Tradition, Un-Birthdays and Random Japanese Junk Food: My First Japan Crate
My wife is fond of randomness. Odd little surprises showing up on our doorstep has become a pretty consistent thing over the past few years, from sample packs of lip gloss for her and the girls to what amounts to pint-size pulp fiction for the baby. A few years ago, she latched onto a concept from my childhood, a tradition my grandmother started. Every time one of my brothers or I had a birthday, the un-birthday boys would get an un-birthday box. It was meant to ameliorate the sting of watching the lucky kid open his actual presents, and usually came stuffed with odds and ends Grandmother had picked up from the church auxiliary thrift store at which she volunteered. One particularly fortuitous (and frustrating) box contained a copy of Rad Gravity, the most maddening NES game ever created. But I digress.
After talking about the tradition with my cousin Jennifer, my wife began packing off Boxes of Crap to her kids once or twice a year. A given BoC may contain anything from candy to cheap sunglasses to whoopie cushions. (Sorry, Jenn and Sean.) Apparently, the young cousins love the Boxes of Crap tradition as much as my brothers and I loved our un-birthday boxes.
Naturally, when she found out that there are entire services dedicated to the random-box-of-crap lifestyle, she jumped at the opportunity. Before I knew it (literally; I had no idea she was signing up), a box full of random Japanese junk food showed up on my doorstep. At first, I was irritated. I mean, nobody needs $25 worth of puffed snacks flavored like corn soup and green tea-filled hard candies arriving on a monthly basis. Of course, as soon as they started opening packages and tasting things, I wanted in. I didn't get to try everything (the kids are nimble-fingered and sneaky), but I did get to try most of it. Here are my thoughts.
Yakiniku Super Heart Chiple
This reminds me of Sharpstown, c. 1993. I had just moved here from South Bend, Indiana, and subsisted on packaged ramen during the first summer both of my parents had worked at the same time. That's what Super Heart Chiple smells like. Opening the bag was a sensory time warp. Flavor-wise, these were savory, but in a weirdly vague sense. Kind of like the blank but satisfying taste of pure MSG. Aside from that, it's mostly dehydrated onion with a sweet finish. The chips have a really nice crispness that makes them very enjoyable to eat. I got about three of these before the kids pounced like a pack of hyenas.
Nagai Sour Gummy
I'm not huge on sour candies in general, so perhaps this one just wasn't for me. This has a texture like softened Swedish fish rolled in sugar, and tastes like it's flavored with Flintstones vitamins. I ain't about that Red Fred life.
Umai Bar Tonkatsu (Pork Cutlet) Sauce Flavor Snacks
These were essentially "Savory Kellogg's Corn Pops."
Riska Corn Pottage Puffs
This was super-weird. It comes on sweet, then swings south with flavors of old chives and onions. Something fish-sauce-y, then a corn sweetness, but like Kix corn. Intense, kaleidoscopic flavors. Something acidic, but not in a good way. A bit like vomit, if vomit weren't entirely gross. It morphs and changes, like the oil slick monster in that Stephen King short story. I honestly don't know how I feel about this one.
Choco Shinamikonja Imashita
These chocolate crackers are texturally interesting, somehow fudge-y and crispy at the same time. It's an airy crispness. The chocolate flavor tastes simulated, though, with an odd corn aftertaste. It's strangely savory, but that might be lingering notes of corn pottage. These are also strangely addictive.
Okashina Salon DIY Kit
Apparently, this is more or less the combination of Laffy Taffy and a Play-Doh molding kit. You roll the candy around in your gross, sweaty palms and mold it into various hairstyles, or extrude it through the top of a little plastic doll mold. I say apparently, because I never actually tried this one. I would have, but the kids got to it first, and I didn't relish the thought of a shaped charge made of sloughed off skin cells and bacteria.
Umai Sittori Choco
Another one I didn't get to try. The way the story goes, my wife opened these, shared a few with the kids and then turned her back for a second. The baby, Josh, grabbed the bag off of the table and headed for the hills, spilling them all over the floor in the process. He shoved as many into his mouth at once as he could before my wife could get to him. Babies love floor food. My wife said she liked them, praising their crispy texture. The kids said they tasted like plastic. Josh didn't say anything. His mouth was too full.
Paricchu Red Budou
Apparently, "pari pari" means "chewy." That's an apt description for the center of these hard candies. They taste like Dimetapp elixir, and are filled with a soft, chewy center that pretends to be gum but isn't. They're kind of like Blow Pops made by someone who doesn't really understand candy.
Matcha Condensed Milk Candy
These things look exactly like WarHeads, the super-sour candy that traded like Bitcoin in the black market of my sixth-grade year. The powdery exterior starts out rich and sweet, like a sort of malty condensed milk. Once that exterior melts, green tea flavors come in but are quickly overwhelmed by a sickly floral thing, like eating a dish of potpourri. The interior contains a little bit of condensed milk, which helps to blanket the flowery intensity in bland sweetness, but not enough. These are actually kind of objectionable, and I can't help but think of the infamous wine candy scene in Gravity's Rainbow.
Cola Dinosaur Gummy
I never even saw these. This makes me sad. I used to love those little Coke-bottle-shaped gummies. Those, but shaped like dinosaurs, sounds like a great idea. Dang kids.
Otona No Amasa Kit Kat
I know plenty of adult humans who fetishize Japanese Kit-Kat flavors. They're pretty wild, running the gamut from pretty much every fruit imaginable, through fiery chile flavors, various types of tea, wasabi and more. This one is quite possibly the tamest Japanese Kit-Kat flavor, based entirely on the premise that adults want a more restrained taste. The name more or less translates to "sweetness for adults." Coated in a more austere dark chocolate blend, they're pretty much exactly as advertised. I liked them, more than I like regular Kit-Kats even, but would have preferred to get a zany flavor, like soy sauce or camembert cheese (yes, those are actual flavors).
Maple Butter Beer Fue Ramune
Like instantly dissolving Smartees made from buttered popcorn Jelly Bellys. There's an odd mentholated sensation as they melt, but sans any minty flavor. That's probably a good thing. Texturally, they're kind of like lightly foaming antacids, if that's your cup of tea.
Aomori Apple Soda
I poured it in a Glencairn whisky glass so I could better appreciate the nuance, and because it seemed like a fittingly ridiculous thing to do. It pours clear and slightly milky. There's a lovely apple and pear nose and mild carbonation. The flavor is very light and refreshing. There's much more Apple than pear in the taste, but it's very fresh and vibrant. It actually tastes like apples. It's mildly, believably sweet. A touch of acidity, and this would be really great. Quite possibly my favorite of the bunch.
Tsugaru Apple Sakeru Gummy
This is like eating slightly softened rubber bands made from concentrated Martinelli's apple juice. I love Martinelli's, but don't think I'd like eating rubber bands, so this one leaves me feeling conflicted.
The crate also contained a pamphlet that lists each item with an English description, highlights a few bits of information on Japanese food and culture, and doubles as a mini-manga featuring a manic pixie dream girl cosplaying as a peppermint candy, and a green-haired candy-thieving Link wannabe. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in the story, as I'm jumping in on volume 12. Most excitingly, we scored a premium crate bonus in the form of a Legend of Zelda lanyard. I'll be rocking it at work this week, wagging it under the envious eyes of my coworkers. Maybe if they're lucky, I'll bring them a piece of matcha candy.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.