"Adventures in Japanese junk food

Twenty years ago in Indianapolis, it was hard to find an authentic Mexican restaurant in Indianapolis, let alone a good Thai or Japanese place.

All during the 1970s and most of the ’80s, the most adventurous dining experience was Chinese food — and even that was the Wonder Bread Americanized style.

Thankfully, times have changed and we now have a multiplicity of great ethnic dining experiences to choose from. How sad it would be if I couldn’t eat at Shalimar or India Garden, or many of the other wonderful restaurants in Indianapolis.

Sure, if you want bland, corporate chain food places, you have many to choose from, each as depressingly similar and predictable.

One of the great joys of my life is the fact that I live only a few blocks away from several fine sushi restaurants, including Ocean Word and Sakura. I love sushi and I could eat it every day. I’ll even go for the Marsh sushi if I’m in a hurry.

But one can’t live on sushi alone, which is why I’ve branched out a bit in my choices. Helping me in this task is Sakura Mart, located just around the corner from the restaurant, and offering a wide variety of other, wonderful Japanese treats.

In fact, it’s become a bit of an obsession with me of late. I shop at regular grocery stores as infrequently as I can and buy everything else at Sakura Mart.

And several of the items there have become staples of my diet, but none more so than the wonderful candy Pocky. Pronounced “pokey,” it’s a sweet biscuit stick dipped in chocolate. It’s a cult item in Japan, and it’s easy to see why, because the things are so damned tasty.

Besides the chocolate and strawberry varieties, there’s a dizzying amount of flavors of Pocky. Pineapple cream, yogurt, even Men’s Pocky, which is a bittersweet chocolate flavor that, apparently, requires the consumer own a penis to enjoy fully.

My obsession started with Pocky and quickly spread to other items, all adorably named. Hello Panda cookies are chocolate-filled and tasty, while a similar product, Koala’s March, also comes in strawberry. The boxes are covered with impossibly cute cartoon pandas and koalas.

Enjoying Japanese junk food is an experience that goes beyond just the flavor, although kiwi-flavored gummy candies are delicious. The packaging is almost as fun as the candy itself.

Iced coffee in cans is a passion of mine, but the Starbucks varieties are too sweet and too milky for my taste. However, canned iced coffee from Japan is a revelation: bitter, dark and thick as tar.

Boss brand coffee is delicious, and the trademarked logo of an American executive smoking a pipe just adds to the experience. If drinking the coffee of a boss isn’t enough, there’s the ultimate java experience: God brand coffee.

You know that you’re on your way to becoming a deity, or at least a demigod, when your beverage screams the word GOD at you in giant letters on the side of the can.

If that’s a little too ostentatious, there’s the market leader, UCC Coffee, whose can delivers a masterful bit of ad copy. “UCC: The premier maker of the canned liquid coffee in Japan. Come on and enjoy its original taste.”

“Come on.” With such persuasive wording, who could possibly resist its appeal?

I’m still a redneck from the Southside of Indy, though, and as such, some items are still too bizarre for me. I’ll accept squid, I’ll gladly eat eel and I’ll devour a jar of hot Korean kimchi in 15 minutes.

But I draw the line when it comes to Let’s Party Dried Crabs. Sold in a festive yellow bag with the words “Party Time” at the bottom, these are among the strangest snacks I’ve ever seen.

They’re not pieces of crab, or a crab-like chip, they’re actual tiny baby crabs, dried and coated with a sweet sauce and sesame seeds. After months of debate, I finally brought a package home.

I bit into one and I could taste the bottom of the sea. It was a combination of soy sauce, rotting fish and razor-sharp pieces of shell cutting open the roof of my mouth.

More of a Fear Factor dare than an actual food product, I couldn’t find anyone who could down one without gagging, although a Google search revealed that there are some who actually enjoy them.

At any rate, I’m glad we have more food choices than ever before in Indianapolis. As long as I don’t have to eat Let’s Party Dried Crabs, I’ll be fine. 



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