For a while, I’ve been meaning to post some reviews of Japanese food products. If you’re reading this in the snack aisle at the airport duty free on your way home from Japan, stop! Put down those salad-flavoured sticks! In this, my very first review, I’m going to guide you through some exciting Pretz varieties you could have instead.
First, a little background. One great thing about souvenir shopping in Japan is the huge domestic market not only for regional specialities – think Kobe beef or Nagasaki ‘castella’ (カステラ) cake – but also for ‘regional’ incarnations of national or even international products. Could you imagine a brand of crisps that came in Manchester, Glasgow, London and Cornwall flavours? Probably not. In Japan, this sort of thing is commercially viable thanks to the insatiable Japanese appetite for omiyage. This word encapsulates the charming but often stress-inducing practice of buying souvenir gifts for everyone who knew you were going away – even if it was just to another city.
The most famous and arguably successful example of snack food regionalisation is the KitKat. In its native Britain, the KitKat is revered as an unchanging symbol of chocolate-coated stability. The classic four-fingered wafer is available in the UK in just two flavours: milk and dark chocolate. The two-fingered selection only extends as far as ‘orange chocolate’ and ‘dark mint chocolate’ (both widely tolerated) before veering off half-heartedly towards ‘mocha’ and the suspiciously transatlantic-sounding ‘cookies & cream’. In Japan, the makers of KitKat have cast aside such conservatism by reportedly selling over 300 different limited edition flavours so far this century. Many of these are restricted to specific regions. My favourite: ‘Nagoya Adzuki Bean Jam on Toast’!
Similarly, the beloved Japanese snack Pretz (the savoury version of Pocky, which is sold in Europe as Mikado) can be found in a number of region-specific flavours. If you know me, you can imagine my excitement when I came across a suitcase-friendly Pretz selection (of eight flavours!) with a map of Japan on the back. Truly, I had found the gourmet drinking snack equivalent of a Kellogg’s Variety Pack. But which flavour, and which terroir, came out on top?
The Pretz Contenders
Tasted so intensely of butter, I was left wondering whether butter tastes that intensely of butter. Maybe in Hokkaido! Score: 4/5
Sweet and really zingy, quite like a sour apple flavoured candy. A pleasantly weird flavour for a crispy pretzel stick. Score: 3/5
Tasty, but didn’t remind me that much of monjayaki. Then again, monjayaki is just a runny pancake filled with random ingredients, mostly enjoyed for its texture (squishy) and the tiny spatulas you get to wield over the hotplate while making it. Neither squishiness nor spatulas included here. Score: 2/5
Takoyaki (Kinki region)
Fried octopus dumplings (with all the trimmings) are always a hit. This flavour brought back happy memories! Score: 5/5
Beef Tongue (Tohoku region)
Not being a member of the Famous Five, I don’t eat tongue sandwiches, so this was hard to judge. It tasted generically meaty, with a hint of barbecue. Score: 2/5
Spicy cod roe. Perhaps divisive, but for me it’s one of the quintessential ‘can’t find this at home’ Japanese flavours, and delicious every time. Score: 5/5
A big green cliché, but authentically mouth-and-nose-burningly fiery. A little too much so for me! Score: 1/5
I didn’t have high hopes for the second fruit flavour, but actually the butter-lemon combination was not too sweet and not too sour – like a good lemon meringue pie. Score: 4/5
The second big green cliché in the box – if you don’t already have something matcha flavoured in your suitcase, have you really been to Japan? Score: 3/5
And the winner is…
There was a tie, but in the end, I have to hand the crown to takoyaki flavour: distinctive, savoury, and typically Osakan. If you don’t have the spare kilograms of luggage allowance to bring home a special takoyaki pan, at least bring back some of these. And share them with me!