Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I did a double-take when I first saw the Afro Tanaka Black Melon Pan (ブラックメロンパン) in the packaged bread and pastry section of my local Mini Mart. The cellophane sleeve had an illustrated image of a moderately Afro-Japanese man sporting a very big afro. There was no printed ink in the afro section so the roughly textured surface of the black pastry below filled in the color, shape and feel of retro hairstyle. A hairstyle that occasionally makes its comebacks.

My first thought was "this is some sick joke." A little research revealed that the character in question is Afro Tanaka, a manga character invented in 2002 by Masaharu Noritsuke. Afro Tanaka is a disaffected high school student who gets involved relatively boring and mildly funny situations. His afro remains unexplained. It's what makes him different than his peers. Whether this is slightly racist type of negritude or merely observation on the part of Noritsuke also remains unexplained. The manga, like the hairstyle makes its occasional comebacks.

This design and promotion are somehow linked to Mini Mart's 30th anniversary. Is Mini Mart actively working to break down stereotypes and promote acceptance? Japan is notoriously racist even as it consumes and reinvents everything it can from other cultures. One is unsure of Afro Tanaka's racial heritage. Is he mixed blooded? Is he just playing at blackness? Is it natural? And does it matter?

No matter, the cleverness of the packaging is arresting, The product itself less so.

Melon pan, or what one may call melon bread, is a ubiquitous staple of Japanese bakeries. Though it is often melon flavored, the name actually comes from the sugary crunchy cookie-like dough that thinly covers the lump of sweet cake that makes up the melon pan. The surface gets a leathery melon rind look. Black melon pan is merely a pastry of the same sort with a black sugar coating. In the Afro Tanaka version, the black "melon rind" covers a sweet/bland chocolate cake which encloses a standard chocolate custard. All in all, it's sweet, a little chocolatey, and not much else.

The current Mini Mart promotion also includes the Afro Tanaka Onigiri Bomb (アフロ田中ばくだんおにぎり) - a black rice cake, again with a clever package. As to what's inside and what it tastes like... I'm off to the Mini Mart right now!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The Daily Yamazaki company (from which this blog gleefully and illegally has stolen its name) really doesn't make very good baked goods. Jumping on to the corporate food bandwagon in the immediate post-war period, they, like Wonder and Langendorf in the USA cornered the market on cheap generic bread products (shokupan and various cakes and sweet breads). As tastes changed over the years and desire for better baked goods claimed the market, their flagship bakery outlets lost even their middle-class glamour and the handful that one can find around Tokyo are best left passed by. Like all good megacorporations, the company has expanded into other areas, and they are even trying to compete against much better chain bakeries with their Vie de France outlets - probably the worst of the semi-French bakeries in Japan.

But their products do show up packaged upon shelves throughout the nation. And one in particular has become a bit of guilty pleasure for me.

The Hokkaido Steamed Cheesecake (北海道チーズ蒸しケーキ) is one of the most beguiling and strange things that pass for normal here. In truth, it's not really that good, but like a bad habit, I crave it.

Here's what it is. The most perplexing sponge cake. It tends to shear when broken or bitten in to. How do they do that? The "branded" reverse outline of Hokkaido on the top has a vaguely cheesy edge to it. Slightly funky. The steaming of the dough tends to make it a bit dense, but not quite as dense as cheesecake as we know it. Yet not quite fluffy. Oh, and it's sweet and filled with calories.

Research has come up goose eggs on whether this is a real variation of something traditionally made in Hokkaido or something made up in the laboratories of Daily Yamazaki in those heady years immediately after the war, when the US was flooding Japan with government cheese, flour and sugar. In my imagination, a certain Japanese ingenuity with the products at hand created this monster that can still be frightening and a friend of children after all these years.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Green Cola

Lifting the logo from the real thing, Asahi Green Cola positions itself in the market as a "natural" product with a sort of "trendy" appeal. Of course when your main barker is a popular, though somewhat long in tooth, J-Pop star, one is convinced that the marketers at Asahi have no idea what the kids are into. Perhaps the marketing is toward boomers, who probably also don't care about Kiyosuke Himoro either.

As for it's green-ness, the bottle states "For you natural life" and a bit below "'Asahi's Green Cola' is made from selected raw materials derived from plants such as fruits, with cola's own dynamism and briskness." What's inside? High fructose grape sugar, sugar, lemon juice, malt extract, and flavors. I suppose in the literal sense, the marketing is somewhat honest. Still, it's a bit of a shill.

As for the taste, it's very light in flavor, high in sugar. In the world of cola, there's the sugary maltiness of Coke, the citrus edge of Pepsi, and the pure kid's sugar fantasy of RC. This one approaches RC.

It just hit the market a couple of days ago. Between the US big boys, Kirin's Cola Shock and god knows what else shoves it's way onto the shelves, Green Cola's got a long row to hoe. Still it's better than Coke Zero. At least it's drinkable. And the big Zero seems to be having a fine shelf life.

Green Cola

Asahi just joined the cola wars by releasing their Green Cola(グリーンコーラ)May 25, with a full on ad blitz. They are promoting this cola as soda made from natural sources, with zero colours, zero caffeine, zero preservatives and Asahi Brewery's black malt. Hmm, sounds a little zero-ish. Perhaps they're going up against Coke Zero for the nothingness and Pespsi Baobab, with a sort of "green" branding. I haven't found it in the stores yet, but will be sure to give it a taste someday soon.

That 50-something Brian Ferry-ish guy in the poster is Kyosuke Himoro, J-pop star with the band Boøwy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Here's an article from Just-food, an online food newsletter, from May 4, 2005.

"Genetically modified soybeans could hold the key to cure hair loss, say a team of top researchers at Japan's Kyoto University.

Led by soy and health specialist Masaaki Yoshikawa, professor of food science at Kyoto University, the team used genetic engineering technology to incorporate into the soybean a substance derived from egg whites that promotes hair growth.

After feeding the GM soy to mice that had lost hair after receiving chemotherapy the team concluded that it promotes hair growth, helps prevent hair loss caused by chemotherapy and encourages hair to grow back faster than normal. Despite public opposition the Japanese government is now granting licences to GM crop growers."

Apart from the genuine bad reporting - Who funded the research? What were the parameters of the test? What did the research say exactly? - the fact that this tidbit became some sort of isn't-that-fun news and was allowed to sully cyberspace is more important. The damage has been done. There's another chip in the wall by an apologist for GM food. Let's give another point to corporate food. Just remember that name, Masaaki Yoshikawa, torturer of rats, pseudo-scientist, corporate tool. And if you see his name associated with anything food wise, suspect the worst.

At this point, Japan imports GM soybeans from the USA, but only for non-human consumption. I bet the big boys are chomping at the bit for a GM entry into this lucrative market. Soybeans are huge (so to speak) in Japan.

They are one of the basics of Japanese cuisine.

Case in point is Tohato's ビーノ(Beano) line of soy bean cheetos. These baby's are some sort of soy bean and whatever's left in the chemical sink slush, extruded and fried to either a styrofoam peanut consistency (all chewy and melty) or to a crisp crackle. They offer the choice. Apart from straight ol' soybean flavor, they also offer shrimp, black pepper and nori variations.

The version sampled was the basic soybean and salt variation. Fairly bland, chock-full of umami and lightly salty at the end of the taste, they were moderately satisfying, but not quite the thing they were alluding to - fresh edamame, steamed and salted. One of Japan's finest treats.

Edamame is a classic accompaniment to drinking. And Beano products are marketed to go with beer. With their jejune and inoffensive flavor, their saltiness or sharp tastes, they make do when the real thing just ain't available. Their commercials push this idea with a catchy song sung and juvenile (broaching the offensive) subject matter.

The round-faced funny guy in the commercials is Asei Kobayashi, sometime actor and commercial jingle and songwriter. He (and co-composer, Micky Yoshino), though, may be more famous for scoring the nutty 1977 psychotronic classic, Hausu. Here's a scene from it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Japanese passion for baseball is famous. By 1920, Japan had gone professional. Living in Tokyo, I guess I must be a Yomiuri Giants fan, but I'm certainly fonder of the names Orix Buffaloes and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Of course, Nippon-Ham is a giant meat packer and the cross marketing potential of tagging its name on a ball team (not necessarily the best) means automatic advertising whenever a sportscaster or casual observers even mention the name. And of course, Nippon-Ham is one of the worst ham products available in Japan.

But we're talking about ice cream today. Specifically Mieto's ホームランバー (Home Run Bar). They're celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, so the fancified their package, made the bars a little bigger and costlier. They're still a deal. And the new plastic package pales in comparison to the old-fashioned foil wrapper on their original product. I imagine that once this promotion is over, they will go back to their very cool old design.

The bar itself offers nothing new or better than your average vanilla ice cream covered with a thin vanilla or chocolate fondant. Their cheapness reflects in their taste. Not much to write home about. But for nostalgia value alone, they have that sort of kid-blandness that brings me back to some unspecified youth in some baseball-loving country and the simple pleasures of a life that never happened. By the 60s, when this bar came out, baseball wasn't the national pastime, merely a reflection of it. Long gone were the days of the Babe. Now, it's more boring than golf, more corporate than ever and only the rich can afford to go to games. At least, for less than a buck (or 100 yen) you enjoy a Home Run Bar. And if you get a specially marked stick you can get another one for free.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Returning from a recent trip to Spain, I was more than a bit dispirited at the Japanese food landscape. Apart from the beautiful and delicious food that permeates the Iberian peninsula, it was particularly noteworthy to notice that the iron hand of 7-11 has still to land in Spain. Convenience stores are a anomaly. In fact in many towns one is hard pressed to even find one. Of course there are large supermarkets proffering the same old same old - a quality cut above most stores in the USA or Japan - but between the mom and pop stores and the endless cafes, meat markets, bakeries and speciality shops, quality foods and drinks abound.

Vegetables, even in the off season of March were plentiful, robust, colorful and cheap - particularly compared to the anemic and overpriced greenery that gets sold at the yayoias of Tokyo.

Fish in Spanish markets is clear eyed fresh and most often de-scaled at purchase and cut to order. It's a far cry from the sad shrinkwrapped of unidentifiable fish protein that one finds at the fish markets of Tokyo. And this is Japan ferchrissakes! The ravages of industrial food production and distribution has certainly made for acceptance of the least in this neck of the woods. Despite promotion. Despite culture. And don't get me started on the beef.

Or maybe I should.

Japanese beef may have been good at one time. I don't know. I wasn't there. Cruising a Japanese meat market I still marvel at the amazingly marbled cuts of Kobe and wagyu beef. The few times I've had the opportunity to sample these good looking things, I've been sorely disappointed. Insipid at best. It even makes American beef taste good, though it's probably not as dangerous for you.

I've had good, dare I say great, beef in Japan. In Hida-Takayama, a respected beef producing region where the restaurants specialize in the local provender. But in Tokyo, no. Too far away (actually only a few hours from the main beef providers of Japan). But production and distribution on this island have become so abstract and industrial that even their most famous products - after god knows what they do on the farm, freezing and storing for god knows how long, and then god know what happens until it gets to the store - are more famous because of their promotion, rather than their quality.

But enough of my screed. This is supposed to be about fast food. So, today I bought a bag of ポテトチップス和風ステーキ味醤油&おろし仕立て (Potato Chips - Japanese Style Steak Flavor - Prepared with Shoyu and Grated Daikon). Yamayoshi, who specialize in meat-flavored chips are responsible for this one. The package, in Engrish, proudly emphasizes "Wafu Beef" (i.e. Japanese-style beef) and states "We always produce japanese Style Steak taste for all customer's smiles." They sucked. Salty, thin and a little soggy. They actually had a "beef" taste. But it was like the taste of old grease. You know the one. The one that means a mean case of heartburn. But what should one expect from Japanese beef. Not much, these days.

And as for fast food, I believe that the best of it is the stuff that comes most quickly from the farm to the seller, rather than from the convenience store to the mouth.

Monday, February 8, 2010

ポテトチップス 明太 マヨネーズ味

You've got to love a culture that eats cod roe. In Greece, cod roe is increasingly used for taramasolata, the traditional dip originally and still sometimes made with carp roe. In Sweden, one can get cod roe in a tube. Mighty tasty squeezed onto a peice of knacke. And in Japan it seems to be everywhere. Plain (鱈子/tarako) or spicy (明太子/mentaiko), it shows up on many a dinner plate, either served with a side of mayo or in one of the most incredible crossover dishes ever, pasta with tarako sauce. And now in chips.

However, one must remain a little skeptical when Calbee's Mentai-Mayonaise Flavor Potato Chips (ポテトチップス 明太 マヨネーズ味) ingredients include mentaiko and mayonaise powder. Why, in the name of absolute control do industrial food companies insist on powdering, agglomerating or otherwise changing the basic nature of foodstuffs until they are nothing but unrecognizable additives that add up, ultimately, to a much lesser experience. And perhaps a little bit of a bad taste in one's mouth.

Calbee's recent offering in its Paripari (パリパリ/crisp) line of so-called adult flavors is neither all that reminiscent of mentaiko nor mayo. The chips themselves are decently fried super-slim slices of real potato. The flavor additives seem to be a bit of an afterthought. A slight hint of cod roe, a whiff of mayo and a longer lasting mild burn of hot pepper. But if you're looking for a real mentaiko experience, leave the chips on the shelf and go for something like mentaiko pasta.

Here's my recipe. It's about as simple as one gets

Mentaiko Cream Pasta

Serves 2

linguini or spaghetti

200 - 300 grams mentaiko
2 T unsalted butter
2 T finely chopped onion
250 ml cream (butterfat content to your desire)
shoyu to taste
shredded nori
finely chopped negi (Japanese leek)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add pasta. Cook for appropriate doneness.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet. Add finely chopped onions. Cook 2-3 minutes until soft. Add cream and bring to a low simmer while stirring with a whisk. Reduce cream to about 1/2. Scrape mentaiko from its connective membrane and add to reduced cream and onion mixture and mix until evenly distributed through the mixture. Add shoyu to taste.

In a large bowl, mix with cooked pasta. Transfer to serving plates or platter and garnish liberally with nori and chopped negi.

This can be done in about 9 - 13 minutes. It's that easy!