Sunday, March 8, 2015

Adventures in the Asian Supermarket: Faux Japanese Foods (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1, where I talked about the misleading advertising tactics that all shoppers at Asian grocers should know about.
Mochi made by hand, from Wikicommons.

In Part 2, I want to share something that makes me more uncomfortable from a food quality and safety standpoint. It involves Mochi.

Let's go back to the Asian supermarket. By sheer numbers, you are much more likely to see and buy Japanese-style food items from Chinese supermarkets or pan-Asian grocery stores than dedicated Japanese supermarkets like Mitsuwa or Nijiya Market (there just aren't many of them around). But be prepared to witness lots of faux Japanese items from less-than-authentic sources.

Not long ago, a family member bought a couple packages of this:

For Chinese or Japanese readers, it's very obvious what this is... (supposed to be)
Most obviously, the kana, or characters, for mochi, もち are in Japanese. The kanji (Chinese characters) are in a Japanese "font" (I look forward to talking about ethnic/race fonts later on a different channel). The wordings used — 和風 and 日式大福 — translate to "Japanese style (mochi rounds)" in Japanese. But taking a look at the back, there's no more Japanese script:

Both readers of English and Chinese can easily tell that this product is actually made in Taiwan. I'm pretty sure no Japanese would mistake this for a Japanese-made product unless they were blindly tossing stuff into their grocery cart.
So unlike the Imuraya Castella cake that I looked at in Part 1, it's pretty obvious here that this is only Japanese-style, not Japanese made. But that's no problem. So long as it's not misleading, I can't criticize solely on the basis of where an item is produced.

Blow up the picture and take a closer look at the ingredients list. What the hell is all that crap doing in there!? Look at the number one ingredient (the law requires that the ingredients be listed in descending order of amount used): Maltose. Uh, excuse me, but isn't mochi supposed to be made out of rice? In fact, there's less rice being used than maltose or green tea "paste". Look further on in the ingredients for a happy blend of food additives, coloring, sugar substitutes, and preservatives. This is not the first time that cheap-to-manufacture maltose has drawn the ire of consumers.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, my family actually bought the product, so I was curious to see what it tasted like. Bad idea. It wasn't so much the taste, but the texture. Real mochi is supposed to be soft and chewy. One of the onomatopoeias in Japanese for "chewy" is "mochi-mochi", if that gives you any idea. This item was NOT chewy at all. If you bit into it, you can see your teeth make grooves on the skin of this product. Those grooves just sat there, instead of "healing" into a blob, as you'd expect from the real thing. It was more like hardened gelatin or agar. Yuck.

But you can ignore that altogether if you observe one huge rule: don't buy mochi outside of the perishables/refrigerated aisle!

Here's what real mochi looks like:

It's not Japanese-made, either (made in the US), but that's perfectly fine and not the point here. First, it's found in a refrigerated aisle. Next, it's got a painfully simple ingredients list in comparison, with "glutinous rice powder" —milled rice — as the first ingredient. No additives, no preservatives. And for the weight, it's a heck of a lot more in terms of price.

Protip: if you buy one of these, make sure you take it to room temperature right before you eat it, or it will be hard for some pretty obvious reasons.

Mochi is something that many Asians share in common. The process involves pounding glutinous, sticky rice and has many iterations depending on locale. It bears a special cultural significance to commemorate the new year (see here for my short report on Chinese Yuanxiao, for example). In the US, we are most familiar with the Japanese iteration, where mochi takes its name from. Because mochi is a food that kids and adults alike eat, I think that we should be especially careful when shopping around for such products.

P.S. The use of all the ingredients listed in the first "faux" mochi is perfectly legal. They're all approved for human consumption. But whether you think that's appropriate for your family or not is your own call.


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