Now everyone knows about the college food staple that is known as ramen. Twenty-five cents buys you dinner, if not lunch and breakfast as well. And everyone has their own preparation method, whether it involves actually obeying the instructions and bringing out the soup pan, or just eating the noodles raw, with the seasoning as a side condiment. (Ramen also comes in the restaurant, fresh noodles form as well. It’s just not something that jumps out on the menu, and has bad instant noodle associations.) You can always try my own version, which involves chicken ramen, a microwave, water and lots of cheddar cheese.
Just about everyone by now has had sushi and sashimi, and other common Japanese restaurant cuisine at least once, and the companion drink of choice, sake and Sapporo beer (look for the star). But you don’t watch anime for long before you fall into the wasteland of Japanese snack food, as you try to figure out what the characters are eating, and the more important question, is it good?
It seems to start with our friend, Mr. Pocky, who is probably the most addictive of all Japanese snacks. Pencil-long pretzel sticks dipped in milk chocolate, the combination of sweetness and dry salty carbs wins over everyone. But that’s just the original variety. There is almond, strawberry (think dipped in strawberry yogurt), milk (that is a flavor, I guess?), banana, coffee, pumpkin, coconut and other flavors more associated with Starbucks in the US. Pocky also comes in distinctive Asian flavors, such as green tea, seaweed and kinako (soy bean).
There are seasonal flavors, and regional flavors in Japan, such as kiwi melon in the summer, and wine for the Kobe region. Specialty variations include Men’s Pocky (dark, bittersweet chocolate), Mousse Pocky (thick, mousse icing) and Decorer Pocky (strips of decorative icing).
Wow. That’s a lot of Pocky.
Pocky is probably the easiest snack to find in the US, on the shelves of major supermarkets (I know Safeway and King Soopers carry it, and at a good price too!), Asian specialty supermarkets, and of course, at anime conventions for a premium. Then again, you also get to try the more exotic flavors.
The drink equivalent to Pocky in terms of US popularity is Ramune, a carbonated soda. It tastes like most lemon-lime soda, but it comes in other flavors as well, with melon, kiwi, strawberry, orange, peach, Blue Hawaiian and lychee flavors. (My first one was melon. I decided to play it safe.) However, its popularity is mostly due to its unique bottle design, which uses a marble as a stopper in the glass bottle. (And before you ask, it does work.) Many people, myself included, have problems figuring out the trick to getting the marble popped into the bottle, then successfully drinking from the bottle. But it’s the fun that makes the whole drinking experience worthwhile. Incidentally, Ramune comes from the English word “lemonade,” as that was Japan’s first experience with a fizzy lemon-flavored drink in a glass bottle with a marble topper.
Anime will affect your food associations. Once you have had the cathartic experience of Grave of the Fireflies, “Fruit Drops” hard candy and its distinctive tin will take on a tragic tone. Fruits Basket will make you look at onigiri (rice balls) in a new light. Oh, and massive consumption of sake and foreign beer becomes more acceptable.
Connoisseurs may want to venture beyond the Asian Foods supermarket aisle into an actual Asian supermarket, where you can find treats such as mochi ice cream (rice balls with ice cream inside! Honestly, they’re good!) and good instant and heat-and-eat soups, such as miso and potato soup. You can also discover that you really like dried squid jerky; you just never knew it!
For the less adventurous, try dried wasabi peas, or the Japanese equivalent of Chex Mix, where the crunchy wheat squares are swapped for crispy rice crackers and you have a seafood flavor instead of barbeque. There’s a world of otaku food out there, just waiting for your mouth!