In Japan, single-flavored foods are sometimes just too monotonous to attract new customers, and so snack companies are constantly going back to the planning board to come up with a hot new flavor of potato chips and chocolate. Often their inspiration comes not only from the Western origins of those snacks but also from Japanese cuisine, and so convenience-store and supermarket shelves in this country are filled with fusion treats: bites that bring together the best flavors of East and West.
As I grew up in the United States with a Japanese mother, my family’s junk-food cabinet was stuffed with wagashi (Japanese snacks) and yōgashi (American snacks). Nosh time usually involved a stack of Oreos with a couple of rice crackers. Care packages from Tokyo always ensured that my family had a good supply of Japanese goodies to supplement whatever we bought at the grocery store. Dinner was a similar affair: mashed potatoes, grilled veggies and tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) instead of steak.
In my bicultural family, I took it for granted that Japanese food and American food belonged on the table together. My mother’s hobby was discovering new ways to blend Eastern and Western ingredients together to create an entirely new dishes, and crossing the Pacific Ocean when I came to Tokyo brought me into contact with a snack market that reminds me of my childhood dinner table.
In the Japanese snack market, common combinations involve bringing together wagashi ingredients with chocolate or milk. Ingredients found in wagashi have been used with Western ingredients to make completely new snack flavors. One example is kinako, roasted whole soy flour, which is the light yellow dusting on dango or warabimochi and other traditional Japanese treats. Among the brands making kinako-flavored chocolates is Tirol, with its iconic little squares that can be commonly found at the cashier counter of convenient stores, alongside ones flavored with matcha (powdered green tea) and plain old milk chocolate.
The ice-cream section at the grocery store stocks the usual flavors: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. But you can also find green tea mochi (pounded-rice cake) and adzuki bean, or even ice-cream bars based on taiyaki (fish-shaped adzuki bean cakes). Soy-sauce ice cream sounds particularly revolting, but somehow it works: The cream and sugar tone down most of the saltiness of the soy sauce, and the taste reminds me vaguely of caramel.
European and American companies have joined in by offering a Japanese twist on their products. Kit Kat, a chocolate-covered wafer biscuit produced by Nestlé that originated in England, is usually available in only one flavor in the U.S.: milk chocolate. But in Japan, Kit Kat is infamous for its many bizarre regional flavors, many of which include Japanese flavors, such as green tea in Kansai, hot pepper in Shinshu, sweet potato in Okinawa and Kyushu and, yes, even wasabi in Kanto and Shizuoka. Personally, as I’ve never tried the last flavor myself, I can’t say if wasabi and chocolate make a good combination, but I suppose that it follows the same idea as the hot-sauce flavored chocolate you might come across in the U.S.
Even potato-chip companies have come out with their East-meets-West flavor combinations. In Japan, you can always find recognizable flavors such as salt, cheese and consommé, but I’ve also found teriyaki chicken, which is Japan’s equivalent to BBQ-flavored chips from the States. There is also ume (Japanese plum), which reminds me of salt and vinegar because it’s slightly sour; and, of course, nori (seaweed).
Despite throwing together ingredients that seem like they should clash, these creative combinations allow you to experience entirely new flavors. The saltiness of soy sauce can be toned down with butter for an almost-sweet taste in butter-soy-sauce chips. For those who can’t stand the burning sensation in the nose caused by wasabi when eating sushi, mayonnaise makes a great flavor partner. And tarako-butter chips offer a perfect combination of saltiness and fishiness that reminds me of my mother’s tarako (cod roe) spaghetti.
“Unfortunately, many of these flavors don’t stay on the shelves for more than a few months, due to a marketplace with limited, competitive shelf space and consumers whose tastes constantly change,” says Sayuri Tagawa from the public-relations department at Calbee, one of Japan’s biggest snack makers.
Limited shelf space in convenience stores means that only the best of the best will have a permanent spot, while the rest have to fight to be noticed. This week’s new chocolate flavors will be old in a month or two when new flavors come out. In order to stay competitive, snack makers are always releasing limited-edition flavors to hold the interest of fickle customers. In doing so they have taken fusion food to the next level — and raised a few eyebrows along the way. It’s a careful balance of trying new things without alienating the customer altogether.
“People may try new things, but humans are generally conservative when it comes to food. They don’t tend to be too adventurous,” says Tagawa.
In other words, consumers may stray occasionally to try a limited-edition snack, but their loyalty often lies with the original, simple flavors that have been around for years. Calbee’s best-selling product is plain potato chips, which it has sold since 1975. Some of its best fusion-flavored snacks such as edamame-cheese or zunda (mashed soybean) Jagarico potato-chip sticks have been sent to the graveyard.
The only fusion flavor of Calbee’s that has really been able to cling onto its shelf space is tarako-butter Jagarico. Originally released in November 2010 and limited to a chain of convenience stores, this flavor sold out completely within two weeks. A year later the company brought back the flavor temporarily due to popular demand, and again it quickly sold out, becoming the best-selling limited-edition flavor in Jagarico history. It was given a permanent spot on convenience-store shelves in 2012.
That’s great news for tarako-butter fans. However, for those of us waiting for the next crazy East-meets-West flavor combination, every trip to the store is an adventure. What next? Sake-flavored chocolate pudding? Suica (Japanese watermelon) cola? The possibilities are tantalizing.