This weekend I went on a magical flavor journey across the Pacific, to a land where what Americans deem worthy of snackhood is laughably tame. This weekend I tasted 15 different varieties of Japanese Kit Kats, and I am forever changed by the experience.
Snacktaku fans will remember the Japanese Kit Kats as one of five items on my 2013 must-eat list, an accounting of foods exotic and familiar that I would have in my mouth before the year turns once more. I'd been trying for years to get Kotaku's embedded Japanese editor, Brian Ashcraft, to bring me a batch of Nestlé's Nipponese chocolate-dipped wafers during his infrequent trips stateside, but I never manage to remind him before he's hopped the plan for the estimate week-long around-the-world flight.
In my desperation I turned to the import specialists at JBox, where they offered a special gift pack of regional Japanese Kit Kat flavors for $68 plus shipping. I immediately made the purchase, scraping together what meager funds I could, and two weeks later my package arrived.
I might have ordered a few more things as well. I might have spent more than $150 altogether, but that would be silly and completely out of character for me.
Setting aside the unrelated snacks for a later date, I tore into that brilliant red box, where the untold mysteries lurked behind 15 cardboard cutouts. The Kit Kat is one of Japan's most popular chocolate snacks, due in no small part to the name, which sounds like kitto katsu, or "you'll surely win" (thanks again, JBox!)
Opening the first window in this treasure trove was a special moment for me, the realization of a dream that's probably not as life-long as I made it out to be in the opening paragraph, but still pretty lengthy.
What did I discover inside? Such wonders, my friends—such wonders.
The Japanese do not f*** around with fruit. When they put a picture of a piece of colorful produce on a package, you can bet your ass that whatever is inside the package tastes like the picture in a way that similarly-wrapped American foods hardly ever do.
When it comes to fruits the Japanese do not f*** around with, Strawberry is the most unf***-aroundable. The strawberry is a symbol of innocence and sweetness to Japan, largely due to the fact that it looks incredibly cute when you give it arms and googly eyes. They put them on cakes. They put them on clothing. They create robots to pick the best strawberries. It's their jam. Also, it's in their jam.
Unwrapping the strawberry Kit Kat is like opening the doors to an oddly indoor strawberry orchard. The sweet scent washes over you, a Beatles song starts playing, and the pink sticks leap from your hand into your mouth unheeded.
At first the taste is like any American strawberry/white chocolate mixture, overwhelmingly sweet and cloying. Then a mildly surprising fruit tang hits you. Then it all fades, leaving a fleeting memory of taste and a slightly gritty feeling in your mouth. It's like love.
Citrus Golden Blend
Ever had a lemon cooler cookie, the kind with the powdered sugar? The Citrus Golden Blend Kit Kat starts off exactly like one of those. There's a cool, fresh feeling to the orange-coated wafers that carries me back to better days, when I could sit with a box of cookies in front of the television and convince myself that their association with fruit somehow makes them healthier.
And then there's the kick. The flavor goes from cooling cookie to sharp citrus gum. It's quite unexpected, like being stabbed in the mouth with a shiv carved out of an orange peel. Surprise, there is more citrus in this candy than there is in a glass of orange juice, without all those nasty health benefits.
Pear is a subtle taste. You bite into a pear and the cool, sweet taste teases but never quite fulfills. It's a tantalizing dance that the Jelly Belly people failed to grasp in creating the Juicy Pear jelly bean—the pear flavor in those is so abrupt and concentrated it's almost vulgar.
The pear Kit Kat does an amazing job of capturing the subtlety of the fruit. The trick is the white chocolate base, which serves as a fleeting messenger from pear-ville. The hint comes and then is lost, leaving you hungry for more. One of my favorites of the bunch.
I love apples. Fresh apples, baked apples, apples with cinnamon, apples with caramel. I'm not a drinker, but I love apple-flavored alcohol. I use apple-scented body wash. The only apple product I cannot stand is apple-scented hair spray, the kind all the cute girls were crazy for back in the late 80s.
The Shinshu apple Kit Kat tastes exactly like that hair spray.
The dark chocolate base does an admirably job of holding back the chemical taste, but in the end it falls to the pungent power. Were this a hard candy it might taste like an apply Jolly Rancher, but it's not and it doesn't. Very disappointed.
My wife describes the Edamame Soybean Kit Kat, a grisly green affair that would never make the cut in North America for the visual alone, as "refreshing." She's not right.
I love edamame as much as the next mildly hip guy, but this piece of candy doesn't quite capture the taste of an immature pod of soybeans. It smells nutty—not a pleasant nutty, but an overwhelming nutty. I feel like I should be allergic to this, and I am not allergic to anything.
The taste is reminiscent of white chocolate-covered almonds, which isn't a bad taste. I think the color is just ruining it for me.
Purple Sweet Potato
I have absolutely no frame of reference here, having never tasted either a purple sweet potato or whatever the pile of purple goo is on the wrapper of the purple sweet potato Kit Kat.
My mind gave me hints of blueberry as I chewed this light purple sliver of coated wafer, though I'm certain that was just my imagination compensating for color again. The unimagined portion of the taste was light and incredibly sweet—too sweet for my tastes.
Here's an excerpt from the notes I took while eating. "Too sweet. Lingers far too long. Must drink to cleanse palate.
WILL NOT GO AWAY." That doesn't sound good.
Hot Japanese Chili
Hot peppers and chocolate are one of the modern world's finest snacking combinations. Here in America we regularly use chipotle or ancho chilies with dark chocolate, resulting in a mild burn largely muted by the sinful bitter sweetness.
I don't know what kind of chili the Japanese are using, but the burn is absolutely exquisite. There's an expert balance of dark chocolate to chili here. At first you don't think the sensation is going to come. Then you feel a slight tickle. Finally it ignites your mouth, not so much that you reach for a glass of water—just enough to make you remember that you brought this on yourself.
What better way to accent a baked wafer than making it taste like other baked things?
This one's almost unfair. Cinnamon is another favorite of mine, right up there with apple, and it's incredibly easy to work with, especially where white chocolate is involved.
The scent is intoxicating, wafting from the candy like a warm wave. The taste isn't overwhelming, just a perfect little bite of cinnamon cookie, comforting and delicious.
I'd declare it the winner, but it's cheating and there is no real winner here, except for my mouth.
This is definitely cheating. By altering the mix of strawberry flavor to white chocolate from the proper strawberry Kit Kat, Nestlé hopes to achieve a flavor akin to strawberry-covered cheesecake. My mouth is not fooled so easily, Nestlé.
It's a pleasant piece of candy with a muffled strawberry taste. On the plus side it loses the grittiness of its full-fruit counterpart. On the minus side, it comes off a tease. The other Kit Kats talk behind this one's back.
Without tasting a proper blueberry Kit Kat I cannot tell you if this is the same experience as the strawberry cheesecake is to its fruity offspring.
What I can say is I probably wouldn't enjoy a full blueberry Kit Kat as much as I do this muffled version. It's exactly the amount of blueberry I can stand—no more, no less.
Here in America tea is for drinking or tossing into the bay to protest unfair taxation. It's not something we look to when we want to flavor ice cream, candy or chocolate. I'm have it on completely-imagined good authority that the Japanese regularly bathe in tea.
The Matcha-Green Tea tastes like grass. Sweetened grass with a slightly bitter aftertaste, but grass nonetheless.
My wife, who works at Starbucks, tells me this is exactly what Matcha-Green Tea is supposed to taste like. She even named it in a blind taste test. That's good for fans of green tea, I suppose. I do not count myself among their numbers.
Hojicha Roasted Tea
There is some sort of magic going on here. The Hojicha Roasted Tea Kit Kat does not merely taste like a dark tea—it tastes roasted. You can taste smoke and heat—not burning pepper heat, just general warmth. It's quite disconcerting.
What's also disconcerting is the smell. These smell like dry flake fish food. That is not a first impression you want a food product to make.
Brown Sugar Syrup
So much sweetness. So much maple flavor. Can't go on.
I don't know what the Japanese use brown sugar syrup for. I assume it goes into beverage or on desserts, so I placed it in the drink section. I would not drink it. I would not eat this.
Some flavors are better left to the Japanese. This is one of them.
The Weird Stuff
Weird stuff? From Japan? I'm just as shocked as you guys are.
Red Bean Sandwich
This is absolutely the worst-tasting candy bar I have ever had the misfortune to insert in my mouth-hole.
I'm am down with red bean paste. I quite enjoy it in a warm steamed bun. There's a playful sweetness to it that really appeals to me. If you gave me a jar of it I'd probably make a red bean sandwich right here, without even thanking you for it.
The Red Bean Sandwich Kit Kat carries hints of that sweetness, but it's hidden behind a smoky flavor that I can only describe as well-used ashtray. It tastes like I put out a cigarette on my tongue and then ate a proper American chocolate Kit Kat. There is no combination of those things that would ever taste good.
Being hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes (and big like LeAnne Rimes), I had high hopes for this gorgeous green piece of candy, and the wasabi Kit Kat did not disappoint.
It smells of horseradish, which is not a smell I would traditionally enjoy from a chocolate-covered confection. If this were any other candy I would assume this was some sort of cruel joke. It is no joke.
It's wasabi plus sweetness, which would not work at all if not an amazing bit of chocolate engineering on Nestlé's part. That trademark burn has been transformed from feeling to flavor. You do not feel the heat. You taste the heat.
This is almost impossible to explain, so I won't try. I'll just say that the wasabi Kit Kat is an experience every chocolate candy connoisseur should have before they are melted away by the sun.
And so my adventure comes to a close, and one of five items on my 2013 must-eat list is marked off.
This assortment of regional Japanese Kit Kats turned out to be everything I'd imagined and more. In that expensive box I found joy, pain, love, innocence, freedom and not a little fear—a lifetime of emotions in 15 pieces of candy. There were highs and there were lows, but in the end my life is better for having had the experience.
At least that's what I keep telling myself. Makes the $68 plus shipping sting a whole lot less.