Project Snack

On Wednesday March 13, 2002, a package appeared on my doorstep. A mysterious package with strange symbols printed in red and blue. Cautiously, I brought it inside. The sender: Sabine. The contents: mysterious food offerings from the far east, from a land known by the locals as Ni-Hon.

I am not a stranger to foreign delicacies, for in my youth, during my travels in French West Africa during my service in the French Foreign Legion, I tasted many strange and varied edibles: roasted goat eyes, fermented horse tongue, and even steaming camel toe. No, the bizarre tastes of the world are not alien to my travelled palate.

Yet here, in these strange and varied packages were things — unsettling things — that made me pause in my unpacking of the box. All of these things, all of these unidentifiable things once lived and some may have breathed, unless of course they were fish, on which subject I am unclear on whether they are actually breathing if they are respirating water. But I digress. All of these things… once lived. And now, here, spread on my table, they invited me with their garish wrappings to sample them.

Thus began Project Snack: a personal exploration of the snacking delicacies of Ni-Hon.

Flayed sweet sesame fishy thing-that-was-almost-certainly-formerly-a-fish

My first sampling was something labelled “AJI NO HAMAYAKI”. Pulling it gingerly from its wrapper, I immediately detected a fishy smell, owing presumably to the fact that it appeared to be a small fish, spread open with the tail intact. A sticky coating held tiny
sesame seeds affixed to this piscine treat. In texture, it felt rubbery.

Gingerly, I took a bite from the top corner. Or tried to, that is. The tiny tidbit resisted my attempt to gnaw from its fishy flank. Yet, although I was deprived of a sample, a sweetly herring-like taste lingered in my mouth. Yes, this was, in fact, a fish.

I decided to take the bull by the horns, or more specifically, take the fish by the tail. I put the whole thing in my mouth and chewed.

It was… fishily pleasant, in a fishy, sweet way. All too soon this pleasant flavour vanished, and I was left unexpectedly yearning for more. But there was none. I would have to press on in my investigation.

Beer nuts??

Could it be so obvious? In this blue package, labelled “Pone Packun”, were several peanut-sized bumpy objects which looked suspiciously like the common beer nut. The package opened to expel the gentle fragrance of peanuts. I would be safe with this one.
Flavourful, familiar, and a perfect accompaniment to light Japanese lager beer.

But this was only the calm before the proverbial storm. The next sampling… Big Katsu Big Katsu.

Big Katsu Big Katsu

This large, flat package was, to say the least, intimidating. What could Big Katsu Big Katsu be made of? On the front, Sabine’s note explains that it is “Tonkatsu jerky”. I enjoy jerky on occasion, as any man does. In my snacking history, I have tried beef, chicken, and salmon. This Big Katsu Big Katsu brand tonkatsu jerky, however, was a new concept. And as I gingerly opened the plastic, I prayed that “Katsu” meant some other animal than the one I was picturing.

A “Miss Mew” TV commercial floated through my mind.

From the package slid a greasy, breaded rectangle that measured about 14 centimetres by 5 centimetres and smelled like… something sweet. I tore a bite from one end of the crispy object.

Sweet. Then spicy. I’m not certain that it was entirely like chicken but it was close. They say that a lot of things taste like chicken. I hesitated, then put the thought out of my mind.

Beneath the greasy crust, there was a 2 millimetre wafer of white meat. I am hoping it had never worn a name tag, because my affection for this treat grew very quickly. It toyed, so to speak, with my taste buds.

Shreds of yellowish thing

What were these things? As I examined the contents closely, I realized that they were not shreds, but rings of something, like deformed rubber washers from my kitchen sink. A small graphic in the bottom left-hand corner of the package showed two pints of beer.
Perhaps it indicated how much beer it would take to drown the flavour. Or perhaps it described how much one needs to drink before losing one’s judgement enough to eat O-shaped slices of unidentified meat.

After two full pints of lager, I tore open the package with a reckless lack of manual dexterity. I was startled to notice a smokey, hickory smell wafting from the shredded flesh. I tentatively tasted half an “O”.

What was that flavour? I had never in all my travels experienced anything like it. Smoke, fish, salt. Perhaps it was a package of smoked fish with salt. The experience was not entirely without a lack of displeasure.

The package proved to be inaccurate. It took three and a half pints to wash the flavour from my palate.

Breaded strip of something-that-is-presumably-meat

Echoes of Big Katsu Big Katsu. Was this going to be the a repeat of the tonkatsu in miniature? Even days later, the uncertainty of what I had eaten made me unable to look my neighbor’s kat in the eyes.

Again, the package taunted me with the twin pints in the bottom corner. Was this advice or a serving suggestion? What did the words “O TSU MA MI” mean? Was this a description, or a warning? My imagination ran wild. I could picture Sabine saying ‘O tsu ma mi? Oh, that means “Warning: do not consume with alcohol”.’

Do not consume with alcohol? I have to admit, I was trembling with fear. Ripples danced in my lager, but it was already too late. I had earlier consumed yellowish meat shreds with beer, and only days before, I had unwittingly matched some Asahi Super Dry lager with Big Katsu Big Katsu.

I paused. Maybe it was a warning even more dire than to avoid alcohol. Maybe– my mind reeled. I imagined myself gasping with my last, dying breath, “O TSU MA MI… IS… PEOPLE!” On the other hand, perhaps I had seen one too many movies starring Charlton Heston.

This introspection had made me peckish, and suddenly I realized that, for the last two minutes, I had been chewing absently on the breaded strip of something-that-was-presumably-meat.

I have to admit… those people make good snacks.

Thin fillet of something fish-like with unsettling cartoon on the package

Another offering from the Pone Packun family of fine snacks, this one intrigued me from the start for two reasons. Firstly, the fillet of amber meat had a delightfully intriguing shape. Secondly, the cartoon on the front was seriously disturbing. It appeared to be a samurai, judging by the clothes and the sword, who was in the process of eating a strip of something. Perhaps I’m reading this incorrectly, but his face expresses a combination of disgust and nausea.

I may not be attuned to the subtleties of Japanese marketing, but this deterred me from opening the package immediately. But as my objective was a full exploration of these treats, so I opened the package despite my misgivings.

As the package exhaled the distinct odour of dead sealife, I noticed a detail that I had missed earlier: the transparent window of the package appeared to describe the outline of a squid. So. This was squid.

I took a bite from one end. It was squiddy. Very squiddy. Very, very, definitely squiddy. And it had an aftertaste very much like the smell of unwashed sports socks that have been buried in a gym locker for several months. It’s quite possible that at that moment, I looked like the samurai fellow on the package.

Unidentifiable glazed chip-of-something

This unusual offering was puzzling. Why would anyone package each chip individually? There was more plastic than… whatever it was. Out of its package, the chip-of-something measured 4.5 centimetres by 2.3 centimetres. It wasn’t even the size of a respectable potato chip. Yet the individual wrapper implied that a single chip was enough. This was either an extremely special snack or, after tasting it, no one would want more. To discover which was the case, I attempted a bite. It was too tough to bite, so I put the whole chip-of-something in my mouth.

Extremely fishy. Mind-bogglingly fishy. For the moments I was chewing it, the only thoughts in my mind related to the ocean, fish, and general fishiness. I swallowed quickly to get the thing away from my tortured taste buds.

I then knew why one would never need more than one in a package.

Kimchi squid

The kimchi squid tantalized me with possibilities. The package was pleasing, the contents looked refreshing, and moreover, I knew what it was, due to Sabine’s helpful note that said, “kimchi squid”.

I like kimchi. I like squid. I have even, on occasion, eaten kimchi with squid. For those readers who are unfamiliar with kimchi, it is originally a Korean invention which consists of coarsely chopped suey choy (a kind of cabbage) that has been soaked in a piquant pepper sauce. One can buy kimchi in jars at the local grocery store.

This, however, appeared to contain no vegetable matter. Through the transparent squid-shaped window, the contents were reminiscent of fruit leather, soaking in an orange liquid. Was this squid jerky in spicy kimchi sauce?

I do learn from mistakes. After my encounter with the thin fillet of something fish-like with the unsettling cartoon on the package, processed squid did not have the appeal it may have had otherwise. But I was pursuing a nobler purpose, and Project Snack would go forward.

Inside the opened package was a slimy brown rectangle, from which a vinegar odour masked the aroma of fishiness. I tasted it.

It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Leathery and slightly sweet, this rectangle would likely fit well in a sandwich in place of salami. One might also successfully use this kimchi squid to patch holes in vinyl furniture.

Mochi balls with red bean paste

I expected candy. It was not. It was, however, extremely sweet with a soft, rubbery texture. Inside the mochi was red bean paste… sweet, but not overly so. If pressed, I would eat mochi again without much resistance.

Desiccated road-kill squid

Despite Sabine’s label indicating an “octopus chip”, the cartoon character on the garish wrapper was definitely related to squid. I shivered involuntarily. This was the fourth squid-related treat — that is, of the items that I could identify. The chip-of-something may also have been squid, but I will never know.

My encounters with squid, to this point, had been… less than pleasing. I suspect that squid meat does not take well to being packaged and consumed weeks (if not months) after the creature’s demise.

Originally a single, large chip, the object was now broken. Despite the breakage the tentacle shapes suggested squid anatomy, as if the arms had been severed, dried, and flattened — like road-kill. Perhaps there’s a spot on a Japanese sea-side highway where squid drag themselves from the sea to spawn inland, only to be terminated violently and suddenly by passing cars. It was, to me, a plausible image.

In flavour, this crunchy octopod was light and sweet, with only a hint of fishiness and asphalt.

Peanuts and ….?

Pone Packun brand obviously offers a range of snacks that is stunning in its breadth. Everything from peanuts to squid meat that is so heavily processed that it no longer resembles the animal from whence it came. This package was the former.

Remembering the pleasantly familiar surprise of the beer nuts, I tore into this one with abandon. Peanuts, yes, but what were the brown crunchy objects? Sweet, with a touch of soya sauce, and a piquant aftertaste. Not unpleasant.

I munched the peanuts and ____ happily, trying to put the next item out of my mind.

Plant or animal? I am, frankly, nervous.

The moment could be put off no longer. I had waited a week, in hopes that my terror might subside, during which I was plagued with nightmares featuring frilly brown strips and shreds that wriggled and crawled inside my mouth. Despite my fears, I was dedicated to this voyage of discovery. I drew up my courage and extracted one of the
brown strips.

They exuded the now-familiar smell of sealife. My heart sank as I realized that this was yet another squid snack. Frilly, brown, and speckled, some of these strips had tiny fringes on them. If it was, in fact, squid, then it was from an unidentified part of the
creature’s anatomy.

Leathery in texture, and extremely fishy, the treat attacked my tastebuds mercilessly. One strip was, I decided, quite enough to evaluate this snack. The rest would be sacrificed to the fickle gods of snackdom.

Squid strings

More squid. Why more squid?

To put this one briefly, it was squiddy and it was stringy. In fairness, this was the least objectionable of all the squid-based products to date. The flavour just less than repulsive, and so therefore almost tolerable.

The nutritional information listed on the back was intriguing. According to the chart, if I was reading the Japanese correctly, the squid in the package is “19.68 kcal”. Does that mean 19.68 thousand calories? I decided that I should snack on something
lighter, like a triple bacon cheeseburger.

Umeboshi… a plum?

It was a hard plum. As I bit into it, it crunched, and an acrid flavour invaded my mouth. I’m not certain what flavour it was, but I remember exclaiming, “Oh my God, that’s awful!”. Despite my attempts to remain perfectly open-minded, I was quite unable to
finish this one.

Wasabi nori

This, finally, seemed to be a treat with no offensive qualities. The front of the package presented a happy-go-lucky wasabi, which is a kind of Japanese horseradish, and large, friendly writing that I assumed proclaimed its name for all to enjoy. Helpfully, the label
also displayed the word, “wasabinori”. Since wasabi is a horseradish, and nori is a kind of seaweed, I guessed that this would be seaweed in a wasabi coating or sauce.

I tore the wrapper with much curiousity.

What emerged was a small, glazed rectangle that exibited a texture like fruit leather. This one, unlike the fearful kimchi squid, was plant-based, if I was reading the package correctly. Measuring 8.5cm by 4cm and just under 2mm in thickness, the rectangle had a shiny coating and smelled like honey.

In flavour, it was exactly as I would imagine a honey-nut cornflake would taste with dijon mustard instead of milk. I wished I had some milk, as the stab of wasabi hotness crept into my sinuses.

Even as I swallowed the last of the wasabi nori, I was eyeing the final item in my snacking quest. The unidentified white sausage-like thing.

Shortbread

I chose the first item because of its simplicity and familiarity. Measuring 5 centimetres by 4 centimeters and wrapped in clear plastic, it seemed to be a plain shortbread biscuit. Completely non-threatening.

If you have read my first snack investigation, you will understand why I did not trust this first impression. Appearances can be deceiving, and if I were not extremely careful, I could find myself munching on a shortbread biscuit with kimchi squid on the inside.

I removed the object from its wrapper. It certainly smelled like shortbread.

Taking a bite from one end, I quickly discovered that the shortbread was indeed a facade. Inside a 3 millimetre shell of shortbread was a pale, sweet substance that I could not identify. The flavour was subtle, and the texture was soft and crumbly. Delicate, with a touch of chalk.

It was an encouraging start, but I would not let this early success colour my investigation. There were six more items to sample, and any one of them might have seafood lurking in them.

Rectangular gelatinous solid

At times like this, the advice of my mother rings in my ears: “Don’t put that in your mouth. You don’t know where it’s been.” Words to live by.

There are times, however, when one has to ignore common sense. The spirit of exploration prompts us to step beyond our limits — to test our bounds. Would Magellan have circumnavigated the globe if he had listened to common sense and believed that the world was flat? Would Ben Franklin have determined the electrical nature of lightning had he flown his kite only on sunny days? Would Egah the caveman have discovered the barbeque if he had believed that “fire bad — burn flesh”?

I think not. Such is the spirit of Project Snack.

This latest item was again unidentifiable. Inside the beige plastic was a soft semi-solid that measured 3.5cm in length by 2cm in height and width. The object yielded slightly to a gentle squeeze between two fingers, like an eraser. The opened package revealed another layer of plastic. Was this for the protection of the food or the consumer? Was this actually a kind of toxic putty for filling the cracks in bathroom tile? If the substance failed the taste test, I planned to try it on the bathroom floor.

Unwrapping it from its secondary plastic coating proved to be difficult. It was as if someone had wrapped a brown gelatin in cellophane tape. It came off only in shreds, leaving torn fragments still clinging to the sticky surface. Finally, I unwrapped enough to take a bite.

It tasted like… like nothing much really. Maybe, if I used my imagination, it tasted a bit like green tea with a seaside aftertaste. Yes. This was exactly how I imagined a cup of green tea would get if you added a cup of gelatin, sugar, and kelp, let it solidify, and chopped it into geometrically perfect blocks.

Would you care for a cube of tea?

Terrified animals

Before I begin describing this one, I wish to explain that I in no way condone the abuse of animals. I firmly believe that all creatures on this planet should be treated humanely and with respect. That is why I found the next selection so utterly shocking.

Believe it or not, this package was intended for children. I was appalled to recognise the depiction of trained animals in a state of sheer terror. I have heard that marketing techniques differ in Japan from North America, but I fail to see how this unsettling drawing could appeal to the consumer.

As I examined the seven centimetre long package, it appeared to depict a circus animal riding a unicycle along a tightrope. My heart jumped as I realised that it was screaming.

And worse… balanced precariously on its head on one paw was a smaller animal — probably a monkey — its eyes wide with fear. Below them I could make out a ring surrounded by dots, which represented their sadistic audience: evidence of their immense height from the ground. But something was missing from the image.

Then I knew what it was. There was no safety net. These animals were being forced to perform a dangerous stunt without the benefit of a net! One mistake, and both would plummet to an almost certainly splattery death. By this time I was shaking with anger and tore open the package without any regard to manners.

But what was this on the inside? A savoury aroma wafted from the narrow wrapper. Inside was a fluffy, crispy substance with a toasted golden colour. In my curiosity, I forgot the evil cover art and tasted a piece that seemed to break off easily.

Salty, tangy… perhaps puffed corn? Was that a touch of green onion? I was very much intrigued by this treat and was sad to see the bottom of the empty wrapper.

They are true artists, these snack-makers. They brought me from the sunless depths of outrage to the radiant heights of decadent sapidity. It was almost too much for my sensibilities.

Country Ma’am Chocochip Cookie

What I found strange about today’s Project Snack selection was its apparent lack of anything strange. If I ignored the fact that the words “COUNTRY MA’AM” appeared at the bottom of the wrapper for no discernable reason, it might have been a perfectly ordinary chocochip cookie.

I paused for a second and frowned. Chocochip? What, I asked myself, is a chocochip?

Perhaps it wasn not real chocolate and for legal reasons the cookie manufacturer avoided the word “chocolate”, much like the “cheeze” in cheese puffs. But artificial chocolate was not a worry for me, as long as the snack’s main ingredient did not originate in the ocean.

As I pulled open the wrapper, I wondered who the “country ma’am” was. Having read Sabine’s tale of the mama-san in Tokyo, it seemed likely that this cookie had disreputable origins. I wonder if a country ma’am has as much business as a city ma’am next to a Starbucks. But I digress.

I took a delicate bite from one edge of the 4cm cookie. It tasted like… like… why it tasted just like chocochip! With macadamia nuts too! I was quite glad at the presence of macadamias, because the Scottish nut industry has been struggling so.

How crunky is a Crunky bar?

I love chocolate. Some days, I think I could kill for a rich, dark chunk of chocolate. Fortunately, I did not have to kill today, because Sabine thoughtfully included a chocolate bar in her package of Japanese treats. This too became grist for the proverbial mill.

The chocolate bar had tempted me from the start, with its enticing photo of rich, dark chocolate and the endearing “Crunky” label. I could not help but wonder… how crunky was this Crunky bar? I had sampled some crunky treats in the past, and each time it was a heavenly experience. Believe me when I say that you have not snacked until you have eaten something crunky.

As I opened the cardboard wrapper, my mouth watered in anticipation of its crunk. Inside was a second wrapper made of foil, which I ripped aside to expose the naked Crunky bar. It was somewhat less crunky in appearance than the photo had suggested, but I nonetheless broke off a square and tossed it into my salivating mouth.

And it was crunky. It was crispy and crunky at the same time. I fell to my knees, overwhelmed by the all-enveloping sensation of unrefined crunkdom.

It tasted fairly good, too.

Hamster

Everyone loves hamsters. But do you love hamsters enough to eat them? If you have ever tried it, you will know that what meat you can get from their tiny carcasses is quite fatty and tends to taste a bit like sawdust.

From the illustration on the package, I could tell that this treat was hamster-based. This was a pleasant departure from most other items in Project Snack, which were either squid-based or sweet.

The thought of hamster meat did not surprise me, as I knew that many cultures, such as the indiginous population of Rapa Nui, regard hamsters as a principal source of protein, second only to albatross. The latter one is difficult to prepare, since the meat must be aged first by carrying the bird around one’s neck for weeks. Hamster meat, on the other hand, can be eaten immediately, and if the correct cut is used, it may be enjoyed as sashimi.

With these thoughts in mind, I tore into the attractive yellow wrapper, but was quickly disappointed. Inside were a dozen or so hamster-shaped jellies in a variety of vibrant colours. In flavour, they were fruity and sweet, with a hint of rutabaga. They were tasty little candies, but they left me confused. Were these made using reduced hamster byproducts? I failed to see the connection.

Crustacean crackers

As I examined the mitten-wearing creature on this package, a rhyme came to mind: Poor little kittens, they’ve lost their mittens. I could only assume that this creature had dispatched the three little kittens and was in the process of finishing up the last one. Very disturbing indeed.

What did that reveal about the package contents? Were these crackers made from the hungry crustacean of the illustration, or were these kitten crackers one uses to feed a pet? Such thoughts would never have occurred to me had I not previously encountered Big Katsu Big Katsu. I now approach all snacks with a healthy dose of suspicion (and chewable antacid).

Due to the lack of detail and apparent scale in the drawing, I found it difficult to identify the creature’s exact species. Shrimp and lobster share a similar anatomy but have several smaller legs. This crustacean had none. If I were to make any progress, I would have to open the package.

Inside were four peach-coloured, foamy wafers that measured 11 centimetres in diameter and about 3 millimetres in thickness. The crustacean cracker was crunchy and light, but unlike the styrofoam insulation they resembled, this material had a subtle fishy taste, which was accented by the tangy sauce. The sauce packet dispelled any notion that these were made from kitten. Kitten is never served with spicy sauce, as it overwhelms the delicate flavour. Or so I have heard from local restaurant owners.

Colourful tubes

Ah, I remember when I was a young lad and I used to trek a half-mile to the corner store for sweets. The shelves in that shop were laden with every treat imaginable, and some that I could not quite imagine, even when I looked right at them.

I would wander up and down the aisles simply absorbing the sights and smells and contemplating the possibilities. I can still almost hear that sweet, old shop owner’s voice ringing in my ears: “I’m watching you, you little sh–. Put anything in your pockets and I’m calling the f—ing police!”

Oh, for those golden, carefree days of my childhood.

Although I cannot recall ever buying coloured tubes of jelly as a child, I think this treat would have been right at home in that corner store, nestled between the buckets of lollies and the packets of Double Bubble. In that sentimental mood, I sat myself on a bench outside a very similar corner store before examining these chromatic candies.

The colourful tubes were enticing, and the image on the wrapper echoed my own memories of the corner store. As I examined the label, I found this word repeated: KONNYAKU.

How strange, I thought, because konnyaku is derived from a yam-like tuber, known to some as a konjac. This I knew because I often visited the entertaining and educational web site, Konnyaku.com.

Until I had encountered this product, I thought that konnyaku came in grey, tasteless blocks that one ate in soups. That konnyaku could become tubes of clear jelly in an array of gay colours was, frankly, astonishing. Perhaps it was a clever play on words — tubers in tubes? This thought kept me chuckling quietly to myself until I noticed that I was drawing some odd looks from passers-by.

After cutting one end with scissors, I found that I could coax a portion of the tuber jelly from its plastic with a slight squeeze. Its sweet, fruity flavour did not betray its subterranean origins in the slightest, yet the long, firm jelly produced a sensation that was surprisingly akin to rolling a fresh, fat earthworm around on my tongue. Fortunately, as I chewed, the tuber jellies did not writhe quite as much as earthworms are wont to do.

Q-Tips?

At first, I was not sure why Sabine had sent this. It looked to me like a box of really long Q-tips.

I do appreciate Q-tips — they are quite handy little cottony, swabby things with all kinds of uses. These, however, were like Q-tips for really deep ear canals. Why, with something that long, you could give a good scrubbing to your brain stem. It had been a while since I last swabbed my medulla, so I popped open the box.

Instantly, I realised my mistake. These were not cotton swabs, but flavoured white chocolate on crispy sticks. Biting the end off one of them, I was struck by the delicate essence of green tea. No, I would not be inserting these in any orifice but my mouth.

Astonishingly unappetizing object

In my travels I have had the fortune — and occasionally the misfortune — to sample delicacies that seem to the European palate more than a little repugnant. Why, during my years as a missionary in the jungles of the Amazon, I was positively horrified to discover that the villagers were eating what appeared to be little black beetles. As it turned out, they were not beetles at all, but Dutch salted licorice. Horrid stuff, that is. It astounds me that people can put such things in their mouth.

This latest item from the Project Snack inventory was as repulsive in appearance as anything I had encountered. It looked like, if I may use the colloquial, poo.

By this point in Project Snack, I knew quite well that the people of Ni-Hon enjoyed snacking on some unusual substances. This, however, was quite beyond my ken. It boggled the mind.

And as my mind was occupied with its boggling, I opened one end of the package and took a wary sniff. No, this was not the stench I had expected. And the object itself appeared light, as if it had been dessicated and preserved not long after its… er… extrusion. Perhaps the scent had been sealed at the factory.

What would the factory look like, I wondered, absently. Repulsive visions of a conveyor belt and sweating, straining workers flitting through my mind.

I am not a strong man, but when duty calls, I will be among the first to step up to the line, stick out my chest, and take it on the chin for Queen and country. I had started Project Snack and, by God, I would finish it. I bravely extracted the brown log from its protective sheath and promptly went to the cabinet for some Glen Livet, which I was certain I would need to cleanse and disinfect my mouth. I returned with a glass and the entire bottle. One can never be too careful when dealing with potential biohazards.

Lifting the object between a thumb and forefinger, I opened my mouth, closed my eyes, and with only the slightest hesitation, I took a bite.

Thankfully, it was not what it looked like. Deep down, I knew it would not be that. It was a white, crispy, foamy substance — reminiscent of Cheezies, but with a chocolate coating instead of simulated cheese powder. Or maybe it was more like chocolate-covered foamboard.

The scotch was a welcome chaser nonetheless.

Sticks

I enjoy a good stick from time to time. When I was a lad, my father used to throw the old stick down the lane for me to retrieve. I would come scampering back with the stick in my teeth and my father would reward me with a pat on the head and a tasty swig from the flask.

When I set eyes upon this selection from the old Project Snack box, I was reminded of those days from my childhood long past. In appearance, this too was brown and quite stick-like. Pulling one of the sticks from the wrapper, I could not help but give it a little toss and chase after it. Ah, the old habits die hard, as the saying goes. It takes me a touch more effort to bound after it these days, as I have become a little long in the tooth, and have partial dentures besides. All the same, I gladly gave myself the reward of a wee dram.

In texture, it was dry, gummy, and tended to stick to the roof my my mouth. In flavour it was reminiscent of dried cedar bark. Were it not for the memories of my youth, this snack would be an altogether unpleasant experience. I wondered, however, just what it was that I had eaten.

Squid ink pasta sauce

The young woman responsible for supplying foods to this endeavour handed me this item personally, during a brief vacation from her duties in Ikuno, Japan.

“It’s squid-ink pasta sauce,” she said.

“Good Lord!” I cried, aghast, “Do they not throw away any part of that creature?” I then paused, and realising my error, said, “Oh! Ink! Yes, I’d heard they use that in their cooking.”

Sabine gave me an odd look, but kindly refrained from comment. It is best, after all, to spare an old man the embarrassment. A well-mannered one, that Sabine is. Not an uncouth word does she ever utter.

As I examined the box, I was intrigued by the curious juxtaposition of the familiar Heinz name brand with the blackened pasta in the photograph. This, then, was the sauce for making ikasumi pasta, which owes its colour to squid ink — the black liquid that a squid will… er… eject as a means to escape an attacker.

Curiously, the box also said in gold embossed lettering on a red, white, and green banner, “ITALIAN PASTA SAUCE”. That, I suspected, was stretching the truth somewhat. Inside the box, on the white packet that held the sauce, the Heinz company kindly elaborates: “This is orthodox pasta sauce made carefully by using the best selected materials. What is more, this is very economical, for it is all right just to warm up one pack for one person.”

In preparation, I boiled some pasta in the “orthodox” manner: with salt, a touch of olive oil, and a genuflection or two.

Within minutes, my economical and carefully-made meal was ready. It was quite black, but I had my toothbrush at the ready, should the stains begin to set in too quickly.

I tasted, delicately avoiding the ring of calamari that was included in the packet. It was salty at first, with that all-too-familiar fishy aftertaste. I could also detect a vague hint at Italian spice, which the squid was ruthlessly bullying into submission. While not completely unpalatable, it was not what I would call an enjoyable pasta dish.

As well, should anyone wish to try this Heinz product, I would suggest covering the table with plastic in advance to avoid the permanent stains.

Candy buttocks

I am aware that Japanese sensibilities differ from those in the western world, but I found the shape of these candies a little… er… unusual.

Boxer noodles

I have little to say about this snack. The Boxer Noodles, as I have dubbed them, were salty and enjoyable. As intriguing as they were, the package failed failed to establish the connection between the sport of boxing and this crunchy snack.

Why, during my time as a missionary in the Amazon, I held the championship title of five villages. Never once was I asked to eat crunchy noodles – crunchy frogs, on occasion, but never noodles. Perhaps they train boxers differently in Japan, like those magnificently large sumo fellows one sees on television programmes.

Hello Kitty marshmallow

Being unfamiliar with the Hello Kitty line of products, I was uncertain what I should expect from this latest sampling from Project Snack. The package clearly indicated that it was a “chocolate marshmallow”, but the connection between it and a cartoon cat was not immediately obvious. Does Hello Kitty eat marshmallows?

I cut the marshmallow in two with a sharp knife. After seeing the diagram, I expected to discover a large cache of chocolate. Instead, I discovered a meagre pellet. Hello Kitty, apparently, is not a discerning snacker.

Crunchy little fishies

It is rare that I might pass up an opportunity to expand my snacking horizons. That is why, when I found these tiny packages at the local grocery store, I was compelled to try them.

The wrapper measured only a few centimetres across, but inside there was an entire school of tiny, dessicated fish. Each fish was intact, apart from the occasional one whose eyes had fallen out.

I tossed a couple into my mouth and crunched them. Instead of a bitter fishiness, I discovered a sweet, sesame flavour. These are very likely chock full of calcium, iron, and protein. And if you are lonely, you can keep one as a pet.

?????????

Here I was, face-to-face… or face to rubbery surface… with the pièce de resistance. This unnamed, unidentified, and indeed unattractive object defied my every attempt to determine its origins or nature. Measuring 12cm in length by 1.5cm in width, and wrapped in plastic like a German sausage in miniature, the object could well have been made of pale rubber. If I held the object up to the light, the material inside appeared transluscent and I could faintly make out tiny orange fragments suspended inside, like flies in amber. With luck they were not.

I pondered how to gain access to the substance inside the tube. On either end, metal fasteners pinched the plastic shut, but seemed not designed to be removed. Along the length was a seam in the plastic, but it defeated my attempts to open it. I would have to use a knife.

With the Wiltshire knife in one hand, and the ????????? in the other, I paused before applying the blade. What secrets would I now reveal? What was the nature of this object? Another thought struck me. Was this actually a snack? Maybe Sabine, in a moment of distraction, accidentally included a tube of carpenter’s glue with the snacks. But this thought did not worry me, because at that moment I would rather have eaten glue than another squid-based edible.

I took a deep breath and made a small incision at one end. There was no detectible odour, which eliminated squid as a possible ingredient, much to my relief. I removed the end of the sausage and discovered that the pale material was a soft semi-solid containing air bubbles and the suspended particles of orange matter.

I made another incision down the length and peeled back the plastic to expose more of the rubbery sausage. At last I detected a faint aroma. What was it? Smoky? And faintly… fishy. My heart again turned to dejection, as the possibility of squid reared its ugly tentacles.

To make the final determination, I would have to take the bull by the horns and take a bite.

Chewing revealed a mild taste with smoky overtones, and only the faintest touch of… of squid. It may have been a kind of cheese product, but it was not certain. It would almost be pleasant, if it hadn’t the texture of a soft eraser.

Lilliputian crabs

As a gentleman, I will always inform my companions that I have had crabs, whenever the moment is suited for such a disclosure. In fact, I have had them often and enjoyed the experience. However, I have to admit that I have never eaten crabs smaller than, for example, the size of my plate. These were something new.

My only previous experience with wee crabs has been under rocks at the beach near Blackpool, when I lift up and scores of the tiny creatures scuttle to and fro in a sheer panic. These were not panicking, but I may have been when I removed them from the package. Was I intended to eat them whole, guts, shell, eyes, and all?

My panic led to a gag reflex as a strong odour of dead sealife wafted from the crustacean corpses on the plastic tray. One appeared to be trying to escape, but I scolded myself that it was only my imagination.

There was nothing for it, but to proceed. I held my nose and tossed one into my gob, as it were. I tasted the sea. And something else. Something dead.

I crunched it quickly and chased it with a pint of scotch to ensure that it was completely dead and not likely to crawl back up my esophagus to freedom. The rest of the package I donated to the neighbour’s child, who doesn’t seem especially bright, but likes to put found objects in his mouth.

ShoyueMi

I found the package of ShoyueMi “Japanese noodle snack” in a cupboard at the office and was immediately intrigued by the use of a cartoon character. The intriguing part is that it appeared to be vomiting explosively while simultaneously shouting, “PRAWN FLAVOUR”. Vomit-shouting is a remarkable talent, so I decided to take it back to my desk for a sample.

Inside, I found a handful of dry, noodles that were wavy and appeared to be lightly seasoned. I crunched once and was immediately struck by a steam locomotive of prawn, followed by a lighter noodle flavour, followed by a stampede of prawn that settled into the sides of my tongue and held on tight well beyond the time in which a natural aftertaste has worn out its welcome. My tongue tasted as if I had buried it below the tide line for a week and zombie shrimp had moved in to make it their new home while simultaneously defecating all over my tastebuds.

I had a sudden desire to do some vomit-shouting of my own.

Looking back on this experience, feelings wash over me like an unexpected splash of warm vomit. I had sampled items that I had never known could exist or be sold legally. Did Sabine really send me an accurate sampling of the everyday snack foods of Ni-Hon? Why the preponderance of squid? I can’t fathom the appeal of the preserved, rubbery, odiferous substance.

As the saying goes, you are what you eat. If true, then as we speak, the residents of Ni-Hon are turning into squid-people.