorites. We just expected it to be a solid white bean cake option, and, it was. The external cake was tender, but not too moist and didn't crack or crumble. When I tasted the shell alone, it seemed to have a buttery flavor (which has to be fake or my imagination).  It is quite thin and separates easily from the filling if you cut the cake in half as I did.

When you see the inside, it is exactly what you'd want it to be. That is, it is moist and holds together so it doesn't have the powdery, dessicated texture that some snacks do. I wouldn't recommend cutting it unless you're splitting it with someone as it's better to have an intact shell to hold the filling. If the filling falls out, it stays in a moist (but not too wet) lump so it's easy to pick up and put back in.

The bean filling is sweet, though not especially so by American standards, and has a flavor which is hard define, but is still appealing. It's more of a generic "baked goods" taste, but it does seem to have a bit of what could be vanilla. The ingredients include artificial flavors as well as beta carotene (natural coloring). Though it seems a bit buttery, it contains cottonseed and soybean oil, but no cow-based fats. It was in the spectrum of what you'd find in a sweet, baked item and not the least bit beany (as expected).

I will note that I wasn't sure if this product was produced only for the American market (which would be weird, but I never saw this in Japan), and I did have issues finding it online. However, it is actually a product of Hokkaido and I found a blog that referenced it as part of a souvenir multi-pack. There's also a pointless 16-second video of one here. So, it's definitely sold in Japan, but my guess is that it is regional enough to not be easily found in Tokyo.

As I was gearing up to do my research, as I did so often in the past, I realized that I have never used a Windows PC to write my blog posts before and had no idea how to swap to Japanese language. I'm still not sure how to use it as well as how I once did on my old Mac Mini, but I'll get used to it. I'm definitely rusty and hope to get back to my previous level of highly inadequate and pathetic Japanese input and usage rather than remain at my current level of confusion.


Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco branch) - can be mail-ordered from them
Weight: 23.8 oz.
Price: $15

The big question I have to ask myself is whether or not I'd buy this again. The answer is that I would, but not every single time I order from Nippon-ya. It's tasty, but it's not out-of-the-ballpark amazing. It's also the heaviest box of sweets in my current crop so there is a premium attached to buying it as opposed to trying something new so I'd be likely to order this once in awhile rather than as a staple. That's in no way saying it's not worth it, but just recognizing that this doesn't rise to the same level as our other white bean cake favorites.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Nippon-ya Mail Order

Display of Japanese sweets at Nippon-ya in San Francisco's Japantown

There are roughly two types of Japanese snacks. There is the loud, colorfully packaged stuff that is sold in consumer packaging. It is so shelf-stable that it'll likely survive the current administration's efforts to bring about a nuclear war. These are in contrast to delicate, classy, and unlikely to survive two months in your pantry treats that are beautifully packaged and often given as gifts.

The first type are relatively easy to get your hands on as you can buy Japanese KitKats, umaibo, green tea, and, of course, Pocky, from Amazon easily. What Amazon may not sell you, eBay will or you can subscribe to a Japan box and get samples of such items. In fact, as this blog re-awakens, I will likely buy some of those subscription boxes myself both to test the value of the services and to review the included items. I hope to come at reviewing them from a unique perspective since I've had copious experience buying the types of items in the boxes in Tokyo and know the prices and selections well.

The second type of item are far trickier to buy. I had thought that the only way to get them was to live close enough to a specialty shop that carried them or a market which sold an inferior shelf-stable consumer version of such items. There are other options, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive. However, thanks to some research, I learned there is a far more reasonably priced possibility. That is doing mail order from San Francisco's Nippon-ya shop.

My first experience with Nippon-ya was when I lived in the Bay Area (which I hated and endured for three and a half years) and made several trips to "the city" (as the locals call it - if you want to really piss them off, call it "Frisco") to see what it had to offer. Besides a plethora of homeless people, human waste on the streets, and a lot of filthy, disintegrating areas interspersed with tidy, clean, tourist- and gentry-ready spots, it has a Japantown with a lot of cute and cool stores. 

During that initial visit, I picked up a mere two boxes of sweets because I was watching my wallet at the time. I still watch my wallet, especially in American cities because pickpocketing is a thing that is more likely to happen here than in Japan, but I can now indulge myself a bit more now and then. However, I no longer live within reasonable driving distance of San Francisco so I have a bit more money, but not the access. Fortunately, one of our Bay Area friends decided to visit us in our remote locale and happily agree to ferry some wagashi booty to me.

Rather unfortunately, Nippon-ya has no online mailing system nor is their Facebook page meticulously updated about new or current stock. They do serve Japanese products and often Japanese people so the up side is that they are super helpful and polite on the phone. I called them and they took note of what I wanted and made recommendations and answered questions about their stock. Mainly, I asked about flavors and types of snacks and, with their verbal assistance on the phone, Yelp's photos of their stock, and their Facebook page content, I created a specific list of six boxes of goodies for my friend to deliver. 

You might wonder what good this information does for you since you are unlikely to have a Bay Area friend willing to drive to your place with boxes of manju or whatnot, especially if you live in Florida or Oklahoma. It's not that there is anything wrong with those places, but, yeah, there are things wrong with those places, but rather that it's an incredibly long drive. You're in luck because Nippon-ya will take orders by phone and ship to you via UPS. This matters to me, too, because I want to make another order (or many other orders) in the future and can't expect my friend to do the 10-hour round trip to see me when I want more bean cakes or daifuku. 

The display of chestnut daifuku when I was in the store several years ago. You can guess the season I was there from the selection. Also, I reviewed this on this blog.

To help you make an order when you can't see what they have, I advise you to follow the same path as me and have a good look at what is pictured online (Yelp and Facebook, obviously) to give you a rough idea of what you might want to ask about. In addition to that, I suggest asking about seasonal flavors and to keep in mind what is likely to be available. You can review my blog for some of that information, but a brief thumbnail is:

spring: cherry blossom (sakura), green tea, strawberry, coffee
summer: Japanese citron (yuzu), melon
fall: sweet potato, chestnut, apple
winter: chocolate, white chocolate, mango

Some "classic" flavors tend to be available year-round. This mainly would be basic anko (bean paste) sweets including white, yellow, and red bean varieties of sweets that come in various wrappers (cake and mochi mainly). I was told that their "Harajuku Mochi" line is always available (though there are seasonal specialty flavors) and that Hina no Sudachi, which is the first item I'll be reviewing after this post, is also always available. Note that they also sell tea, various crackers, and cookies including gaufrettes. However, my orders will focus largely on non-European-derivative items as I want very "Japanese" items. I mention those options in case my readers have less specific interests.

Shipping is based strictly on the actual weight of the items. The representative who I spoke with said that they will assemble your order, take it to the UPS outlet in the same mall as them, and give you an exact quote. I weighed my boxes when I got them and will be including weights with my review information any time I review items from Nippon-ya. 

My packages totalled 5.5 lbs. which would have cost me a little over $8 if my UPS standard shipping chart reading wasn't incorrect (though I am most likely off by the weight of the packing materials). My best guess is that 6-10 boxes are likely not to cost more than $15 to ship, but I can comment on that more in the future when I make an actual mail order.

All in all, if they are true to their word about charging only what the weight of the packages require, you should be paying less than $2 per box in cases of larger orders (3-4 or more boxes) to have the sweets sent (depending on the item's size). Of course, you will always get better value from the shipping with larger orders. If you buy one box, you're likely to be paying a heavy premium for shipping. 

Beyond the shipping costs, there is, of course, the matter of the items themselves. Most of them cost between $9 and $16 per box. The prices are incredibly reasonable and many of them are not much more expensive than what you'd pay in Japan. The "Harajuku Mochi" is $9 for a 16-piece box. The pieces are small, but that's a very good price compared to Japanese markets in the U.S. The Hina no Sudachi, which is one the of the biggest and heaviest items as the cakes are bigger than standard mochi sweets, includes 15 pieces and is $15. Again, this is not too far off of prices I'd expect to pay in Tokyo for a similar sweet in a standard shop. 

That being said, you could likely get cheaper options at places like Niki no Kashi (a discount sweets shop in Ueno), but most of us aren't in a position to hop a train and head to Ueno. The price of a plane ticket would make even discount sweets less than a bargain. My best guess is buying these types of items (though not these exact ones) would cost between $6-$12 in a discount shop. So, if you're actually in Japan, these may still seem pricey to you, but they seem very reasonable to me from where I am with my access and experience trying to buy in shops here in the U.S.

So, unlike when I was reviewing before and buying in Tokyo, my readers should be able to get their hands on whatever I am reviewing from now on. If the Nippon-ya items interest you, you can contact them either by Facebook messages or calling them. They are very helpful and polite so you won't be disappointed. Also, if more people order from them by mail, I think they may eventually be incentivized to make a web mail order site and the process will get easier.

Note: I am not endorsing Nippon-ya, and have no financial connection to them. I paid for my products and am talking about them here to offer information on a resource for readers.