Tastes of Japan

Japanese food is famous worldwide. In fact, it is listed as one of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Treasures: teishoku meals are probably what most people think of when Japanese cuisine is mentioned, but other types of food such as sushi or ramen have been welcomed around the world. In Japan itself, practically every region has some food they believe is better there than anywhere else, and these regional specialties (like jakoten) often attract a good deal of pride. In general Japanese food is tasty, healthy, and cheap; even if it sometimes seems a bit strange to western palates it’s hard to go too far wrong when ordering.

But let’s imagine you’re in a Japanese supermarket or drugstore, and looking to grab something quick and easy to fill a gap or keep in the fridge or cupboard. If you’re wondering which convenience foods are worth grabbing, here are my opinions.

Never in the field of human nutrition has a bar been so badly misnamed.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, it was practically a given that the protagonist of a cyberpunk novel would be eating Japanese snack food at some point. Soyjoy is one of those names that kept coming up, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw this at the snack kiosk of a railway station. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the anticipation was much better than the reality. The Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company is fortunate to have avoided a lawsuit, since there is precious little joy to be had from these soyflour bars.

Soyjoy comes in a variety of flavours, and none of the ones I’ve tried are any good. The strawberry is terrible; the blueberry is vile; and while the almond & chocolate does at least taste of chocolate that isn’t enough to bring it up any higher than “barely tolerable”. Each bar is a rectangular, dry, floury mass that crumbles fairly easily. They also manage a difficult feat: despite being made of natural ingredients, they actually taste more artificial than some of the more heavily-processed and machine-extruded products I’ve had in the past. An impressive accomplishment, but not one I wish to see emulated. Avoid.

"Isn't Japanese icecream cool?" - Eh, it's cool-ish...

“Isn’t Japanese icecream cool?” – Eh, it’s cool-ish…

Kiwi Coolish:
Coolish is a brand of soft ice-cream here, and I have to admit it raised a grin the first time I saw it. It comes in a little plastic bag-thing, with a sort of nozzle at the top you’re meant to suck the ice-cream from. Some dairy magic has been used to mix ice crystals in with the ice-cream, which makes it a little less creamy than the soft-serve ice-cream it otherwise resembles, but doesn’t seem to do any harm to the flavour.

This particular incarnation of Coolish is flavoured with kiwifruit (simply called ‘kiwi’ in these parts). I am pleased to report that it actually does taste like it has kiwifruit in it, and I even encountered pleasing little shreds of stronger-flavoured material which I am presuming were actual fruit particles. The end result isn’t too bad. Gourmet ice-cream it ain’t, but it is quite cool and refreshing and it really does taste like it has seen a kiwifruit at some point. Acceptable.

One step closer to the food of the gods themselves.

One step closer to the food of the gods themselves.

Cheese Curry Noodles:
Cup noodles are one of the best foods around already – you simply add hot water to the cup, wait for a little while, and then enjoy your delicious light meal. Once you’re finished you can wash the cup out and use it for… well, whatever you want, really. I’m sure the museum has some ideas about that. Without a doubt the best flavour of cup noodles that I’ve discovered here are the cheese curry noodles made by Nissin (who are basically on a one-company mission to ensure that no-one in Japan ever cooks a meal again). I can’t really do justice in describing their ads, but fortunately they’re short enough that watching them for yourself is pretty practical.

Your standard-configuration cup noodles are advertised informatively…

… and so is their latest product, a sort of curry-rice thing. Surly school girls and retirees agree, having a meal doesn’t get much easier than this!

But I think this is their finest effort (for anyone who’s wondering, working for a Japanese company is pretty much exactly like that).

Anyway, Japanese curry isn’t exactly like curry in other places, so adding cheese to it and throwing in some noodles isn’t as crazy as it sounds. What you actually get is a rich, savoury, flavoursome and creamy broth, with chunks of freeze-dried meat and mushroom swimming in it as well as the noodles. It’s delicious and satisfying, perfect for a quick meal, and I make sure I have a few in the cupboard just in case. Highly recommended.

Fruit Ice Dessert:
I apologise for the uninformative title. What’s actually written on the container is something like “mango-flavoured south country polar bear”, which could be a reference to either the Antarctic or tropical islands. Neither is obviously correct and both raise more questions than they answer, so we’ll just have to do without an exact translation for now.

There is some truth in the title however. What you see once you get the lid off is chopped fruit sprinkled on top of a dessert that appears to be mango juice with small ice crystals mixed throughout it. It’s practically rock-solid straight out of the freezer, so let it thaw for a few minutes while you decide which fruit to eat off the top first. After you’ve done that, you can start digging out hunks of delicious ice that get steadily more goopy as the juice melts.

Personally, I really like these. They go down very nicely on a hot evening, and the genuine fruit on top is a welcome change from the 100% artificial additives you might find elsewhere. They’re basically an ice-block in a tub, but they’re a pretty good one. Recommended.


Tastes better than it looks, looks better than it sounds.

Squid Ink Pizza:
Oddly enough, I had never eaten squid before coming to Japan. Now that I have, I can’t honestly say the experience has been worth waiting for: it’s not bad, but tends to be a bit flavourless and rubbery for my liking. It turns up a fair bit around here, however, so you have to get used to it. And when I heard about pizzas flavoured with squid ink I automatically put it in the category of “weird things Japanese people do with pizza”. (Dear Japan, please stop putting corn on pizza. And in parfaits.). However, I changed my opinion when I remembered that squid was a traditional Mediterranean food too, so I decided to try it out.

The pizza is indeed appropriately inky, and I was quite alarmed at first. Thankfully, it looks a lot more impressive than it tastes. The savoury cheesey-stuff dominates the meal, and while there is still a sort of salty and fishy taste it’s more of an accent than a major component. The aftertaste is a bit unpleasant, however, so you’d probably want something to wash it down with. Acceptable.

Question of the post: What have your experiences with Japanese convenience foods been like? Is there anything you’d particularly like to see reviewed?

About Dr. J.H. Watson

I’m a New Zealander, in my 30s, and until recently I lived in rural Japan. I have interests in history, pop culture, video games, and the clever use of language.
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12 Responses to Tastes of Japan

  1. Artemis says:

    Lord but I love those ramen ads. The random English one has long been a personal favourite, but nearly all of them on TV these days are worth a watch – although I have to say, I’m still more than a little traumatised by that first one you put up. Those horse-people though… I think I now need therapy.


    • Did you notice they’re all the same guy? Looks like ramen are one of those things you should try in moderation…

      And yes, that “Learning English” video is definitely my favourite.


  2. John Samuel says:

    Reblogged this on Pirates of the Burley Griffin and commented:
    A good survey of some interesting Japanese foods. In particular it was interesting to see that the Squid Ink Pasta referred to in Nagi no Asukara may well be a case of Truth in Television. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TruthInTelevision

    Reblog, please click through to the original (and I’ll be disabling comments here anyway for what that’s worth).


  3. fictionmachine says:

    Squid has to be really fresh and properly cooked to be at its best.


    • Ah, maybe that’s the problem then. I figured pretty much all seafood in Japan would be fairly fresh, but maybe it isn’t fresh enough. And as you say, the cooking can make a big difference.


  4. Alex Hurst says:

    I tried the salmon-flavored Hai-chu-look-alike company’s candies a while back (the name escapes me) because I, apparently, have a death wish… Tried them, spit them out. So bad. The first time I’ve really had a firm stance on what I will NOT eat in Japan. 😛


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