Mutton caramel, fish ice cream as regional fare goes over top

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Trying popular and quirky local fare is often part of the summer vacation experience, and not all items are necessarily guaranteed to be tasty.

In fact, in food-obsessed Japan, where delicious dishes from all over the world are readily available, the opposite can prove a real hit.

Take Genghis Khan Caramel, produced by Sapporo Gourmet Foods Co.

“Barf! This tastes like beef tongue topped with leek,” said graduate student Noriyuki Suzuki, 22, after popping a piece into his mouth.

In culinary terms in Japan, the Mongol warlord’s name has come to mean barbecued mutton, a Hokkaido specialty whose popularity has grown in recent years in part due to the mad cow disease scare.

But the caramel is so unappetizing that since its debut last October it has become a hot topic on the Internet.

“At first it tastes like normal caramel, but then comes the strange taste of lamb, barbecue and garlic,” wrote Saori Atsumi on a Web site. “Just because the Genghis Khan dish is so popular, they shouldn’t make a caramel out of it!”

Sapporo Gourmet Foods makes more than 100 food products, 30 of which are caramels. Most of the caramels come with the taste of local Hokkaido specialties, including melon and butter.

But as soon as the Genghis Khan version debuted last year, it surpassed the company’s earlier best-seller — Yubari Melon Caramel — selling more than 150,000 packs a month, according to company officials. One pack costs 105 yen.

“With so many different types of candies available now, caramels are not very popular, and large manufacturers subcontract their production to smaller firms,” said Fumio Kurosawa, an official of the All Japan Candy Industry Corp. “The Genghis Khan caramel has done quite well out of this.”

Toshiaki Nagaya, president of Sapporo Gourmet Foods, said the company introduced the caramel after the Genghis Khan dish became popular outside Hokkaido.

“It took us a year to produce a caramel that tastes like a really good Genghis Khan. It’s delicious,” he said.

But the caramel definitely owes its popularity to its strange taste.

An employee at Village Vanguard M’s, a book and miscellaneous goods shop in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, said Genghis Khan caramels really started selling when the product started being sold under the catchphrase “Awful!”

Sapporo Gourmet Food launched a better-tasting version in May, but only about 20,000 packs are sold in a month, according to the company.

Yoshihiro Chiba, an official in charge of tourism promotion at the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, said sweets and snacks are always the best-selling Hokkaido souvenirs, accounting for some 70 percent of the total items sold.

“Unique products such as Genghis Khan Caramel are a major driving force in this sector,” he said.

Hokkaido is not alone in hawking strange-tasting products.

The Kagawa Prefectural Fishery Cooperative has been selling its renowned fish ice cream, with real seafood chunks, since 1997.

It currently comes in six flavors — yellowtail, which is designated Kagawa’s prefectural fish, baby sardine, seaweed, octopus, crab and shrimp. The ice cream retails at 315 yen per 140-ml cup.

Motohiro Shiota, an official in charge of sales at the co-op, said that for those who aren’t keen on fish, yellowtail might be hard to swallow because the flavor comes on strong when the ice cream melts.

“But there’s no problem if you eat it quickly,” he said.

Although many tend to think of it as a joke product, the seller seems to take it all very seriously.

“This ice cream was developed in the hope that more children and young women, who are shifting away from a healthy fish diet, start to eat more of it,” the product’s news release said.

It also said that care was taken to try to remove as much of the unpleasant fishy aroma as possible, while keeping the delicious flavor.

Shiota said the product is currently being sold at Takamatsu airport, two highway parking areas and a hot spring resort in the prefecture. The fishery co-op also sells it by mail.

Shiota admitted it is not an “explosive best-seller,” as only about 800 cups of ice cream are sold a month in summer, but added that the product helps raise interest in fish as well as in Kagawa Prefecture.

“Some sushi bars serve it as dessert. Please try it, it’s packed with calcium,” he said.

Takeshi Morimura, a 27-year-old Shiga Prefecture resident who operates a large Web site devoted to bizarre foods, said in an interview via e-mail that there are other strange popular foods available, including squid chocolate and strawberry-milk sausages, developed to appeal to children.

While he believes the reason most people buy strange food is for fun and for something to talk about, he believes some sellers are serious.

“I suspect the Kagawa fishery cooperative, for example, is really serious about promoting the consumption of fish by selling the ice cream,” he said.