Dagashi Sagashi: Japanese Penny Candy and Snacks: Intro + Umaibou x 5

In which I talk about a tasty topic and start a new series of posts.

Did you ever see the old episode of The Simpsons where Bart is at some grumpy old woman’s house and all she has to entertain him with is a book full of cake pictures? He asks—does she have any real cake? And she snaps back at him that no, she doesn’t like cake at all; it’s too sweet.

I always laughed at that scene because I relate to it more than I care to admit. I like food, of course and obviously, but honestly a lot of the time I get more excited about how something looks rather than how it tastes. Especially with sweet food, it becomes too much quickly. Yet I’ve collected Japanese food miniatures for more than ten years! At least, I figure, it’s not fattening.

One Japanese food category I tend to like a lot for its small size, often quite good taste, and really cool aesthetics is 駄菓子 dagashi — literally “cheap snacks” marketed for kids (the first character, 駄 da, doesn’t really mean “cheap”—my words fail me for a good translation of the character alone, maybe like “insignificant”—but you might know it as the first character of 駄目 (dame, no good) or the second of 無駄 (muda, worthless)). The name is meant to contrast with 上菓子 jougashi, made with better quality ingredients like refined sugar (the first character means above, as in 上手 jouzu, good at).

I find dagashi just delightful. I like the way there’s a dagashi store that’s been around since the late 1700s; I like the little contests and games in shops; I love, like I said, the way they look and often the way they taste—and I also really like the role they play in teaching Japanese kids about early money concepts. Even if some of these snacks are bought more in convenience stores now than in traditional dagashi shops, the setup of a dagashi shop still is often used to teach money. In fact, this “what can you buy with X number of yen” approach was found in the Sumikko Gurashi Gakkou Daisuki book I discussed here not long ago.

The treats are all prototypical dagashi.

So I’ll be writing on these from time to time, depending on what I happen to run across. For now, let’s begin with a snack that’s fairly well known in the States—Umaibou. Umaibou are big puffed corn snacks with a texture in between a Cheeto and a Funyun. They come in a lot of flavors, mostly savory, so you’ll see the random five I got in an assortment below are a bit unusual for being 40 percent sweet.

Umaibou is written うまい棒, where うまい umai means delicious and 棒 bou means stick. Pretty appropriate name! Their mascot, Umaemon, has a name that is based on Doraemon and looks a whole lot like him. A lot. A lot. I, uh, might have thought he was Doraemon for a long time. Putting that aside, let’s get to these five Umaibou!

It’s impossible to get them to all lie straight.
  • The first one is sugar rusk flavor. This was the only sweet Umaibou I’d tried before today, and it’s still as pleasant as ever, if perhaps a bit underwhelming. It tastes a bit like a Nilla Wafer or the cookie part of a creme sandwich cookie, but leans less toward a butter taste and more toward a lighter, sugary one.
  • Next we have the Tokyo exclusive flavor, cinnamon apple pie. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, since I like savory Umaibou and apple pie is probably the least exciting fruit pie to me. But as is very typical of Japanese snacks, this doesn’t taste like apple pie flavor — it tastes like apple pie! There’s a lovely apple tartness under the cinnamon-y sweetness that’s quite nice.
  • In the middle, we reach a type I’ve often seen but never before tried, since I didn’t love mentai the only time I’d eaten it. However, I was surprised to find I liked this one a lot — it’s a little salty, a little more smoky, and I bet if you asked many Americans what it tasted like, they’d say Korean barbecue or something similar. Maybe I need to give mentai/mentaiko another chance….
  • Second from the right is my favorite Umaibou of all time, tonkatsu sauce flavor! It’s funny, but while I feel a huge part of Umaibou’s appeal lies in how much they taste like their namesakes, this one doesn’t do that so much to me. But while I love tonkatsu sauce, I also love the highly tangy, dry (in the sense of tannins, not the snack’s texture), sweet-and-savory-and-sour taste of this snack. I’ve been known to polish off an amount of them that can only be described as horrifying, even in one sitting. An old friend used to joke that I should serve them at my wedding.
  • Finally, we have cheese flavor. But just because I said the texture is rather like a Cheeto and this is cheese -flavored doesn’t mean this is entirely familiar. While I like cheese a lot, I don’t like many cheese flavored snacks all that horribly much. However, there is something both milder and slightly sweeter about Japanese cheese flavorings on things like chips, so I liked this one more than I thought I would.

If you want to try some dagashi, Umaibou are a good start, rather like snacks you might have tried from the States or thereabouts, but different enough that you get a little taste of a different culture. And even if you don’t like one flavor (or feel mixed about its prospects, like I do about the newest lemon flavor, or the fact that Umaemon apparently has a moe sister), you might like the next. Hope you like the next installment of my occasional dagashi content too!

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