Category Archives: Japan

Japanese Premium Dark Chocolate – Meiji The Premium Single

Meiji Dark Chocolate Squares on Package

The Chocolate is molded with precision into deep squares

I’m back in Tokyo this week and had chance to pick up some real Japanese chocolate.  It seems that the trend towards premium and single-origin chocolate has finally reached Japan’s shores.  Meiji Milk Company has been around for almost 100  years and makes various inexpensive chocolate bars that can be found in the ubiquitous Seven-Elevens and Lawsons stores throughout the country.  Now, for the first time, I’ve come across a Japanese-made dark chocolate bar that uses single-origin beans and is marketed as a “premium” chocolate.

The box explains single-origin chocolate

The box explains single-origin chocolate

Can the Japanese really make great chocolate bars?  After all, the food of the gods has its origins in Mesoamerica and was first transformed into drinking chocolate and what you would recognize as chocolate bars in Europe.  In fact, chocolate making seems to be far more intertwined with European culture which boasts easily over one hundred makers of bars alone – from Amedei to Zotter, never mind truffles and all the rest.  Europe has more practice and more history with refined chocolate than anyone else in the world. So, can a Japanese company really learn how to make a world class chocolate bar?

I will answer my own, intentionally naïve, question.  Yes, in my estimation, the Japanese are capable of making pretty much any fine or gourmet food you can think of.  When I lived in Japan with my family, we were delighted to hear that Tokyo had been deemed by Michelin to be “… a shining star in the world of cuisine[2].”  It’s an international city on par with any other and clearly people here get the concept and techniques behind fine food.

One of my favorite comfort foods when we lived here was the chocolate croissant.  When the walls of our tiny apartment started to close in, I would lead my then three-year-old son by the hand down to street level and around the corner to a delightful little bakery that might as well have been in New York or Paris.  The perfect little airy, buttery pastries made a lasting impression on both of us.  These are one of the few things my son can still remember from his time in Tokyo:   the “chocolate ‘a-sants.”

So, I have no doubt that Japan is capable of producing great chocolate, but Meiji Milk company?  Let’s taste some and see.

Dark chocolate from Dominican cacao beans

Dark chocolate from Dominica cacao beans

WHAT:   Meiji The Premium Single Dark Chocolate – Dominica.  61% Cacao. 58g. Ingredients: Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, trehalose emulsifier (soy lecithin, sucrose esters of fatty acids), artificial flavor.

Where to buy in USA: H-Mart Stores.

WHEN: September 25, 2011

OVERALL RATING:  73

AROMA:  Heavy roast, smoked ham, roasted fig, green beans, vanillin.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:  Malt.  It takes a while to open up, so not much else initially.

MIDDLE TASTE: Raspberry, oak, pine, cacao fruit.  I have to give them some credit for bringing out a bit of cacao fruit.

FINISH:  Cedar, caramel, wax beans.  Simple, not complex, but gets a few points for a long finish.

TEXTURE: A little dull, but melts fine.

LAST BITE:  Sorry guys, this is not a great bar.  Meiji is sort of the Hershey’s of Japan, so what can we expect?  Well premium should be premium, but to be fair and compare to something clearly not premium, I bought some “garden variety” Meiji chocolate from the closest Lawsons.  I found a pack of little dark chocolate squares called Meiji Black.  In Japan, they seem to like products with the simple designation: “Black”– noting some pure extreme or trying to draw in a masculine audience like the popular chewing gum called Black Black.

Meiji Black is their basic dark chocolate

Meiji Black is their basic dark chocolate

Well, the Meiji Black was as bad as the Hershey’s we all know – with an unnatural aroma of church-lady perfume and a flavor profile that boasts notes of salad oil, tomatoes, vanilla ice cream and marshmallow.  When you compare The Premium Single to that, then yes, these guys have made an honest effort, but they have a way to go yet.  Here’s my advice to Meiji:  you’re on the right track, but please get rid of all the artificial flavors – probably vanillin – and pay some closer attention to fermentation and roasting and you will have something closer to world class.  I’ve read that the quality of beans from the Commonwealth of Dominica can be excellent, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with the bean source.  You just need to work out some bugs the way you know best – practice, refine, purify, repeat.

Notes:

[1] I paid for these bars myself.

[2] Some doubted the validity of Michelin’s praise, but they did award 3 French restaurants their highest honor of 3-stars.

[3] Meiji is pronounced “may gee.”  Well, technically, “may ee gee” spoken quickly as “may gee.”

A Chocolate Street Tasting: Taza Takes Tokyo

SHARE: Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

Some Harajuku kids pose for photos by tourists

Some Harajuku kids pose for photos by tourists

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I informed my wife’s Japanese cousins of my impending arrival and was met with the following email which I shall simply offer with no interpretation.

Dear Walter,

Hello, It becomes seem energetic and dependence.

I’m energetic as usual.

It continues, and the recession worries also by

the company because of the business slump here,too.

It wishes that it want you to recover business early.

Of course your country too.

So this Sunday, I’m looking forward to seeing you.

The business trip must go well.

And, become happy trip, Naoko.

I promptly replied with a much less poetic message espousing my energy.  Apparently my last trip to Tokyo in late 2009 had been taken as a clear sign that the global economy is in recovery.   I was delighted to receive an equally positive series of messages from another cousin, including this one:

It decided it.

Harajuku Station (Omotesando entrance) at 1:00PM  of Sunday, the 27th

Shinichiro, Naoko, and I go.

It looks forward to meeting soon.

Please do happy travel, TAKIKO   \(^o^)/

I upheld my duty to bring positive energy into Tokyo and set out to spread the word on my favorite feel-good food: chocolate.  Seeing an opportunity in their enthusiasm, I quickly recruited Naoko-san, Takiko-san and Shinichiro-san to help with a little experiment – Street Tasting in Tokyo.  But how would I get people, Japanese people no less, to eat chocolate on the street in a culture that considers eating in public places to be rude and that is generally in a state of near-panic about the spread of H1N1?  I decided to stage my little experiment in one of the few places where Japanese are allowed to behave like someone else: Harajuku.

Tasting Chocolate in Harajuku

Harajuku is a Tokyo neighborhood famous for its “Harajuku kids” – kids and young adults dressed in wacky fashions of their own invention.  It’s been going on for years as a safe form of youthful rebellion.  Often groups of kids will dress in a coordinated theme or you might see individuals doing their own thing.  It’s well-known that Japanese culture doesn’t exactly encourage individualism, but the Harajuku scene provides an opportunity for creative expression at least for a few.

I’ve visited Harajuku some 10 to 15 times, but only recently observed what appears to be a new trend: the kids are no longer just kids.  People of all ages have gotten into the act.  Why not?  If anything, adults are more, not less in need of an expressive outlet – to slip out of character, to be someone else for an afternoon or just act a little goofy.  This time, I found “Charisma-man,” a dancing dude, and a guy wearing something that looked like furry pink Mickey-mouse ears.  All grown adults.

So with plenty of potential victims to choose from, we approached the crowd with a video camera and some Taza chocolate.  After explaining that this was special stone ground, organic chocolate from the USA, we asked people to compare two flavors:  Taza Chocolate Mexicano Vanilla and Taza Chocolate Mexicano Yerba Mate .  We filmed it all,  but I have to apologize for the video quality because my camera apparently didn’t survive the trip as well as I did and something was wrong with the exposure.  Anyway, the video is too entertaining to skip, so please try to get beyond the distorted skin tone.

Dancing Dude

This first guy enjoyed bouncing around to the beat of his own boom box.  He had a little routine where he would take his shirt off in a dramatic way only to put it back on again and repeat the whole process for a new audience.  His favorite was Yerba Mate which he said “felt good on my tongue.”  He also described the chocolate  as “crispy” and having a “very swift, light taste.”  Although these wouldn’t be my choice of words, he did capture part of the unique charm of Taza’s stone-ground approach – a rustic more granular texture.

Charisma man is ready for action

Charisma Man

This guy was a riot with his faux marshal arts moves and some kind of monologue in Japanese that flew over my head.  I got a little concerned when 30 seconds after we started our interview the police showed up and started questioning him.  Even though I feared we had broken the “no filming people eating chocolate on the street law,” I kept filming through it.  It turns out that some tourists simply wanted to know when Charisma Man would start jumping around again.  And with a little help from some dark chocolate, he did.

Charisma Man liked the Taza Stone Ground Vanilla the best for which he thanked us…repeatedly.  Apparently, our friend in the yellow jumpsuit is an aspiring comedian and uses Harajuku as a sort of viral marketing environment for self promotion.  Good luck Charisma Man!

Harajuku Kids

For our last interview we found some youth even if they weren’t dressed in typical Harajuku kids attire, if there is such  a thing.   These two girls were best friends, one around 15 and the other a bit older.  While the adults struggled to find something specific to describe this interesting and unconventional chocolate, using general words like “crunchy” and “sweet,” it took a  15 year old to really understand the characteristic fruitiness of minimally-processed chocolate.  Maybe it was because her taste buds had not yet been dulled by years of cigarettes and shochu or maybe it was because she was too young to have any preconceptions about what flavors belong in chocolate and what don’t – a mind and a pallet open to any possibility.  Either way, she nailed it in one word: “raspberries.”  Amazing.

These girls both liked the Stone Ground Vanilla Dark Chocolate the best, bringing the final score to 3-1 in favor of vanilla.

How to Get There and What to See

Major airlines service Tokyo’s Narita Aiport daily. Once you exit baggage claim, go straight across the hall to the counters where you can buy tickets to the limousine bus service to your hotel for about 3000¥.  A taxi to downtown would be easily more than $150).  Some people prefer the speed of the Narita Express train.  You can buy train tickets near the limousine bus counter or follow the signs downstairs to the train ticket counter.  This train takes you to Tokyo Central Station and from there you can take a taxi to your hotel.  This option is slightly more expensive, but may be faster during rush hour.  There is space at the end of each train car for large bags.

Once in Tokyo, hop on what has been called “the most important train line in the world” – the Yamanote line (yah-mah-no-tay).  The Yamanote circles Tokyo and hits most of the important and interesting neighborhoods.  Best of all, the stations and trains have signs and maps in English and are relatively easy to use.

To see the Harajuku scene, get off at the Harajuku stop.  Follow the crowd through the turnstiles to exit the station at the Omotesando exit and continue straight on.  After you are outside of the station, follow the sidewalk around to the right and you are there.  Bring your camera and ask first before taking photos.

Continue past the “Harajuku kids” and you will see a gigantic gate entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, one of Tokyo’s largest.  Expect to walk about a half mile along wide gravel paths to reach the shrine (yes, you can push a baby stroller on this path with some difficulty if you are determined).  The walk is enjoyable in itself as you pass through a forested oasis in the middle of Tokyo.

Pass the Meiji Jingu Shrine entrance and follow the sidewalk around the bend to the left and then just to the right are usually street vendors and the entrance to Yoyogi koen (park).  This is a nice spot if you are still in the mood for a walk and want to watch people relaxing or teenagers playing pseudo-martial arts games.

Shopping and Eats

To find a plethora of restaurants and shops, exit the station and go left to cross the street using the overhead walkway.  The first few blocks are mostly restaurants, and the shops begin after that.  There’s a ramen  shop on the corner when you come down from the overhead walkway that has a line out the door on the weekends, so it must be good.  The Omotesando mall is up on the left about ¾ mile.

If you want to see some funky shops where the “Harajuku Kids” get some of their garb, go left inside the station as soon as you exit the turnstiles, cross the road and follow sidewalk to the left.  Take a right down the street on this map that has a McDonalds and 7- Eleven.  You’ll find some fun tee-shirt shops as well as crêperies for a snack.

Please feel free to write if you want other recommendations.

Disclosures:  I paid for all of the chocolate tasted in this story.