As “junkies,” there’s a certain diet we’re associated with. From gamer geeks to comic nerds, our diets tend to revolve around what’s quick, easy and cheap. Some of us eat a bit healthier than others, opt out of meat, and maybe stick to a low calorie diet, but let’s be honest: we all love a good hamburger (even if we choose soy over beef).
With that in mind, “Food for the Nation” tries to cover food our fellow junkies would probably be able to eat (and afford). Since I’m in Japan, I think it only makes sense that when I’m writing this column, Japanese food will probably take center stage, though this may change if I travel. Health concerns may pop up, culture may be discussed, and yes, maybe I’ll add in some cooking tips, but for the most part, don’t expect complaints about how over cooked the vegetables were, what’s seasonally appropriate, or complaints that a McDonald’s hamburger is using low quality materials. Now that the real food critics have hopefully stepped out, let’s discuss one of the staples of geekdom: donuts!
Last time we covered sweet snacks. I was hoping to cover some other topic before doing sweets again, but something came up. Japan’s big on limited time flavors and seasonal stuff, and while walking through the mall, this just kind of fell in my lap. Well, more like assaulted my traditional donut views.
A quick history lesson for those who’ve never been to the land of the rising sun. As I hinted at in the pizza article, Japan has a way of taking chains that aren’t doing so well in America and turning them into something amazing. So much so that Japanese people tend to think these chains are Japanese. Mister Donut is one of these franchises. In fact, I too had thought it was Japanese until the donuts came up in a discussion while one of my aunts was visiting us. She found a plate with the Mister Donut logo that my sister had gotten, and we thought that since she hadn’t been to Japan, we’d tell her about our favorite “Japanese” donut shop. Upon finishing our explanation, my aunt said, “It’s not Japanese. I used to work at a Mister Donut in college.” Minds blown, we checked Wikipedia and, sure enough, the franchise did originate in the states but lost out to Dunkin’ Donuts.
The chain is quite popular in Asia, and is sometimes associated with some rather strange flavors and designs, but in Japan, it’s always seemed quite tame. The “pon de ring” (pictured above) which is made to be a bit chewier than a tradition donut just reminds me of mochi (Japanese rice cakes). It’s still sweet, but a bit different. Flavors like green tea, cherry, and pumpkin are tame or available in the states too. I love the donuts, but for the most part, they never really surprised me.
That was, until today. This year, there’s a bit of a Western Japan/Eastern Japan thing going on, with each region getting some rather unique pon de ring donut sandwiches. To some, that sounds a bit tame, but some of those flavors are downright scary for me personally.
Western Japan gets green raisin, mango, mochi with red bean, and okonimiyaki. I was hoping to introduce that last one in a separate article since it’s pretty Japanese and explanations without having tried the food are usually poorly understood. It’s a well loved Japanese dish that is sadly hard to find in the states. Many things are flavored as okonomiyaki but I didn’t think I’d cover anything for awhile. For those who tried to read the Wikipedia article for an explanation, let me try to simplify it for you: it’s a stuffed, savory pancake, usually served at least with green onions, bonito flakes, and mayonnaise on top, and cabbage inside. Variations do some strange things, but I think once you’ve tried three types, you know what to expect.
Now, things are about to get a little more complicated. Remember, there are different flavors for each region. I consider Kansai (Western Japan) more of my Japanese “hometown” since I spent more time there until I began working in Kanto (Eastern Japan), so sadly I don’t get to try those flavors until around New Year’s. Here in Kanto, our flavors are buttered potato, zunda (edamame/soy beans made into a paste that’s a bit sweet), koshihikari (a type of white rice), and monjayaki. Really, I didn’t expect to introduce okonomiyaki or monjayaki flavorings until after showing the real deal, but seasonal flavors happen. At any rate, if you feel like you have a decent understanding of okonomiyaki, it’s time to make things more complicated. Monjayaki is Kanto’s reply to okonomiyaki. Think okonomiyaki pancake batter cooked until it’s like cheese, then eaten hot off the grill. I know, the first one’s hard enough to imagine, and now I’m asking you to heat up the freaking dough and eat it. That’s Japan.
So I bought the donuts, took’em home, and tried them. Quick personal preference that I should probably have mentioned during the pizza article: I don’t like corn unless it’s popped or turned into cornmeal. Don’t ask. I can eat it, but it’s not my thing. This made the monja donut the scariest for me, since it’s got cabbage (no problem) and corn (problem). Knowing this would be the most difficult, I decided to bite the bullet and try the scariest first.
The donut isn’t sweet, so that makes everything a million times better. Since monjayaki is already kind of like a filling, the texture’s pretty on, though I’m used to my tongue being burned since you eat the stuff right off the grill. The donut in this aspect is preferable if you just want the basic taste, though sadly I didn’t get much of a cabbage flavor or texture, just monjayaki and corn on a slightly salty and chewy donut. It’s certainly an experience, but for me, I think one time is enough.
Next came the zunda (edamame paste). This one’s actually got some slightly sweet powder on the top. The zunda is almost jellied though. It’s not bad actually, but it’s also nothing to write home about. You could just tell someone it’s a donut with green jelly and they probably wouldn’t question it, unless you enjoy testing strange food on people and they know to be suspicious of what you give them. Not that I know anyone like that, mind you.
Next is the rice one. which is surprisingly sweet. And it has bits of rice. And… alcohol? At least flavoring, since the site mentions the content isn’t included in the label. It kind of reminds me of rice pudding. It’s not what I expected, but this one seems the most like a Japanese donut to me. I think I prefer green tea flavoring, but this is still surprisingly good. Don’t try getting a buzz off it though, just enjoy the chewiness, bits of rice for extra texture, and sweet taste of… um, rice.
Finally, buttered potato. As a sandwich donut, I had higher expectations since, well, it’s already starchy and a bit more western, like sandwiches in general. I mean, I know the term just means “stuff between bread stuff” but with a pretty savory flavor here, I went in with that expectation. I also figure you can just make mashed potatoes, add some fake butter, and pipe that into a donut. This one’s supposed to be more Hokkaido (the norther island) flavored, since supposedly that’s where the taters came from. The region’s also famous for dairy. In fact, the milk candies in the sweet snacks article were supposedly from Hokkaido. The taste of the whole donut, though, is like sweetened, buttered mashed potatoes, with a hint of salt, except chewy because of the donut. It’s different, but not bad.
So that’s Eastern Japan’s present from Mister Donut this year. Oh, well, there was some Snoopy stuff some of you might notice on the box, but those are just designs, not special flavors. The sandwich donuts are much more of an experience, at about $1.50 per donut. Naturally, these are a limited time product, but one I feel safe recommending. Those curious about the other four flavors are going to have to wait a bit though. Sorry!