Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat (Yes, It’s a Thing)

It’s raining today, and being cooped up inside means finding something interesting to do. I remembered a little treat I had in the okashi (snack) cupboard that I had passed many times in the aisles of pretty much every supermarket we shop at, only last time, I picked up a bag.

Japan is famous for a lot of things, but one thing we seem to get the most questions about are the exotic types of Kit Kat flavors that are available here. There is even a gourmet shop in the basement of a department store in nearby Ikebukuro that sells the rarest of flavors at premium prices (think in the neighborhood of $4 per American sized Kit Kat bar).

Kit Kat for common folk used to mainly include only dark chocolate, the ubiquitous matcha (green tea) and more frequently, strawberry. But as of several months ago, a new flavor began showing up regularly: cheesecake. And this was no ordinary cheesecake flavor; the picture on the bag showed a bar after it had been toasted in the oven for a few minutes.

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Generally speaking, when it comes to snack food, I’m not one to add any extra steps between the process of getting it from the bag to my mouth. Perhaps that’s why I waited months before actually picking up a bag to try it. When a chat with my friend led to more Kit Kat talk, I remembered my secret stash and decided to give it a try. So here is my report of the “unwrapping” of the Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat.

Opening up the bag, you find 13 cute, individually wrapped Kit Kats. No surprise there. This is Japan, home of the cute and the wrapped. (And also, home of unnecessarily detailed instructions for things you shouldn’t really need instructions for unless you’re an alien being visiting Earth for the first time, in which case you’ve come to the right country.)

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The instructions on the wrapper, from what I can make out with my terrible language skills, basically tell you to please use a saucer or tray to toast your Kit Kat in the oven. If you fail to use a saucer or tray and your Kit Kat catches fire and burns your house down, don’t say you weren’t warned. 13 times. Being an American, I completely ignored the instructions and used a piece of foil instead.

I popped the Kit Kat into the oven, turned it on and a few minutes later, voila! Out come the perfectly toasted bars of sweet goodness.

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So I know what you really want to know is how they taste. Well, I was skeptical that the the taste of any candy bar could be improved by a few minutes in the toaster oven. And I was completely wrong. It’s hard to completely describe but the flavor reminds me of the top layer of a creme brulee, but with the melty wonder of white chocolate with a hint of cheesecake flavor. It is heaven and I am hooked.

So if you’re not a fan of more traditional Japanese Kit Kat flavors like sakura (cherry) or wasabi (green horseradish), you’ll probably want to give this amazing flavor a try. If I don’t buy them all first.

 

Black (Burger) Thursday

The Burger King “black burger” received quite a bit of press in America, probably more so than here in Japan. If my friends didn’t mention it to me on Facebook, I might have easily missed the fact that Burger King Japan launched its second foray into the “black burger” market. Anyway, I got multiple requests from people to try and report on it. I haven’t eaten at an American style fast food restaurant since we got here (if you disallow the McD’s melon shake we tried one hot summer day), so this was a special just for you.

If you don’t know what the Burger King “Kuro” burger is, it’s basically a hamburger with a jet black bun, black cheese and a black sauce replacing the catsup. The bun and cheese are mixed with bamboo charcoal to give it the black coloring. The sauce is reportedly colored with squid ink. The meat itself is marketed as “black” but doesn’t look anymore black than a slightly overcooked regular patty. Apparently it is seasoned with black pepper, but enough black pepper to turn the patty black would be pretty horrific to actually eat. So let’s just call it a darker shade of brown.

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The nearest Burger King is at a station a couple stops away from ours, so my friend Mark and I boarded the train and set out on our quest. Sure enough, outside the restaurant there is prominent advertising for the Kuro Diamond and Kuro Pearl. Just so you know the difference, the Diamond has lettuce, onions, tomato and mayo and costs a lot more than the Pearl. Other than that, not much difference.

We both ordered the Kuro Diamond set, which came with a Coke or a Coke Zero, which are both black. Kuro shei-ku o motte imasu ka? Do you have a black shake? My lame attempt at a joke elicited a slight giggle from the staff. No kuro fries either, gaijin.

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The first thing you notice is that the size of the burger is pretty small, about the size of a regular hamburger in a Burger King in America. The difference is that hamburger costs you 99 cents, this one 690 yen with a drink. And, did I mention, it’s black?

The second thing you notice is that it is wrapped in a black wrapper. Many years ago when I first came to Japan, one of my friends insisted I visit Burger King and order a hamburger because, in his words, “they make it look exactly like it does in the advertising!” And indeed, it was handed to you in a little box, perfectly made like the one in all the pictures. Well some things have changed in Japan, at least at Burger King. Because of the tight paper wrapping, the hamburger comes out looking a bit squished, just like one made in America. And because it is black, perhaps it comes out looking just a little more morose than a regular burger. You be the judge.

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But how does it taste? That’s what everyone really wants to know, right? Well, with apologies for being anti-climactic, just so-so. In fact, it tastes pretty much like any other Burger King hamburger, with a little more pepper and a salty flavor from the black sauce rather than the sweet, vinegar flavor of catsup. Of course, it looks far more disgusting than a regular hamburger and costs a little more too.

Stealing a few glances around at the rest of the patrons in the restaurant, not one other person was eating the Kuro burger. The guy at the table next to us was drinking an iced coffee and reading a newspaper, in fact. What do you think this is sir, a Starbucks? Apparently, we were the only suckers falling for this gastronomic trickery today.

After this, I’m seriously going to have to think twice before accepting any food challenges from the folks back home. Hey Todd, did you try the fugu yet? How about the natto ice cream? I mean, why can’t someone challenge me to eat the Lemon Cream Cheese donut at Krispy Kreme Japan? Or the Pineapple Whip Cream Pancakes at Eggs n Things in Odaiba?

Anyway, now I have eaten this creature so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. Until next time, eat well and eat safe!

Everyday Japan – Yakitori

Stepping into the narrow smoke-filled alley, I squeeze past a mix of white-shirted “salarymen”, a gaggle of eastern European tourists, and Japanese hipsters snapping pictures with iPhones. On both sides, impossibly narrow shops consisting of a counter, a few bar stools and a charcoal grill are crammed full of people, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, enjoying a hot summer evening eating yakitori.

Yakitori dining isn’t as much about eating as it is fellowship. It’s a time to get together with friends and throw back a few beers (or something stronger) while dining on skewers of grilled chicken, yakitori. Yakitori can’t necessarily be compared to American BBQ. Yakitori is a chicken head-to-tail delicacy. Yes, there are the old standards of thigh meat, interspersed with Japanese leeks and called “negima” or for the carnivores, just the meat, (momo), grilled wings (tebasaki), and ground chicken (tsukune). But there are also more exotic yakitori: chicken skin (kawa), tails (bonjiri), liver (rebaa), hearts (hato/kokoro), and cartilage (nankotsu).

Outside the West exit of the behemoth Shinjuku Station stands a remnant of the past that remains as popular today as it was when it opened 70 years ago. In fact, it is now called Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, in honor of its history, though its actual name in the past was Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination how it got that name. Right after WW2 when food was scarce, entrepreneurial folks set up makeshift stalls outside of Shinjuku Station selling small pieces of chicken meat (and parts) that were easily obtained from Allied occupational forces. These stalls became Omoide Yokocho, and have become such a part of the neighborhood that the community rebuilt the whole area when a fire nearly gutted it in the 1990s.

Quite the opposite of how many people think of Japan, Omoide Yokocho is rowdy and gritty (though not dangerous), full of loud laughter and coarse joking among comrades. Thousands of Japanese salarymen filter through the alley every weeknight, using the easy atmosphere and free-flowing alcohol to blow off steam from their stressful or boring jobs. If the Tokyo workforce seems robotic during the workday, this is a great place to visit to remind yourself that they, like you, are regular human beings who need time to relax and friends to be themselves around.

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Setagaya Firefly Festival

Today we had a chance to go to our first matsuri as residents of Japan: the Setagaya Firefly Festival. It sounded really cool when I found it on the Internet, but in fact, it was a pretty small neighborhood matsuri. The draw of this matsuri was the fireflies, which they brought in netted cages as well as a big darkened tent you could walk through and see their pulsing glow in the darkness. If you rarely or never see fireflies, it was totally cool. Many Tokyo dwellers who can’t get out to the deep countryside probably never see fireflies anymore.

The taiko troupe that performed was very talented and the rain gave pause for them to give the crowd a treat for about 20 minutes as the opening ceremony. Then it was off to sample the delicious festival foods like dango and takoyaki. Jeremy and Ayumi tried some interesting looking candy that was frozen on a block of ice.

We had the pleasure of having many members of Jayne’s family join us, so it was a good chance to hang out and catch up with everyone for the evening. Of course Japanese festivals are plentiful throughout the summer months (there’s one in the park across from our church tomorrow too) so we’ll be enjoying these for at least the next month or so!

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Life in Japan: Kaiten Sushi

Sushi in America in expensive, but in Japan, sushi can be one of the cheapest meals you can eat out. Especially if you go to Kaiten Sushi, or conveyor belt sushi. Many items are low priced and some, like the one we ate at, are 108 yen per plate! And you would be amazed at the variety and quality of sushi you can get for a little over $1 a plate. You can either grab your sushi off the conveyor belt as it goes around the restaurant or you can order from a tablet and the order is delivered, at this restaurant, in a race car on a separate track! There is even a roulette game you can play if you order certain items that might earn you a discount!

We made this little video to give you an idea of what a fun and inexpensive meal kaiten sushi can be.

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Life in Japan: Fresh Produce, Not Perfect

One of the joys of living in the outskirts of Tokyo is the wonderful blending of rural and urban elements. Five minutes from a super-department store you may find yourself walking between fields of corn, beans, and eggplant. But it doesn’t end there. Many of these fields have a small stand that faces the road. The farmers who tend the field sell the perfect vegetables to grocery stores and distributors. But where do the imperfect vegetables go? As it turns out, they go into these roadside stands, to be sold at a discount to anyone who doesn’t mind a little extra effort in produce shopping.

One might wonder how a busy farmer would have time to man a small produce stand which likely makes them less than $100 profit each day. The answer: they don’t! A lockbox is secured to the stand with a slot to drop your money in! In more rural areas, we have seen stands where you basically just leave your coins inside the stand, untended and unsecured. Such is life in a country that prides itself in honesty and fairness.

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Life In Japan: My Heartful Bread

The day we arrived in Japan, our friends pointed out this bakery as we drove by. Everyone, according to them, loves My Heartful Bread. We took note, but didn’t even have a chance to visit it before another friend dropped by our house with a bag full of goodies from there. When I finally visited on a weekday morning, 10 minutes after opening, workers were still bringing out fresh baked treats from the ovens. I chose a pear tart, shaped like a pear with a light croissant like pastry and filled with a creamy custard. Then the apple mango tart, blueberry tart, and a plain custard filled roll. For good measure, I bought a loaf of freshly baked bread. The five items set me back a little over $10 including tax. Panera doesn’t come close.

It’s easy to understand why people love this place. Incredible pastries both sweet and savory, a free cup of coffee with your purchase, and a choice location that happens to be between our house and the train station make it an easy place to pick up dessert or a snack any time of the day or evening.