Beyond the Pocky: The Strange Snack Test
Japanese snacks rock, but will everyday high school students appreciate them? Maria Lin sets off to find out.
Imagine this if you will. You're visiting friends in Japan, and having a good time hanging out on the futons and watching anime. One of your friends gets up and asks if you'd like some Japanese snacks. Sure, you say, thinking of pocky and chocolate in the shape of Hello Kitty. Your friend leaves for the kitchen, and when she comes back she is carrying a bowl of what looks like squid tentacles. Not what you were expecting. These are squid wasabi crackers, she explains, and they're really quite good.
Squid wasabi crackers are right next to potato chips in my supermarket's snack aisle. They are nothing more than powdered and fluffed up rice, glazed with a spicy sauce, much like the seafood version of cheese curls. Most supermarket snacks from Japan have similar western brothers. The difference is that while we like cheese, vinegar and barbecue, Japanese snacks are flavored with seaweed, fish and soy sauce.
As an experiment to see how an average westerner would react to everyday Japanese snacks, I brought them to school to test out on the drum line. On the first day, I decided to bring something easy. Instead of startling them with preserved fish, I brought a tube of strawberry gummies covered in milk chocolate, coincidentally called Gummy Choco, Strawberry Flavor. One thing I love about Japanese snacks is their packaging. The gummies come in a cardboard tube that can be shaken like a maraca and makes a satisfying pop when you pull off the cap. Although its design doesn't make for easy transportation, when I whipped it out of my backpack, it received instant attention, and by the time everyone had tasted one, I was trying to fend people off so they'd leave a few for me.
Day One, Gummy Choco, was a success.
During Day Two, I decided to get a little braver, and brought along the seafood version of Chex Mix. I've mentioned before that rice is Japan's version of wheat, and this is evident in their snacks too. Rice is ground up, then mixed into a paste and inflated, just like rice crips that you can find in places like Shoprite or Acme. I looked through my choices and picked a bag with dancing fish and lima beans on the front, along with a life-sized picture of the snack inside. Displayed prominently on the package was a crispy dry fish, about the size of my thumb.
My drummer friends did not take kindly to this snack at all. They refused to go near the fish, which was quite tasty, and they wouldn't eat anything else inside either. Not the sesame seed chips, or the sweet wasabi flakes, or the seaweed wrapped crisps. I ended up finishing the bag myself.
Day Two, the fishy mix, was a failure, if you don't count the fact that I had it all to myself.
I felt a little bad about subjecting people to something so foreign, so for Day Three, I went back to good old fashioned candy. Hard candy for the Japanese is just as varied as our own. After passing by the usual fruity flavors and mints, I came across a real gem. It seems that a lot of people are finding out what Ramune is. It's popped up in a few anime, and it is more fun to open than it is to drink. The bottle has a sort of double neck, with a marble as a stopper, and by pressing onto the marble, you push it into the area cut off by the second neck, and watch it roll around as you drink. Many adventures have started with an attempt to get the marble out of the Ramune bottle, but all have ended in failure. My friends even smashed on onto the sidewalk, but the marble disappeared. Our conclusion was that the marble did not exist without the bottle. It was a zen enigma.
Well, Ramune is fun, but it is a bit pricey, and there isn't much soda in that fancy bottle at all. What's a penny pinching Japanophile to do? How about trying Ramune Soda Candy, or Lamune Soda Candy, as the bag claims? Just like the soda, each individual ball is incased in package made to add a little fun to the experience. By pressing down on the bag in the indicated area, the foil goes "pon" and the candy pops out. The package says sour, but it is just fizzy, condensed bliss.
My friends had enjoyed the Ramune soda that I got them a long time ago, so I wondered if they'd like the candy too. The first thing that they asked me when I took the bag out of my backpack was whether it was meat, fish, or something else nasty. No, I assured them, this time it was just candy. I showed it to them, and the bravest of the group had a taste. Once it was obvious that they weren't falling down dead, everyone else was ready to try too. As with the gummies, I started having to fend off my friends as they tried grabbing more than their fair share. By the time the day was over, my bag had been ripped to shreds, a casualty of the war of Ramune.
Day Three, Ramune hard candy, was a success.
On the last day, I decided to try merging the sweet with the strange, and brought mochi pops. Mochi pops are little square blocks of rice paste with a toothpick stuck through to hold them together. I thought they'd be interesting, but even though fish mix didn't faze me, the pops weren't my favorite. They have a very foreign texture to them.
The drum line didn't appreciate them much either. Although the lack of eyes meant they were willing to try a bite, all they really did was nibble, make a face, and throw the candy away, yelling at me for giving them something so weird.
They don't know how good they got it. I could have given them the smoked meat gummies I found instead.
Day Four, mochi pops, was a failure.
The list of interesting Japanese snacks, good and bad, could go on forever. Every time I go to a new store, I find new food, and sometimes it's fun just trying to figure out what some things are supposed to be.
Some snacks are a big attraction to anime fans too. Hamtaro is on a lot of cookies, and one of the most depressing candies ever can be found on every checkout. I'm talking about Fruits Drops cans, those sugary droplets that were portrayed in Grave of the Fireflies. I have a budding collection of fruits drops tins, and every time I look at them, they make me cry.
It's easy to find other snacks that cameo in anime on Asian food market shelves. Sometimes recognizing an obscure treat is half the fun, and every otaku should try his or her hand at seeking them out.