Is there any food that a bit of Japanese culinary innovation (and stylish packaging) can’t turn into a gourmet item?
During a recent visit to the supermarket, I discovered two cases in point: “adult” chocolate cornflakes and also potato salad redesigned as a festive dessert.
The cornflakes made me laugh when I first saw them. The spare, uncluttered design of the box, consisting mainly of a glossy brown background with a small photo of a sample of the product discreetly tucked away in the lower right corner, looks like something that would blend in perfectly if you happened to leave it on a table in the lounge of a luxury hotel.
The text on the box is even more fun. The name of the maker, Nisshoku (since 1918), appears in small print at the top, followed by the main heading: “PREMIUM CORNFLAKES: Bitter Chocolate.” In smaller print below that, and just above a faint, petite sketch of a split cacao pod, are the words, “Slighltly bitter luxury cornflakes made with plenty of the cocoa powder and cocoa butter used by chocolatiers.” Finally, at the very bottom, in relatively larger print, comes the best part: “Otona no asa wa amakunai…” or “An adult’s morning is not sweet…”
The listed ingredients are corn, sugar, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, whole powdered milk, salt, cacao mass, barley extract and an emulsifier.
I bought it the other day and poured myself a bowl this morning. I was shocked. It’s delicious! As promised on the box, it is not sweet at all. The bitterness of the chocolate is surprisingly strong. I’ve never experienced this flavor in a breakfast cereal before. As tasty as it was by itself, I couldn’t help thinking that I would have enjoyed it even more with a sliced banana or some fresh berries on top – and moreover, that this cereal would complement fresh fruit much better than non-bitter cereals do.
What I had thought was merely an amusing packaging gimmick turned out to be a good and genuinely innovative product. Wow.
The potato salad dessert didn’t impress me as much.
I liked the concept right off the bat. The product looks appetizing (or at least eye-catching), and its main ingredients (with one mysterious exception) all sounded appealing. The listed ingredients are murasaki imo (Okinawan purple potatoes), satsuma imo (sweet potatoes), hankotaijo dressing, mayonnaise, honey, whipped cream, sugar, almonds, and – at the bottom of the list – the usual handful of unpronounceable preservatives and colorings.
Ignoring the last few items and focusing on the first few, it sounds pretty good. But what is “hankotaijo dressing”? It literally translates as “semicongealed dressing” or“semisolid dressing.” But it seemed to me that mayonnaise is also a semisolid dressing, so why are it and hankotaijo dressing listed separately?
The Japanese-language website mayonnaise.org sheds a little light on this question with its dressing taxonomy chart. (To see it, click the top link under “Story of Dressing.”) The genus of dressings called “hankotaijo” includes at least three distinct species: mayonnaise, creamy salad dressing, and … wait for it … “hankotaijo.” Hmm. This brings us right back to where we started.
I have it on good linguistic authority that the “hankotaijo” category could also include tartar sauce, which itself is based on mayonnaise, but I’m sure there was no tartar sauce in the purple potato salad. I can only guess that, in this context, “hankotaijo dressing” is some kind of industrial thickening agent that would not have been found in your grandmother’s pantry. (If so, Michael Pollan would not approve.)
Anyway, I went ahead and tasted the dessert potato salad, and found it much less sweet than I had expected. In fact, it was rather bland – surprisingly so considering that the ingredients include both sugar and honey. The whipped cream appears to be limited to a decorative dollop in the center of the serving, and the most enjoyable parts were when I had a little whipped cream on my spoon along with the other ingredients.
The dish was extremely thick, pasty and heavy, which is another point against it. Since desserts are meant to be eaten after meals, they ideally should be light in weight and texture (if not in calorie count).
To wrap it up, I will definitely by the adult cornflakes again, but once was enough for the dessert potato salad.