||home / may 2002 / chasing otakuism
Confections of the Heart
By Jake Forbes
Pocky, Ramune, Choco Balls, Yan Yan, Every Burger, Melty Kiss, Hello
Kitty chocolate biscuits, Fran, and not to mention, Pocari Sweat. We otaku get
our own unique cornucopia of tasty snacks- how cool is that?! What other
fan group gets it's own cuisine? Well, Trekkies do have Quark's Bar and
Grill, with such wonderful dishes as the Flaming Ribs of Targ and Isolinear
Chips and Dip, but you have to go to the Las Vegas Hilton to eat it. Otaku
munchies are available at Asian grocery stores nationwide (and increasingly
at the big-chain supermarkets as well). But accessible as they may be, they
still come at a premium. So what is it about these snacks that Otaku would
forsake Frito Lay, Hershey's, and Coca Cola to have them?
1) Novelty: Otaku ride the fine line between when things are mainstream
in Japan and when they break through in the US. As American companies look
for innovations in Japan, there's a window of time when only the most
hardcore are in the know, and that's when otaku strike. The idea of putting
a marble in the neck of a bottle of soda might seem like madness, but after
drinking a few cases of Ramune, an otaku knows it's only a matter of time
before Sprite changes their motto to "Obey the Marble."
2) Presentation: Some candies come packaged with charm jewelry, some
come in edible wrappers, some come in handy dispenser packaging. A Japanese
consumer must balk at the idea of a simple bag of Skittles with no resealing
mechanism or collectible trinket. One of my favorite new packages is for
Hello Kitty chocolates in the "classic collection," featuring antique
packaging circa 1930. Now I could be wrong, but I don't believe there were
Hello Kitty chocolates in 1930.
3) Texture: In America, we like our candies chewy or crunchy. In Japan,
they like them slimy, puffy, waxy, smooshy, melty kissy, and cardboard.
Sometimes I wonder if Japanese consumers actually like the textures of their
candies, or if it was a necessary decision to make candies shaped like
hamburgers. Some salty snack crackers look like they'll have the
consistency of a cheeto, but end up dissolving in your mouth like a
biodegradable packing peanut. But while some textures are just plain weird,
others are incredibly addicting. There's something about biting into a
Pocky, that moment of softness as your incisors slice through the chocolate
coating before hitting the cracker, that's like heaven on earth. The idea
of slurping a fruit gels, those little jello packs with a piece of fake
fruit in them, may gross you out at first, but once you get used to it, you
can't stop eating them.
4) Taste: Once again we are struck by a bizzaro combination of genuine
greatness and the perplexingly grotesque. The idea of seafood flavored
snack food is quite common in Asia, but if you start trying shrimp puffs and
other meaty crackers, you'll learn that not all are equal. Some will likely
make you barf. Eat with caution. On the sweet side, Japanese chocolate is
an enigma in itself. 99% of the time, it tastes like wax, almost completely
tasteless and incapable of melting, but occasionally they hit some new
combination of taste and texture that is absolutely wonderful. Melty
Kisses, for example, taste like a combination of truffles and astronaut ice
cream. Good stuff. But even the tastiest treats lack the full flavor of an
American snack. As with more proper Japanese cuisine, milder, subtler
flavor is usually better.
Can I honestly say that Japanese snack foods are the best in the world? Not
a chance. But do I go to the Mitsuwa market to buy them every week? You
bet I do? Some snacks, like Pocky and mochi ice cream, I can honestly say I
love. Others I get so I can share their novelty with others. And over the
years, I've come to really love things I though I could never stomach
(teriyaki flavored nori strips). Like anime viewing, Japanese snacks are a
communal experience. They are meant to be shared, discussed, laughed at,
hoarded, traded, analyzed, and collected. Well, actually they're just made
to be eaten, but a true otaku never takes anything at face value... at least
not if it came from Japan.
My favorite snack of the moment is Boba Milk Tea. While not Japanese in
origin, I much prefer the style made in the Japanese shops to the kinds in
Chinatown or Korea town. Jasmine Green Tea with Boba from the Volcano Tea
House is my favorite, and there's no better accompaniment than the Spicy
Fried Chicken that is the sole item on their snack menu (VERY hot, with
addictively good seasoning). I'll drive across town to get these a couple
times a week, and judging from the crowds, I'm guessing I'm not alone.
Boba's on the cusp of being mainstream in America, and if it does hit it
big, perhaps I'll lose interest like I did with Gundam when it was on TV.
But until then, I'll slurp up those tapioca balls like there's no