As you might have noticed, the summer Olympics were held this year. Occurring once every four years, the Olympics provide the host nation a chance to not just compete, but also to showcase their culture. Our team at Union Kitchen is particularly interested in learning more about the snacks and cuisines in each host nation. With Tokyo hosting the Olympics, we’ll be heading east to take a look at Japan. By the end, a gold medal isn’t the only thing you’ll be wanting to bite into.
First, a bit of the culinary background into the food scene of Japan. Stretching back thousands of years, rice, wheat, soy, fish (whether grilled or raw), and seasonal spices have been a staple of the Japanese diet. During the 1880s, Japan rapidly modernized, and its cuisine started to become more open to western influences. The modern-day food scene in Japan can be seen as a combination of old-school Japanese dishes, often influenced by China, and modern updates, often influenced by the West. Today, it’s not unusual to find burgers, curry, and spaghetti in Japan that have been altered to meet the Japanese consumer's tastes. With this bit of background out of the way, let’s cover some Japanese snacks that really take the gold.
We know what you’re thinking. Aren’t Kit Kats produced by Nestle, an American company? Yes, but Kit Kats in Japan are special. In 2004, Nestle launched a green tea Kit Kat as a unique flavor for the local market. It quickly became a popular novelty. Since then, the land of the rising sun has seen over 300 specialized flavors introduced into its markets. These include: Dark Matcha, Sweet Purple Potato, Cheese Soy and Salt Almonds, Sparkling Wine, and much more. So, the next time you find yourself in Japan be sure to give these unique spins on the classic chocolate wafer a try. Alternatively, you can also order them through online retailers. Don’t be shy. You just might find yourself surprised how much you actually enjoy these seemingly unusual flavors.
Known for being exceptionally juicy, Hi-Chew is perfect for fans of fruity, chewy candies.
First launched in 1975 by Morinaga, Hi-Chews have quickly become one of Japan’s most popular candies. Like gum, Hi-Chew is meant to be hard and chewy at first, before becoming softer. Unlike gum, though, this brand of candy is actually meant to be swallowed, due in large part to the Japanese norm against taking food out of one’s mouth. Currently available in 170 different flavors, Americans will be familiar with most of the traditional offerings, such as: Lemon, Orange, and Grape. For the truly adventurous, though, Hi-Chew also offers many more unusual flavors, such as: Dragon Fruit, Acai, Yogurt, and Lilikoi. Those interested in trying the juicy candy will be happy to hear that they are available in the United States, either through retail stores like World Market or through online stores.
As previously mentioned, seaweed and rice have long been a staple in the Japanese diet. As such, it should come as no surprise that one of the most popular snacks in Japan is a rice ball covered in seawood. Sounds a little plain? Don’t worry, there are a wide variety of flavors and styles that add a bit of zest. Tuna mayonnaise, beef, chicken, and grilled are all excellent options for those looking for something new, yet familiar. For the truly adventurous, 7-Elevens and other convenience stores in Japan offer options that will seem truly out there for western consumers. Sour pickled plums and code roe are just some of the styles that are sure to turn some heads. The next time you head into a Japanese restaurant, consider giving the onigiri a try. You might be surprised just how much you enjoy this seemingly simple concoction.
Anyone who has had sushi will likely be at least somewhat familiar with this. Found along stream beds in the mountain river valleys of Japan, wasabi comes from the same plant family that is used to make mustard and horseradish. For millennia, the Japanese have used wasabi to add a pungent flavor to their food. This love hasn’t waned at all in the modern era, and it shows no signs of slowing down. There are countless different wasabi flavored snacks to be found all over the island nation. There are so many wasabi options, in fact, that it is impossible to list them all. Instead, here are just a few that we found to be particularly interesting: wasabi beef potato chips, wasabi pistachios, wasabi kit kat, wasabi hard candy, and even wasabi ice cream. We can feel our sinuses clearing already. You won’t need to go far to find these. Many major US retailers, like Trader Joe’s, carry wasabi snacks.
By now, you’re probably looking for something to wash down all the snacks you’ve been eating. We have just the drink for you. Introduced into the Kobe region by a British pharmacist in 1884, Ramune is Japan’s most popular soft drink. With its distinct lemon-lime taste and unique, thin-necked bottle shape, Ramune is instantly recognizable to Japan’s consumer base. Considered a seasonal icon, Ramune is especially popular during the hot summer days and is frequently found at summer festivals. While the original is often considered the “true” Ramune soda, the soft drink also comes in a great variety of flavors. In true Japanese fashion, these flavors range from the familiar, strawberry, orange, grape, to the truly outlandish, octopus, teriyaki sauce, chili oil. While not easily accessible in the US, consumers can find the drink at online retailers like Amazon.
Japan often seems exotic to Westerners. A distant land that has different norms, language, and culture. Nevertheless, food is one of the great unifiers of the world. Something that can bring together people, no matter how seemingly different, through a common experience. In this Union Kitchen Guide, we sought to emulate the Olympics’ goals of immersion and developing an understanding. To do this, we highlighted some of the most iconic Japanese snacks. Hopefully, we were able to expand your horizon and demystify the land of the rising sun. For more interesting guides like this, check out Union Kitchen’s resource guide page.