Posts Tagged ‘sweets’

Konbini Raiders: The lesser-known cousins of Popin’ Cookin’ Sushi

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Japan is known as one of the culinary capitals of the world, but at the opposite end of Michelin stars you get dagashi (da: low quality, gashi: candy). Dagashi has been around since Edo times as an alternative to fancy delicacies and ranging from the traditional (dried persimmon) to modern (fizzy cotton candy), and is marketed directly to children who have a few pennies to burn. The kiddier, the better.

Kracie, a company that produces food, as well as toiletry, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, excels at creating what they call “Educational Candy,” the just-add-water type creations that tickle children and adults alike. The line boasts the YouTube-infamous candy sushi and many other creepy concoctions.

In March this year they renewed one such candy, Dodotto Tsubupyon, a jelly-ball candy that’s dispensed from an octopus-shaped device, complete with a fizzing dipping foam. The climax of the process, documented in the video above, was the creation of the jelly balls, which looked a bit like pink frog eggs, if such a thing existed.

Although all these odd treats may seem like a fad, Kracie’s freaky foods are not that recent of a development. Nerunerunerune, a sugary foam candy that makes you wonder if they developed it in the same lab as their shampoos, was first sold in 1986 and is considered a classic for Japanese kids today. To introduce you to the granddaddy of the frankenfood family and its popular descendant, we rustled up a batch and fed it to our colleagues.

Intern Eric grimaced after tasting the foam and uttered a single “Uh-uh” while shaking his head. “I didn’t enjoy the texture or the taste,’’ he said later. ”The purple concoction was foamy and supersweet, with some sort of unidentifiable fake flavor. When combined with the crystals in the other compartment, the sugar factor became way over the top. I’d say I have a sweet tooth, but this one was too much for me to handle.”

Another fellow intern, Natasha, took a nervous bite and immediately exclaimed, “It hurts! This is acid! I thought Japanese people were health-conscious. Why do they put this in their systems?”

Being the responsible person that I am, I too sampled the shaving cream-like foam. The verdict on the purple blob is that it’s a flavor you’ll never miss.

Finally, we cooked up the cute little “Popin’ Cookin’” sushi, a modern candy classic. When we did a taste test however, we learned that the only thing that’s cute and little about them is the way they look.

Editor Shaun took a bite of the maguro sushi and, after a long thoughtful pause, said, “Because the sushi looked so real, I was expecting a maguro flavor. When it tasted sweet instead, I felt betrayed.”

Eric, who tried the tamagoyaki (cooked egg) sushi, said, “On first bite, the taste wasn’t bad. It was a lot like any other artificial, gummy candy. The texture is what got to me. The ‘rice’ wasn’t bad, but the ‘fish’ on top was a gooey, bizarre mess. I also couldn’t tell if the accompanying ‘soy sauce’ made a difference.”

Editor Andrew weighed in on the ikura (fish roe) sushi: “The ikura were like little bubbles of jelly and the nori had the texture of a stick of bubble gum. Tasted like gummy bears, but less chewy. Would have been more interesting if it did actually taste of sushi!”

If you want a glimpse of the Japanese childhood you never had, you can head to any convenience store or supermarket to find candy from the Kracie family (or outside Japan, try White Rabbit Japan‘s snack section). The packages say no preservatives or artificial coloring added, but bigger questions came to mind when the purple foam started fizzing in our mouths . . . If it’s not artificial, what’s in it? Because I’ve never seen that stuff on a farm.

J-blip: Ramen cake

Friday, March 1st, 2013

At Machi no Kumasan (“The Town Bear”) bakery in Takasaki, they’ve recently added ramen, soba and pork katsu to their menu. That’s right, a bakery. A closer look shows the dishes are actually sweets made of pudding, chocolate and creamy Mont Blanc chestnut paste cunningly shaped to look like savory dishes. Not surprisingly, they’ve gone viral on the web.

We called Ken Ichikawa, the bakery’s head chef, to get the sweet low-down. “I wondered if we could make a cake that looked exactly like the ramen on instant noodle packages,” he said. Obviously, it was a success since many customers are fooled by the lovingly crafted details … from the ramen noodles in the glassy soup to the slices of pork (chashu) sitting on top.

Even Ichikawa himself says he is amused when a customer comes in and orders a ramen. “It’s a funny thing to hear that in a bakery, no?” he says with a laugh. The ramen cake is the same size as a regular bowl of ramen, about 18 cm across. Ichikawa says that on busy days, they make about 40 of them a day.

Ichikawa says he’s thinking of ending the ramen cakes at the end of the month. As for the next surprise, Ichikwawa said, “That’s a secret.”

Machi no Kumasan is at 1436-2 Minami Oorui Takasaki-shi, Gunma-ken

J-blip: Sweets Marathon

Friday, January 18th, 2013

So, for the past few years, running has been really, really big in Japan. How do you make something already popular even more attractive? Cake, naturally. We’re guessing that was the logic behind Sweets Marathon, a running race with baked-goods stations set up along the way next to the usual water stations. You can run – and eat – your way through the whole 10k, or do it in a relay with a group of friends. And you can eat as much as of the little bite-sized cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and pudding cups as you like. It sounds a like a recipe for disaster, but the event handlers seem to do a pretty good job of moving everyone along.

Since 2010, there have been 13 of these events held in cities around Japan organized by Tokyo-based International Sports Marketing, Inc. Last month two Sweets Marathons took place at Tokyo Summerland and in Osaka, drawing 3,000 and 4,000 participants, respectively.

Next up is the Gourmet Run, which is already on track to happen in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya early this year. It costs ¥4000 to enter, which is pretty decent for access to a huge spread of regional cuisine – though you have to work for it.

Today’s J-blip: customizable Tirol chocolate

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Love those little ¥20 Tirol sweets that are konbini fixture, but get frustrated when they don’t have the flavor you want? Good news, control freaks: You can now customize them online at My Tirol. What better way to welcome trick-or-treaters than with Japanese chocolate made and packaged according to your own preferences?

Tirol, as you like it.

Tirol sweets are easily distinguished by their uniform square shape and varied, bright wrappers. They are offered in a wide assortment of flavors, including kinako mochi and creamy anmitsu, that seem to be made available on a rotational basis. Since one square is only 35 calories, they make great treats for dieters who can’t resist a confection after every meal. Can’t have just one? These little yummy blocks also come in packs of 8. Willpower? What’s that?

Create your own pack of Tirol chocolates by choosing the top layer, the filling and the bottom layer. Does caramel chocolate and gouda cheese chocolate filled with mochi gummy sound delicious, or at least intriguing? You’re in luck — with a few clicks, it, or any one of 625 combinations, can be on its way. A list of ingredients that can trigger allergies pops up after every combination. You choose the packaging, and one even gives you the option to include a message. Forget flowers; this is the new sweetest trick in the book.

Thirty cubes of three different customizations will set you back ¥2,680 plus shipping fees. Granted, it’s way more expensive than the off-the-shelf Tirols, but it’s not every day you can have a strawberry-almond-kabocha chocolate.

Today’s J-blip: Mister Softee in Tokyo

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Mister Softee in the house

Are you a fan of “soft cream,” in all its lower-in-milk-fat-than-ice-cream glory? Mister Softee, a ubiquitous soft-serve ice cream brand in the United States, has finally made its way to Japan. In a departure from the trucks and simple stands where it’s sold in the U.S., its first concession in Japan is located inside branches of Café Siry, a luxury Tokyo sweets shop.

The grinning cone-head is commonly associated with casual comfort food back in the States, because it’s doled out from trucks and franchises dotted across the country, particularly in the northeast. However, Mister Softee’s surroundings in Japan are sleek and posh: bottles of Veuve Cliquot are being sold alongside the creamy treats. The shop is inside Gyre, the high-end shopping complex in Omotesando. (A second shop, also partnered with Café Siry, is scheduled to open within the month in Sangenjaya.)

While its U.S. counterpart comes in only two flavors — good old chocolate and vanilla — the Tokyo version has over 30 original ones, with six on rotation per week. For the opening, these include avocado and caramel, sea salt and olive oil, and cactus. Ask for the secret menu and you might get a concoction whipped up from whatever the server has on hand to experiment with. (Careful what you ask for — the other day, it was wasabi!)

Professional flautist Andrea Fisher brought the brand to Japan after a five-year stint driving a Mister Softee truck in Brooklyn, New York.  “I thought the kawaii Mister Softee character, along with the fun and yummy menu, would appeal to the Japanese,” she told us. And all those funky flavors? “Vanilla and chocolate just aren’t enough for Japan!” she said.

Fisher says it wasn’t a viable option to go the truck route in Japan, so they decided to start with storefronts. That means there’s no need to gather neighborhood kids with a song from a loudspeaker, so we aren’t sure exactly what they’ll do with her J-pop inflected remix of the familiar jingle. But it’s just as likely to get stuck in your head as the one that blared from trucks when you were a kid.

Today’s J-blip: Gari Gari Kun corn soup ice pop sold out in three days

Monday, September 10th, 2012

From horsemeat-flavored ice cream to tomato-flavored chocolate, the Japanese have amazed the world with their  appetite for weird and wonderful confectionery. Frozen soup on a stick is the latest novelty product to hit the jackpot in Japan’s convenience stores. According to Rocket News, within just three days of being released on Sept. 4, stocks of Gari Gari Kun Rich Corn Soup Flavor popsicles have completely sold out, forcing the company to announce that sales will be suspended for a short while. J-Cast points out that there was a huge amount of pre-launch buzz on the web by consumers eager to find out what this new frozen treat might taste like. Twitter has been abuzz with positive reviews like, “It’s surprisingly tasty.” Not convinced? We can’t guarantee that it’s delicious, but the video above proves that at the very least, it’s inspiring some creativity.

Today’s J-blip: Perfume daifuku

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Back in January, Edo Usagi, a wagashiya (traditional sweet shop) in Nippori, Tokyo, struck gold with a simple yet wildly popular confection: the Ichigo Yōkai Daifuku (strawberry monster sweet). Word of the cute, chewy monsters spread quickly on the web and the shop hit a record of 300 sold in one day. As strawberries eventually went out of season, they unveiled an apricot-stuffed creaton called the Perfume daifuku over Golden Week.  Made from pounded rice and coming in sets of three,  the treat was surely a hit among fans of the popular J-pop girl group, from whence it took its name. This month Edo Usagi dropped the monster mash and come from behind with  the “beautiful geisha butt daifuku.” And yes, it contains collagen.

Ekitame — coming to a station near you soon?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

 

Will shops like Glicoya Kitchen in First Avenue, in Tokyo Station, become destinations in their own right?

Running for the train? Not so fast. According to a trend report released by @Press, Japanese people are spending more time browsing in train stations instead of bolting through them. PR flacks are calling this shopping experience “ekitame,”  combining the words eki (station) and entame (entertainment), to refer to the station shopping mall as an entertaining destination in its own right. Focusing on the continuing success of Tokyo Station’s First Avenue mall, the report hints that this shopping complex may be the shape of things to come.

Instead of just being a convenient place for commuters to kill time,  this station mall exploits the fact that tourists from all around the country pass through Tokyo Station. Two areas of First Avenue are particularly adept at attracting tourists: One is Tokyo Ramen Street,  which has eight outlets operated by famous Tokyo ramen shops; and the other is Tokyo Character Street, which houses over 20 big-name character goods stores.

Over the years, speciality food theme parks have proved popular in other shopping malls in Japan, such as Gyoza Stadium, Ice Cream City and Dessert Republic in Sunshine City Ikebukuro. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that  Ramen Street has proved a hit since it opened in April last year. It is attractive to  Tokyo day-trippers who might not have the time to trek out to these famous ramen stalls, and long queues regularly form outside the shops. But it’s Tokyo Character Street that’s proved the biggest hit. Since it opened in 2008, around 5 million visitors have checked out the array of character stores, which include Hello Kitty Land and the NHK Character Shop, and this March three more stores opened here.

Looking to raise its profile as a tourist destination, First Avenue will launch a new area called  Tokyo Okashi (Snack) Land on April 14. Comprised of  three “antenna shops” (outlets used by companies to gauge public reaction to trial products) from major Japanese food brands Calbee, Glico and Morinaga, the area will entice visitors with limited edition souvenir sweets and the chance to see confectionery being made in the store.

We think the idea of ekitame might just catch on at other major transport hubs where tourists passing through have the spare time to enjoy browsing in specialty stores. And adding the station to the sightseeing itinerary is certainly an attractive option to the footsore tourist.

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