October 13, 2012

A Guide to Japanese Kit Kats

Today was a monumental day for my mouth. Just shy of two years ago, during my second trip to Japan, I discovered that the fine folks at Nestle make Green Tea Kit Kats. I bought two boxes figuring they'd make good gifts, but quickly found that the greatest gift of all is giving, so by both giving to myself and receiving, I was in essence getting twice as much bang for my buck!

I was not the only person to benefit from this last minute, duty free purchase: Taylor, who is a tea enthusiast, immediately embraced (and subsequently finished) the boxes of Green Tea Kit Kats.

Flash forward to a few days ago when my good friend Claire suggested an addition to my list of goals, "eat as many weird flavors of Kit Kats as you can". While this is a somewhat open-ended goal, I have chosen to interpret it as "any time you see a new flavor of Kit Kat, you have to eat it."

Challenge accepted!

I spent the morning researching where to find Kit Kats. It turns out that there are over 200 different flavors in Japan, many of which are seasonal. There are two main reasons the Japanese have embraced so many deviations from milk chocolate; The first is that Nestle has done one hell of a job creating flavors for different tie-ins and seasonal events. The more interesting reason though, is that "Kit Kat" sounds like the Japanese phrase "Kitto Katso" which doesn't translate well but could be taken as "good luck" and is often said to school children before exams.

What does that all mean? It means Nestle realized they could capitalize on children taking tests by creating hundreds of different flavors to celebrate each new quiz!

My research was a bit discouraging though, as most people who have attempted to snatch up as many treats as they could have failed due to the seasonal nature of the product. One person on a Kit Kat forum (yes, they exist) mentioned a store in the Tokyo subway station, so Taylor and I set out in search of some chocolatey goodness.

And what did we find?
Kit Kat Kingdom

We were truly giddy. Our very first location on what was supposed to be a 3-stop journey and we had already hit the mother load. "Good luck" indeed!

After securing our booty, we
touched base with Catherine, who wanted to be a part of the adventure, and set out for a quiet café to conduct our scientific analysis of the different flavors. On the way we also found seasonal Pumpkin Pudding Kit Kats; the Gods were really smiling down upon us today.

We stumbled into a café and ordered beverages. Not because we were thirsty, but because we knew it was going to be important to cleanse our pallet in between each flavor. God forbid there is cross contamination and our perception of a certain flavor is ruined.

The next order of business was determining an order. Almost as important as the pallet cleansing is the order in which the Kit Kats are consumed. Should two fruit flavors be next to each other? Is it wise to place Hot Japanese Pepper in the middle where it could completely over-power all subsequent flavors? These were the tough questions we faced. As we deliberated, I couldn't help but think of the Vice Presidential Debate I had watched earlier in the morning and how they too were presented with tough questions. I realized that some things in life do not have one right answer, be that health care reform, abortion laws or the best order in which to try new Kit Kats, but what is important is to make a decision and be clear.

After a great deal of discussion, we settled on our order: 

1. Red Bean Sandwich
2. Citrus Golden Blend
3. Hot Japanese Chili
4. Shinshu Apple
5. Purple Sweet Potato
6. Rum Raisin
7. Pumpkin Pudding

Some advice to those who seek it:
          1. Examine the bar. The unique color of each can provide clues about the experience that awaits.
          2. Take a whiff, as Taylor demonstrates below, for the aroma is an essential part of the product

Don't be afraid to really take in the Kit Kat using all the senses, including smell
          3. Be sure to chews as much as possible. This releases flavor. Don't just bite and swallow.
          4. Give yourself time to examine the flavors. Don't be quick to judge.
          5. Discuss. 

So what did we find? Well, as it turns out, it's hard to make a bad flavor of Kit Kat. While some of these may seem a little off the wall, we did not encounter any flavor that was completely inedible (though Taylor was not a fan of Pumpkin Pudding). 

Next, it is very important to have the right flavor to chocolate ratio. We all had differing opinions about what the perfect ratio is, but I believe that chocolate should reign supreme while the other flavors should either sit just below or start faint and then grow to equal. My two least favorites were either too strong of a flavor (Shinshu Apple) or too subtle (Purple Sweet Potato)

The unanimous winner was:

Rum Raisin. The perfect amount of chocolate to flavor and the sophisticated notes of raisin, followed by rum, were enough to secure a unanimous victory
Both Catherine and I agreed that Hot  Japanese Chili took home the silver. 
The aftermath

Not pictured are two flavors that Taylor and I came across yesterday: Brown Sugar and Wasabi. Wasabi fell in the camp of subtle, growing to equal (but not spicy or hot) while Brown Sugar was incredibly sweet and slightly over-powered the chocolate.

So there you have it, a full day devoted to the Kit Kat Kwest. There are still hundreds more flavors to try, and I promise to both Claire and the readers of this blog to try every flavor I come across. I shall leave no station gift shop unturned (some flavors are only sold in certain areas) nor will I let my limited funds prevent me from experiencing one of the greatest gems of this land.

The Results:

Pumpkin Pudding
     NK: My third place finisher, I appreciated the real taste of pumpkin, which can often be poorly imitated. Very aromatic and only requires a few chews to fully expose the flavor. Points were lost because the pumpkin slightly overpowered the chocolate. Plus points for a themed rapper.

Hot Japanese Pepper
     NK: I was very skeptical of this flavor but was shocked to find a near perfect blend of chocolate and pepper. I believe they use dark chocolate and the pepper really serves to emphasize that natural bitterness. What really sealed the second place finish for me was the way the pepper flavor crept up on me, stopping just before getting too spicy. It tingled the roof of my mouth and left me feeling rejuvenated, the way a good breath mint does.

Citrus Golden Blend
     NK: A must for lovers of cream/dreamsicles. Major points were lost due to the complete overpowering of the chocolate, but many were made up in the tangy element of the fruit. Unlike a sweet dreamsicle, the Golden Citrus Blend leaves you with some sort of lemony tang. It's a shame they didn't back off the flavor just a little as this could have easily been a top 3 contender.

Red Bean Sandwich
     NK: It wasn't until my second bar a few hours later that I discovered the Red Bean flavor. Be warned: this flavor requires a lot of chewing in order to discover the sweet Red Bean. To the untrained tongue, this could easily slip by as a regular Kit Kat. 

Shinshu Apple
     NK: I must first admit that I do not like apple flavored products. Taylor's excitement though gave me hope that I could like this one. Unfortunately there was almost no hint of chocolate in the chewing experience. I may as well have just purchased a Shinshu Apple. I only recommend this to lovers of apples who want to enjoy the novelty of a flavored Kit Kat but do not wish to appreciate the subtleties that exist in the world of flavored treats.

Purple Sweet Potato
     NK: I have almost nothing to say. Was this just a purple colored Kit Kat? I plan on training my taste buds more in order to maybe discover something new about this flavor, but after two goes, I was left disappointed.

Rum Raisin
     NK: All hail the king! Firstly, if you haven't taken a moment to admire the packaging of this flavor, scroll to the top. Unlike all the other flavors, Rum Raisin is packaged in a matte box (rather than glossy). How classy! And the dark gray coloring of the bars suggested we were in for a sophisticated experience. The initial taste is a great blend of chocolate and rum. Then the raisin creeps up, meeting the rum and then rising together to the same level as the chocolate. It's an incredibly beautiful thing to experience the harmony between three distinct flavors and I sincerely wish that everyone has the opportunity to try this flavor.

     NK: Right there with Hot Japanese Pepper, this flavor came with some uncertainty, but I was delighted to find that the Wasabi flavor crept up and complimented the smooth, rich taste of chocolate. If you can get over the mental hurdle, this is a definite "must" flavor.

Brown Sugar:
     NK: I really loved this flavor, but I am not quite sure why it's a Kit Kat bar. Aside from the familiar texture, there was not much else that was identifiable as a Kit Kat. The brown sugar was just too strong and sweet; it drowned out the chocolate. Unlike the Shinshu Apple flavor, which had a similar problem, I enjoyed this flavor, but so many points were lost due to the poor chocolate to flavor ratio that I could not give it a medal finish.

Cat's kitkat comments:

When Nicholas and Taylor told me they were headed to Tokyo station in search of weird kit kat flavors, I responded with "That's awesome about the kit kats...." and my seriousness was mistaken for sarcasm. However, I was 100% serious; I'd had a similar affinity towards kit kat flavors ever since I'd discovered the green tea + cherry blossom duo pack at Narita Airport in high school. It was great to finally share this with someone.

Of the flavors we shared, I liked the Hot Japanese Pepper, Citrus Golden Blend, Shinju Apple, and Rum Raisin. 

The Red Bean Sandwich and Purple Sweet Potato were very "mehhh."

I have tried Pumpkin Pudding twice now and still dislike it.  I think it tastes like what "mush" would taste like if it had a flavor.

Today I tried two additional flavors, Wasabi and Brown Sugar. I loved the Wasabi as it had a kick. I like flavors that kick you in the mouth.  The Japanese Hot Pepper/Dark Chocolate combination is still a favorite though because of that subtle cayenne kick.

Brown Sugar... ok. No kick. 

I have to be honest though, indulging in so many different flavors at once made them less satisfying for me.  I'd prefer to just be given any flavor along with some really bitter green tea to compliment the sweet the chocolate.