Friday, September 1, 2017

Harajuku Mochi Chocolate

Getting old is a weird experience because you find yourself stepping into the experiences that you used to snicker at your parents for having. You get those weird yellow toenails that are hard to cut so there is nothing you can do about how you're now getting "old people feet." You look in the mirror and see your parents' faces more clearly because you're moving into the age range that they were when you were a kid growing up. You find that normal things, like sleeping in a bed for an entire night, will result in pain. Of course, that assumes that you sleep through the night at all as the body actually forgets how to sleep as you get older.

Why am I talking about age in a review of Harajuku Mochi Chocolate? It's because I missed last week's posting because it was my 53rd birthday. I had plans to go to a very nice hotel with a jacuzzi on the Southern Oregon coast, but the fires in that area rained down ashes and filled the area with smoke. I'm not really complaining because people who lived just north of my hotel had to evacuate their homes. I'm not a fan of arguments of relative privation (as I think they are just a way of invalidating the feelings of others), but it's hard to cry too hard over a cancelled vacation when people are fleeing their homes due to a nearby inferno threatening to rob them of everything they have.

Another aspect of aging is that my appetite for any food isn't as high as it once was. It has been taking me far longer to get through my stash of traditional Japanese sweets from Nippon-ya than I would have expected. Despite that, I have to say these sweets have aged very well. They aren't as soft as the first box of these that I reviewed, but they are far from stale. They are just a bit chewy and less pillowy soft after four months in the closet. Frankly, I'm impressed.

In terms of flavor, these are very potently chocolate-y, while not being too sweet or bitter. It's quite an impressive balance between the two as most strong chocolate flavors have the bitterness of a dark chocolate or they are washed out by overly sweet milky flavors.

While these are awesome as a delivery system for chocolate and as a way of enjoying the texture of mochi, they aren't especially unique. I think they are a great choice for someone who is squeamish about exotic flavors who you want to share a mochi sweet with, but I don't think I'd get them again despite how good they are. I enjoyed them greatly, but I'd rather have something more unique and I can get good quality chocolate in cheaper delivery systems than this. However, if you like chocolate and you like mochi, these are a big winner.

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 11.6 oz.
Price: $9.99

Friday, August 18, 2017

Yoneya Lemon Daifuku

As I've mentioned before, I am currently living in a rural area. For the most part, I love it here. Though the local politics don't match my values at all, I'm accustomed to living in a culture with values that aren't in accord with mine. In fact, I feel like living in Japan helped prepare me for being a liberal in a conservative zone. I can accept the culture (which is beyond politics, but that's the biggest "hardship") as something which suits the locals, but doesn't suit me personally and just keep my distance.

At any rate, the biggest aspect of small town life that actually does bother me is the food culture, such as it is. There are about 10 restaurants that aren't chains or fast food places, and most of them offer a limited menu with an emphasis on burgers and sandwiches. I don't like to order anything at a restaurant that I can't make myself at least as well, if not better, than a restaurant can. I rely on Yelp to some extent to make some decisions about which places to try, and, though I've lived here for almost two years, I've not hit all of the places yet because I tend to spend my money at ethnic places about an hour north of where I live (in Oregon, in a city which is big enough to have a wider range of options).

What Yelp has made me realize is just how much ones tastes are conditioned by local experience. People raved about a local steak place and it got high star reviews. My husband and I finally went there on his birthday about a year after living here and both found it extremely disappointing. The "salad bar" was a limited range of canned food options. The chicken I ate was some sort of pressed meat with grill marks. The "dessert" was a scoop of cheap ice cream with Hershey's syrup on it. This helped me see all too clearly that people who haven't had a broad range of experiences can't tell the difference between what is at the low end of the culinary scale and what is at the high end.

As someone who reviews snack foods from another country, I realize that that people may judge the food I'm judging less harshly than I do because some of them haven't lived in a place in which better options exist. And, I'm sure there are sometimes things I review which other people have more experience with that other people would find inadequate, but I really enjoyed. This snack really illustrates to me how spoiled I was to have lived in a place in which fresh confections made with mochi were common. I think someone else might have found this more enjoyable than me, but only if he/she had never had a better version.

This is made by a company called Yoneya which specializes in traditional Japanese confections like yokan (a block of sweet bean gel). They seem to offer a lot of summer gift boxes as well as individually wrapped sweets like the one I'm reviewing. One of their less traditional, but quite interesting looking foods is a peanut monaka. It's actually shaped like a peanut, comes in a peanut-shaped box, but is oddly filled with red bean jam (anko) and not peanut-based filling. Oh well, two out of three ain't bad...

The mochi shell on this wasn't hard, but it also wasn't super soft and pliable. It seemed too thick and, though it was easy to bite into, it was weirdly firm in a way most fresh (non-shelf-stable) mochi is not. That said, the lemon filling in this was nothing short of amazing. It was tangy, sweet, and bright. The flavors were so good that I very much wanted the textures to match and I decided to give it a turn in the microwave to see if warming up the mochi would make the texture more stretchy and pliable, but it didn't change anything. It seemed too thick and overworked/dense. It was very unfortunate that the mochi outside didn't match the lemony bean filling inside.

If you want to try this, and I guessing you don't, I'm afraid you're out of luck as the only place you could have gotten one was from Bokksu and they seem to no longer carry them.

Source: Part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, August 11, 2017

Pocky Orange Peel

I was watching a video on "shows that should never have been made" and one of the abominations that was featured was a show that I had the faintest recollection of from my youth. That show was "Pink Lady (and Jeff)" and I personally never watched it, but saw it advertised. I've watched a little bit of it on YouTube. This is the sacrifice I make for my readers. I fall on the grenade so you don't have to.

It stuns me that any network attempted to sell Japanese pop stars to the American audience in 1980. If you watch the clips that I linked to, and keep in mind that it is #35 on the list of the 50 worst television shows of all time as chosen by "TV Guide" so consider yourself warned, you'll be treated to some incredibly culturally inappropriate material. If you've taught English, you'll also recognize immediately that the singers in Pink Lady can't actually speak English and learned their lines phonetically.

Though this was a disaster in all respects, it is important for people to have foreign cultures stuck in front of their noses on occasion. Small bits and pieces of information prime people to be more open to that culture in the future. In 1980, sushi was just raw fish to Americans. In the present day and age, it's something they're willing to fork over a lot of money for a bastardized version of in places as pedestrian as their local supermarket. That's some cultural infiltration.

When I returned to the U.S., I was stunned at how ubiquitous Pocky had become. I think the versions I see are from Korea for the most part and not the same as what I had in Japan, but the brand is recognized and consumed as a Japanese product. It started to be sold in Japan in 1966, and a U.S. division of Glico was established in 2003. November 11 is "Pocky" day and this year will be the 4th one that is celebrated in the United States. It took awhile, but it gained some traction. Pink Lady, apparently, was too early for the times.

I've not had as much Pocky as most in my career as a person who consumes food, but I can say that this is unique amount the few handfuls that I've tried. The main point about this is that the little bits of peel are chewy. They are clearly candied bits and they bring a nice, bright, authentic citrus flavor to each bite. The chocolate is milk bordering on semi-sweet. It has enough strength to be present, but not so much as to be bitter. The flavor combination is very well-balanced. I believe part of what helps this is that the organe peel bits appear to be coated in dark chocolate so they carry some of that flavor through as well. If you look at the sticks, you'll see they look more like Oreo cookie parts than orange peel, but orange peel they are indeed.

This snack came with advice to refrigerate it before consuming and I ignored that advice when I ate all but the last packet. So, it was only with my last experience that I had the most optimal one. The lesson here: Do what you are told blindly without question, at least when it comes to Pocky.

When not refrigerated, the coating is a bit too soft and the chewy peels feel as if they are in a slighly greasy chocolate in terms of the textural experience. It's still good, but it is a lot better when the coating is chilled and much firmer. The standard, bland, Pocky pretzel stick seems more orange in color to me on these than what I recall, but my memory could be going. I am getting on in years, after all.

I like the combination of orange and chocolate, but these seemed a tad rich for my tastes as well as having a cumulative sweetness that I found cloying by the 5th and final stick in a packet. I don't regret having these, but I wouldn't go out of my way to have them again. If you're interested, and I would act fast if you are because these are seasonal and likely to vanish at some point, the Asian Food Grocer is currently offering these for $3.58. Yummy Bazaar has them for $3.05 and Economy Candy has them for $2.99. I got mine from Bokksu as part of a premium box, but they are currently sold out. It wouldn't matter anyway since Bokksu was selling them for $4/box and would have pricier than the alternatives anyway.

Source: Part of the Bokksu premium summer citrus box

Friday, August 4, 2017

Aya Usagi White Bean Cakes

One of the big differences between my blogging in Japan about Japanese food as compared to doing so in the U.S. is that it costs me at least 50% more. This sucks, but, as someone accustomed to paying at least 50% more for imported food when I lived in Japan, it's something I'm quite accustomed to.

The other difference is that I feel more like I have to ration my treats because I can't get them as cheaply or easily as I once did. This is one of the reasons that I haven't hoovered up my stack of manju from Nippon-ya like an anteater that has a mental health disorder. I imagine that, for anteaters, having a vacuum cleaner complex is probably similar to having a Napoleon complex among humans. I am all powerful! All ants will be consumed through my magnificence protuberance like Dorothy during a Kansas tornado!

I'm sure nobody comes to my blog to hear me inhabit the reality of anteaters with mental health challenges - well, maybe a few bodies do - so I will get on with talking about bean cakes. I waited until well past the point of reason to eat the last one and savored every little morsel. Unfortunately, though these were quite fresh when I opened the box, holding out on the last one until after the box had been opened for nearly a month meant the last one was a bit stale. This isn't any sort of indictment of the cakes because they held out for a long, long time. However, I do recommend you eat them within three weeks of opening the box. The oxygen absorber can only do so much.

This was, by far, my very favorite of my haul from Nippon-ya. The cakes themselves (when not well-aged)  have a soft, thin, cake covering a good portion of white beans that are generously sweetened, but not cloying. They have a lovely flavor which brings to mind butter, vanilla, and yellow cake, but doesn't really fit any of those descriptions. Sometimes, these types of cakes are a bit bland and mushy, but this definitely has a flavor profile. It's not incredibly deep as it tends to be just that indescribable flavor and sugar, but it's very satisfying.

The beans in these have a slightly fudgey texture to them, especially when they're fresher and moister than my antiquated final cake. I'm guessing this is delivered courtesy of the white adzuki and kidney beans as well as the multiple sugars (as sugar adds moisture)

Where I bought it: Nippon-ya (San Francisco)
Weight: 11.6 oz.
Price: I don't recall exactly, but I think it was $12.95.

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)