Happy Valentines Day!
In a previous post I included a quote about how a country’s strengths are often its same weaknesses and vice versa. I think that is largely true, and today I’d like to apply that to food and drink.
I often recommend visitors to Japan to go ahead, bite the bullet, and try the oft talked about expensive Japanese fruits. It’s pretty much a trope at this point for people to be shocked at the prices of melons, strawberries, peaches, etc. at the wonderful bazaars of gastronomy that are Japanese departmentstore basement food floors. Things tend to be pretty standardized across Japan, and department stores are no exception. The first floor (ground floor for you Brits) is almost always going to be cosmetics and related products. The next few floors will be women’s clothes followed by a floor or two of men’s clothes. Things start to get jumbled and random after that, though restaurants will usually occupy the very top floors. But one floor down (B1) will pretty reliably be filled with dozens and dozens of small food counters, running the whole gamut of foods you might (or might not) expect to encounter in Japan. Fried croquets, kushi-katsu, yakitori, bento luches, cakes, sashimi, tea, cheese, ice cream, and, yes, fruit.
A less well known aspect of this trope, however, is that department stores are one of the most expensive places you can shop in Japan. Deals can be had, and things are not so astronomical that your average wage earner can’t go there, but people generally go for the selection and the quality, not for the price. This applies to the clothes, which will be far more than what you might find at Uniqlo; the cosmetics, which will be much more expensive than your local chain drug store; and the fruit, which will cost several times more than that greengrocer around the corner from your apartment. The flip side of this is, naturally, the products you find in department stores are the best of the best. If they’re charging several dollars per strawberry, or many tens of dollars per melon, only the finest specimens will be for sale. These fruits will have been raised with special care so as to be the most succulent and presentable of the entire crop. That latter point is particularly important, for as one in the West might present a fine bottle of wine when visiting the home of a friend or relative, a Japanese person will often bring a dessert. Fine cakes (available at the cake counter nearby on these same floors) costing several dollars per serving will be carefully packed with refrigeration for you upon purchase for this exact purpose, and those familiar with East Asian traditions will not be surprised to find fruit often served at the end of a meal and treated as dessert. This kind of use is what is envisioned for these particular pieces of fruit.
But whether you get them from such extravagant places or whether you find a small greengrocer (or street seller, or tourist stand, etc.) from which to purchase fruit, I very strongly recommend you try some when in Japan. Why? Well, because “the strawberries taste like strawberries! The snozberries taste like snozberries!”
Seriously. Japanese fruit always tastes the most like that particular fruit that I have ever had. I have always disliked watermelons my whole life, but I absolutely love Japanese watermelons. They are so sweet and watermelon-y and make their American counterparts taste like styrofoam soaked in water by comparison. The first time I ate a Japanese blueberry I felt like I was being punched in the mouth; it was just so blueberry-y. I used to eat them a handful at a time in the States, but here I always eat them one by one; it’s just too intense otherwise. And the grapes here are too flavorful for me to even handle at all: they are just so grape-y that I actually avoid them.
But I have also found that this extends to the realm of manufactured food as well. One winter I was intrigued to find a can of “Hot Cake” flavored drink on the hot row of a vending machine, and couldn’t help but try it. In hindsight I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised to find that it tasted exactly as advertised. It was not a pleasant drink that reminded you of pancakes. No. Rather it was exactly like drinking a liquefied meal of pancakes with butter and syrup. It didn’t taste bad, and wasn’t exactly unpleasant. But as someone who quite enjoys pancakes, I can’t say consuming them in liquid form is any improvement to that tried and true staple.
In America, on the other hand, we seem to prefer things to taste like our imagination rather than reality. Starbuck’s “Pumpkin Spice” latte, for example, quite famously contains no pumpkin at all. It’s not meant to be a pumpkin drink, but rather to make you think of pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving while you drink it. Speaking of pumpkin, what would Harry Potter’s “pumpkin juice” actually taste like? In that universe they seem to consume it like we do orange juice, but the unsweetened juice of a pumpkin would actually probably be not very enjoyable. Universal Studios seems to agree, and the “pumpkin juice” they sell at their Harry Potter theme parks actually has more apple than pumpkin in it. Similarly, their “butter beer” is just an extra sweet cream soda, though who can blame them? Would melting half a stick of butter into a hot beer do anything to improve its taste? I think not.
And so we finally come to Peyoung, which, incidentally, is a Japanese brand. It is amoung the likes of Buffalo and Bridgestone in have a rather foreign-sounding brand name for something that is actually one hundred percent Japanese. Peyoung is apparently a portmanteau of the English words “pair” and “young” which results in a vaguely Chinese-sounding name (according to their website, the original vision was of young couples happily eating together). But in fact the more authentically Japanese sounding Maruka Shokuhin has been selling their instant yakisoba under the brand name Peyoung since 1975.
Anyway, to celebrate Valentine’s Day they’ve released a chocolate flavored Peyoung instant yakisoba. You see, Valentine’s Day in Japan is a day in which women across Japan give either obligation (“giri”) or real feeling (“honmei”) chocolates to all the men they know, while the men sit back and relax. Just kidding, the men actually fret like high school girls hoping to be invited the school prom. Single men hope to receive such “honmei” chocolates, which is effectively the same thing as asking a person out (i.e. an unambiguous declaration of love [or at least “liking”]), and even older, long-married men hope to receive a goodly amount of “giri” chocolates to confirm their enduring popularity amoung the women in their lives. This year’s Valentines’ commercial from the cell-phone company AU (part of a long-running series involving characters from traditional, universally-known Japanese fairy tales) even is based on a pun involving the similarity between the words “honmei” and “home-made.”
This instant yakisoba, however, is very clearly branded “giri” right on the packaging (it’s the word in the pink heart). Though I shouldn’t think anyone getting instant yakisoba as a Valentine’s Day present would confuse it for a confession of love.
But to tie this all in to my original point: in Japan the blueberries taste like blueberries, and the chocolate yakisoba tastes like yakisoba with chocolate sauce on it. It’s certainly not disgusting, but I am hard-pressed to recommend such a concoction. I do appreciate the extra effect of replacing the normal topping of seaweed and/or spice with little bits of fruit, though. But as a lover of both instant yakisoba and chocolate, I can’t say the combination particularly improves either of those foods. The only people I can see enjoying this product are food adventurers. You know, if you’re the kind of person who liked to mix the different kinds of soda at a fountain together as a kid, you might get a kick out of this. Otherwise, I would only recommend it as a gift of the most “giri.” It will surely send the message “this was just out of obligation” for you.