Wednesday, December 2, 2009

KitKat ジンジャーエール味

Nestle Japan is justifiably famous for the endless flavors of KitKat that they foist upon the market. The well seems to be endless for the whacky food technologists that they hire. Kudos must be given to the corporate giant for at very least, hiring some creatively insane people.  Forget about the sins of their tireless marketing of infant formula in the third world at the expense of undermining traditional nursing (we're talking breastfeeding here) and possible and probable contamination from unsafe water sources and unsanitary preparation conditions. Forget about melamine in your milk, slave labor harvested chocolate and frankenfoods. We're talking pure mindless celebration of consumer culture and nutty capitalism.

So, of course, tempted by constant novelty and having 100 yen sitting in my pocket, I had to buy the KitKat Ginger Ale Flavor (KitKat ジンジャーエール味). Can anyone resist? Cracking open the foil-wrapped inner package, an unmistakable whiff of ginger ale filled my nose. Wow! The scent soon dissipated. First bit revealed a lemony white chocolate amidst the familiar crunchy wafer. The ginger itself was overwhelmed. Though they use real ginger in the product, they also use real lemon powder. And as for ginger ale - as suspect as contemporary Canada Dry and Schweppes may be - you really don't need lemon. However as a lemony white chocolate concoction it ain't too bad. 

A quick perusal of the Nestle Japan revealed that apart from the strawberry and blueberry cheesecake and apple flavors, hitting the market are some traditional Japanese flavored KitKats - wasabi, kinako (toasted soybean flour), and sweet potato. Plus shoyu, miso and wasabi! I can hardly wait!

Monday, November 30, 2009


The rather daunting English on the package of this white chocolate candy bar announces it as "A White Big Tree of Koeda Chocolate." In actuality it's Taisho no Koeda (大樹の小枝) - the twig of a big tree. Not necessarily a white tree nor from some mythical little place called Koeda, but made of white chocolate with cashews and bits of langue du chat (cat's tongue cookies) that makes for a quite pleasing confection - not unlike a high class Nestle's Crunch bar, but a lot better. And at a mere 100 yen a pop, a contemporary value.

About 35 some years ago, Morinaga, introduced the original Taisho no Koeda, short and uneven pencil diameter stubs of milk chocolate roughly mixed with nuts and stuff. These are the original twigs. They even looked like 'em. White chocolate versions came later. Now they've got the bars. Considerably larger than your average twig, but not quite stumps - let's say branches - they're fully packed for modern consumption, worthy of a few healthy chaws.

The white chocolate of the bar sampled, though not as complex as a good dark chocolate, had a fine mouthfeel, almost buttery and with the liquory tastes that gives good white chocolate its elegance. Coupled with the light nutty taste and gentle crunch of cashews and the vague give of cat's tongues, it's quite a beautiful bar, even if it looks a bit lumpy.

A few kudos must be given for the commercial. It's haphazard direction and editing, along with the absurd premise and striking situation is a grabber. The man in the middle of a ravenous dog and hungry spy is a strange place to put the potential consumer, but isn't advertising - and what advertisers want you to desire - basically about fear?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cratz メキシカンサルサ&チキン

From the people who brought you Pocky Sticks, Glico, a more adult version, made for scarfing down with beer, Cratz works a similar paradigm - crunchy baked dough cylinders with flavor coatings. Cratz, though are little hard biscotto (twice-cooked) pellets with intense seasonings, mostly built around salt - and thus demanding a good swig of beer or shochu to wash it all away. The Cratz flavor pellets always come with a few toasted almonds in every package. Pocky Sticks, on the other hand, are delicate wands with dipped in sweet fondants (mainly chocolate) made to indulge the sweet tooth.

For what it's worth, both Cratz and Pocky products are true winners in the junk food sweepstakes, Pocky Sticks actually having become a cultural signifier of Japanese sweets.

Cratz's flagship products come in a few basic flavor combos - Spice Cheese and Pepper Bacon being the year-round favorites. And then there are changing flavors to keep the consumer interested in the product. Hitting the racks recently was Mexican salsa and chicken (メキシカンサルサ&チキン). Among the ingredients listed to give you that truly Mexican taste are chicken extract powder (can we say bullion cubes?) dextrin (can we say hydrolyzed starch?) salsa seasonings (?) and bacon extract (now we're talkin' Mexican!).

In endless variations the strange and novel concoctions that come out of food labs throughout the world, this one vaguely hits the mark. Granted, the Japanese really don't get Mexican, but a vague hint of jalepeno (most likely chemically created) with the slightest hint of tomato and plenty of salt, brought back vague recollections of some some sort of Mexican bizzarro world of Doritos, Old El Paso Taco Seasoning and Pace Chunky Salsa. But wait! That's what most estadounidenses think about when think of Mexican food! Maybe the Japanese food scientists hit the mark spot on.

And of course, any product that signs on Matsumoto Hitoshi, the comic genius responsible for the films Dianipponjin and Symbol, is definitely cratzin' the zeitgeist.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

ドリトス ウィンターチーズ味

Fritolay Japan, like Kit Kat Japan, likes to have it's fun creating novel seasonal variations in order to keep the brand "fresh," even if the ideas are a bit stale. Case in point is Doritos Winter Cheese Flavor (ドリトス ウィンターチーズ味) chips. Pringles Japan makes its own winter cheese product too, but since Pringles isn't food, it's not in the purview of this blog.

What we got are your basic Dorito corn chips cut into cookie-cutter evergreen tree shapes, dusted with generic cheese powder and a few other taste bud abusing chemicals. From the look of the package, there's a definite holiday theme - snow flakes, a Christmas wreath, a gold star not unlike the stars that front Chinese army issue Mao caps - preferably the big thick winter ones - and a conceptual cheese (white rind for the Japanese proclivity toward soft creamy ripening cheeses and big holes to say Swiss) that's all wintery in look.

The question, one may ask, is what does the pairing of cheese and winter mean? Is winter the time one should be eating cheese? Getting that extra butterfat to keep warm. Is there some tradition yet to become manifest of the Christmas cheese? Perhaps nice gooey cheeses left in Christmas stocking by the fireplace? Or perhaps a particularly ripe and stinky cheese as a replacement for hard black coal to be put in naughty children's sabots? Or perhaps a large wheel of brie as a replacement for the Christmas turkey or ham?

Traditions have changed hugely in the age of advertising. Santa as a fat bearded guy all dress in red can be traced to Coca Cola. Valentine's Day seems to exist only because of the flower and chocolate businesses. So, why not a big cheese to remember the Big Cheese's birth. After all, isn't that what the wise men brought for Him?

Monday, July 20, 2009


You won't find this at your usual konbini - unless you're traveling in Okinawa. I discovered this one in a wonderful little Okinawan store/cafe, Okinawa Souko, along the Pal Center shoutengai south of Asagaya on the west side of Tokyo.

Island Pork Jerky (島豚ジャーキー) is the product at hand. Jerky exists in many traditional cultures. The modern word for it comes from Mexico, from the Quechua. Ethiopia has a version of it made with either lamb or beef. But one of the commonalities of these places is dryness and plenty of sun. Neither of which exist much in Japan. And above all, hot and moist is the catchword for the Japanese islands, particularly the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture), the southernmost chain of greater Nippon. Not particularly good or safe weather for drying and preserving meat products.

However, here we are in the 21st century and traditional or not, Japan does have the technology.

Pork jerky makes so much sense. It's surprising that I've never seen it in the US market. This wonderful little package of slightly smokey salty dried pork goodness comes from an Okinawan producer, Asahi. They're a small company that also makes a black pork jerky, pigs' ears jerky, chicken gizzard jerky, among a host of fine products munchable with ice cold Orion beer or awaomori. Perfect for a hot and sweltering summer day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cola Shock

It was only a matter of time. Since its invention, cola has been a favorite mixer with any number of liquors. Note the continuing popularity of Cuba libres, Jack and Coke and the kalimotxo (a favorite of Basque youth - equal parts coke and red wine). Kirin has cut to the quick with premix Cola Shock (コーラショック), a chuggable mix of vodka and cola.

In an ever competitive market for canned liquors, Japanese booze giants are constantly filling the drink aisles of konbinis and grocery stores with the next seasonal brew or chu hai, often competing with their own brands. But in this consumer paradise called Japan, there must be something new all the time. It keeps the economy going and consumer consuming.

Cola Shock is reminiscent of RC. Quite a bit on the sweet side, but with a big cola taste. And with 5% booze a pretty potent little number. Of course, cola fans have their favorites and rarely is there any crossover in brand loyalty. Coke drinkers drink Coke. Pespi folks love their Pepsi. Does anybody still drink RC? No matter, Cola Shock could well become a favorite for underage drinkers and let's-get-drunk-'til-we-puke partiers. It goes down pretty easy and wallops with a potent sugar and alcohol rush.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

エアイン チョコバー バナナ

The somewhat unwieldy name, Air-in-choc bar (エアイン チョコバー) and the design by committee package belie the fact that this frozen confection is one of the best things to be found in the freezer cases of Sunkus and Circle K stores throughout Japan this rainy season.

Chocolate and bananas, a classic combo of New World and Asian flavors, far too often falls a bit flat. Under-ripe bananas coated in insipid chocolate are a staple at matsuri stalls. Even the frozen chocolate bananas on a stick from their supposed birthplace at Newport Beach, CA just aren't that good. So, it's a real pleasure to see theory and praxis come together, revivifying a dwindling belief in what should have been assumed.

It's even made me a bit less skeptical of the uses of food "technology."

Here's what makes this thing so good. A wonderful fondant of dark chocolate wrapping a thin layer of banana sorbet (using real bananas!), all around a core of the air-in-choco - a sort of cocoa-y crumbly frozen confection. There are a brilliant mix of textures, tastes and basically a lot of chocolate. It's great!

The Circle K (name licensed from the Canadian convenience store company, Alimentation Couche-Tarde)/Sunkus empire, a division of UNY Co. LTD, markets it under the UK+KACHIAL brand. It seems to be manufactured by Akagi, though there's no mention of it on their website. And God knows how many other corporate folks have their finger in this ice cream pot. But, God bless 'em this time around.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pepsi Shiso - ペプシ じそ

Pepsi's been trotting out different summer promotions in Japan for the last couple of years. In 2007 they released Pespsi Iced Cucumber (too bad I missed that one!) and last year, Blue Hawiian. They've also been flaunting the genuinely undrinkable Pepsi Nex - a zero calorie soda designed to get market share from Coke Zero. I'm completely down with Chavez in banning Zero from the Venezuelan market. The revolution was not won on asapartame. I hope he does the same if and when Nex tries to conquer Venezuela.

But in a continuing travesty of trying to keep Japanese consumers interested in their market imperialism, Pepsi recently launched Pepsi Shiso on Japan for their summer enjoyment (?).

What it is is an electric green, artificially sweetened and shiso-flavored analog that gives a very strange blast of funky shisoness* and metallic punch at first sip, turning into a heavier and heavier drinking task as one tries to get through the 500 ml pet bottle. As it is, after a couple days, I could only get through about 1/2 the bottle.

I gave up today.

* Known in the west as perilla, shiso is strong herb - a bit minty, with a slight cilantro edge and a long taste. It comes in green or red leaves. It's used as a garnish for sushi, for flavoring sakes and sochus, and is a prime ingredient in umeboshi, the wonderful pickled "plums" that are a staple in the world of Japanese garnishes.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Oyatsu seems to the company that takes the most pride in the recycling of seconds from the factory floor and turning it into junk food. On their website they happily promote the concept of "re-born" food.

Their big brand of packaged snackables is the Baby Star line of chips. Reforming and repackaging the remains from the manufacture of their instant ramen they launched the brand in 1959. From that time, they've taken this highly successful "noodle" chip, adding different "seasonal" flavors to keep consumers coming back over and over again for more.

ベビースタードデカイ焼そば夏しお (Baby Star Dotekai Yakisoba Natsu Shio) is an early summer rainy season chip that hit the shelves in June. Little sailor boy, Captain Beichan - a variation on their Beichan and Bichan vaguely Chinese kewpie doll mascots - smiles from the package, announcing a world of wet summer fun.

The chips themselves are thin little ribbons of crisp fried wheat noodle dough - this one gussied up with the vague taste of squid. All things considered, they're innocuous enough, crispy crunchy, not too salty, just squiddy enough and fairly enjoyable.

Japanese food culture has been brilliant in the recycling of food products. Look at the humble soybean, for example, and the myriad variation on this legume. The process of making tofu leaves several by-products - tonyu (the milk), okara (the leftover pulp) and yuba (the skin) - all adding more to an already remarkable cuisine. It's no wonder one of Oyatsu's main marketing ideas is in the idea of using everything, leaving no waste - which fits perfectly into national self-identification by the Japanese of mottainai (もったいない) culture, the culture of thrift.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

MR.BRAIN 脳トレパン

The inspirations of co-branding can take the consumer down strange and winding roads. One of the more absurd, and thus ultimately clever ideas has come from the folks who inspired the title of this blog, the Yamazaki Baking Company.

The article in question is the Mr. Brain Nou Torepan (MR.BRAIN 脳トレパン). As far as I can tell, there's a clever bit of punstery going on with the name. In my own misreading it looks like MR. BRAIN brain trepan, or Mr. Brain's brain core (the meaning of trepan). But of course, pan means bread, so trepan and pan become a bit conflated and one's left stumped and mystified as to what's really going on here.*

The bun actually looks a little like the remains of a cranial trepanning. A disc of bread with a bumpy brain-like texture on the top. As if you got a decent cross section of skull material with a soupçon of cortex attached. Inside a a layer of caramel chocolate cream topped and another of whipped cream. And beyond that is the addition of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a popular fad chemical that supposed to be good for memory retention and a counter for alzheimer's disease. All well and good. But why?

The why is the co-branding with a new TV show, MR. BRAIN. Simultaneously with the release of the bun last month was the premiere of the new TV show, in which TV superstar and pop group SMAP member, Takuya Kimura, plays a gigolo who suffers a brain injury and becomes a crime-solving sleuth. Both the TV program and the junk food seem a little half-baked in concept, but in the first couple weeks of being on air, MR. BRAIN got upwards of 25% viewership. Smarter than I thought!

There are no records of the popularity of the baked good - it's a rather cloying and heavy puck of dough and filler - but I imagine after buying one for a sample, one will be a little smarter the next time walking down the grocery store aisle and will reach for something else instead.

* It has been brought to my attention by Rachel (see comment below - Thanks!), that yes, I really did misread the meaning of name of this product. It actually means "Mr. Brain brain training bread." However, I do like to think that some serious double-entendre was in action while they were deciding what to call the damn thing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

エルビー ナタデココホワイト

In 1993, with a push toward the slimming effect (no calories) and a specious claim for cancer curing properties, nata de coco, a jellied food product produced by the bacterial fermentation of coconut water and carrageenan (click here to find out how it's made), became an overnight fad in the Japanese market.  Junk food producers fell all over themselves making drinks, desserts and what-have-you for a huge market. 

This boom created a bump in the relatively small and independent producers market in the Philippines, where nata de coco originates. The demand from Filipino producers was too much to meet in 1993. But money was made. Production was capitalized for the ever increasing sales. It was boom times for poor coconut farmer and the smart entrepreneur. By 1994, the bottom fell out of the market. The fickle Japanese fad consumer had already moved on to something new. The poor Filipino farmer returned to being poor.

Years later, memories of the big nato de coco times linger in a handful of seasonal products that hit the shelves. This May, エルビー ナタデココホワイト (LB Nato de Coco White) can be found at the local Family Mart. It's an unremarkable cooler that has a yogurt-y Calpissy milky quality with little floaters of nato de coco. Oh and there's aloe in it too. 

Nato de coco - what can we call it? a neotraditional food product - itself seems to be a bit of overkill on what plain old coconut meat can do. But I would imagine, in the Philippines, its production is probably built around preservation. I'm sure nato de coco lasts a bit longer in the larder than a freshly opened coconut.

Still the cynicism of marketing, in this case, the fading memory of a so-called health product over and over again. - adding aloe, adding yogurt, adding whatever the fad of the day is into the same old same old - is endless and yet another disposable product appears and will disappear from the shelves.  It's the modern cycle of the seasons.

Monday, May 18, 2009

カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味

In general, even when reaching for a novel snack food, the primary function of eating plays an important role. We eat for nutrition. Corporate food does its best to destroy and then re-add nutritive value to its products. Ultimately though, even with the most frivolous of junk food concoctions, we grab it because we're hungry. What drives one, generally to choose one chip over another, is that we know or think we might enjoy the taste of one over the other.

The concept of food as delivery system has been on corporate and "scientific" minds for several decades now. The affront of all sports drinks (delivering antioxidants, electrolytes and things you didn't know - guess what? you didn't - need), cigarettes and other products that serve as delivery systems of nicotine and beverages that deliver caffeine (the massive misstep of Jolt Cola comes to mind).  Products (I dare not call them foods) that make no pretense of delivering even a hint of nutrition, let alone a pleasurable taste sensation keep rearing their ugly heads in the aisles and refrigerator cases of the konbini.

As a rule of thumb, I usually stay away from these products, that offer neither comfort, nutrition, nor satisfaction. However, every once and a while something so horribly conceived, so against the idea that humans learn from mistakes and there is something real called progress, crawls onto the shelf (the bottom, this time) and the world must be reminded, once again, that the forces of evil are still working day and night to make this world a lesser place.

The snack in question is the カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味 (Caffeine Snack Caramel Machiato Flavor). Deer pellet sized corn puffs, lighter than air (just so one has no illusion that there's anything substantial about these), with a light dusting of mildly acrid coffee powder make for a taste sensation that is truly awful. The snack boasts about 150kg of caffeine per pop. In English on the package it says " Vitalize your day with Caffeine Snack. Caffeine increases your performance, concentration and alertness." A perfect snack for a perfect worktron. More caffeine!  More output! There is N-O-T-H-I-N-G even remotely redeemable about this snack. These hateful things also come in macha latte flavor.  The corporate giant responsible for this is Frito Lay Japan. Nuff said? Frito Lay has managed to demean potato chips, tortilla chips and nearly everything else it has laid its filthy hands on. Basta ya!  

That said, I think I'll grab a cup of coffee and catch what MARISAnoele, who's been posting her video reviews of Japanese junk food on YouTube, has to say about カフェインスナック キャラメルマキアート味.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


The unholy alliance of Calpis (they of the badly named lactic acid and milk-based soft drink) and Ajinomoto (the MSG kings) have been flooding the market with yet another strangely named beverage, LacLac (ラクラク). In Japanese, that's pronounced as "rakuraku." Perfect nonsense syllables for a perfectly nonsensical drink. Ajinomoto actually bought Calpis a few years ago and this co-branded effort is one of the first results of the absurd levels that design, development and marketing can descend to. 

Something of a sports drink*, a health drink and a sort of playful Pepsi generation-ish quencher, it is certainly none of those. What it is is a watery, appley and artificially sweetened something-or-other. Ostensibly a mix of good lactic acid ferment apple juice, phosphorus and other healthy stuff, it's a bit of a stretch in justification of this sugar water. 

The company press release boasts of its ingredients coming either from Turkey, Germany, Poland, Austria, Ukraine, Brazil and/or Israel. This faux internationalism is merely about the reach of capital. Instead of making a coherent statement about taste, quality, nutrition or the simple fact of thirst-quenching, LacLac, even in its Babel-esque nonsensical name, remains hubristic, absurd and ultimately a product that will go the way of Pepsi Clear and New Coke into the dustbins of history. The sooner, the better.

Konishi Manami, disposable television and film starlet flacks for LacLac

*The subject of  "sports drinks" and the triumph of marketing artificial and useless concoctions over true human need is perhaps worthy of a longer essay.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

BLACK - ブラックブラックチョコレートアイス

Frozen confection maker Akagi, which seems to have cornered the market in Japan for popsicle- like variations with their ubiquitous and cheap Gari bars also market the basic fudgesicle found in konbinis throughout the nation - the BLACK Chocolate Ice Bar (ブラックブラックチョコレートアイス). Like Unilever in the USA, they are the main supplier of this particular niche. The BLACK bar is as good or not better than the US version. A refreshing chocolate bar that's not too creamy rich, but tasty in a sweet dark chocolatish sort of way - unlike the more milky taste profile of the American.

BLACK seems to be a somewhat favorite way to brand dark chocolate in Japan. One of Meiji's line of chocolate candy bars is called BLACK. Of course "black" in chocolate denotes "not milk" - dark and perhaps a bit more adult. The Akagi ice bar and the Meiji candy even go so far as to use similar serif typefaces. The Times New Roman variation that boldly announces the BLACK ice bar is like an old-fashioned headline, though simplified to a primary adjectival statement. No frill on this bar. You know what you're getting. Black. Chocolate. Ice.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

あさりバター ポテトチップス

Fresh baby littlenecks with a slathering of butter - just what you want your potato chip to taste like. Right? OK, maybe not, but in the seeming endless variations and inventiveness in creating adding umami to chips, you gotta give to the folks at Calbee for trying.  Some work great. Nori and ume flavored chips come to mind. And in fact the Asari Butter Potato Chip (あさりバター ポテトチップス) is not all that bad. The chip is basic - thin, moderately salted, unexceptional.  And the butter taste is not nearly as rancid and cloying as in many a butter-flavored Japanese potato chip. 

The clam taste is nearly non-existent. But a strange thing happens. As you eat the chips, take a little sniff of your fingers. Smells like shellfish! Or...? Mmmm. Salty, fishy, a little funky and buttery - seems that Calbee may be working another angle on satiating desire. I imagine the food techies at Calbee in their spare time working on how to chemically recreate the smell of sex and... bingo!  But what do you do with it now? Hey, let's put on a chip and call it clam butter.